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Bone in the throat, p.5
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       Bone in the Throat, p.5

           Anthony Bourdain
 
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  You just wait aroun' till two-thirty and you let us in the trapdoor. Then you go upstairs, get yourself a cuppa coffee, whatever. That's all you gotta do. Is that so fuckin' much to ask of somebody? Somebody who's family?" Sally shoved a hunk of bread into his calamari sauce and popped it in his mouth.

  "It sucks."

  "It's a favor," said Sally, still working his jaws on the bread.

  "It's a big favor," said Tommy.

  Skinny was shaking his head almost imperceptibly now.

  "Tommy, what are you fuckin' bitchin' for?" said Sally. "You know you're gonna do it. You gonna have to do the right thing here, you know that, right? I reached out for you one time, Tommy. I got you that fuckin' job you got. You think that Jew dentist give you the job 'cause he likes you? You think he can't hire somebody outta the papers like that? Some French fag who wants the job? I didn't wanna bring it up, but there it is . . . You ain't gonna get in any trouble, that's what's eatin' you. I don't do this thing, it's me that gets in trouble. This is important. It's gotta be done tomorrow. I fuckin' helped you, helped your career, now you gotta help me out. Help out my career. This guy I gotta talk to is gonna be real helpful to my career, you unnerstan'? It's fuckin' that simple."

  "Alright," said Tommy. "Alright."

  Skinny still looked skeptical.

  Sally looked pleased with himself. "Good!" he said. "Now, hows-about somethin' to eat? I'll order you somethin'. You don't gotta pay for it."

  "Fuck you, Sally."

  Ten

  Tommy walked home slowly, lost in thought. It's not like he hadn't done favors for Sally before, he mused. There'd been plenty of those, a few years back. He remembered Sally picking him up after school, driving out to a parking lot on the river. Sally had shown him a few cases of fireworks in the trunk of his car. It was the week before the Fourth of July, and all the kids in school were clammering for fireworks. Tommy had dealt them out of his locker, taking in over a hundred bucks his first day. After school, Tommy and his friends from the neighborhood sold them on the street, taking care of the carloads of kids from Jersey and Long Island who flocked in to Little Italy and Chinatown every year, looking for ashcans, cherry bombs, firecrackers, and niggerchasers.

  "You sell these," Sally had said. "You keep twenny-fi' cents onna dollar for 'em. You can make yourself a nice chunk a' change." Sally had mussed his hair, told him what he could do with his newfound riches. "Now you can take some girls out, treat 'em right for a fuckin' change, show 'em a good time. They like that." And it was nice having a pocket full of money.

  There were other favors. He'd get a call from Sally after school; he'd meet him in another parking lot, a social club, a neighborhood bar. He'd be hiding out from some threat, real or imagined, and Tommy would have to sneak around. One time he had to take a gun to somebody, an older guy who ran a parking lot. He'd run around town for Sally, delivering messages, sometimes money. One time, Tommy had to bring a message to a lawyer; another time, a bail bondsman. Once he had to go all the way out to the airport, to a motor lodge near the terminal, to hand a folded piece of paper to a frightened little man in a dark motel room. The man had not been comforted by the message, Tommy remembered.

  Then, of course, there was the time he'd been busted with a whole crate of firecrackers. Two hours in a holding cell, with the cops razzing him, trying to frighten him, until his mother came to get him. His mother had not been at all judgmental; afterward, she'd never mentioned it. But Tommy had felt ashamed.

  He remembered his father, dead long before Tommy was in high school; remembered him coming back from a stretch in the Federal penitentiary, pale and thin; dutifully heading over to the Evergreen Sportsmen's Club on Spring Street whenever the phone rang. Though Tommy's father continued to make his daily appearances at the Evergreen and in the bars, the after-hours clubs and gambling spots where the day's business was decided and delegated, though he continued to come home with the boxes of swag, the tax-free cigarettes, the perks of his profession, Tommy believed that his heart wasn't in it. His father started to refer to the bosses as the Cigars and seemed to take little pleasure in their company. He did what he was told. Until the end, he was suitably uncooperative whenever the cops came around asking questions. He faded away when somebody, one of his associates, got arrested, often returning with a small gift for Tommy.

  In the neighborhood, his father was a respected man. Tommy's school friends were deferential. Their own fathers spoke warmly, even enviously, of whatever position Tommy's father enjoyed in the criminal hierarchy; but Tommy had serious doubts. To him, his father was a tired old man, ruined by jail. He said as much.

  On those rare occasions when his father took him out of the city, to Coney, to the Jersey shore, he smiled again. He'd carry Tommy on his shoulders and charge into the surf, saying, "Watch out! Here comes a big one," laughing when the waves knocked them off their feet.

  How his mother felt about his father's business, Tommy had no idea. She enjoyed it when his friends came over because they loved to eat, and Tommy's mother liked anybody who liked her cooking.

  When his father disappeared, Tommy's mother went on with her life, cooking for the procession of wise guys and half-wise guys who marched in and out of her kitchen. She sat back in her easy chair, stoically smoking her Parliaments and watching her soaps on the TV. She cooked lasagna and manicotti and osso bucco for her guests, seemingly oblivious to the increasingly frequent overtures his father's old friends made to Tommy to come into the business. Her brother, Sally, was the most persistent of all. His father had been missing not even a week and Sally had begun his long courtship of Tommy. . .

  This was the man who supported his mother, Tommy reminded himself. Who'd supported him through high school, who'd got him his first job in a restaurant, got him the job he had now. Who put a fifty-dollar bill in his stocking every Christmas, brought carloads of frozen shrimp to his house, and African lobster tails, wheels of Parmesan, Parma hams, boxes of steaks, and Tommy's first television set. His first bicycle, (Tommy's father had been in prison when he took off the training wheels), his first baseball glove, sneakers—Tommy had asked him for a pair and Sally had shown up with twelve pairs of Adidas, in twelve different colors, still in the box.

  And of course, Sally had introduced him around. To big, loud men who surrounded themselves with other big men, quieter ones, who always lurked within reach. Sally would beam with pride as they'd muss Tommy's hair, pinch his cheeks, slip twenty-dollar bills in his pockets.

  He was not completely comfortable with all this. His neighborhood friends, were, of course, delighted to be running back and forth, picking up shirts from the dry cleaners for the local hoods. They'd wash their cars, court their daughters, go to their barbecues, and they'd brag about it later in the school yard. Tommy was not so pleased with himself. He wanted to see himself as a hero, and running around doing errands for Sally didn't seem like something any hero of his would ever do.

  Then he met Diane. She lived in the Village, off Washington Square Park, in a high-rise building with a doorman. Her father was some kind of college professor at NYU, and her mother, a well-respected gynecologist. Diane arrived at school each morning in a beat-up Checker Marathon, jet black, her mother, an elegantly dressed woman in her forties, at the wheel.

  Diane looked different. She listened to different music. She dressed like a boy, wore her hair straight and unteased, and favored ripped Levi's and black leather motorcycle jackets. When she made love, it was with a genuine enthusiasm that Tommy found startling and delightful. In her room off Washington Square, lined with posters of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones, she'd take Tommy's prick in her mouth with a good-humored nonchalance that Tommy found intoxicating. Even the neighborhood bad girls, the ones his friends referred to as putannas, had sex with a mechanical precision, a solemnity, that Tommy found oppressive by comparison.

  With her parents sitting right in the next room watching television, Diane and he would make love, rutting l
ike a pair of musk oxen, right there on the bedroom floor. Sometimes he'd even spend the night; her parents didn't mind. Once, at the breakfast table, Diane's mother had sat down next to him, served him his coffee, Diane still in the shower. She'd said to Tommy, "Better she does it at home."

  Diane smoked pot in the house, to Tommy's amazement. Her father would even join them for a hit, reminiscing about the sixties, how he'd tried to levitate the Pentagon with a few thousand other stoned Yippies.

  Weekends, Tommy and Diane would sneak into nightclubs; she'd lend him books and insist that he read them . . . Tommy, too frightened of falling out of favor, read them carefully, afraid he might be quizzed. They'd go to the movies in small art houses, and over dinner with her parents, they'd talk about them.

  She took Tommy to get his ear pierced at a jewelry store on Seventh Avenue that advertised piercing "With or Without Pain." She bought him an earring, a little sterling silver skull to match her own.

  Diane was amused by Tommy's friends from the neighborhood; the young wannabe gangsters in his classes, his childhood pals. And of course, her disdain for their hair, their clothes, their narrow priorities, made Tommy feel even more uncomfortable. When Tommy's best friend, Richie Gianelli, showed up at school one day, newly enriched by his night's work as a lookout in a robbery, she snickered at the chunky digital watch, the brown, suit-cut leather jacket with the wide lapels, that so impressed Tommy's other friends.

  Upon seeing Sally one day in the street, she had whispered a quote from a late-night TV commercial in Tommy's ear, "It looks like hair is actually growing out of the scalp," before breaking into peals of laughter. None of Tommys other friends ever laughed at Sally. "That's my uncle," Tommy had confessed, his ears burning.

  When school let out for the holidays, Diane went away with her family, to places like Cape Cod, Aruba, Taos . . . She'd return with a suntan, a new favorite band to go see, stories to tell about people and places unlike any Tommy knew of.

  By the time he graduated from high school and Diane had disappeared from his life forever, gone off to Boston and college, Tommy had, in his heart at least, turned away from Sally's world and the ambitions of his old friends. He'd cringe when Sally would raise his voice in a restaurant, bossing around his waiter. He began to hate the bluff, uncaring style with which Sally and his friends swaggered through life, oblivious to all the new pleasures that Tommy now knew of. His ears would burn with embarrassment when Sally would offer him free tickets to see Neil Diamond at the Garden, a new V-neck sweater, Ferrari sunglasses, a fat signet ring.

  And when somebody Tommy knew would disappear—when, suddenly, somebody Tommy had seen around his whole life went missing only to reappear as a grainy newspaper photograph of a zippered body bag or a sprawled figure on the floor of a restaurant, shirt pulled up over a naked belly, spattered with blood and clam sauce—it didn't seem romantic at all. The life didn't even seem dangerous anymore. Dangerous, Tommy now believed, meant dangerous to the social order, not sitting there in Umberto's waiting for one of your friends to shoot you. The Sex Pistols were dangerous. Sally and his gangster friends were . . . well. . . kind of irrelevant.

  TOMMY STOPPED in the Lion's Head for a drink. He stared down at his vodka. He reminded himself that Sally had got him his first restaurant job out in Sheepshead Bay, and when that passed, another one at a large French place in midtown. Sally had an in there through the union. Tommy heard later that a Puerto Rican cook had been fired to make room for him. And finally, the Dreadnaught . . . His first sous-chef's job. A few well-timed words in Harvey's ear, and Tommy was a sous-chef. Sally didn't think much of Tommy's new life in the restaurant business, but he had helped him out anyway. The least he could do was return the favor.

  Tommy drained his drink and ordered another. Somebody put Lou Reed on the jukebox. The chef, Tommy knew, loved Lou Reed. Tommy liked the chef. He was impressed by him. Sure, he was a junkie. He fucked up. He forgot to order things. He showed up late or sometimes not at all. He leaned on Tommy to cover for him in a way no other chef had done. But Tommy enjoyed working with him. He was a very talented guy, and smart, and Tommy had learned a lot from him. He'd studied cooking in Paris. He'd worked in places Tommy had still only heard about. He was a good guy, a friend. Tommy wanted to stay with him. He wanted to stay at the Dreadnaught, make nice food, get famous maybe.

  But this goddamn favor of Sally's. It threatened to pull him back to places he never wanted to return to. Threatened to contaminate him, remind him of all the things in his life he didn't want to look back at right now. But he owed. A lifetime as a beneficiary of Sally's rolling flea market, his precious job, his mother, his—he hated the word—his family. He'd just have to do what Sally wanted.

  Eleven

  Tommy sat in the chef's office, waiting for Sally and the others to arrive. It had been busy that night, and Tommy was tired. He needed something to keep himself awake.

  The chef's office was little more than a closet with a big steel desk and some shelves wedged into it. There was no door, only a few hinges where a door used to be. Tommy looked through the books on the shelves for something to read. There was the Larousse, of course; The Professional Chef; Le Repertoire de la Cuisine; cookbooks by Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse, Raymond Oliver; The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. There were food-stained copies of Gourmet and Cuisine, Film Threat, Food and Wine, and a stack of Wednesday food sections from The New York Times. Tommy found a pile of paperbacks; in between Naked Lunch and a book by a man named Jack Black called You Cant Win, he found a scotch-taped copy of Down and Out in London and Paris. He read the blurb on the back, was interested, and tried to read a few pages. He was unable to concentrate; the words swam in front of his eyes, made him dizzy. He put the book in his back pocket to read later.

  He went idly through the chef's desk. In the bottom drawer was a jumble of objects that told a story: rolling papers, a film canister containing a dried-up bud of sensimilla, a parisienne scoop, an accordian file filled with recipes, a pastry bag and assorted tips, some barquette molds, pastry cutters, the propane torch that the chef used on meringues . . . Rolling loosely around in the bottom of the drawer were a few cut-down plastic straws and some Bic pens, the metal tips and ink cartridges removed. There was a new syringe, of course, still in its paper wrapping, some spare vegetable peelers, an electric shaver, and on top, a five-pronged ice shaver with a thick wooden handle, a nasty-looking object if he'd ever seen one.

  In the top drawer, underneath a pile of new kitchen utensils, still in their clear plastic sleeves, Tommy found a framed black-and-white photograph of a young boy, unmistakably the chef, standing with what Tommy guessed was his mother in front of a two-story white stucco house with a tile roof and heavy wood shutters. The boy wore short shorts, a denim smock, and tattered espadrilles. The mother and the son had squinted into the lens, the sun bright in their faces. The mother was smiling proudly, the chef looked glum; unhappy, perhaps, about the shorts.

  Tommy was staring at the picture, trying to imagine a boyhood in France, when the bell rang.

  It was Skinny and he was alone.

  Tommy led him into the kitchen. Skinny looked around, saw the sauce-splattered range top, the overflowing buspans, the sinks stacked with pots, and the food mashed down into the holes in the black rubber floor matting.

  "Jesus, this place is a mess. Remind me not to eat here," he said.

  "No porters," said Tommy, nervously.

  Skinny walked the length of the kitchen. He looked inside the changing room, the dry-goods area, and the liquor cage. He went upstairs, Tommy following, and checked out both bathrooms, taking a peek inside the toilet cubicles. He looked behind the bar, inside the tiny cloakroom, pushing aside the forgotten umbrellas and raincoats before walking over to the window and peering through the shutters. Satisfied, he went back downstairs with Tommy, his rubber-soled shoes padding quietly. Tommy took him to the office and sat down behind the desk in the chef's ripped swivel chair. Skinny sat on a milk crate.<
br />
  It was awkward. Skinny had the kind of face that made you think twice about small talk. Looking at him, Tommy had no idea what a person like Skinny's interests were. He didn't want to know, either. Tommy didn't know what to say, what to talk about, even what to do with his hands, with Skinny sitting there, unsmiling, in the cramped room. There was a nearly full bottle of Stoli on the desk, and Tommy offered some to Skinny. Skinny just frowned and shook his head. Tommy reached for the bottle himself and knocked over a stack of Restaurant Hospitality magazines; they slid onto the floor by Skinny's feet.

  Skinny lit up a Pall Mall and pushed some papers around on the crowded desk looking for an ashtray.

  "Use the floor," said Tommy, lighting his own cigarette.

  Skinny looked disapprovingly at a rusted brioche mold filled with marijuana butts sitting on a stack of magazines in the corner. He emptied the roaches onto the floor and tapped an ash into it.

  They sat in silence for a few more long minutes. At three o'clock, the exhaust fans in the kitchen clicked off, and there was only the sound of an occasional drip from the dishwasher and the whine of the compressors for the refrigeration units.

  "Anybody else here?" Skinny asked.

  "No," said Tommy. "Fan's on a timer. It shuts off at three."

  After a few minutes more of silence, Tommy asked where Sally was.

  "They'll be here soon," said Skinny, looking straight at him.

  Finally, the bell rang. Tommy jumped out of his chair and walked quickly to the stairs leading up to the street-level trapdoors. Skinny remained behind in the office, fiddling with his tie.

  Bounding up the cement steps, Tommy threw the latch and pushed open the metal doors. He was almost relieved to see Sally standing there next to another man. They were laughing, Sally's arm around the other man's shoulder. They looked like they had been out on the town. Sally wore a jacket and tie instead of his usual jogging suit. The other man looked drunk, his shirt was hanging out of his pants. He was short, with gold-rimmed aviator glasses, gold pinky ring, and a puffy, chinless face lit up by alcohol.

 
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