Two Choices: Take it. Leave it.
I have no idea why the restaurant is called Vinnie’s when the guy who built the joint is named Sal, but I’m not curious enough to ask. I’m just glad they’re still in business.
This Little Italy standby has been serving delicious pizza and authentic Italian food for decades, while the old Italian neighborhood all around it changes every day. I like Vinnie’s because it hasn’t changed in all of its years. The walls are covered with old cherry wood paneling, and there are three wooden phone booths inside the restaurant.
Salvatore is the chef/owner. He built the brick oven with his own hands back in the 1930s. Tony is Sal’s middle-aged son. He runs the dining room and bar. He keeps old Sal in the kitchen, where he belongs. As a longtime customer of Vinnie’s, I am sort of numb to Tony’s customer abuse and brashness, and continue to eat there for the sake of his father Sal’s authentic cooking. That said, Tony does often make me cringe and sink down in my booth when he starts in with people.
The other night, a young, well-dressed professional looking couple asked to have their uneaten pizza slices wrapped to go. Instead of giving them boxes, like they expected, Tony insisted they finish it because “his pizza was meant to be eaten fresh.” He then suggested that next time they only order portions they intend to finish while seated. Tony finally relented though, and begrudgingly handed them the leftover slices crudely wrapped in aluminum foil, not a proper cardboard pizza box. Then he reminded them, pointing to a red sauce splattered sign nailed to his 1970s era wall paneling, that he only takes cash, and that there is an ATM machine around the corner. The man had not even drawn his wallet when Tony warned him. Fortunately, the man was cash ready.
To this day, I know full well that asking for olive oil at the restaurant is a sore subject. Even I, after so many years, waver before asking Tony to leave a small bottle on my table for bread dipping or extra salad dressing for fear of having his precious yellow liquid delivered with a scowl and a lecture. To make a long story short, Tony won’t leave olive oil serving bottles on the tables anymore because he says some people drink it! He attributes that to what he calls the “Yuppie invasion of Little Italy” and their crazy ideas about the Mediterranean diet.
“In the old days, on Mulberry Street, nobody woulda done stupid shit like that down here. Raise the rents, take the cannoli: Little Italy is disappearing,” Tony barked, without the least concern for being overheard by his other patrons.
Tony also hides the grated cheese shakers because some customers open the tops and use spoons to scoop out mounds of fresh Parmesan. He says that, first off, it’s disgusting, and second, his cheese prices are out of control. If someone uses up all the cheese on the table they’ll see an extra five-dollar charge when they get their bill. “If they don’t pay, they aren’t leaving,“ he tells me.
While clearing tables one night, Tony opined, “This place has been here for 75 years. I’ve been here for 49. I’ll take the neighborhood the way it was 30 years ago.” To Tony, in the closed world of Vinnie’s Restaurant, nothing is good or right or fair. Whether he blames the customers, the city screwing him over, his ex-wife or fate, the whole world is out to get Tony or take what he has. The only exception to Tony’s rants happens when someone points out the fact that property values in Little Italy have gone through the roof, while his restaurant and his five-story apartment building above it are now worth millions upon millions of dollars. That renders Tony as quiet and tight as a stubborn clam.
Tony becomes angry whenever he gets on the topic of the various city agencies that come to inspect his vintage restaurant and give him stupid little fines for minor things, “just to break my balls,” he says. I sure hope Tony’s balls don’t get broken so bad that he decides to sell Vinnie’s. I’d like to continue taking whatever choices he wants to offer on Today’s Menu – even if he does continue to hide the Parmesan. It's getting more and more difficult to find real wise-cracking, my-way-or-the-highway New York characters like Tony these days.
I walk the streets of New York.
I guess you could call me a streetwalker, but perhaps not the kind that word might bring to mind. I am looking for stories not pickups. It works for me. There is no membership required, no gear or team, no rules – sneakers are suggested, but not required. Walking related injuries are minimal; it’s healthy and therapeutic.
When I’m walking in the city I’m not eating and, instead of looking at myself, I watch others, and this is a good thing. Walking is simple and mindful. It sorts things out. City walking affords me the opportunity to do random acts of kindness just because there is so much going on and so many people, unlike walking in the suburbs where I always feel the people in cars are wondering why I’m on foot!
In Central Park the other day, I helped a lady carry her bicycle up the stairs to get to the reservoir. At the top, her husband, who was in much better physical shape, was already up there taking pictures of the skyline when the two of us sweated up the steps. He shot me a bad look – as if I helped his wife to make him look bad – but I kept on walking.
Did you know that it’s 2.2 miles to walk around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir?
On 34th Street, a FedEx delivery guy was pushing his overloaded box cart when it all came tumbling down. As oncoming traffic approached, I ran over and tossed him his packages while he frantically reloaded them into the cart. We both got out of there in the nick of time. “Thanks, brother,” he said. “No problem, man!” I said, and continued on my way.
Walkers in Manhattan rule the streets. Walkers in the suburbs make motorists angry. “Look at that crazy guy walking!” they say. They think that the only people who walk in the suburbs are either on medication that renders driving difficult, or have lost their license due to a DUI. In the suburbs, if you're out walking without a dog after ten p.m., there is a chance that a bored and paranoid neighbor will call the cops on you.
Nobody cares in the city. Walking is a way of life here.
According to my calculations, it takes me roughly 40 seconds to walk one block, and twenty blocks is one mile, meaning I can walk a whole mile in just under 15 minutes!
It takes about 50 minutes to walk uptown from East 32nd Street to St. Monica’s Church on East 79th Street between First and York.
There are fewer people on First Avenue so I can walk faster up First. There are more people on Madison, so it takes me longer if I walk that way. I make sure to not stop and pet all the “designer dogs” – the expensive pure breeds that you routinely see. Just another example of class distinction, though I have to say, I prefer rescued mutts, in all walks of life!
It also slows me down if people talk to me, which they often do. I don’t mind if they are from out of town and lost. I’m always happy to stop and point them in the right direction. If you want to meet people in the city when you walk, then you need to walk with a dog; everyone will stop and talk to you. You will make new friends but you won’t get much exercise.
Of course, there’s lots of noise in Manhattan with the cacophony of sirens, construction, horns, whistles, helicopters, and cement mixers everywhere. People, though, for the most part are quiet and mind their own business. I hear glimpses of conversations as I pass and then fill the rest in from my own imagination. Occasionally, loud voices will attract attention, but it’s usually a dispute over a parking spot.
You have to be careful in the city, because I learned that, when violence does occur, it erupts suddenly. At times like these, it is best to move away quickly and keep walking. I once saw an angry-looking guy push a cyclist over into traffic near Union Square! When the enraged cyclist recovered, he immediately went hunting for the pusher, swinging a heavy bike security chain and lock. I happened to be standing where the pusher had been before he moved into the pedestrian flow. In an instant, the rider read my startled, fearful face and processed that I was not his attacker. While I was spared a chain across my teeth, he relentlessly tracked down the pusher, who took the bruising chain across his back. The whole thing was over in a flash, but remains burned in my memory.
Besides the parking space arguments, another, though less common, variety of street combat that I stumble into on long walks are what I call bum fights. A bum fight, like the parking spot disputes and bike chain incident, flare up without warning, sometimes right in front of your eyes. Drivers, riders, and cyclists may miss all this action, but when you walk, you see it all.
I’ve seen many bum fights, and have noticed a pattern. It usually goes something like this: There will be a few drunks on a street corner. One of the disheveled people will begin cursing and hollering, spewing out angry epithets. All heads will turn and look toward the commotion. The madness is almost always directed at another homeless person and often revolves around a territorial dispute or dereliction of duty. I heard one unfortunate homeless man accuse the other of spending all day long on the steps smoking and not doing what he is supposed to be doing– whatever that was! Another fight began over the arrangement of cardboard in a certain doorway, as one man accused another of horning in on his spot.
In the suburbs, neighbors fight over loud parties, disobeying property lines or barking dogs. The only difference between them and the bums is that the bums don’t call the cops or each other’s lawyers.
Just as I don’t stop and pet “designer dogs,” I don’t stop my walking to watch bum fights – I am too used to it. I know this is just their way of venting and getting things off their chests, but it’s best not to gawk. This is a live and let live city, which is why I love being an invisible “streetwalker.”
Is This Seat Taken?
The little neighborhood park I usually go to was fenced off for renovations one day, so, with coffee and morning paper in hand, I decided to sit on the steps of a random pre-war, rent-controlled walk-up apartment building on East 32nd between Second and Third. This place is what would have been referred to as a tenement back in the 19th century.
The city was very quiet since it was the Friday before Labor Day, so I sipped coffee and read the paper on the stoop. Even on the quietest days, though, New York still has a good amount of foot traffic, so I had to pull my newspaper back toward me to make sure that passersby would not brush up against it.
After about 10 minutes, a woman in a house dress and slippers ascended from the basement apartment to deposit a bag of trash. Then she started to eyeball me as she sauntered over to the steps, nit-picking the smallest leaf droppings off of the steps around me. I could tell she wanted to make her presence known and sniff out who this stranger on the steps might be.
Luckily, she left, and I was able to stay. Then a guy came out from behind me through the front door. He had long, blond, greasy hair. I could smell last night’s sweet booze oozing from his pores and breath. There were six steps on the stoop, but he chose to plop his big sweaty body right next to me.
I read and sipped on. Following behind him a curly-haired guy in a stained gray T-shirt came down the steps. He gave me a suspicious trespasser look-over – just like the old lady did. I was beginning to feel unwelcome on the steps, which I might have guessed wrongly were free for the sitting. I sipped and read on until he spoke.
Oh no, I thought. Oh NO. Here we go again. But the blond guy turned around to respond to the catcall which I mistakenly thought was directed at me.
“Why don’t you clean up the fucking cans and bottles you left all over the stoop from last night instead of sitting there like a bum? This ain't the dump. People live here!”
“Who you calling a bum? You’re the fucking bum! Leave me alone, bum,” shot back greasy hair with spit spray.
“I ain’t a bum, you slob,” gray T-shirt responded angrily.
A husky female voice emanated from under the steps. “Shut the hell up, you morons! It’s still morning!”
“Oh yeah!” said greasy hair to T-shirt. “Why should I listen to you anyway? You ain’t the boss of me and besides you don’t even have any fucking teeth.”
That was enough for me. I decided the conversation, of which I was in the crossfire, was just going to go further downhill after the “no teeth” insult. I got up and moved down the block to another stoop, unfolded the paper again, sipped to the bottom of my joe, and I hoped I might be able to finish my coffee and the newspaper before another performance began.
Just when you think you’ve found the perfect, private spot, you realize that every square inch of this city is spoken for.
The Hog Farm
I ran a dirty and dangerous business in a dirty and dangerous part of New York City: Red Hook, Brooklyn.
In 1990, Life magazine named Red Hook one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States, citing, in part, the neighborhood’s claim to fame as “the crack cocaine Capital of America.”
I worked there for eleven years operating Hogs: mammoth, garbage-truck sized chopping machines. The Hogs had massive throats and we fed them with lumps, blob, drools and moonrocks, which are suitcase-sized-and-larger chunks of hard, melted plastic. Blobs are hacked into one-quarter-inch chips to form grind that can be used to make other plastic parts. That’s what we sold: grind.
The Hogs were vicious machines, so we sunk them into the concrete floor where they could do the least damage when they went wild. Some of the lumps had stringers on them, long ribbons of flexible plastic attached to the moon-rocks like trailing comet tails, that could wrap around a man’s leg and yank him into the Hog’s throat, grinding him into chopped meat in seconds flat. It happens in our industry – it’s not just folklore. As a matter of fact, Hog # 1, in our own factory, was bought “used” at auction at a tremendously reduced rate because it had become a killer whale in its former owner’s bankrupt business. A more routine, but potentially equally dangerous, part of feeding the Hog was if a wrench or large metal bolt was melted into one of the lumps and tossed undetected into the throat by an operator. This was not uncommon, and when metal scraps hit the razor-sharp blades of the Hog’s spinning chopper they would explode like a hand grenade and the machine would cough up the rejected foreign material, projectile vomit hot shrapnel that ricocheted off the sturdy old foundry’s brick walls at bullet speeds. The operator, of course, was in the greatest danger, but no one in the factory was safe from these sudden blasts. Men got hit and hurt.
Hog operators usually did not last long on the job. Most became terrified of the beast and quit. Often they never returned from lunch to even collect their pay. I guess they felt lucky to be out of there and in one piece. Some got injured and others just couldn’t stand the noise and tedium or the physical strain of lifting the heavy, unwieldy lumps all day, or all night, long. It was back-breaking labor. Others got fired for being drunk or using drugs to make it through. Some were just too sluggish to keep up with the voracious appetites of the Hogs.
My office was an unpainted plywood shed that we built in one day, running an extension cord in for a light bulb, electric heater, and fan. I cut a square for a view port and screwed a clouded and scratched piece of clear Plexiglas we had scrounged to act as a window of sorts. Glass was not an option, as it was not shrapnel proof. The old Red Hook factory itself used to be a cast iron radiator manufacturing plant and foundry, built in the late 1800s. It had a saw tooth roof, allowing daylight to filter through the sooty air inside the Hog Farm. There was no heat when it got cold and damp. It was Draconian.
One day I was sitting in my box when I was able to distinguish a knock on the plywood wall above the rumble of the Hogs’ blades and the drone of their three enormous and potent 150 horsepower GE eclectic motors. We had three monsters running when all things were working.
A hard-looking Hispanic man in his mid-twenties poked his head around the door. “Are you the boss?” he asked.
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“I’m looking for work. Any openings?”
“We’re not hiring but leave your name and number on that pad over there. You never know in this place.”
He looked dejected. “All right,” he said.
“Wait! Can you work nights?”
He skidded to a halt.
“Sure Mister, anything.”
“What about tonight? Some guy called in sick before. I just remembered.”
“Anytime, any day. I need the work.”
“What’s your name?”
“José, see you tonight at 6 sharp. You look strong.”
I waited around to see if José would show. He was actually 15 minutes early. That was unusual and a good sign. I took him over to Hog #2 and introduced him to the day-shift guy. I went over the safety rules and showed him where the kill switch was. In case the Hog grabbed him, he could hit the bulging red eye-like knob, hopefully, in time to shut the beast down before the unthinkable happened. I gave him a hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toe boots, heavy gloves, and ear plugs, made sure he had no loose clothing on, and told him to remove any chains or jewelry. I instructed the day guy to get him started and stay with him for two hours to make sure he could handle it.
The next morning, I grabbed a coffee off the roach-coach and walked under the loading doors. I could immediately sense by the sounds and smell of the factory if all three Hogs were running or not. It sounded good so maybe I could finish my coffee in my box for a change. Before I swung the makeshift door open that I had rigged up with a spring closer I looked over to my shoulder to see if the new guy José had lasted through the night. There he was, stripped down to his sleeveless A-shirt; muscles bulging under dirty, grimy, sweaty skin, and working like a mechanical bull. I raised a brow as the plank slammed shut behind me.
Maybe we got one who will stick around for a while, I hoped.
As it turned out, José stuck around for several months. He was the best operator ever. Hog #2 had finally met its match in this sinewy and quiet young man. It was metal machine against flesh and bone machine; night after night they called it a draw.
I gave José a raise, told him he was doing a fine job, put him on the day shift and moved him up to Hog #1, the most powerful and hazardous lump-eating monster in the place.
He thanked me and seemed pleased.
“José, do you have any friends who will work like you?”
“Friends? Yeah, I’ve got lots of friends.”
“Well if they need work and they are like you, send them over. Okay? ”
“Sure thing boss.” And with that he disappeared for the night, walking across the old weed-covered railroad siding and then up the alley and down the street lined with old blackened brick factories to wherever he went when he left the job.
The next day José was standing in front of my box with a guy whose muscles were bulging tight and easily twice the size of Jose’s. They were dressed in the same baggy jeans, work boots and skintight white A-shirts; some sort of uniform. His head was shaved and his skin had a healthy deep chestnut brown sheen. He had some deep, raised scars on his arms.
“Good Morning, José. Who’s this?”
“This is Willie, my friend. You said to bring in friends who wanted to work.”
“That I did. Okay, Willie. Nice to meet you. You’re hired. José will set you up with safety gear and show you the ropes.”
“José start him on the baby, Hog #3. All right?”
“Sure thing boss.”
“Thank you Sir. I appreciate the opportunity,” Willie said with a wide smile and an outstretched hand. We shook. His grip was like a bear claw and he ominously held me seconds longer than a normal shake between men. I tilted forward a bit to absorb his strength.
This guy is super strong, I thought.
“No problem, just listen to José, he’s sort of like the boss out there. Be careful and watch out for metal and stringers. José will explain. “
José and his friends were remarkably polite compared to most of the workers that come and go. I was curious about them, but had learned not to ask personal questions about the outside lives of the men who were willing to work in a Hog Farm environment. I felt fortunate just to have a full shift of sober, reliable and incredibly tough men to work all the machines for the first time ever.
For the next two weeks a pattern developed. As I arrived each morning, José was already there, waiting for me with a new friend, another quiet man, polite, strong and eager to work. I hired them all without question.
Without any official ceremony José became sort of like the plant manager. I was able to get business done in the plywood office while José was out on the factory floor with the Hogs, filling in, training guys, breaking up fights, and other dirty jobs. Things in Hog-Land had never been better. I stayed on the phone buying lumps to feed the Hogs, and José took care of the farm. It was a beautiful thing: the hum and howl of all three Hogs running non-stop 24/7 under Jose’s watchful eye, alongside the Atlas power of his discreet, hard-working but mysterious buddies, was beginning to sound more and more like the cha-ching of a cash register instead of the big pulsing headache that it used to be for me.
God bless José and his friends. That’s all I could say. This is the way to run a business!
I used the newly created time in my work day to bring in some authentic carpenters and build a proper little office for me, and a desk for José to sit at so that he could fill me in on production matters from time to time.
José was characteristically quiet at his office work, but one day as I passed his desk he put his pen down from filling out time-sheets. He spoke up apprehensively and caught me off guard.
“Hey boss can I talk to you?”
“Sure José, anytime. What’s on your mind?”
“Boss you’ve been a good guy to me and all my friends and we all like working here and these jobs are helping us all out a lot.”
“Yes Jose, I’m very happy too and I’ve been meaning to thank you … .”
“Boss I gotta tell you. I mean I need to let you know. I mean it’s bothering me….”
“Say it, Man! What’s eating you?”
“Okay boss, well you know Willie out there, the first guy I brought in?”
“Of course I do. Yeah, Willie is great. What’s up with him? Is he quitting or something?”
“Shit man, I don’t know how to say this but he isn’t who you think he is. None of us are. That’s what I’m trying to say but I can’t. Damn!”
“José, try to calm down. Who am I supposed to think you all are? Let’s start with that.”
Usually José’s eyes are fixed submissively downward when we speak, but for the first time they rose and met mine straight on. I saw the eyes of a fighter.
“Willie killed two guys in a bad drug deal. He shot ‘em both in the face. He’s a convicted murderer, Man! There, now you know.”
“What?!” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah he killed two drug dealers a long time ago. He was a drug dealer too, in Harlem. He’s been in prison for 20 years. Look at him Boss. Where’d you think he got them muscles?”
I figured the best thing at that moment was to just let José continue. It was obvious that the dam had broken and the flood would not stop with my words. Also I was not sure if I was being threatened. I needed to play it smart until I made sense of this surprise revelation. My head was into dangerous machines, not people. This was a game changer.