Reply Sat 3 May, 2003 10:29 am
By BumbleBeeBoogie
(Based on a true story of the rituals and games people play to maintain their own and other people's dignity)

Marconi's was comfortable old-country, a family place, where parents brought their young children to practice their table manners. It was not like the mirrored walls, chromium furniture, and black linoleum sophistication that was all the rage in the City of Queen's former speakeasies. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, Marconi's was struggling to keep its former status, or at least its illusion of gentility.

A young couple opened the restaurant's worn oak door, its panel of bellflower-etched leaded glass reflected their image under the light cast by an overhead brass lamp. They moved through the soft lights and the aromas from the kettles of the Italian kitchen.

Ernesto walked toward them, dressed in the waiter's traditional black suit, white shirt and black bow tie, with his worn, but clean linen towel over one arm. As he moved closer, he recognized his young friends and greeted them with a warm smile.

Snowy white hair crowned Ernesto's head. The immaculate collar and cuffs of his shirt showed fragments of the stiffening along the folds where mending could no longer hide the frayed edges.

He pushed the silver wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose as he led the young couple to a table by the room's only window. Small panes of leaded glass admitted the rosy glow of the sun's last rays. From this spot they could watch the other diners, many of them regulars of all ages, like themselves, living in no-cooking apartments.

They unfolded their napkins as Ernesto handed them the yellowed menus, their edges torn and bent from years of handling. Over the last four years, the prices had been lowered so often there was no more room to line them out. Finally, the price changes were written on bits of adhesive tape that covered the original amounts.

Ernesto hovered over the table, lighting the candle that had dripped years of wax down the ancient green wine bottle. He recited the dishes that had made Marconi's famous during the pre-depression years.

The couple ordered their usual spaghetti; at fifty cents it was all they could afford. Ernesto congratulated them on their excellent choice as he gathered up the menus and returned to the kitchen. Moments later he returned and placed steaming plates of spaghetti on the table with a "Buon Gusto, my friends!"

The couple coiled the slippery strands of spaghetti around their forks, dipping them into the thin tomato sauce and wiping the dribbles from their chins. They soaked up the last of the sauce with hard-crusted bread, and raised their glasses of water in a toast to each other and to their good fortune for one luxurious hot dinner each week.

From across the room a chorus of voices rang out as a family sang Happy Birthday to the grandmother of the brood. The young couple waved their good wishes and raised their glasses in a toast.

The young man signaled Ernesto to ask, since it was a special evening, "What glorious creation has the chef prepared as they would like to order a memorable dessert."

"Tonight!" cried Ernesto in his most stentoriian tone," you are fortunate, because the chef is inspired. Not only do we have your favorite vanilla gelato with caramel sauce, but he prepared a biscuit tortoni and a zabaglione to please the gods!"

The discussion of which dessert to order was difficult, as it always was. Finally, after much indecision and urging by Ernesto to try this or that, the woman ordered the Zabaglione and the man ordered the Vanilla gelato with caramel sauce.

Ernesto returned. With a flourish he presented a silver tray containing two cups of steaming coffee and two plates, each containing two small vanilla cookies.

After the couple ate the cookies and drained the coffee cups, Ernesto returned to accept the celebrant's congratulations for the fine dinner and their special compliments to the chef for the lovely desserts. The young man laid two half dollars and a nickel tip on the table.

With old-country dignity, the kindly waiter accompanied the couple to the door. As they walked outside, he straightened his stooped shoulders, grasped their hands and bade them "Goodnight my young friends, until next week."

Ernesto closed the door. He resumed his role with the other guests, hovering over them to ask if he could bring them anything special. Did they want dessert, more coffee, an after dinner drink, a cognac perhaps?
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