I was the “chief cook and bottle washer” at Frankie’s, a little Mom & Pop Italian eatery in the heart of the district. Frankie, the shop owner, was a hard working stiff from New York City. He’d been a union plumber in the Big Apple, but when he lost his wife to breast cancer after she retired from the public school system, he moved south to get away from everything in the boroughs that reminded him of her... the history of their shared life was everywhere he went, and felt empty without the partner who’d spent the better part of his life by his side. He relocated to another big city, though, because that’s what he knew best. He liked the glistening gleam of the Atlanta skyline, the juxtaposition of a city teeming with towers of industry while brimming with nature, its streets overflowing with flowering trees, and the Southern charm of its residents. But he still found himself bored. Things in Atlanta are pretty swift-paced compared to the rest of the South, but nothing moves as fast as the rat race that is NYC.
Frankie wanted to keep himself active, or he was sure he’d shrivel up and die alone, collecting dust in his one bedroom apartment until the rats came to feast on him. He was interested in finding an old man’s hobby just to keep his body busy, though — as it’s easy enough for a senior citizen to get exercise in a thriving metropolis — but sought to occupy his heart with the kind of fulfillment that would feed his soul. So he decided instead to bring a little bit of his old life to the Southern end of the East coast, and opened up his own restaurant, using staples of his wife’s most treasured household recipes. Funny, he’d moved halfway across the country to escape the memory of her, but then found he couldn’t live without it, and created an environment that felt like stepping back into their kitchen, surrounded by family and friends. It was a great little place for that feeling of home away from home.
When I landed in Atlanta, I’d just turned 18 earlier that year, about the same time my graduating class held their own liberation ceremony (I’d taken myself out the year prior). I’d followed a job lead that had fallen through. I’d been in Oklahoma when a regular patron at the hardware store where I was working at the time promised there was plenty of drywalling to be done out that way, that he had a cousin there whose new construction business was booming. He said they were always short of hands, but found it difficult to keep guys with decent skills from moving on to greener pastures with bigger operations, so they paid pretty well to motivate loyalty among their subcontractors. So I’d scraped together what I could and took a Greyhound East, but by the time I’d arrived, the business had folded, due to mismanagement by the cousin. The drywaller was headed back home to Maryland, and offered to bring me along to his Dad’s business, but I wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. And Atlanta seemed worth checking out, so I decided to stay a while. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of other options.
I’d spent everything I had getting to Atlanta. I’d been promised a signing bonus just for showing up, which I’d been counting on to go toward a deposit for a boarding house I’d checked into ahead of time, where I could set up to hunker down, with just enough left over to get a handful of odd grocery items for a few days or so until I could start to earn regular wages. Bread and milk would do, if it had to. Maybe peanut butter if I had enough, possibly bologna, perhaps cheese, hopefully an apple or two. But I’d gotten by on a lot less before. I’d learned how to stretch, and how to make do. Not having the bonus, though, meant that I had no place to stay, nothing to eat, and no way to get back to where I’d come from. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Crazy to think how different things were back then, as if it was so long ago. But in many ways, it really was a whole other life. In today’s world, I could have saved myself the hassle just by texting for confirmation, or Googling from a smartphone. But I’m old enough to have come from an era where jumping for an opportunity sometimes meant swinging without a net. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to think on my feet and improvise, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Frankie came upon me in the alley behind his senior apartment complex, where he’d gone to take out the trash. The Home Park neighborhood is just a handful of blocks from the bus station, which is about how far my increasingly urgent quest had taken me as I wandered in hopes of finding a dumpster to scavenge for something digestible to quiet the rumbling in my gut, before heading further in to explore the town’s interior in search of shelter and respite. Restaurants are best, if you can find them, but I was in the wrong district, possibly a good 40 or so blocks away from anything resembling an eat street. Striking out blind for whatever might be in between would be a crapshoot, at best, but I’d have taken that route, if it had got bad enough. There were other options, though. Multi-unit residential facilities are a bit more work, but usually offer some promise. If there are plenty of units contributing, and doing so often enough, you can generally find something fresh-ish on top that hasn’t turned completely rancid. Never any point in digging too far down, but you get a knack for it, after a while — learn to notice sensory cues before you dive in. The closer you can walk up on it before you’re blasted, the better the hunting. Moisture buildup or a coating of film over everything means it’s been too many days since anyone’s added in; too much exposure to the elements, not worth the effort.
Frankie took me for a street thug, come to vandalize the property, and challenged me with a baseball bat. I didn’t want any trouble. I could have evaded him and looked elsewhere, but I also didn’t want to walk away from what might have made for a passable score. When I assured him I was only there to find food, he insisted on bringing me in to his place for a proper meal. I reminded him that only a moment earlier he’d thought me a criminal, and questioned what made him suddenly feel I was safe enough to invite into his home. Frankie laughed, and assured me that while he may look small, he’d been a Navy man, and promised if I tried anything, he could most assuredly “drop” me, age and size be damned. I liked him instantly.
Italians are always feeding people. As if any problem in the world could be fixed with the proper application of pasta and Bolognese. From Frankie’s perspective, that wasn’t too far off. Frankie was actually Polish, but an orphan. His wife had come from a giant Italian family, and they’d adopted him like a favored son. He, in turn, had taken so naturally to the culture, you’d never known he wasn’t born into it.
Frankie said that most of today’s crime results less from any instinctive desire to act against societal mores, and more from a need to meet the basic requirements of survival. He was the first one to introduce me to Maslow’s Hierarchy, said the simplest way to fight crime is to simply ensure a place to sleep for everyone, and enough to eat for every hungry belly. That’s why he didn’t care if I was a criminal when I told him I was hungry. He said, put a man in a desperate situation, and until you fix that need, that will be what defines him. A starving man cannot be a man, as long as he’s starving. He’s just starving. Everything else is secondary. But feed him, and he becomes a man again, and only then you can understand who he truly is.
This was more or less a summary of our conversation while he set about making something delectable for both of us. He gave me some fresh baked bread while I waited, and let me give him a hand with the cutting of vegetables for the “gravy.” He could tell from the way I handled the knife that I knew my way around a kitchen. I told him about my shima, and the delectable spreads she could put on with nearly nothing. He said that was the mark of all the best cooks — when it looks like your cupboards are bare, can you still feed a family and make them like their plates, begging for more. Frankie’s favorite recipes were the kind that would feed an army, so he enjoyed having me there to give him an excuse to make something for more than one person. I think he liked having the company to talk to.
The longer we talked — over a meal the likes of which I hadn’t enjoyed since I left home — the more we felt in tune with one another. I respected his perspective on life, and how he’d come by it honestly, through hard work, the love of a good woman, and the kindness of family. How he treated the rest of the world. How he was slow to anger, and quick to trust, because he felt most anyone deserves at least that much. It doesn’t hurt any to give someone the benefit of the doubt, he said... you can always still give them the chance to prove you wrong later. I think it was likely in that mindset that he decided to take a chance on me. He said you can learn a lot about a man over a meal. The way he tends to the food, the speed at which he eats, the attention he gives to the flavor, the grace he offers. He believed there was a reason so many of the recorded moments in the bible of the Christ happened while the man was breaking bread with his disciples. He said how a man is at the dinner table gives away more of who he is than anything he tells you about himself. I guess he decided he liked who he figured I was then, because he offered me a job, one that came with a place to stay.
Frankie’s restaurant had a small efficiency apartment above it. He didn’t like it. The area was too young, too hip for his taste. But he liked the idea of someone staying in it, keeping watch over his kitchen — his second home. So, I came on board. I didn’t have an official title, I just took over anything that he needed help with. Sure, he had waitstaff, and kitchen help, and lots of employees. I did all that, and more. I was Frankie’s right hand man, so to speak. I did everything he asked of me. I’m sure he paid me something, but I don’t remember the money. I had more than I needed in the heart of one of the nicest areas of the city, all the Italian food I could ever want (I think I might have actually put on a few pounds while I was there), and he treated me like family.
Frankie’s didn’t specialize in pizza, but the kitchen did offer it. And, delivery — not just of the pizza, but of anything on the menu — to anywhere within the 404 area code, which included most of Buckhead, at the time, and some portions of a few other districts. I was the one most often called upon to make many of the deliveries. I suspect Frankie wished he could pay me more, and liked for me to have the opportunity to get tips on top of what he offered. And, I think he trusted me the most to give the proper respect to the set up of the dinner table, and handling the customers the way he wanted them treated. It took some serious patience, at times, in some cases, Buckhead being such an odd mix of all types. Man, but I could tell some stories about some of the things I saw on that route.
But this story isn’t about those cases. This is about a double case of mistaken identity that inadvertently turned me into an accidental gigolo. It was Veteran’s Day, 1993. It was the end of my shift for the night, the kitchen was closed, and the last delivery order to be taken before I circled back around to my bed was going to the Ritz Carlton, which in and of itself was not that unusual. What I found when I arrived, though, now that was a bit out of the ordinary.
I don’t remember the room number, but it was pretty high up — one of the multi-room suites... the kind a family of 4 could probably live in for a good couple decades or so. Which was just as well, as I was bringing enough food to feed a small wedding party. The woman who answered, though, was no blushing bride. She was dressed only in a skimpy negligee, that left very little to the imagination. Her voice was hushed and breathy, like she was trying her damnedest to impersonate Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. She seemed genuinely surprised by the food.
At first I thought maybe there’d been a mistake, but I double-checked the order, and the room number was right, based on what we’d been given by the caller. She paid for the food in cash, though, along with a hefty tip, and I began to unload the carrying cart for service set up. When I asked her where she wanted it, she gave a giggle like I’d said something dirty, and while I was sure that I hadn’t, I have to admit, I had a hard time keep my eyes where they belonged as she wordlessly beckoned me in further. She showed me to a dining room table, covered in candles. It was then that I noticed there were no lights on in the entire suite. Only candles. They were everywhere. The entire place was filled with them, on every surface that could hold anything. I’m a bit surprised they hadn’t set off the fire alarm. I hadn’t noticed the lack of light, because from the hotel floor hall, which was brightly lit, the entire suite had been emanating a warm glow, like dimmer-switch lamps on a lower setting. I felt like I was in a meeting at a coven, and wondered if there was going to be a séance later. When I asked how many she was expecting for dinner, her answer made me choke on air.
“Tonight, it’s just going to be me, and YOU,” she told me.
I’d had customers invite me to stay for dinner before, mostly drunk college kids who were overly friendly from too much wine. Frankie didn’t have an official policy against it, and probably would have told me to enjoy myself — “You need to get out, DO stuff, young man! ” he’d say. “Make friends, hang out with kids your own age, keep company with somebody besides this old fuddy duddy!” — but I usually had other matters to get back to. Besides, I think Frank liked that I was always around to play chess with, or tell stories about his wife to. This night, though, Frank had gone to bed early ... a few too many liquid V-Day memories, I suspect. There was nothing else on the agenda for the rest of the evening for me, and I wasn’t going to be opening the next day. It was clear from this woman’s tone, though, that the table setting I busied myself about putting together — as if there would be at least 6 guests — was not the only thing on her mind, and the food would not be the only thing on the menu that night. I had the thought to wonder what Frankie would think about me “handling” this particular customer. And then some.
I was pretty confused. I’d heard tales of what felt like was going on there happening before. Lonely older women — I think they call them cougars these days — putting in phony calls, waiting around to seduce an innocent service worker to get their kicks. Mostly bored housewives, legend has it. But that stuff doesn’t really happen. The Ritz Carlton is definitely not the suburbs. And if this raving beauty was a housewife, in this posh environment, I didn’t want to be around when the man of “the house” got home. I tried to keep my wits about me, focusing on the task at hand, and went about my business in the most professional manner I could muster, which she made more complicated, by being overtly flirtatious, occasionally even a little grabby. It was all I could do to keep her hands off me.
“Aren’t you going to party with me,” she asked, in a sort of whiney, schoolgirlish pout.
I had a vague inclination what kind of “partying” she intended, but I only responded that I couldn’t, as I didn’t know what we’d be celebrating. She said it was her birthday. She was turning 40. I was shocked. She didn’t look a day over 32. She showed me her driver’s license to prove it. I felt bad, because if I’d have known, I’d have had the kitchen include a special birthday dessert. Might have even tried to sing. I told her I was sorry I hadn’t brought her a present.
“Oh, but I think you did,” she grinned mischievously, just as I was finishing up with the table setting, and gathering my things to go.
Then she grabbed onto parts of me I generally only share with my doctor and people I’ve gotten very close to. I think my voice might have risen about an octave as I tried to protest, but she was making a concerted effort to undress me. I like to think of myself as a man of resolve, but I was 18, and there are limits to how far a man can be pushed. I wasn’t a virgin. Not technically. But I was certainly new to many of the things she introduced me to that night. Things I hadn’t even conceived of at the time.
Turns out, she’d been planning on meeting a “hookup” that she’d connected with in one of those older phone chat services that used to be popular before online dating. She hadn’t met him yet, but they’d had a series of involved discussions over a period of a few weeks, discussing fantasies, among other things, and scheming, mostly about their plans for what they would do to each other when they finally did meet. She hadn’t told me her name at that point, because they had agreed not to exchange names. He was going to come to the door pretending to be an electrician, and they were more or less going to act out the kind of scene you might find in a bad 70s porn. But, he actually hadn’t showed up. In fact, he’d gotten cold feet and NEVER showed up. I showed up instead, because I was at the wrong room. I didn’t get the number wrong, the concierge who placed the order for the customer did. We didn’t find that out until the next morning, though. Thankfully, the actual customer wasn’t upset, because he’d passed out exhausted before the food would have showed up anyway, and was just happy to have not been stuck with the bill for a nasty overblown case of the munchies.
That’s why my “delivery customer” had been surprised by the food. But she’d just figured the guy she’d been chatting with had decided to change that part of the story — maybe he couldn’t find the right uniform, or didn’t know how to play the part? — so she threw herself on me instead. She was improvising. And who was I to say no? The fantasy had less to do with the actual roles being played, and more with the activities she was eager to try.
Over pillow talk, and a monstrous after coital feast for which we’d certainly worked up an appetite, I learned she was a former beauty Queen. She’d been Miss Atlanta some nearly 20 years prior, and was runner up to be Miss Georgia, but had never gone on to the Miss America pageant. She was recently divorced. Had married a man of power, who liked nice things, and had taken her as a trophy, for the status that came with having the latest, best model wife, along with everything else he owned that was top of the line. But he took no real interest in who she was as a person, and barely even touched her. He kept her in a nice mansion on a hill, like a collector keeps a glass menagerie on a shelf, while he spent his days jet-setting around the globe, chasing after every hot young piece of tail with a perky set of double Ds, mostly waitresses and stewardesses half his age, who just liked the attention from a handsome older rich man, and were willing to settle for whatever he’d give them.
It blew my mind how a woman still that drop dead gorgeous at 40 — with legs that could crack a man’s spine, an ass that would turn any man into John Bonham playing Moby Dick, and breasts that blocked out the sun — could be self-conscious about herself because some self-absorbed jackass felt his toys had more value if no one was playing with them. The conundrum brought me such a whole new insight into the female psyche that I questioned everything I knew about woman up until that point. Which, of course, was pretty much nothing, at age 18, so, that’s not saying much. But, I’d always admired strong, capable women who think for themselves and take charge of their lives and the world around them. This was the first time I had a window into what it takes to chip away at that strength. I guess you could say it changed my world, and more than just a little. Perhaps I’d never known the right type of woman, but I’d never realized they could be that fragile. And I’d be blown away that she stayed with him for so long, but I understand it’s human nature to become complacent in exchange for comfort. Sad but true.
My Beauty Queen — I’ll call her Gwen — was more than a pretty face and a smoking hot bod. She had a Masters in Fine Arts. Which, I’d imagine, doesn’t open a whole lot of doors, but it does at least show a personal commitment to being able to apply oneself to a goal. Her ex-husband hadn’t been willing to let her work, though. And, of course, they’d signed a prenup, so when she divorced him, she got nothing, even though she had proof of infidelity. She didn’t care, though. She wanted nothing from him. Her family had come from money, and they were willing to keep her in the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. She was Daddy’s Little Angel, and he was just glad to have her back under his wing. When I met Gwen, she was working as the manager of a respected local theater, which, in and of itself was no small role. She was getting her life back. Perhaps beginning it for the first time, really.
Gwen and I had sorted out the case of mistaken identity when she told me she’d been expecting me to not look exactly like how I’d described myself, but she hadn’t expected me to look so much better. You can imagine my confusion. I’m sometimes the order taker at the restaurant, but I hadn’t recalled this one coming in, and I’m sure I’ve never taken any time out of a phone order to describe anything about my appearance. I didn’t even wear a uniform. I was just the guy who showed up with the food that had been ordered, and was expected. No one ever questioned if I was the right guy, and everyone was always happy to see me. Now that I think about that, I wonder how often predators exploit that natural trust to their advantage.
I don’t remember much detail of the how that conversation went, exactly, but I’m sure it was pretty awkward. Once she got over the initial shock and horror that she really actually had done all those crazy, deviant things with a complete and total stranger, who actually was the delivery boy, I think she spent the next 10 minutes or so laughing so hard, at one point I worried she was actually going to pass out, and I’d have to call an ambulance. I do remember I’d already started trying to figure out in my head what I was going to tell them, and being not a little stressed about how that was going to come across.
When Gwen finally caught her breath, she was dehydrated, and had the first inkling of a headache, so she asked me to draw her a bath. I did, and then she attacked me again, for probably about the 6th time that night. At least this time she knew who I was, though. Sort of.
I have no idea what a suite at the Ritz Carlton costs, but I’m sure it’s more than I’d probably ever seen in one place at that time. But I know we got her money’s worth that night. By morning, there was barely a surface we hadn’t covered with our exercising of her birthday festivities. Fortunately, we were able to blow out all the candles as we got to them. I consider it a win that we didn’t have to involve the fire department. That could have gotten ugly.
As for the guy she’d originally been planning on meeting that night, Gwen actually did get around to meeting him a couple weeks later, in a much more mundane setting. It seems she’d been the only one with the guts to follow through on their shared intended adventure together, as he’d straight up just chickened out. He’d even figured she probably would, too, that maybe they were both just seeing stars, and reaching for pie in the sky. She’d been willing to give him a second chance, in case he had other redeeming qualities she might otherwise have missed out on. But she didn’t tell him she’d actually gone through with the plan. She decided he wasn’t worth the effort. If a wild hellcat in the sack was what he’d wanted, then it was his loss, for sure, as it turned out there was another fella available to fill that position for the next several months. Ready, willing, and able. Boy, was I ever.
Things went on like that between me and Gwen for a while. Not at the Ritz Carlton, of course. She visited my efficiency at Frankie’s once or twice, but she had her own luxury condo in one of Buckhead’s many fine highrise habitats for the obscenely wealthy, where I became a frequent enough guest to eventually be let in on sight by the doormen. She even dressed me up and took me around town to her schwanky theater events, introduced me to her family and artsy friends. They all thought I was so exotic. I found that odd. You’d think they’d never seen a Native American in formal attire before. Which I know can’t be the case, as Atlanta is home to many of the country’s more affluent tribes. Perhaps they just don’t run in the same circles.
It was a nice change of pace to get to see how the other half lived. But, quicker than I’d have imagined, the novelty wore off for me. Sure, it was pretty neat to get to see and do things I’d only ever dreamed about, but I didn’t have anything in common with these people, and I sometimes found all the excess and gross misuse of resources nauseating. You didn’t have to go too far into Atlanta — you could even stay right there in Buckhead — to find actual people, with real lives, and human stories, starving in the streets. Yet here were these elitists, hosting $500 plate black tie dinners in the name of random charities, and patting themselves on the back over what a “difference” they’d made. The world didn’t seem all that different to me.
And Gwen wouldn’t stop calling me Steve. At the time, I went by a shorter version of my given name, but one that was more true to my heritage. It reminded Gwen of a famous action movie hero from the 70s, and once she made the association as a nickname, she said she thought it was cute, and it just sort of stuck. I think she just wanted to try and make me more socially acceptable to her sphere of influence. After a few months’ test drive of a shiny new life, I called it quits with Gwen. I’d spent some time in my past peering into the windows of that way of living, and now that I’d seen it from the other side, I just craved the kind of comforts you’d be more likely to find in an Italian family kitchen.
Gwen had never understood why I hadn’t just quit my job at the restaurant while we were together. She certainly had plenty of money, and promised I didn’t have to want for anything. But she’d never had to work. Sure, she’d been disciplined enough to earn a Master’s degree, but that was a means to an end. For all I know, that end might have even been to look good for the pageant board. What does one really do with a Masters in Fine Arts, anyway? But it had been something she wanted. Having to make a commitment to a business, to be part of the machine, a cog in the wheel that turns income into profit that sustains a livelihood, that supports a family... this was a world Gwen had never known. Would probably never know.
And, in time, I saw a correlation between the way she had been treated by her ex, and the way she treated me. Oh, sure, she would never have dreamed of cheating on me, even though we’d never established any formal relationship parameters or boundaries, so I wouldn’t have been hurt in the slightest if she did, or if one day she just stopped seeing me altogether. I’d never gotten attached to the notion that “we” were “a thing.” That this was forever. The attention was nice, the events were fun, the settings were cush, and the sex was mind boggling. But Gwen didn’t love me. And I didn’t love her. When I first met her, I think I thought she needed me. That she needed someone to care for her, the person, not just her body, or even her mind, or the status symbol that her family name represented. I think my 18-year-old self might have thought I could give her what she needed in that respect, and I might have mistaken that for love, at first. But before too long, I realized the truth.
There was a vast age gap between us in years, but not in maturity. I’d lived enough of the world by then to be a little more in the know on some things than some college graduates. And she’d been sheltered away from the real world for long enough that her emotional growth had never really developed past her college days. So we met very naturally in the middle, effectively as equals. For a while. Until one day I recognized, unlike she had been to her ex-husband, I wasn’t a toy that was kept on the shelf. Gwen sure liked to play with me. But I was still a toy. If I’d have let her, she might still be keeping me around to take me out, dress me up, show me off, decide my future for me. At some point, I looked into that future, and I didn’t like what I saw. A kept man may have it pretty good. But he’s still a kept man. And that just wasn’t who I wanted to be.
I remembered Frankie telling me how a hungry man isn’t really a man so long as he’s hungry. He’s just hungry, until he’s fed, and then he is a man again. But there are many ways a man can be malnourished. Frankie understood this. It’s why he opened his restaurant. After Gwen, I think I began to understand that, too. I was a hungry man, and I needed to be fed. But what I craved, Gwen couldn’t give me. So I couldn’t stay with her, because I would always be starving there, and eventually, it would kill me.
Frankie didn’t have any sons of his own. I think, if he’d had his druthers, he probably would have liked to have groomed me to take over the restaurant from him when he retired. And I probably would have been okay with that. But it wasn’t in the cards. Destiny called me elsewhere, with circumstances I will save for another tale. He harbored no resentment, though, and when he passed on a few years ago, I went back down to pay my respects. The manager of his estate asked me to stick around for the reading, as it turned out he’d included me in his will. Humbling to think I’d meant so much to him, so long ago, but our bond, while short lived, in the grand scheme of life, had been a strong one. Don’t get me wrong, he hadn’t left me a small fortune, or anything, just a tidy, but respectable sum, in gratitude, the will said, for the time I’d given him everything I had, and always done so pleasantly, and to the best of my ability, for very little in return. “But paltry compensation,” it read, “which cannot meet the debt.” He made me smile. I never remember needing anything when I was with him. But even though I often told him I was well supplied, I know he’d always wished I had more. That was his way of saying so, again, once more, and having the last word on the matter, so to speak.
He’d sold the restaurant a little over 10 years ago. I saw the place that now stands where it had been, and was pleased to see it’s being run by a nice young couple from New York, who makes downhome family style Italian food, available for delivery in the Buckhead district. And it swelled my heart to notice, it is appropriately named, the Italian term for, “The Kiss.”
Moar Storease!: 404*
i can haz votes, pleez?*
* Please also see especially the skillful works of Team Clueless:
• Road Trippin’ — ellison
• Silence of The Lam — i_love_freddie
• Exile in Pop Music — prog_schlock
• Normal is ... nice — sinnamongirl