Monday, April 16, 2012

The superstar gallery

I was down at Del's, minding my own business, absorbed as I was with a plate of stuffed calamari over linguine and a bottle of okay Montepulciano, when this skinny guy at the next table leaned over and said to me, out of the blue, "I like this Christie." I knew he was talking about the blowhard in Trenton but I wasn't gonna take the bait -- I was enjoying my dinner too much. So I pretended I didn't hear him and went on chewing. He and the gaunt lady with him were lazily picking over the crust of a plain pizza. They had scarfed the pie down in a matter of minutes and now all their bodily energy was concentrated in digesting wads of cheese and dough. He stared at me when I continued eating and said, "Our governor. I like him." It was obvious that I'd have to respond, so I said, "Oh yeah? Tell me why?"

"He speaks his mind and he tells it like it is." Del's is BYOB so I couldn't figure out whether this guy got tanked before dinner or he was just naturally obnoxious. His lady friend was wearing nursing scrubs, but I heard from Del that she'd gotten laid off from Christ Hospital when it declared bankruptcy earlier this year. How the fuck can a hospital go bankrupt when so many sick people live within a five mile radius of where it stands?

He continued to stare at me bobble-eyed. Whoa. I'm living in Jersey and it's 2012. This shite can't stand. I said, "So what. All he knows how to say is 'no.' The day he killed the rail tunnel project is the day I lost any respect I had for him. He talks big but he's got no ideas." And, I thought to myself, unlike Artie Lange he's not funny, just big.

The guy looked at me like I was a nutjob or worse. He asked, "How long have you been living here?" He probably thought he'd get me pegged as a newcomer.

"Thirty-three years, bud. I like it here. People leave you alone. Now I'd like to get back to my meal." The lady with him reached across the table and touched his forearm. He looked at her and she shook her head from side to side as if to say leave the man alone. Then she turned to me and said, "You enjoy the rest of your meal. We didn't mean to interrupt."

At her words, he seemed to come to himself. He softened his voice and said, "This here's my better half Doreen. She's the one with the brains in the family." Then he chuckled. "My first wife got me into trouble and this one gets me out of it. I'm a lucky guy." I gave a perfunctory nod in agreement. The sonofabitch had gotten me to thinking. He had to be second generation, like me, his family having fled famine or oppression across the pond to come and settle here in America, land of opportunity. (Which isn't bullshit by the way -- a couple of generations ago, this was the land of opportunity. Now American kids go to Brazil and China to make their fortunes.) By the looks of him, he hadn't catapulted himself out of the working class into the domain of the nouveau riche, so you'd think he'd be a Democrat opposed to the kind of dog-eat-dog capitalism extolled by fat cats like Christie. But he wasn't. He liked his red meat, too impressed by video images -- the swaggering certainties of a bully addressing a town meeting and shouting down a schoolteacher or a welfare recipient -- to think through the consequences of policy. Policy didn't matter. The appearance of decisiveness did.

It made me sad to think that Jersey -- with its chip on its shoulder -- was no different from the rest of the country, its citizens, having watched TV for fifty years, unable to distinguish the real from the fake, the live from the taped. Quist used to tell me, "Hey bud, we're all actors now. It's just that we're not all reading from the same script." Hell, we're not even speaking the same language.

I looked around at the photos hanging on the brick walls of the restaurant. On one side Sinatra, Brando, DeVito, Aiello, De Niro, Vale, Gandolfini, DeLuise, stock black-and-white publicity photos but a lot of them signed and personalized, and even a couple of choice ones shot in the joint itself with Del and Frank and their kids in the frame. On the other side were the sports figures -- Simms, Taylor, Strahan, Jeter, Munson, Berra, Mattingly, Posada, and a group shot of the entire 1982 Italian World Cup Championship team. They were hanging crooked but it didn't matter. At Del's, you enjoyed your red gravy cuisine amid a bevy of smiling male superstars and you felt for a few minutes like the world belonged to them and, by a queer sort of transference, to you too.

The guy and his better half paid their bill and left without saying goodbye. I was done with my meal and wished they had stayed a little longer -- it might've been nice to relax over an espresso and anisette and discover where his feeling of immense powerlessness came from.

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