The bowl of spaghetti with a red clam sauce would normally have been large enough to feed me for a week. But I was famished. It was July and hot, and this was the lunch special for $7.95. It came with a salad, bread and thick red wine served in a small water glass.
The spicy clam sauce was already passing through my system and resurfacing in the sweat on the back of my neck and upper lip. I imagined that before the meal was over my white T-shirt would be the color of the sauce and stink of garlic and the beach at low tide.
I was seated outdoors, eating at a restaurant in Little Italy, New York. The real Little Italy, in the late 1970s, the one that was still an ethnic neighborhood of mobsters, tough guys and wannabe tough guys. Of working class. Of the elderly staring out of windows watching life pass by on the streets below.
This was the old Little Italy where, in the summer, fat Italian mamas pulled lawn chairs into the street in front of their apartment buildings and watched the kids play in the water shooting from the fire hydrants, while the men strutted about in wife-beater T-shirts drinking beer from cans and showing off their new tattoos.
At the table next to me was a heavy-set bald man. He wore a black shirt. He must have been in his early fifties. The heat did not seem to bother him at all. His features were wide: a big flat face, thick lips, eyes set apart. The only thing that seemed out of place was his nose. It was almost petite, like a little girl’s nose. It was something you could not help but notice, but knew you probably shouldn’t mention.
The bald man wore a gold chain with a prominent crucifix around his broad neck. He sipped at an espresso and nibbled on an Italian pastry. His hands were like the big cured ham hocks hanging in the window of the butcher’s shop across the street.
He was as cliché as you could imagine.
I shoveled another fork full of pasta in my mouth.
When I looked up from my plate, I saw two thugs leading a third across the street. They held him by the arms. He was bleeding from the corner of his mouth and one of his eyes was swollen shut. They brought him to the bald man’s table. The bald man put down his espresso.
“Lou, come here.” The bleeding guy stepped closer to the bald man. “Now, Lou. You gonna make this right. Right, Lou?”
Lou mumbled something. The bald man said, “Lou, I can’t hear you. Whata you say?” Then the bald man grabbed Lou’s head in both his hands and slammed it to the table, nose first. Bam! The espresso cup fell to the street.
I must have jumped in my seat, because the bald man turned to me.
“What the fuck are you looking at, kid? Eat your fucking spaghetti and mind your own fucking business.”
I looked away and did as I was told. I ate my spaghetti. I felt small.
“Now, Lou, you gonna make this right. You don’t wanna let me down, Lou. Now get the fuck out of here. Get him the fuck outa here.”
From the corner of my eye I saw the three thugs leave.
The bald man got up and walked to my table. “Pasta’s good, ain’t it, kid.”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said.
He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. I felt smaller than small. I could have hidden in one of the tiny clam shells in my spaghetti sauce. I wanted to. The bald man walked off and turned south on Mott Street.
I put ten dollars underneath the salt and pepper shakers and got up. As I walked past the table where the bald man had sat, I saw a blood stain about the size of a saucer on the white tablecloth. There was also what looked like a big piece of a front tooth sitting at the edge of the red stain.
“I love Little Italy,” I thought.
Some fifteen years later, around 1995, Little Italy had shrunk. Most of the little neighborhood shops were gone. The Italian restaurants now occupied only a few diminishing blocks. China Town had somehow spilled up from the south, and trendy boutiques had encroached from the north and west. Little Italy was disappearing.