A Special Time at a Special Place
The weekday late afternoon ritual at Rico’s was beginning…
His lunchtime rush was long over, as was his waitress Angie’s afternoon fortune telling in the guise of Madame La Zonga; his dinner crowd was yet to come. There were few customers until the upcoming dinner time; they would have cups of coffee and maybe a slice of pie, then they left. Rico worked on his paperwork at Madame La Zonga’s booth because if you don’t get on top of your paperwork, it would get on top of you.
He looked at the clock, it was nearly time…it was time…there he was…
One for the Money
Rico not only genuinely smiled as he poured a cup of coffee and put it on the counter bar, but he took off his white overseas cap and sat facing Joey on one of the stools with his own cup.
‘You want my Stat-us Quo Vad-us?’
‘I sure do! How’s your mother?’
‘Fine! She always wants me to give you her best regards!’
‘She’s one nice lady. Give her my best too.’
Joey was always the first of the Down and Outers to arrive. His mother’s widow pension and benefits had income restrictions that required him to cut his hours as both a legal clerk and the office cleaner to mornings only; he had a nice home and plenty of free time.
His mother had her own gangs; a flock of housewives during the day and a pack of widows in the evenings who’d play cards, boast of their children, non-maliciously gossip and relive their yesterdays.
When he wasn’t spending the afternoons with his mother, he’d visit Miss Mac and her de facto adopted son Maynor. Maynor suffered from hypertrichosis that made him look like the Wolf Man and he also had the mental capacity of a child that put him and Joey on the same intellectual level. He helped Maynor with his English; they played games and watched old movies on TV together. Then he would come to Rico’s where he’d anxiously await the rest of his gang. The Down and Outers visited and played whiffle ball and other games with Maynor on weekends. Miss Mac’s house was now one of joy and fun.
Except for the death of his father a long while back, Joey’s world was always a happy one. He was enthusiastic about anything and everything. When he described an old movie he saw on television, it was the most exciting thing in the world. An encounter with a bird, squirrel or wild rabbit was a thing of wonder and beauty. His tales of the most ordinary touched the ethereal in an extraordinary fashion. Rico would find himself entranced with his truly noble simplicity that reeked of bliss as he told fascinating tales of the commonplace; things one never thought about but now the listener regretted missing them.
The more Rico got to know Joey, the more he realised that he had no mental disability at all, he acted like a child because it was fun. Perhaps his working in his late father’s legal office made him realise that the smartest people in the room weren’t the ones anyone wanted to be around and spend time with of their own free will. If you don’t think too much, you don’t worry…Joey was the smartest one of them all…
Joey not only made Rico happy, but most important of all, he could make him relax.
Two for the show
Angie was the next of the gang to come; Rico brought her a cup of coffee. After waitressing and fortune telling she’d go home to spend time with her mother and change clothes before she’d return.
She couldn’t wait to get back to Rico’s, as with her father not about the house, her mother would harangue her about getting married,
‘First you’re 20, then you’re 25, then you’re 40 then it’s too late!’
Her father loved having the Down and Outers over and her mother had to admit that they were gentlemen who made her laugh when they came over on Friday nights after late night shopping with Angie to watch television.
At Rico’s the three greeted each other with enthusiastic smiles that gave the ordinary salutations an air of joy.
After catching up with Joey and his news of, and sincere warm greetings to her from his mother, Miss Mac and Maynor, she delightedly announced,
‘I gotta letter from Dean today!’
Her brother was on Okinawa with the Ninth Marines. She excitedly gave the envelope from somewhere far away in the Pacific to Joey who’d hold it with a thrill looking at the light blue envelope with the gold eagle, globe and anchor, and a battle scene with Dean’s Fleet Marine Force return address. To Joey it was as exciting as watching Gung Ho!, Guadalcanal Diary and Sands of Iwo Jima.
Angie proudly read selected portions of his letter talking about manoeuvres as Rico and Joey looked at Dean’s photos over Rico’s counter; from boot camp in dress blues and in Infantry Training School wearing a camouflaged helmet and utilities.
She acted like a proud mother when she spoke of Dean. Rico had known him as a high school dropout and a dangerous punk, then saw his transformation into a physically fit Marine in dress blues. Dean apologised for his past behaviour, Rico responded by saying how proud he was of him, and how lucky Uncle Sam was to get him.
Angie was squirreling away her money for a future she would never talk of. She had no childish dreams of meeting Prince Charming or a millionaire, but though she kept her dreams a secret, Rico could sense her ambition and desire to better herself, and Dean.
Her wisecracks made the customers laugh, and her verbal battles with Rico were always looked forward to like a radio show comedy routine. She was a strong woman, and she would never hide the fact. Though her voice had all the romanticism and femininity of fingernails scratching a blackboard, she possessed strong common sense. Rico was formidable opposition to her, but she knew he was the boss and he knew she had to blow off steam; everyone were the winners.
She wasn’t shy about telling Rico that he allowed her to come alive in her guises as Madame La Zonga the gypsy fortune teller, Patina of Quality the Oriental Princess of Dance and a wisecracking comedy waitress who defeated all challengers.
‘You belong on the stage because all the world’s a stage, but that bum Shakespeare stole that line from me!’
She expressed interest in having Rico teach her the paperwork that would be a boon to him. They would begin next week.
Three to get ready
Stash was the next one to arrive. Rico left his seat, put on his hat and poured him a cup of coffee as he remained behind the counter.
In the film Harvey, James Stewart’s Elwood P Dowd said that ‘nobody ever brings anything small into a bar’. There was nothing small about anything Stash brought into Rico’s; he spoke the opposite of small talk.
When you asked Stash, ‘What’s new?’, it wasn’t a cliché salutation…He nearly always had something new that he came up with and he would talk about his new thing or thought energetically. One could imagine him living in a room full of the Strickfaden electrical equipment from the Frankenstein movies. His expression was always alert, always excited, as if he knew something that could change the world.
He was the answer man. He read a lot and would spend his time at the Carnegie Library when he wasn’t with the gang. If he didn’t know something, he’d find it out. In return the gang treated him as Mr. Wizard and Professor Wonder. He never was a know-it-all or a bore, for he could listen as enthusiastically as he spoke, and he could make people understand what he was talking about without them feeling demeaned or being talked over.
One of the reasons he left the security of the job-for-life of the Federal Civil Service was that no one would listen to his ideas except to steal them for themselves. It would have been easy to reward him, but half the fun of stealing from an unsuspecting man is kicking him when he’s down. His current employer would pay tribute to his ideas in public thanks, handshakes and minor ways, and would keep the glory to the firm they worked for; for that’s what Stash really wanted.
His ideas verging on dreams were reaching for the stars like the Junior Rocketeers shooting up their model missiles in schoolyards and vacant lots. They lit up the night sky then parachuted slowly down to Earth, then would blast off again on the morrow. Wonder was the word for Stash. Rico’s mind left the routine of his life for the excitement of the fantastic worlds of the new and the futuristic; he imagined Stash dressed like Flash Gordon on the cover of one of the science-fiction pulp magazines.
Four to go
Godot had arrived. Stash moved over to another stool so Ray could sit between him and Joey…The gang was together.
In his sharp suit and fedora Ray always looked terrific, a man who could tame the world, not to do his own bidding, but to have fun.
He had no set time for his arrival, as he was a supervisor who would stay as long as his men needed him for advice or answers that he always had, and he would see that they could understand and implement what he told them.
Rico poured him a cup of coffee as everyone greeted him, and he caught up with Joey’s news of his mother, Miss Mac and Maynor, Angie’s news of Dean, Stash’s new brainstorm, and Rico’s usual comments.
‘How’s Madame La Zonga?’
She had picked the name Madame La Zonga for her restaurant fortune telling as one day Helen O’Connell’s Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga came on the radio in the restaurant and a few customers started dancing to it. An amazingly light on his feet Ray grabbed Angie and danced with her that drew applause.
At first, Ray’s all-knowing look irritated Rico, until he realised that he was sucking up the energy of his gang. When Rico finally went with the flow like Ray, it all fell into place, and he absorbed their happiness as well.
Ray was the leader everyone needed; not to tell them what to do or where to go, but to let them know how appreciated they were and to unite the varied individuals into a team to find and revel in a euphoria that was a paradise of being together. They read into Ray what they wanted to, and Ray let them, for he listened and always looked as happy to see them as they were happy to see him.
Rico had often talked to Peter about Ray, originally insulting, then complaining, then asking questions about him. Peter, like him a former infantryman and a straight-shooting mediator said that being a leader was like herding cats and it would take a lot out of you. Rico had watched Ray when he entered; though he had his usual omnipotent smile, he seemed tense. Now he was relaxing in front of his eyes as the gang spoke and he truly gave the impression of enjoying his cup of coffee.
The catching up with the Down and Outers was over, the gang left the counter to move to their usual table; now the wisecracks began…
The barbed repartee came thick and fast as those leaving work getting an early dinner or a cup of coffee before going home to their families came in to witness the comedy cabaret. Angie sided with Rico against Ray and Stash, Joey jumped in here and there on both sides.
Peter told Katrina they resembled a children’s TV show where Rico would trade quips with puppets like Garfield Goose and his Friends. Katrina kept close to Peter, lest the fun was the siren’s call to lure him away from ‘normal society’. Those the gang’s age and older were delighted by their antics, saying it was better than anything on TV, for those younger than the gang spent their evenings in front of the One-Eyed Monster.
Off to Adventures
His evening staff had come in and were settled; it was time for Rico to go home and have dinner with his own family. He made an exaggerated look at the large wall clock,
‘C’mon, get outta here! It’s a beautiful day! Promise me you’ll enjoy it!’
‘Weez free! Weez free! Thankee, Mr. Link-um!’, Ray quipped in a funny voice.
Rico was as happy as they were, for happiness was contagious. He smiled and asked,
Every one of them beamed and shrugged their shoulders, then walked out the door in ecstasy. They’d be back in the evening for their usual jokes and banter, but the end of the afternoon was theirs, and what seemed to be theirs alone.
Rico followed them outside and paused at his door as he watched them walk west into the sunset up Madison Street to the wonderfully painted old wooden houses and trees of Angie’s and Joey’s neighbourhood adjoining downtown and then the woods of the green ravine that an ancient stairway led down to.
As he watched their backs gradually walk further away from him, he wanted to go and be with them. Not to a physical destination, but to feel the jubilation of those with no responsibilities except having as much fun as they could and to be one of them together. The gang was off to the parallel world of Funtopia where the mole hills of laughs became the mountains of joy. They had all the time in the world and all their small world to do it in…It wasn’t where they were going, it was how they were going, and they were all going together, even though no one really knew where…
Pondering the Unknown
A dour old gentleman walked the opposite way of the gang towards downtown. As they passed each other by the Gothic courthouse with its clock tower and Civil War Obelisk monument, Rico could see they exchanged brief remarks. The gentleman suddenly had a grin on his face; he turned and watched them go their own way, then shook his head in delight and continued smiling towards his destination.
Again, Rico asked himself, what was their secret? What was it that made them so fun to be around? What was the quality that they effortlessly flaunted that he aspired to have?
It wasn’t youth, for they were long past adolescence, though they acted like teenagers. He never had that much fun when he was young.
Freedom? They all had jobs that kept them busy during the day, but they chose their jobs. Rico never had much of a choice about anything; he worked in his parents’ restaurant then was drafted. He had never been, as the gang described themselves, footloose and fancy free. They weren’t married, but they had each other; he believed he hadn’t much of a choice about the girl their families introduced him to that he wed after the war.
Rico suddenly realised the time of their lives was when everything came together, like the fruit on a slot machine that gave out the jackpot. They were in the right place, for both Ray and Stash were unhappy outside their city. They were at the right time, for there was no Great Depression like Rico’s youth or war like his adolescence; and they were together to play off against each other. Yes, that was it…everything came together for four special people in a special time and place…but how long would their special time last? He and his restaurant and Ray and his pals were forever…but women never were...
Rico wondered what would happen to them.
Joey would always be Joey, living with his mother.
Stash was the wild card. Would he someday blunder into meeting a nice girl like Peter did, with the girl subtly taking him in hand and guiding him into going her way, or would he become the leader of a new gang of successors?
Ray and Angie? Ray had been married and now was watchful to avoid it, but what if some day…what a couple they’d make! She knew him and understood him, she made him laugh, and vice versa; that was the key to staying together. She’d boss him around seven ways from Sunday and he’d never know what she was going to do next…and he'd love it for the rest of his life…
Author Notes: Happy 50th Reunion, WTHS Class of 1973!