The Stranger

by Ron Russo

Mimi and I were having dinner at a restaurant called Luigino’s. The place came highly recommended by a number of friends. Twice before we’d made a date to eat here, and twice we had to cancel our plans. We were two years out of college and going out to a nice dinner was still a treat.

The waiter took our drink order – Scotch and water for each – and we scanned the menu. I looked up to see a man, laden with shopping bags, being ushered to a table. We made quick eye contact, then I turned my attention back to the menu. Mimi asked what I was going to order, and I suggested that we split an antipasto then each order a main course. My choice was veal scallopini; for Mimi, the grilled veal chop.

The man who’d just entered the restaurant was fussing with his shopping bags, trying to get them in place; they kept falling off the chair. The noise attracted me and once more I looked in his direction. We made eye contact once again and he nodded at me. I nodded back. “Who are you nodding to?” Mimi asked.

“Just some guy who looks like he bought out an entire store. He must have money; the shopping bags are from Alley’s.” Alley’s was an expensive clothing store in Bensonhurst which catered to – – how shall I say this – – a clientele that favored shiny suits in flashy colors. Brooks Brothers it was not.

“Well don’t stare at him,” Mimi said.

We ordered our dinner and a bottle of wine. I couldn’t help sneaking an occasional peek at this bundle-of-energy man. He was in constant motion, fussing the shopping bags, fixing his tie, checking his cuff links, moving his chair farther in or farther out. On one of my peeks we made contact yet again, and he nodded and said “hello.” I returned his greeting then turned my attention back to Mimi. “I knew you’d say hello to this guy. You always attract the crazies.”

The stranger stared at the platter of antipasto as it passed him, on its way to our table: a bounty of cheeses, cured meats and stuffed mushrooms. As I put a forkful into my mouth I once again noticed the man staring. This time he said, “Excuse me, can I axe you a question?” Mimi sighed quietly. “Sure,” I replied.

“Have you kids been here before?”

“No, first time.”

“Cauz if you wuz here before you woulda ordered the clams casino.  They’re the best.”

“Next time I will, thank you” I said. Mimi and I continued to eat and chat.  A few minutes later the waiter was heading to our table with a large platter.  He was bringing the main course before we’ had even finished with the appetizer. “Poor service”, I thought; but it turned out to be a dozen clams casino. 

“Compliments of the gentleman at that table,” the waiter said, pointing.

I raised my glass in a salute and said “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. I hope you and your pretty friend like clams.” This, of course, got Mimi’s attention. She turned, raised her glass and thanked him also. “Salud,” he said.

“That was nice of him,” Mimi said. “I wonder why he’s eating alone?”

The clams casino were indeed delicious, and unusual in that they had slivers of prosciutto mixed into the breading. “Should we send over a drink, Mimi?”

“No, that’ll encourage him even more.”

We turned our attention to the main courses that were arriving and got lost in conversation. As we were finishing our meals, I sneaked another glance at the stranger. His table was filled with plates, which seemed largely untouched. He said, “Look at all this leftover food. It’s a sin. That’s why I hate to eat alone. It’s better when you share a meal.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “Would you like to join us?” I asked.

“I don’t wanna break in on your date,” he said.

 “No, really, it’s not a date, we’re friends. Join us.”

He summoned the waiter who pulled a table up to ours and started transferring the many dishes. “What’s your name? I’m Frankie Gagliardi,” the stranger said and I introduced myself and Mimi. Frankie was probably in his early fifties, thinning hair slicked back, well-fitted shiny suit. “Ya know, the name I go by is Frankie ol’ Pal. That’s because they say I’m everybody’s pal. Too friendly.”

Frankie ol’ Pal? Sounded like a gang nickname. But he was right about being friendly. For the next two hours he talked about himself, politics, family, food – but he also asked about us. By this point he’d ordered, and we’d finished, another bottle of wine. When we told him we lived in Bensonhurst, he was surprised. “Youz ain’t Italian, are you?”

 “Sure are. Mimi was born in Sicily, even.” Now he took Mimi’s hand and kissed it. “I swear, I thought you kids were real Americans, you know how they say, WASPs. I bet you went to college you’re smart, and speak so good. Let’s have a toast. You ever have Grand Marnier?” he asked, pronouncing it “Grand Man-yay”. We hadn’t. Once again the waiter was summoned and Frankie said, “Bring these kids some Grand Man-yay.  Bring the bottle.”

We drank a few rounds then suddenly Frankie looked at his watch and said “I gotta go, I still got some business tonight. My work never ends. But listen:  every Fourth of July I throw a block party on President Street. We have fireworks better than Macy’s. You kids come this year, promise?” Then he put his hand in his pocket, withdrew a business card and handed it to me. “If you ever need work, I could always use a smart young guy like you. I won’t forget.” In a flash, he and his shopping bags were out the door.

Mimi was quite drunk, and I was feeling no pain either. We called for the check and the waiter said, “Already taken care of.” We were delighted, though not surprised.

Next day Mimi was so hungover she took a sick day. I felt fairly wretched myself but made it through the workday. That night I called Mimi.  “Quite an evening we had. I think I got recruited for the Mafia. And I think it’s a better deal than working for the phone company. I’m gonna call him”, I said, only half-joking.

“Don’t be an idiot, Ronnie, you don’t fool around with stuff like this.” Of course, she was right.

Twenty odd years later, one June, I was in downtown Brooklyn and found myself walking along President Street. I saw a group of teenagers hanging out and I asked, “Do they still have the Fourth of July block party?  With fireworks?” They nodded yes. “And does Frankie Gagliardi still live here?” Now they stared at me with interest.

“You mean Frankie ol’ Pal? No, he died a few years ago. Who wants to know?”

“Just an old friend,” I replied, and began walking to the subway, thinking ….

Ron Russo has been taking writing study groups at LP2 for many years. They provide the inspiration for him to put fingers to keyboard.