Can I tell you the story of Tony? It would mean a lot if you would let me.
I spent a lot of years working at a restaurant. 17 to be exact. I have some great memories and I have some bad ones but overall it continues to be a formative period in my life. I made some great friends, learned some valuable skills and I met my wife there. The place is still there, as busy as ever, but I don’t go there as often as I used to. The food sucks, speaking as the former kitchen manager, and is too expensive. Additionally, my soon-to-be ex-wife still works there and I don’t want to go in and deal with all of the uncomfortable conversation. You see, we were a big story, a famous Prince (the name of the restaurant) couple. But there is one thing that I will always go there for, and that is to see my friend Tony. He works part time now, doing small chores to keep busy, He’s retired but he can’t sit still. Yesterday I went in to see him but he wasn’t there. He is in a Hospice…dying of Pancreatic Cancer.
Tony, now 80 years old, is the son of a Sicilian immigrant. He moved here when he was a teen, entered school as a senior, and despite a serious language disadvantage, graduated and joined the Army. His father worked on the docks in Boston and his mother dutifully cared for their modest home. Tony’s father never learned a word of English in his 92 years, his co-workers and his son worked around it. When Tony left the Army, he met a lovely young lady named Linda and he married her. Soon after he responded to a help-wanted ad posted on a little Northern Italian eatery in the town in which he lived. The owner was also an Italian immigrant who was glad to hire him. By the time I met Tony he had busted his ass, and I am understating this, for that man for 20 years.
When I first met Tony, I was a young college drop-out, freshly recovered from a motorcycle accident, hired as a “kitchen hand”. A title which entailed anything from prep-work to scrubbing pots. I hated it, the hours were long, the work was brutal and mind-numbing. I didn’t complain about the work because the after work beer was free and I was in the company of some very hard workers, most of them immigrants with limited English, big hands and bad tempers. They also didn’t speak to me. Tony was the first one. He called me a “slow Irish prick” and told me to “hurry the fuck up.” The fact that I was Scottish and going as fast as I could apparently irrelevant.
I didn’t know what “old school” really was until I started working at Prince. I came to understand their version of it as a rite of initiation. You must pay your dues, earn their respect, become worthy of them including you in conversation. If you are really “in” they will speak English in front of you. The golden ticket was a shot at working on the front line. Serving dinners for the laypeople out there. You must be worthy of their training and you had better be good. Sadly, at that time in my life my only goal was to move up to the line. I got my shot after a year of grunt work. I would be working next to Tony.
After my first few months on the line Tony did loosen up some and talked to me. I learned fast and I worked to his liking. It was if one day he realized I was for real (as a worker, maybe as a person). When that day came, and the curtain fell, I instantly liked him a lot. He was genuine and without pretense. And it was all about respect with him. Apparently, I earned it because before long we were laughing as we worked, enjoying the disapproving looks of the others. I became his protégé, although it felt more like “whipping boy” at times. Every shift we worked we were paired up. We would eventually become great friends but it took a while and several obstacles.
I would come to know Tony as a very nice, often obstinate, family-oriented and honest man. He believed in the American values of hard work, family and prosperity. He was respected at work and at home, but he did a tremendous job of keeping the two separated. His family was off-limits. No jokes about his wife were allowed, and no one who worked with him would ever date his beautiful daughter, or he would absolutely snap. If you could respect that Tony was easy. But there was one other thing, he didn’t like to be called stupid. Ever see Marty McFly when someone called him “chicken”? Yeah, something like that. I crossed that line a few times and the fights were awful. He would go days without talking to me. I hated it.
After 16 years of comraderie, hard work, a few fights and many after work drinks, Tony began to slow down. His age, a growing menu, my increasing skills and speed made it necessary that he and I would change places. I would become shift leader and he would assist me. It wasn’t my idea but I offered to be the one to tell him. To my surprise, he wasn’t upset, He was tired and welcomed the break. He would have been mad if I wasn’t the one given the position and he made that clear. We worked together exclusively until he slowed down further and was relegated to other responsibilities. He would retire soon after, not interested in a supporting role and more interested in enjoying time with his wife. He would stay on and do small jobs such as make salad dressings and take care of the hundreds of plants throughout the 700 seat restaurant. Working the line would never be the same, I missed having to repeat myself constantly. I missed listening to him tell the new help jokes that I had heard a hundred times. I missed having him tell me how I “wasn’t shit” compared to him in his day. He was probably right. Soon after, I found a full- time job in the world of business. My restaurant experience had gotten old.
I would visit Tony frequently at home and at work. I would time it so we could have a drink together and talk about the old day. What we did, who he hated, etc. It was always great to see him. I was really looking forward to having that drink, to update him on recent events, to see how he is feeling after he recently beat the odds (15%) with a bout of Pancreatic Cancer. I had sent him a long note about how much I loved him because he couldn’t have visitors. He called me and tearfully thanked me for the note.
When he recovered I was almost as happy as he was. I had recently heard from my wife that he was doing good for a while and that he was back to work. I now know that he isn’t. No one knows where he is, per his request. I want to see him so bad. I want to tell him again, in case he forgot, how much his friendship meant to me. To reflect on the thousands of conversations we had over the years. The world is losing a great man. What he taught me about hard work, being a simple and honest man, and to make the most of your situation will always be etched on my being.
If I don’t get to see him, I am comfortable that he knows how I feel about him. We’ve pretty much said everything to each other. But I will always be able to visualize him shrugging his shoulders, with his goofy self-effacing smile, saying “After all, It’s just a job.”