You’d think by now I’d be used to it. With all the hurt and pain I’ve seen in my long career as a New York City teacher and street counselor, you’d think the stress of constantly having to shell out hundreds of dollars for repairs on an SUV gas-guzzler with black leather seats I shouldn’t had bought in the first place would be something I could easily handle. But there I was again at one of my favorite sanctuaries—-Ettore Pennacchia’s classy “Touch of Venice” restaurant in Cuthchoque, New York, right smack in the middle of Long Island’s plush winery-laden North Fork— for peace and quiet, great cooking, and some old-fashion Italian soul. In fact, talking with Rick the bartender always calmed my brooding, and when Ettore comes out with a sumptuous dish of Gamberi alla Griglia or his expertly-prepared Tagilatelle with fresh shrimps and scallops, my perfect escape is complete.
“Luca, this one’s on me,” Ettore said one day, and I was in second heaven. “When you’re done with your lunch, what d’ya’ say we take a ride. I have some time before I have to man the battle stations again for our dinner guests tonight. The ride might do you good.”
After a delicious lunch and a tasty Tiramisu, Ettore and I headed west boundon Main Street for three miles, passing the Macari and Pelligrini vineyards, the Mattituck-Cutchoque Schools building, and Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. On Love Lane, Ettore made a right and headed straight a hundred meters to the Mattituck train station’s parking lot, where he parked his car, gesturing me to follow. We made our way towards an old small dark-gray building resembling a poorly-wrapped and discarded carton. It seemed to have recently been left behind by the smoky contrails of a run-away train. Across its rooftop and imprinted in its dark front windows, in small lower-cased and uneven letters, appeared a name— “the broken down valise”.
“Hey, where ya’ going, Ettore?” I asked. “This is an old broken-down pub. It’ll tumble down on us any minute.”
As we entered, the old wood door slammed shut behind us with a heavy bang. In the early darkness, I made out tiny beads of light running throughout the pub’s interior and along the full-length of its bar top. Oddly enough, the lights gave a sense of warmth to the little place, as did the thick wooden support planks and beams, usually found in barns and stables where farm animals are often safely sheltered. Funny ornaments like a Casper the ghost look alike doll hanging from the rafters and an old Frank Sinatra photo with a mustache hanging on the side wall added to the peculiar ambiance. Two scruffy, heavily- bearded patrons, seated at the far end of the bar, looked our way and waved like long-time friends. A large wooden sign nailed to the wall above their heads made me chuckle. It read: “beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.”
“Etto-o-o-orrr!” came a loud happy shout from behind the bar, as a cheery, thinly-mustached face suddenly appeared before us, with twinkling eyes, a wide smile, and red-rosy cheeks. “Welcome to the ‘V’, Ett…Welcome to the ‘V’, man!” The two men slammed high fives together, lunging over the bar to hug each other.
“Neeleee!” Ettore shouted. “Good to see you. Hey, this is a friend of mine, Neily. Give’m something to drink, will ya’.”
“Sure thing. What’ll it be?”
“How about a glass of white wine? “ I asked.
“Oops, can’t help ya’ there. Got no wine, man.”
“Well, then, how about a Michelob Ultra?” I replied.
“Coming right up!” Soon Neily returned with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Eh, I think I said a Michelob Ultra…This is a Pabst.”
“Yeah, man. Sorry, but beer’s beer,” Neily said, winking and smiling, and turning to Ettore. “So, what brings you to the ‘V’, man?”
“To see if I can cater your next fund raiser,” answered Ettore. “The food at the last one was for the birds. I doubt they’re ever flying back for the next one…”
Neily gave a heart-felt chuckle as Ettore explained about the fund raisers the bartender organizes in conjunction with some of the North Fork social agencies and churches for some of the patrons of the “broken down valise”, struggling to make ends meet.
Then he said, “go ahead , Neily. Tell’em about some of the patrons who come to the ‘V’. It’s no secret…Tell’em about Takeira and her son … about Eloise and the girls…or even about Chaco and how you found him. Go ahead, tell’ em!”
I looked to Neily questioningly. He had suddenly tensed up and pulled back from the bar where we were seated. He gave a stern stare, appearing stung, but then started with: “well, I guess first you have to understand that those who come to the ‘broken down valise’ are a lot different than the folks you’ll meet at ‘Touch of Venice’…”
So, that afternoon Neily told of Takeira, her schizophrenic son, and how, one day, some three summers ago, they got off the train outside with just the clothes on their backs, two large straw hats on their heads to protect them from the sizzling sun, and a few bucks in their pockets. He told of a one-time, high-class New York City call girl, Eloise, who ran from her rich and domineering relatives, pro-tecting her twin daughters from a heated custody battle with her “well-connected” parents. He even told of how he helped Takeira and Eloise connect with social agencies, churches, and wineries for help in getting them back on their feet and in helping them make ends meet.
When he came to the story of Chaco, Neily paused. Tears filled his eyes. He looked to the floor to clear them, hoping no one would notice. I avoided his gaze, focusing instead on a tarnished aluminum plate bolted to the wall alongside him. It read: “let kindness be your passion.”
Slowly then, Neily told us of a young Mexican teen who, ten years ago, had lost his parents to the brutal Mexican drug cartels, how he had fled, and how he had made his way across the country, working whatever job he could find to earn his keep.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Neily went on: “man, it was about 2 AM on what was probably the coldest night of the year. The wind outside was howling like a sick coyote. Windows were rattling like scared teeth. No one was around. Train hadn’t passed in hours. I decided to close early, and, just as I locked the door, I saw him. A young kid stretched out, face down on the cold, hard concrete, blood and mucous oozing from his nose and mouth. He had on a thin t-shirt, and had wrapped a bath towel around his neck to keep warm. As I turned him over, I sensed a powerful stench of urine all around him. He was alive, so I got him into the ‘V’ and fixed some coffee. We talked all night and, in time, Chaco eventually told me that his lack of urine control, probably had to do with witnessing his parents’ murder back in Mexico.”
I looked at Ettore, who mouthed the words: “all true, all of it.”
Continuing his story, Neily again shook his head, “ya’ know, you’d think I’d have been used to it by then. I mean serving in Nam many years before, I had seen death and all sorts of pain, especially with young guys. But right then and there, and during the next few weeks, Chaco’s story rattled me. I realized I had been still trying to hide from the war, from all the hurt and pain. I was even beginning to sweat the small stuff, just brooding and looking to escape. Well, Chaco woke me up and I got involved helping, instead of brooding. That’s when I hooked up with that old North Fork spirit, and I put together my first fund raiser. Been doing it ever since.”
The ride back to “Touch of Venice” was a quiet one. I was contemplating Neily’s stories and realizing I, too, have been hiding. The repairs on my SUV are nothing compared to what some others have to go through in pain and suffering, let alone in trying to make ends meet. Just when I thought I had seen it all in my work with troubled teens, I learned there was still more to be done, more I could do to help. I’d better stop brooding and trying to escape, and tap into some of that old North Fork spirit.