In the late Summer of 1973, while doing my best Jack Kerouac imitation, I found myself spending a couple weeks in Herndon, Virginia. I’d met some folks my age, and we ended up spending afternoons together, doing the stuff idle teenagers typically do.
One of the guys, Rodger, was a couple years my senior and he could tell some interesting stories. Rodger had never met anyone from Texas, so he really liked me. I might have occasionally exaggerated about the Indians and oil wells but none of my stories could compete with Rodger’s. Following is a story of a New York restaurant in Rodger’s own words.
“I lived in New York City for a while and there were all sorts of folks there — everybody from bums who lived on the street to millionaires who lived in penthouse apartments over by Central Park. There were also eateries of every kind — from church-run soup kitchens, to working men’s delis, to ritzy restaurants. The really hip places were South of the park, down near Tribeca and SOHO.
There was this one place, opened up down on Sixth Avenue, that everybody kept talking about. It was so expensive they didn’t even have prices in the menu. If you had to ask, you didn’t belong there. Nothing but Limos and high-end European sports cars pulled up to that door. None of the dudes, and I mean none, went inside that place without a three-piece suit and a big-ass Rolex. And the women. They wore dresses that cost as much as a car! Believe it or not, the name of the place was “LIFE”, just like that magazine.
Some of us used to sit across the street and watch the valets peel off in those Italian speed wagons after the owners were safe inside. But we never watched long because the NYPD goons got paid extra to keep the riffraff off the street and make those rich cats feel safe. The place didn’t even open up ‘til the sun was goin down but once they opened, the glitterati showed up like bullies on a playground, making sure everyone knew who they were.
The food was rumored to be out of this world and it wasn’t just that frufru crap they serve at most of those uppity places. This was thick, sizzling steaks, and buttery lobsters that were caught the same day. Even the rolls were supposed to be the best in the city, and don’t get me started on the deserts. They had three pages of deserts in their menu!
Like I said, it was seriously exclusive. One Sunday, some snotty-b food critic from the Times complained she had to wait ninety minutes for a table along with all the “unwashed masses”. Ya know what they did? They banned anyone at the New York Times from ever eating there again! That’s the kind of place it was.
So, here’s the deal: late one evening, I’m taking a shortcut through their alley, and there’s this dude standing out back, smoking a Camel. At first, I thought he was a priest or something because he’s dressed in all white, but then, I realize he’s just a cook because he’s got on this blood-stained white apron and one of those stupid smokestack-hats they all wear.
So, I stop and say, “Hey, is this that fancy restaurant?” And he says, “Sure is.” And I asked him about the food and the menu and if they really had three pages of deserts, and if they really didn’t list any prices. And, then he says, “Wanna see for yourself?” and I say, “That ain’t funny,” cause I’m wearing yesterday’s bluejeans and a worn-out flannel shirt and I’m pretty sure this jerk is making fun of me. But I ain’t afraid of nobody so I come back at him with, “Sure pal, let’s give ‘er a look.”
We stepped into the biggest kitchen I ever saw and there’s an army of folks in the same white get-up, racing around, boiling lobsters, grilling steaks, tossin salads, carrying bottles of expensive wine, and dishing up piles of steamin vegetables. And nobody runs into anybody else. It’s like they were all reading each other’s minds. And I say, “Cool man but aren’t you gonna catch Hell for letting me in here?” And he says, “Nope. I run the place.” Now, I know he’s messing with me and I’m gonna call him on it, but he says, “Here, let me prove it. Sit down in the breakroom and I’ll bring you a menu. You can have anything on it for free. It’s on me.”
By now, I’m a hundred percent sure this is a prank but, just in case, I’m gonna run with it because I’ll never get another shot like this. So I sit at this old wooden table and he hands me a menu that looks like one of those fancy books in a rich man’s library, and I’m afraid to open it because my hands are dirty, but he’s urging me to go ahead so what the heck. And sure enough, it’s page after page of descriptions without any prices but I didn’t waste any time with that stuff. I shot straight for those desert pages and there they were – three pages of the most sensuous descriptions I ever read.
I finally decided on a slice of the triple-berry pie with homemade ice cream, and he doesn’t even flinch. He says something to a guy behind him and next thing ya know, I’m staring at a fourth of a hot pie, topped with the richest, most incredible ice cream I ever tasted. I chowed down. The whole time I’m thinking, “This probably has drugs in it and they’re gonna kidnap me and sell me to slave runners or something,” but the pie is just too good to pass up and the ice cream is like a spoonful of Heaven.
So, after the best thirty minutes of my life, I lick the last of the ice cream off the spoon and look up and he says, “You wanna talk?” And I do want to talk because there’s stuff I want to know, like I thought this place was only for those fat cats out front, and how come the menu has no prices, and why is he being so nice to me because I’m a nobody, and I’m seriously sorry about getting my dirty fingerprints on his priceless menu.
Then he tells me, “Those people out front – they aren’t here for what we’re serving. They’re just here to be seen. And, as far as prices, you can’t put a price on the stuff that really counts in Life, and as far as the menu goes, that one’s yours to keep.” Now, by this time, I’m not sure whether to pee myself or jump up and hug the guy, or ask for seconds, but he ends it all by saying, “I’ve got to get back to work but the menu is yours to keep under one condition.”
“Here it comes,” I’m thinking, but he just says, “Read it and then give it to someone you meet down the road. And, while you’re at it, tell them about this place — the back door, not the circus out front.”
And, with that, Rodger pulls out this dog-eared leather menu and hands it to me and says, “Take it back to Texas and read it for yourself, and then, tell other people about that place.”
That menu sits on a small table beside my desk and I’ve read it almost every day for fifty years. If you want it, say the word and I’ll give it to you, but only if you promise to read it cover to cover and then tell someone else what’s inside.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll buy you coffee or lunch so we can talk face-to-face about stuff that matters. Who knows, we might even become friends and build on each others’ experience. Worst case: you get free refreshments.
You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.
— C.S. Lewis
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