A CURIOUS VIEW: HEART AND SOUL…MY FRIEND ANTONIO
Back in the day when I was a student in the theater department at Stony Brook University, Professor Louis Peterson, an award-winning playwright, told us a story about a middle-aged man who worked in the kitchen at the restaurant where Peterson was working as a waiter while struggling desperately to make it as a playwright.
Peterson’s co-worker was a middle-aged, mentally-challenged gentleman. He was a hard worker who frequently was ridiculed by fellow employees and even some customers. Despite the circumstances, the gentleman kept his head down, plowed forward and did a wonderful job.
Decades after leaving the restaurant business, Professor Peterson, who already had become a well-known playwright and an accomplished screenwriter who worked with such notables as Federico Fellini, wrote a play about the middle-aged gentleman from the restaurant.
The play, starring Julie Harris, became a big hit and Professor Peterson won many awards.
In short, the point the professor was trying to get across was that you never know where or who will provide you with the inspiration for a story, and that you shouldn’t discount any of your experiences.
Peterson never expected to write anything about the mentally-challenged man, but nearly a quarter of a century later he did…and it paid off big.
The theme of his story was nothing new. Most writers and artists probably have similar stories…even though I doubt many have been as fortunate as Peterson.
What got me, and remains with me after nearly forty years, is the indifferent, dispassionate tone Peterson used in describing the mentally-challenged character while telling the story.
It was as though he were speaking about a lab rat who had provided him with vital information that he turned into pure magic.
I seriously doubt that is what he truly felt, because if it were, the play never would have been such a critical and commercial success.
Still, I have never been able to erase that impression.
I was not raised to be indifferent, or rude, or to talk down to anybody.
*“And lead me into the night/Please drive away the light
‘Cause I’ve been blinded by glitter and gold/My eyes need to rest from this light
And sleep well at night”
Unless one has worked in a restaurant for a while, one never could know how a restaurant operates, especially a successful one like the Palm Restaurant in West Hollywood.
After working for over twenty-five years at The Palm as a busboy, a waiter, an occasional manager, an off-and-on bartender, with the kitchen staff, doing inventory and payroll, I still cannot say with certainty that I knew all there was to know.
What I can say with certainty is that the most important part…the heart of the operation…is the kitchen.
The preparatory work before lunch, which begins as early as six in the morning, is enough to knock the toughest individuals off-balance and reeling for days.
After five-and-half-hours of ‘prepping,’ you get to work lunch… cook, make salads, and clean dishes at an ungodly pace for three hours.
The Palm was lucky because our kitchen crew, for dinner and lunch, had been together for many years. They worked like a well-oiled machine, and I often thought of them as the very best pit crew working at the Indy 500.
Whereas they were all wonderful, it was Antonio to whom everyone turned when things went awry, like a waiter putting in a wrong order or forgetting to put in a complete order.
“I traveled east and I traveled west/And I found a boy with a heart on his chest
I ran aground my ship left to rust/Yes, I found a guide in the city of lust”
Antonio was medium height, with broad shoulders, and a full set of thick black hair.
He was a good-looking man who always seemed to greet you with a smile…a smile that put you at ease, regardless of the circumstances.
He was a Mexican immigrant who eventually became a United States citizen under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration bill offering legalization for undocumented workers.
Antonio was proud of his children and expected them to succeed and hoped they would never have to work in the restaurant business.
My friend, Ron, and I went to watch Antonio’s sons play baseball and, like any proud father, he cheered enthusiastically when they got a hit or made a great play on the field.
And if they didn’t do so well, he always greeted them with that reassuring smile.
Antonio owned a home in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where I lived. He drove an old truck that looked very out of place in the parking lot of the restaurant next to the army of Mercedes, Porches, Ferraris, and BMWs parked there.
His life wasn’t defined by luxury, but by old-fashioned values.
I often saw Antonio with his children in a beautiful park not far from where we lived. It often brought back memories of my father taking my brothers and me to a park in the Bronx to play on the swings and the monkey bars.
*“To lead me into the night/Oh, please drive away the light
Although my mother will never understand/I walk with him away from the light
And into the night”
Antonio worked the “line” next to our sous chef (our executive chef) and our broiler man.
He was also our Expeditor, the person who puts the orders in their proper place as they came through the computers. He worked the black top, flipping and cooking thinly cut steaks, fish, and poultry. He made sure that every dish that went out was garnished properly so it looked as great as it was going to taste.
On the average, Antonio and our broiler man lost between three and five pounds during each lunch shift.
Antonio also handled sauté when our executive chef was busy doing something else. He was so good at sauté that the company sent him to culinary school. I learned more about cooking from him than any other person.
When our executive chef went to our downtown restaurant, Antonio finally was promoted to executive chef.
The entire waitstaff and the kitchen crew were overjoyed.
Antonio did not have an ego, and he wasn’t the type who would hold up an order because he had a problem with one of the waiters.
He didn’t let such petty nonsense interfere with the job at hand.
With the promotion came added responsibilities, but no one had any doubt he could handle the new demands.
After all, he had been doing everything the executive chef had been doing for years, but the hours were much longer.
Not only was he was working lunch, but also working dinner. In short, he was working double shifts five days a week, and occasionally six.
Sometimes, at the end of the night, I would talk to him when things calmed down.
He would tell me that the long hours were causing problems at home. Then, he would smile and everything seemed as though it would be alright.
About that same time, our once top-notched restaurant went into a downward spiral.
The “experts” back east just wouldn’t leave our restaurant alone.
Even though our location always had been the biggest moneymaker for the company, an outpost…a speakeasy with a distinctive style… they just couldn’t keep their hands off what had worked for two-and-a-half decades.
Naturally, their ideas failed miserably, and when they couldn’t face up to their blunders, they started blaming the management team and Antonio, our incredible executive chef.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Antonio arrived at the restaurant before anyone else, even though we were not open for lunch on Sundays.
This man who had worked so hard, loved his family so much and was so good to his co-workers, sat by his locker, took out a gun, and shot himself in the head.
According to the coroner, Antonio died instantly.
Felipe, a co-worker and a close friend for over twenty-five years discovered his body.
That night, the restaurant closed as a parade of police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance stayed parked in the front and back of the restaurant.
Antonio’s body was carried out the back door and placed in the ambulance.
After each shift, it was through that same back door that Antonio always exited the restaurant.
The entire staff gathered at the restaurant that night.
As we sat around the bar drinking and commiserating, many employees raised the notion that the last person one would expect to kill himself was Antonio.
I couldn’t help feeling, “Isn’t that always the case?”
“Oh you, you, you, it’s got to be you/Oh you, oh you, it’s got to be you
True, true, it’s true it’s got to be you/Oh you, oh you, it’s got to be you
To lead me into the night”
The viewing was held on the following Saturday.
The coffin was closed, but the funeral director, at the urging of family and friends, opened the casket for a few minutes.
Felipe cupped his hands around the face of our friend and wept uncontrollably.
I looked down at Antonio’s face, and I could not help but see a faint smile on the face of this wonderful human being.
“Well I went too far and I came too close/I drove away the first one and now he’s the coast
And I went to drift on a boat made of sand/It was leaking like a sieve but I made it to land”
A few weeks later, a close friend of mine told me that one morning, he went outside to go on his daily run before work.
My friend suddenly was stricken by an unexplained, paralyzing sense of depression.
He cancelled his run and simply figured it would pass, but after 12 years, it was still present as strong as ever.
He had seen numerous doctors who prescribed drug after drug, but none had worked.
My friend continued to work during this entire time.
Ironically, he had an ever-increasing number of call parties at the restaurant…people who refused to sit with anyone but him.
No one suspected the agony he was living with…struggling with…every day.
My friend told me he prayed to God to give him just one more normal year, and after that, he would gladly follow Him into the night.
I listened intently and made a constant effort to touch base with my friend.
I made my friend promise that he wouldn’t do anything drastic without telling me first.
That night, I looked in the mirror and saw the face of my friend looking back at me…the scared, confused, angry, sad face was my own.
Shortly before my breakdown and departure from the Palm Restaurant, I wrote a tribute to Antonio and posted it outside the office.
It made me feel good when my friends at the restaurant informed me that my post was still up there some five years after I left.
And I remembered Antonio’s smile.
“It leads me into the night/He drives away in the light
He makes the darkness seem bright/And walks with me into the night
Away from the light”
*Lyrics from “Lead me into the Night,” sung by the Cardigans (written by Peter Anders Sevensson and Nina Persson)