When I moved to Manhattan in the mid-seventies things were not expensive, but I was almost always penniless. My wife, a student at Parsons School of Design, worked part-time as a cashier in a supermarket, and I had various jobs in the retail field. I didn’t earn much, so money was tight.
Rents in those days were cheap, however. We had a one-bedroom apartment on Greene Street and University Place, which costs us the princely sum of $300 a month. The down side was that the city was broke and crime was high. One morning, I exited my apartment to find the chalk mark of a body on the sidewalk surrounding a large pool of blood. The streets were pretty grimy and all sorts of weird-looking people lived on them. Washington Square, which we could see from our bedroom window, was the place for drugs. Walking through it was an adventure. “Smokes? Ups? Downs? Acid? Horse?” In summer the park transformed itself into an outdoor theater and we would watch all sorts of performers for free. There were bands and singers and gymnasts and quite a few stand-up comedians trying out their material.
I loved the place.
Every once in a while, budget permitting, we would go out to eat. We had found an Italian restaurant on Grand Street on the edge of little Italy. The food was copious, tasty, and cheap. The only problem was the wine. It was really bad and no matter which bottle I chose, it was lousy. One day, when ordering, I asked the waiter to help choose a wine. I explained that the food was great but the wine we had previously, was just not up to par. He nodded, looked at the list, pointed to one and said,
“Try this one, we get fewer complaints.”
My son Ilan was a line cook in Casa Mono in Manhattan, a tapas place modeled on Barcelona’s Cal Pep restaurant and Pinotxo Bar in La Boqueria food market. Casa Mono was his training ground, and working there gave him the experience to eventually win Top Chef, season 2. A fellow chef asked him if he could put up his cousin Maria, who was visiting New York from Barcelona.
Although his studio apartment on 13th St. was tiny, Ilan agreed and the girl, who was unbelievably beautiful, moved in for a few days and subsequently stayed for quite a few months. Ilan had a girlfriend at the time so no romance occurred but they became fast friends.
A couple of years later, shortly after he won Top Chef, we decided to take Ilan and our daughter Tess on a vacation to Spain. We rented an apartment in Barcelona, and after a few days of eating amazing food and exploring one of my favorite cities, Ilan contacted Maria. She and her family invited us up to Malgrat de Mar on the Costa del Sol for lunch.
Maria’s family was incredibly beautiful—everyone, including her father, looked like a film star. At some point they introduced us to Maria’s sister who they described as, “The pretty one” and boy, was she pretty. The family lived in a cluster of houses near the main square and the grandmother resided in one of them. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but as the family lived next door, one member or another constantly supervised her. The father invited us to join them for lunch in a local restaurant that was their favorite. We all walked—including the grandmother—a couple of blocks to the restaurant. The dining room had wooden beams on the ceiling and white walls with paintings on them. We sat around a large circular table that accommodated all of us. The food was delicious from—the pan con tomate (bread smeared with tomato, olive oil and garlic) to the esqueixada (salted cod salad with tomato and onions), and cargols a la llauna (cooked snails).
The conversation was lively; everyone except the grandmother spoke English. In fact, she didn’t speak at all. She seemed in her own dream world and the only sign of cognizance was her finger occasionally pointing at the wine bottle for a refill. Maria’s father was thrilled that Ilan had accommodated her for so long in New York and couldn’t thank him enough for his generosity. Suddenly, the grandmother lifted her head up, opened her eyes, and looked at us.
She said, “What a beautiful family.”
Looking at my wife, Rita: “What a beautiful woman.”
Then my daughter: “What a lovely girl.”
Then my son: “What a handsome boy.”
Finally she looked at me long and hard. “Not so much!”
She then returned to her food and never said another word.