Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ninth Avenue Dining Club

Recently, right after a decent Hell's Kitchen lunch with a cousin, I stopped by the fish market to get some, well, fish. For my mom. Lulu and the Doc weren't there, but Dominic and Tony were both working, as were a few other guys I'd seen but not often. I was telling one of them what I wanted when Dominic called to me.

"Hey, come over here," he smiled, his head inclined.

I felt very "Who, me?" as I excused myself from the younger fishmonger to talk to the paterfamilias of the fish market. He was standing at the top of a flight of stairs.

"I want to invite you to have lunch with us," he said, touching my arm with one hand and gesturing below decks with the other. "We're eating downstairs. Are you hungry?"

I wasn't, but who cares? "Thank you, that sounds great. I'd love to join you."

In the low-ceilinged basement, darkness shrouds the farthest reaches and the walls are covered with shelves, boxes, tools, equipment, pails, stoves, refrigerators, and a riot of other dusty things. It looks like my old garage. But in the center of the room, gathered around a long wide well-lit table, sat half a dozen people talking, eating, and drinking. Dominic indicated an empty spot at the near end and showed me where to get my "tablecloth" -- a 3x4 sheet of paper. As he shuffled over to the stove, the woman next to my place pointed out a jumbo box of plastic forks. I approached the stove, fork in hand, and Dominic pulled a tray of roasted tuna belly from the oven. He spatulaed a browned slice onto my plate and filled the rest with spaghetti and tomato sauce from a giant pot on the stove.

"Who's the chef?" I asked.


"Dominic, thank you for inviting me. I would have brought a bottle of wine if I'd known..."

"No, no, don't worry about it. Enjoy yourself!"

I sat down, and the woman next to me introduced herself and her husband.

"How'd you guys get invited?

"We just live in the area and come here a lot. Dominic does this every [week on this day] at 1."

"So you're regulars."

"Every week when we can."

He filled our glasses from a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi Paisano Red, and she handed me a light, crispy hand-rolled breadstick (from Trio French Bakery on Ninth). We spoke while he kept up with the table's main conversation. She's a translator-interpreter -- mostly corporate stuff, but her favorite recent jobs were a movie junket and a gig at Jack Welch's house -- and he paints large geometric abstractions.

The fish was perfectly done, a little overdone but chewy and substantial, impervious to an extra few minutes in the oven. Readers with recall will recall that's the fish Dominic was taking home the last time I'd seen him. Now I know why.

A steady dripping noise came from nowhere and everywhere, echoing the ice machine upstairs, where thin white chips fall ceaselessly into a hopper all day. Across the room, three massive cast iron stove burners stood against the wall, at the bottom of the steps leading up to the sidewalk. At the top of those stairs, a thin "H" of sunlight shone between the steel cellar doors.

"My mom would love this," I said to my neighbor. "She used to come here all the time."

"Ask Dominic for some to go."

When I was done, I did, explaining , "She's been coming here for ten years -- she told me about this place."

"Sure -- but let's do it now, before it's all gone. Get one of those cartons." He filled it with tuna and pasta, and then excused himself. "I have to go upstairs and work. But come back any week -- [today] from 1 to 1:30 you're always welcome. But don't come at 5, because there won't be anything left!"

The party was breaking up. The friendly couple to my left were also standing and getting ready to go. "Is your studio near here?" I asked.

"Yes, I've been there for 15 years. Next time you come, I'll take you there after lunch."

As I washed my plate with a fistful of steel wool, his wife was talking about sea salt with the last straggler, an olive-skinned middle-aged woman who said she likes Argentinean salt best. She brings it back with her whenever she goes home.

I chimed in to blather briefly about how great my visit to Argentina was, and the salt-importer lit up. Then the interpreter complimented her necklace, a chunky affair of silver and semi-precious stones.

"It is from Syria! These stones are amber."

Uh-oh, I thought. Then the couple said goodbye, till next week, and went upstairs, leaving me alone with the amber salt woman.

"And where are you from?"

"Los Angeles."

"Before that."

"I was born in New York."

"No, I mean your people, before that."

"My father is from Israel."

"From Israel!" Her features grew sharp as she leaned in and asked, "And what do you think of what they are doing to Lebanon?"

I paused. I paused some more. I've been discussing this issue with American friends all week, and they usually don't know much, or they invoke unreliable, easily dismissed sources like Alexander Cockburn. But I hadn't engaged on the topic with someone so vested on the other side. So we began. It turns out she's originally from Lebanon.

After a few adrenalin-flooded minutes of banging our heads together and barely even addressing facts -- though she did go far enough off-topic to assert that the Armenians may have deserved their genocide -- we agreed never to discuss these issues again at Dominic's lunch table.

"I don't even like to talk politics," she said.

"Then why did you ask what I thought?"

"I thought you were Italian!"

Wouldn't that be easy.

Upstairs, the Lebanese-Argentinean and I bade each other cordial goodbyes, and I bought some fish for my mom.

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