Note: To read Mr. Erich von Neff’s entire piece, go to “Other Work, VI,” or click here
About the Author:
Erich von Neff is a San Francisco Longshoreman. He received his masters degree in philosophy from San Francisco State University and was a graduate research students at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Erich von Neff is well known on the French avant-garde and mainstream literary scenes. he is a member of the Poetes Francais and La Societe des Poetes et Artistes de France.
The author dedicates “Pete’s Cafe” to Dan Durgian of Durigan’s Nursery in Pescadero.
Somewhere Near the Great Khan
In Half Moon Bay
By Erich Viktor von Neff
The Pierce Arrow
The motor of the Pierce Arrow purred. Walt, my grandfather, let it warm up, engaged it in first, and we headed down the old Coast Highway toward Half Moon Bay. It was a beautiful road overlooking the sea. Salty air blew through the open windows. We sucked it into our lungs. We drove by fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts. Broad brimmed hats faced us…occupied by Mexicans, Filipinos, and other farm workers. The Pierce Arrow passed row upon row, field after field of ripe green vegetables.
Our lungs continued to drink in the fecund coastal air. Walt turned off at Half Moon Bay. He drove down Main Street and parked in front of Pete’s Café.
“Buon giorno,�? Pete said in a hearty Italian voice as we entered. “Buon giorno,�? my grandfather replied. They laughed and slapped each other on the back. We found an empty table, amongst the tables of men speaking Tagalog, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. Their voices chiming into one another, clashing, then trailing off.
Pete brought us two bowls of minestrone soup, two Dos Equis beers, Larraburu French bread and butter.
Walt cut off a slice of butter, and dropped it into the soup. He also broke off a piece of French bread which he dipped into the soup from time to time as he ate. I did the same. Was there any better way to eat minestrone soup?
Walt’s keen ears singled out the Tagalog. The language of the Philippines where he had spent most of his adult life and where his son, James, who had been on the Bataan Death March and in Bilibid concentration camp, lay buried.
Pete dug his calloused fingers into my shoulders. “He made a good scavenger, Walter.” Walt nodded in agreement. A scavenger, a longshoreman, these were jobs where you were doing something you could put your back to and feel a damn good sweat rolling down it, then down your balls and legs. At least being a scavenger was real, hd life, though it made your muscles ache and made you smell.
Walt ordered another Dos Equis. We dipped our bread in the soup. We stirred in more butter. Around us other arms raised bottles and soup spoons to their mouths, laughed and swore in languages deeply rooted in terra firma.
“Hey Pete.” Walt asked, “How’s that whorehouse you’re always talking about?” Pete pointed to an old Victorian house down the street. “You go in there you get girls,” he said. “There’s one Portuguese girl in there, she weigh maybe 300 pounds. I tried her last night.”
Pete used to describe the whorehouse down the street like it was still in the twenties or thirties. There were three who had caught Pete’s fancy. The Japanese, the Filipina, the Portuguese. We were an audience of Italian scavengers, farm laborers, Walt, and myself. Pete had given us same act again and again. This time with Walt’s prompting.
Pete stood in the middle of the floor; some of us who had seen his act before and weren’t pay much attention. Pete put his feet together and made little mincing steps, his elbows tucked into his sides, his hands clasping in front of him. He continued his shuffling act, speaking in Japanese. After a few minutes, Pete stopped, looked around, and tried to catch our eyes. A few scavengers looked up from their beers. Pete resumed. “The Filipina prostitute, now she walka like this.” Pete began a pigeon-toed coquettish walk, then he chattered in Tagalog in a falsetto. “Hey, Pete, I’ll have a beer,” one of the scavengers shouted. Pete continued on oblivious, and the scavenger went behind the counter and took a beer then opened it on the Coke machine. “Hey, Pete,” someone shouted, “What about the Portuguese prostitute?” Pete wiped his hands on his apron, “I had her last night so I know pretty good.”
It seemed that every time Walt and I went down to Pete’s Cafe, he said, “The Portuguese prostitute, I had her last night. She weigh maybe three hundred pounds.” I looked across at the old Victorian house Pete had pointed out to us, and I wondered if there really was a Portuguese prostitute in there or if Pete had made her up along with the other prostitutes and put on this act just to amuse us. Of course, could have walked over there and seen for myself, but I never did. I doubt I had the balls to take that Portuguese prostitute on, even if she did exist. I’ll say this about Pete: If she really were there, he could do it, he could take her on, he wouldn’t be intimidated even at three hundred pounds. The same could probably be said of every other man in the place.
“Go on, Pete, the Portuguese prostitute,” someone shouted. Pete had a twinkle in his eye. A couple of guys looked up from their beers. Pete puffed out his cheeks, slouched so his belly pushed against his apron, then he sauntered back and forth like a prostitute parading her wares. He began speaking in staccato Portuguese. That was it. That was the show. The trilogy of the prostitutes. Out of dozens men Pete had had a wavering audience of about eight. Walt and I had seen this act almost every time we had stopped at Pete’s.
I was always amazed that Pete actually spoke Tagalog, Japanese, and Portuguese during his act. Walt had verified the Tagalog and the Japanese. Pete had undoubtedly picked up Portuguese when they used to eat in his restaurant, before they became upwardly mobile, though a few still trickled in. The Japanese, too, had worked on the farms here before World War II. But then, I really didn’t know a lot about Pete’s past life. Other than the fact that he was born in Lucca, Italy, in the 1890s. For all I knew, Pete’s Cafe had been in Half Moon Bay even when the Ocean Shore Railway used to come this way, until the late teens. There was something in me, and just about every other patron of Pete’s Cafe, for that matter, that made me want to believe, with an almost religious fervor, that Pete had always been a restaurateur. And that he had always been single, but had known passing women in the night somewhere….somewhere down the road. I and others clung to this belief tenaciously.
Pete never really talked much about his past life. That was the catch. Some of us just assumed that he had always been there. But, Christ, for all I knew he’d been a pimp, and not just in the whorehouse down the road, but in Chicago or New York. Maybe he’d driven a Duesenberg, and shot people up while rounding corners. Or been a China sailor, or a priest. Yes, maybe he’d been a priest in some nice midwestern town, and said the hell with it and fled to Half Moon Bay where he decided to run a cafe rather than a church. So that he could break bread and hold communion with his flock. What if that were the real story? We were farm laborers, scavengers, a writer and his grandson. Pete’s Cafe was not the only restaurant in Half Moon Bay. We could have eaten at other places. But we would have gone out of them feeling empty and hollow because we would have been…with their formica counters and bland coffee. We knew where nourishment lay, even if we did not always respect its source. Pete’s Cafe breathed of life, of soul.
On the walls in Pete’s Cafe–I’ll always remember them–were faded oil paintings of people sitting around a little restaurant table and drinking, laughing, and playing cards. In later years I saw similar paintings in little cafes in Florence, Italy, and in Milan. And if one of those painters had come in that day, we too, would have been brush strokes painted lightly on the canvas.
The Grape Stomper
The Pierce Arrow pulled up to Pete’s Cafe. Walt turned off its huge headlights that had peered through the morning fog. I walked over to Pete’s Cafe while Walt, my grandfather, walked down Main Street.
“Where’s your grandfather?” Pete asked as I entered.
“He went to buy wine from that Italian guy; the one who stomps grapes with his feet.”
“That guy’s Gino,” Pete said. “His whole family stomps grapes with him.”
“That’s his name alright.”
“How come he doesn’t use a wine press?” I asked.
“You really want to know?”
“Yes, I hear he’s got really good wine, and they say he’s pretty sharp.”
“You think because somebody stomps grapes with their feet they got brains. Anybody can stomp grapes with their feet. President Truman, he could stomp grapes with his feet.”
“I guess so.”
“How did Walt find out about Gino?” Pete asked.
“My grandfather happened to see him in his backyard as he was walking down the street.”
“Your grandfather just happened to see him?”
“Let me tell you that was no accident. Gino planned it that way.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“It’s very easy. He’s got an old fence. It’s partly broken down. It’s even got some boards missing. Right?”
“I know,” I answered.
“So when your grandfather sees him and his wife and kids through the fence, stomping grapes, naturally he gets curious. He walks over; and there just happens to be some boards missing. He asks Gino about the grape stomping. Did he learn that in the old country?”
“Did he?” I questioned.
“Probably. But, anyway, he lays on the accent. He talks about the old country. How he’s got a nice Italian mama.”
“What’s the point?” I asked.
“Eventually your grandfather asks why he’s got no wine press. He says he got enzymes on his feet. You use in wine press like the other Italians and the wine companies, the wine is no good.”
“I’ve heard that’s true,” I said.
“That not exactly how it goes,” Pete went on.
“Listen, the only thing he got on his feet is athlete’s foot.”
“Still he makes good wine,” I said.
“It’s all in your head. People see him stomping the grapes, they think the wine’s gotta be good. That’s what they think. That’s what they taste.”
“I wonder where he gets the grapes,” I asked.
“He gets them from Fonseca’s Grocery Store. Where else?”
“What? I thought Forseca only sold retail.”
“No. He’ll order you anything you want. A ton of grapes, cattle feed, fertilizer….Whatever you want he’ll get it for you.”
“Nice? He’s just trying to make a living. Don’t make him into a saint.”
“I wonder how Gino manages during the winter?” I asked.
“He sells wine. The people keep coming back. Some he’s got in barrels.”
“Does he ever run out?”
“Sure he runs out.”
“Then he buys a barrel of wine from Forseca. What do you expect.”
“He bottles it and resells it.”
“I guess he’s got to keep his customers happy,” I said.
“Sure, he’s gotta keep his customers happy, and he makes them feel good. They got wine from a paesano. The guy with enzymes on his feet.”
“Look here comes my grandfather with the wine,” I said. “Maybe I ought to tell him.”
“No, Gino’s gotta lotta kids. He’s got mouths to feed. He’s not doing any harm. Besides, if he keeps it up, who knows, maybe it’ll cure his athlete’s foot.”
The Scavengers had finished their run. Their truck, its tires almost flattened from the load, was parked in Pete’s parking lot, waiting for the final haul to Brisbane.
Stairs led up to its bin which was cribbed with plywood to accommodate garbage and more garbage. Simple as this device looked it was an art which was passed on from father to son always in Portuguese or Italian, with oaths and abuses when it collapsed and had to be remade.
Joe Lauracella and Vince Carvalho had poured themselves several bottles of Acme beer. Patches of sweat were on their shirts. They spoke to the other customers in Italian and Portuguese, drank beer, and looked out the window.
“What are you looking at?” Pete asked Vince, as he cut up the tomatoes for the minestrone soup.
“Nothing. I was just relaxing, looking toward the ocean. Toward the Farrallones, I guess.”
“Farrallones? That way is Japan.”
“Pinto, he discovered Japan. Remember?”
“No, but I gotta right to look anyway.”
“Pinto?” Joe questioned. “Was he Italian?”
“He was Portuguese,” Pete answered. “I know you’re worried because he wasn’t Italian. Because he wasn’t Genoese.”
“Always Columbus. Hey, he got a map from the Archives of Prince, Henry the Navigator.”
“Don’t worry Marco Polo, he knew about it first. He called it Cipangu, The beautiful.”
“I guess Pinto was looking for gold and spices,” Joe said.
“No, he was looking for Prester John,” Pete replied.
“Yes, Prester John.”
“Who the hell was Prester John?” Vince asked.
“Prester John, he was a Coptic Christian. He had a kingdom, somewhere near the Grand Khan.”
“That’s a bunch of bull.” Joe stated.
“How do you know?” Pete asked.
“I read it in a book somewhere.”
“I see,” said Pte.
“Anyway, Preter John, he had a kingdom….”
“Marco Polo made that up,” Joe said.
“No, he didn’t,” Pete replied. “Marco Polo was at a dinner. Prester John, he invited 30,000 people.”
“Pete’s Cafe greatly enlarged,” Vince joked.”
“I’d make a lot more money than with you guys.”
“We drink plenty of beer.”
“Yeah, but Prester John he had class. He wouldn’t allow you guy’s on his place.”
“Even Prester John needed scavengers.”
“But at high table?” Pete questioned.
“Yeah, at high table. Maybe we should all eat together,” Vince said. “We’re all people aren’t we?”
“So? Some of us say we are. Eat and pay; that’s all I ask.”
“What about the gold and spices? Joe questioned.
“I figured you’d get back to that,” Pete said.
“The Portuguese, they got Macao. With Macao they gotta hand.”
“On the trade between China and Japan; and between them and Portugal.”
“What about the Dutch?” Vince asked. “Didn’t they get Indonesia?”
“Yeah, they got Indonesia. They had to get something. Even the Dutch, they gotta eat.”
“At the table of Prester John?” Joe commented.
“Don’t be sarcastic,” Pete said. “They had ships. They had guns. Besides it was Pedro Cabral* who discovered Brazil.”
“But, it was Columbus, a Genoese, who discovered America,” Joe retorted.
“I told you he got a map from the archives of Prince Henry the Navigator,” Pete reminded him.
“Bull, he was a discoverer. He was a Genoese.”
“Yeah, he was a Genoese alright. He copied a map. Anyway, he was looking for Prester John.”
“For a dinner?”
“No, he wasn’t a freeloader, like when I give you guys a beer on the house.”
“Well, maybe,” Vince said as he started walking toward the door on his way to warm up the truck.”
*On April 22, 1600 the Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral swung wide on his way from Lisbon to Africa, discovering Brazil.
Joe chug-a-lugged his beer, then left ahead of Vince.
“You’re not so smart,” Pete reminded Vince. “Now you’ve gotta pick up the tab.”
“I guess so, but my customers, they gotta pay. There’s a lot of money in garbage.”
“Leftovers from meals. Like with Prester John,” Pete observed.
“And junk we sell to the antique stores.”
“Now I know you’re Genoese.”
“Yet I eat here.”
“But you’re still looking for Prester John.”
“Prester John, he had a kingdom somewhere near the Grand Khan. He had a table he served 30,000 people.”
A Morning Dialogue
Joe Lauricella had finally disengaged himself from warm flesh. We had caroused in the Tenderloin (a red light district in San Francisco) and had just come from Blossom Wong’s whorehouse. We made our way toward Joe’s Chrysler. Joe revved up the engine, and we were off–heading down the Coast Highway towards Pete’s Cafe in Half Moon Bay for coffee and breakfast.
Farm workers were huddled in front of Pete’s Cafe. We joined them. We waited. The thick morning fog rolled in, and we waited. The fog had seeped into freshly plowed fields, had risen, warmed by the earth, and was blown by coastal winds past us toward other fields.
Steer manure had been worked into the earth. Particles of it clung to the tufts of hair in our nostrils. Other particles descended into our lungs.
The soles of dusty boots scraped impatiently against the sidewalk.
“Arriva,” someone shouted.
The aroma of coffee permeated the room. Eager hands turned the spigot. It ran out in a thick black stream into stained coffee mugs that had seen better days.
Husky voices spoke in Portuguese, Spanish, English, and other languages. Voices raspy from cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol. Men sat on hard chairs surrounding tables or stood, clustered in groups. Their movements were calm, unhurried. Some reached into the cooler for a beer, and opened it on the Coke machine.
Pete, the Italian from Lucca, the owner of Pete’s Cafe, turned the sizzling bacon on the grill. It was taken off; eggs were friend on the remained grease.
Calloused hands reached for second and third cups of coffee, and opened more beer on the Coke machine.
Bellies began to fill. The door opened and closed. As, one by one, or in sets of three or four, farm laborers, scavengers, fishermen and others began to leave for work. They walked slowly. Work would be there. Waiting. They left in beat-up pickups with bald tires. Some climbed into the back. The engines roared to life. They consumed cheap leaded regular gas, not supreme.
Pete’s Cafe grew quiet. Joe and I remained. We drank our black coffee, diluting the alcohol in our brains.
Pete took the pot of stock for the minestrone soup out of the refrigerator, and put it on the stove. He scooped up the leftover bits of bacon on the grill with the spatula, then tipped them in the stock.
The flecks of bacon remained on top of the stock. Pete stirred them in with a large wooden spoon.
The door opened. Frank Barrara entered. Pete continued stirring. Frank had recently retired from the Swift Slaughter House in South San Francisco. Frank took a beer out of the cooler, and put a dollar next to the cash register; he sat down next to Pete.
“Hey, Pete,” Frank said, “I heard you’re gonna get married.”
“Larry, he wants me to marry his German mother-in-law,” Pete replied.
“I don’t want to marry his mother-in-law.”
“I’m sixty-six years old. No way do I want to marry his mother-in-law.”
“”She’ll make you happy, Pete,” Frank said.
“NO,” she make me miserable. She yell at me in German. I tell you. She make me miserable.”
“But she’s rich, Pete,” I said. “She’s got a big house in Berlin.”
“I don’t want to live in Berlin. I want to live here in Half Moon Bay. With the Portuguese. With the Italians. With the Mexicans.”
“She’ll keep you warm at night,” Joe suggested.
“She’s too skinny. Hey, I got a nice Portuguese girlfriend. She weigh maybe 300 pounds. I don’t want no skinny German girl. I wanna big Portuguese girl.”
“You’re crazy, Pete,” I said.
“No, I’m not. You are. You like skinny women. You’re crazy. Me, I like a big woman. That’s because, I gotta sense.”
“Sure, Pete, sure,” Joe said.
“Erich’s too much of a wimp to make it with a fat woman,” Joe continued.
“Lay off him,” Pete went on. “He just likes skinny women. That’s all.”
“Pete, have you ever been fat before?” I asked.
“Sure, I’ve been fat before, when I was in the Army.”
“Christ, Pete, that was during World War I. How the hell did you get fat during World War I?”
“That’s easy. I ate a lot.”
“Were you a cook?”
“Then, how in the…”
“I’ll tell you how I did it. The artillery, they always seem to shell us at dinner time. The other soldiers, they run into the bunker. Me, I stayed right there. I ladle myself soup and ate spaghetti. If I die, I die on a full stomach.”
“How come the other soldiers didn’t try that?” Joe asked.
“One did. The artillery began shelling. I had to go to the latrine. Guido, he stayed in the mess. A shell hit him, his bones were covered with spaghetti.”
“You were lucky that time Pete,” I said.
“Lucky? I had better instincts in my bowels. Some people got good instincts, some don’t.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. Me, I got good instincts in my bowels, that’s the best place.”
Frank Barrara spoke up. “Soldiers like cattle. You gotta kill them when they least expect it.”
“Just like in the slaughter house?” Pete asked.
“Sure, just like in the slaughter house,” Frank said.
“Like when a steer first came in the chute, he sniffed around. He was confused for a moment, then he raised his head, just then I hit him on the head with the sledgehammer. I seldom missed.
“You gotta do it then. Just before they known something’s up. A lot of guys hesitated. You can’t hesitate.
“I killed about one hundred and twenty five a day, cows and steers. Sometimes I billed a bull. They took longer. One day I had to kill seven. One broke loose from the chute. He ran out onto the floor. Hans, the big German, kept jumping behind the carcasses hanging on the meat hooks. ‘Mein Gott, Mein Gott,’ Hans kept yelling.
“We finally got the bull back in thechute.
“A few years after that I went to pulling lamb guts. That I didn’t mind so much, but I used to hate it when the Rabbi came by once a week for Kosher killing.
“I had to hold the sheep down while the Rabbi sliced the neck with a big knife. One day a ram turned on me. The Rabbi, he begins yelling at me in Yiddish. ‘Hey you hold him down I yelled back.’
“They let me off Kosher killing after that.”
Pete said, “Yes, I know a lot about sheep. A Mexican girl she come in here the ohter day. She says, ‘You gotta nice place here. You own it yourself?’
“‘Yes, I said.’
‘Maybe you need a girlfriend. Maybe you need a wife. You own a house?’
“‘Sure, I said. I live in the big house just behind the store, I point.’
‘I’ll come by tonight,’ she said.
“Now I fix her pretty good. I get a sheep from Bob Silva, the Portuguese. I put the sheep in my bedroom.
“That night she knock on the door.
‘Hey, what’s that I smell,’ she says.
“‘That’s my girlfriend, I tell her.
“She looks at the sheep. She slam the door.
“I been married twice already. I don’t want a get married again.
“I always got a sheep ready just in case they get anxious.”
“It’s always either the Mexicans or the Portuguese,” Joe said.
“That’s because Spain and Portugal, they always fight,” Pete explained. “So the Pope, Alexander VI, he issued a papal bull dividing the New World from north to south, between Spain and Portugal. Portugal, she got Brazil. They still speak Portuguese there. Spain, she got Mexico. They both got other countries, too.”
“Mexican, Brazilian. They both come from South America. They speak a different languages. We speak different languages here.”
Pete continued stirring the minestrone soup. Particles of unknown origin rose and swirled around the surface, then submerged.
Pete continued. “Here in Half Moon Bay you want to be somebody, you speak Portuguese. ”
We had finished our coffee. Joe got up to leave. I left a dollar on the cash register.
Pete said, “You come back tomorrow. You see the Chamarita, the Pentacost Festival. You come to the barbecue and eat all you want.”
“How much does it cost Pete?” Joe asked.
“It don’t cost nothing. You come you eat. I pay for you already. I gave twenty-five dollars. Each business gave, the farmers they gave steers, pigs.”
“Joe doesn’t go to mass anymore,” I said.
“So? He could even be Jewish. They feed everybody.
We walked outside. Our intestines were full of black coffee. Joe revved up the Chrysler. We began ascending Skyline Ridge. We continued climbing…through coastal fog. Suddenly the fog thinned. Ahead lay switchback after switchback, flanked by cypresses, pines and the coastal ridge. One after the other, the switchbacks receded.
Below lay fields where men were sweating and swearing, hoeing and picking, tending to plowed fields of vegetables. Tasks that seemed endless, mindless. –Until noon when Pete would finally have the minestrone at its apex. The beer would always be cold.
The Slaughter House
“Did you ever work in the slaughter house?” Joe asked Pete.
“Sure I worked in the slaughter house.”
“When?” asked Joe.
“I think it was after the crash of 29.”
“Well, maybe it was before that. I don’t know.”
“I hear you got to drink a glass of blood to be initiated in the slaughter house,” I said.
“That’s a bunch of bull,” Pete stated.
“I heard it many times. It’s hot in the slaughter house; they work you like a dog, so you drink blood to cool off and to give you energy.”
“It must taste horrible.”
“No. It tastes sweet, maybe like thick wine. When you’re thirsty, you’ll drink anything.”
“Like your coffee,” I interjected.
“Don’t be sarcastic. My coffee is good for you. It grows hair on your chest.”
“That’s one side effect.”
“I hear they pay pretty good,” Joe remarked.
“Not that much, but I did alright.”
“You worked a lot of overtime,” I asked.
“I sold a lot of sausages.”
“You worked in a delicatessen?”
“No, I take the intestines and pine nuts. I make blood sausage. I make other kinds of sausages too. I sell them and the tripe, and some I eat for lunch.”
“They had a kitchen for you guys?”
“No, I boil them with my knives.”
“That’s pretty ingenious.”
“Some of the other guys did the same thing. That’s where I got the idea.”
“Did you ever man the sledge?” Joe asked.
“I did it a couple of months. I did’t like it too much.”
“Not a very noble way to die is it?” I remarked.
“You want a noble way to die?”
“I might…I don’t want to die in the gutter.”
“You want to die in battle?”
“It depends on the kind of wound you get. Some wounds you wouldn’t want no matter how noble.”
“Now a bull or a cow they don’t know the difference,” Joe continued.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Pete responded.
“Maybe they should die in the bull ring. Is that what you’re suggesting?” Joe replied.
“Bull fighting disgusts me,” Pete said.
“If you were Spanish,” Joe started to say.
“If I were Spanish, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Where would you be?” I asked.
“I would be living in Sevilla, and my name would be Don Pedro,” Pete responded puffing out his chest.
“Yeah, yeah, but you’re not that kind of guy,” Joe stated flatly.
“How do you know?” Pete said rubbing his hands on his apron. “Have you ever seen me in action?”
“No.” Joe replied wondering what Pete meant by that.
“Well then, basta,” Pete answered.
“Carlos Mendoza and a few of the other Mexicans who had been sitting in the back began to laugh. A couple of them raised their wine glasses.
“You see,” Pete said regarding this as an affirmation.
“I guess. But what about my point?”
“About how to die?…how a bull should die?”
“Belmonte, Doinguin, Urdonez, Manolete, [Spanish bullfighters] …” Carlos spoke up.
“Yes, they know how to live,” Pete said, “But to die?”
“Anyway, for a bull it is different,” Carlos stated emphatically.
“I’ll drink to that,” Frank Barrara said.
“You too,” Pete ordered pushing glasses of red wine in front of Joe and I.
Joe waved his aside. “Here we have some coffee then.” Pete poured Joe a huge mug. Joe inhaled the aroma as he gulped it down.
“Pete, you’re going to kill me,” Joe said.
“You still gotta be initiated,” Pete riddled Joe. “Otherwise, you’re never gonna make it.”
“Bull. These grounds are gonna give me an ulcer. They’re gonna kill me sure.”
[The “Chamarita” is the nickname for the “Festa do Espirito Santo,” the “Festival of the Holy Ghost.”]
From all over they had come. From San Leandro. From Pescadero. From Watsonville. Even from Castroville. They had come in their Knights of Columbus uniforms, brought their bands, their Chamarita queens and their food, and their wine.
Joe Lauracella and I had come. Pete had said, “You come back tomorrow. You see the Chamarita, the Pentacost Festival.”
“I see you arrive for the Chamarita,” Pete said as we walked in the door.”
“We gotta sober up some place,” Joe replied.
“For that you come to the Chamarita?” Pete asked. “Here, have some coffee.”
“Damn, Pete don’t you ever remove the grounds?” Joe exclaimed after he had had a few gulps.
“Why should I? The grounds are good for you.”
“You always get grounds in good coffee. Anyway, why should you complain. They help you sober up.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Pete, when do we eat?” I asked.
“First you gotta see the Chamarita parade, then you eat all you want.”
“Funny I had never heard of the Chamarita before,” Joe said.
“That’s because you’re not Portuguese. You’re Italian like me,” Pete answered.
“So, what’s it all about?” Joe asked.
“The people of the Azores, they had a famine, ” Pete explained.
“Queen Isabella she prayed to the Holy Spirit. She prayed for a ship.”
“The ship came. I came with food.”
“The mystery ship,” Manuel Sousa clarified.
“Probably a Genoese ship,” Joe Lauracella speculated.
“So you don’t believe in miracles?” Pete asked.
“I believe in Genoese merchants,” Joe answered.
“Anyway, afterwards the Queen, she sold her crown.”
“As I said I believe in Genoese merchants,” Joe responded.
“She gave the money to the poor,” Manuel clarified.
“Bull,” Joe said. “She paid the Genoese.”
“Even if she did. Isn’t it just the same? Anyway, they got the food,” Pete justified.
“And so today we eat,” Manuel finished.
“Here have some more coffee,” Pete said as he poured us each another cup.
“What are you trying to do, Pete. Kill us?” Joe asked.
“You want to start the day right, you start it with coffee.”
“Grounds and all?” Joe questioned.
“It all goes together,” Pete explained.
“Not in San Francisco,” Joe responded.
“There you get colored water for your coffee every morning.”
“Alright, alright,” Joe finally relented.
In the distance we could hear the Portuguese national anthem. We looked out the window. Shortly two men in plumed hats walking with a stately gait were followed by a flag bearer with the flag of the Festival of the Holy Ghost, followed by the band, and queens and little queens, all with their trains.
We watched between sips of coffee. The queen from Half Moon Bay carried her sceptor and her crown. [In remembrance of Queen Isabella who had carried her crown to the church.] Other queens came behind her. Little girls dressed in white held their trains.
Finally, the last queen passed. The Portuguese band from Pescadero followed and brought up the end of the parade.
“Now what do the Genoese got to compare to that?” Manuel asked Joe.
“Money,” Joe answered emphatically.
Manuel began to argue. “Can’t you…..”
“Now you get to eat,” Pete interrupted.
I started to get up, to go across the street to the festival grounds.
“Why not stay here,” Pete said. “I’ve got ribs. I’ve got lamb shanks, Pablo cooked them on the grill in the parking lot.”
“I’m not hungry,” Joe answered.
“You don’t need to be hungry. Today you’re supposed to eat.”
Pablo carried in the ribs and lamb shanks on a wooden board. Smoky vapors rose from them.
“See, I told you,” Pete said as he smeared butter on them with the tips of his fingers.
Manuel Sousa ground up the pepper in the mortar with the pestle. Pete sprinkled it on top.
“Eat, celebrate the Chamarita,” he said.
“Sure,” Joe answered. Changing his mind after inhaling the aroma of the smoke from the ribs.
Other customers ate. Portuguese could be heard above the Tagalog, Spanish and Italian.
Joe and I ate, and drank Pete’s coffee.
We strained the grounds through our teeth.
It was shortly after the Chamarita. Joe Lauracella and Pete were arguing as usual.
“So you came from Lucca,” Joe Lauracella said.
“Where else?” Pete answered.
“Is that where you learned to make minestrone soup?”
“Sure, I learned it from my mother and her sisters. And some I figured out myself.”
“Your soup’s gotta different taste. I spent some time in Rome. Now there they gotta kinda minestrone.”
“Rome. Rome. Rome. That’s all a lotta people know. Gladiators, brothels, circuses, orgies….
“Listen. Lucca was a republic before Rome was a republic.”
“How do you know?”
“I learned it in the school. Besides I read a lot.”
“Isn’t that stretching the meaning of ‘republic’?”
Rome had legions in England, Gaul, Spain, Africa….” Joe reminded Pete.
“And, what did Lucca have? Farms, latifundia.”
“Size, power, that’s all you Genoese know. Venice was a republic. Florence was a republic.”
“But that was during the Renaissance,” Joe said. “Anyway, I think the word ‘city-state’ is more appropriate.”
“Listen, a republic could be any time, any place.”
“Yes, here. This cafe. It could be a republic.”
“So now you establish a republic in Pete’s Cafe, here in Half Moon Bay….”
“Not exactly. I’m the emperor here.”
“Sure you don’t like it, you gotta leave.”
“Yeah. You don’t like it here, I throw you out.”
“Come on, you’ve never thrown anybody out.”
“Oh, yeah. Just after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese, he came in here to buy beer and get a minestrone soup. An army sergeant he sits in the corner. He says, ‘Hey, you can’t serve him.’
“I say, ‘He gotta right. he’s an American citizen. He wants beer and a minestrone soup. He got the money. He gonna get a beer and a minestrone soup’.
‘Pearl Harbor,’ the sergeant shouts.
“What’s he got to do with Pearl Harbor. He wants beer and a minestrone soup. You don’t like it, you gotta go.”
Pete cut up some onions for the minestrone soup.
Little Juanita, Pablo Mesina’s daughter, looked at Pete with large brown eyes. She pulled back the wrapper of a Snickers, eyeing Pete as he stirred the minestrone soup. She bit into the Snickers. Chocolate melted on her lips.
“I hear you killed a goat,” Pete said to Pablo.
“I ran over the goat. I crushed the goat with the Caterpillar.”
“You killed Mesquita de Brito’s goat. And now you’re out of work.”
Pete continued, “The Filipinos, they’re good workers. They work all day in the hot sun. They work with the bolo knives. I’m careful. I don’t cross them.”
“Magellan,” Pablo said suddenly.
Pete picked up his train of thought. “Magellan, he was Portuguese. He discovered the Philippines.”
“That’s right,” Pablo said. “We killed Magellan.”
“That was 400 years ago,” Pete said. “You gotta think about tomorrow.”
“The Portuguese are good sailors,” Pete continued.
“Prince Henry the Navigator. He founded the Portuguese Seaborne Empire.
“Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope.
“Vasco da Gama he sailed to India. He sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. He opened up the spice route.”
Pete handed Pablo’s daughter another Snickers. She continued eying Pete.
“You make a mistake.” Pete told Pablo. “You can’t kill the goat. The goat is always going to be with you. You gotta face the sonnabitch. You gotta walsy face the sonnabitch.”
“Even in a republic?” Joe asked.
“Sure, in a republic.”
“Even in Pete’s Cafe?”
“No, I don’t want no goats in here.”
“Call it what you like. I’m the emperor here.”
Manuel Sousa came busting in the door of Pete’s Cafe.
“Set ’em up,” Manuel ordered.
Calloused hands reach in the icebox, opening their beers on the Coke machine.
Manuel sat down at his regular seat.
It was in ’09 when Manuel Sousa had worked as a section hand on the Ocean Shore Railroad. He had laid the tires, hammered in the spikes, repairing a line that in spite of his and other’s efforts was soon to bit the dust.
Manuel had grown up in Watsonville. He had gotten drunk and been blown off in the whorehouse on Bridge Street. Then he had moved on to Half Moon Bay. Where he had worked as a section hand, fired, and worked his way up to engineer. During the Great War he lived in the slime and muck of the trenches. All this happened before Pete’s Cafe existed. Manuel survived to see the demise of the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1920, and then had moved on to the Southern Pacific.
Pete, too, survived. Some say he was booted out of Italy by his first wife. No one knows exactly when or for sure the reasons but at some time after the Great War Pete opened his restaurant in Half Moon Bay.
“You going to pay?” Pete asked.
Manuel pulled out a fifty. “Keep the change,” he said.
Pete stuff the fifty in his pocket. He continued chopping up the bacon for the minestrone soup.
Pete grated the Parmesan, then sprinkled it on the minestrone.
“Don’t put so much in,” Manuel suggested, “You didn’t add that much yesterday.”
“You don’t know about minestrone,” Pete answered sharply. “It’s not the same every day. A lotta times it’s different.”
“In the railroad we got schedules we go by from day to day,” Manuel said.
“That’s why the railroads are going out of business,” Pete replied.
“You go by a schedule, maybe the tomatoes aren’t ripe,” Pete emphasized.
“You’re going to hold up a train for some damn tomatoes.”
“Sure, that way the farmers are happy, and the Italians in North Beach are happy.”
“And the railroad loses money.”
“You gotta keep your customers satisfied,” Pete went on.
“Maybe,” Manuel wondered.
“That’s the way it’s gotta be,” Pete replied.
“A railroad, the Ocean Shore, used to run near here. Every morning the train came,” Pete continued.
“I know,” Manuel said, “We used to pull into Half Moon Bay at 5:30 a.m.”
“I remember one run. I had gotten No. 22. I started on the run out of Tunitas. But the wheels had been flattened by the Irishman who had it before me. Jammed on the brakes I guess. They kept hammering against the rails.”
“Sounds like a song,” Pete said.
“It about drove me crazy. Besides the road foreman chewed my ass out. But they finally figured out who did it.”
“What happened to him,” Pete asked.
“Nothing. They were short of men.”
“Here in Half Moon Bay, we’re never short of men,” Pete answered. “The farmers they always got men enough to do the work.”
“We used to load on Brussels sprouts right down the road, on Railroad Avenue,” Manuel said.
“And tomatoes,” Pete added.
“Sure, and tomatoes.”
“The Italians in North Beach, they always like fresh tomatoes.”
“Yeah, we took on lots of tomatoes.”
“You ruined the tomatoes,” Pete said accusingly.
“That’s ridiculous; they were ten cars back.”
“Tomatoes are very sensitive,” Pete explained.
“No tomato is that sensitive.”
“Oh? Do you cook?”
“No, my wife does the cooking.”
“If you really knew how to cook, you knew you ruined the tomatoes.”
“You made the housewives and the grocerymen in North Beach very unhappy,” Pete added.
“How could they tell?”
“Italian women, they got delicate hands.”
“And the grocerymen?”
“I wonder what happened to the old line?” I asked
“Most of the old line is in the sea. The ocean washed it away,” Pete answered.
“Now you want to send vegetables to North Beach, you hire a truck. No…a lotta trucks.”
“You got something against trucks?” I asked.
“No, but I like a train better. With a train, maybe, you got fifty cars. The cattle, the lumber, the vegetables that are ripe, the people…everything; they all arrive at once.”
“In North Beach?” Manuel questioned.
“Sure, in North Beach….well, maybe, a little ways away,” Pete said.
“Italians must eat a lot,” I stated.
“The Italians always eat a lot,” Pete replied matter of factly.
“So the Ocean Shore Railroad went out of business, because the line was washed away,” I speculated.
“No, not really,” Manuel said.
“The line never did hitch up between Tunitas and Swanton. If it could have gone all the way to Santa Cruz, it would have made it.”
“You think so,” Pete said.
“Yeah,” Manuel answered. “That’s what the audit showed. It would have had more tourists and passed by more farms.”
“The auditors are full of bull,” Pete observed.
“You know something they didn’t turn up.”
“I already told you.”
“About the flattened wheels, and the schedule?”
“That’s right. That’s the reason the railroad went out of business.”
“You heard me.”
“You should have changed engines. You should have adjusted the schedule for the tomatoes.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“But it’s the truth. You make the farmers mad. You make the housewives mad. You make the grocerymen mad.”
“So the farmers, they take the vegetables when they are ready. They take them to the farmer’s market.”
“Verdi, Puccini, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo,….”
“And they were great because they waited till their vegetables were ripe.”
“You’re Portuguese. You get impatient.”
“No, I wait for the tomatoes. I wait for the minestrone.”
Pete ladled Manuel a bowl.
“Maybe you got a point there,” Manuel said after he had swallowed a couple of spoonfuls.
“Sure I got a point. That’s the way it is.”
Manuel looked toward Railroad Avenue, and the coast. Where the waves washed over the ties and spikes.
The flattened wheels. The flattened wheels. It had to be. The flattened wheels.
The Last Six-Day Race*
[ *December 1952]
The six-day bike race had finished. For lap after lap men had circled the steeply banked velodrome in San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium. International teams: Ambrosiano and Ambrosiano, Juner and Schultz, Sousa and Silva, Gatto and Gatto and others had struggled to gain points and lap the field.
In the end the Sicilian team of Ambrosiano and Ambrosiano had won. At one lap, but with the most points [The teams with the most laps wins regardless of points] was the German team, Juner and Schultz. Also at one lap but with less points was the Portuguese team, Sousa and Silva. The other teams trailed though they did better than their placings showed.
The crowd had yelled itself hoarse during the jams and the springs, shelling out good money for sprint primes and jams when laps were taken. Afterward, the board track was dismantled and warehoused. Where it was to remain forgotten, for it was the end of an era though no one knew it then.
The Ambrosiano brothers climbed in their Packard stuffed with bicycles, their wallets bulging with hundred dollar bills. They took the coast route toward their fruit orchards in Santa Clara County.
They stopped at Pete’s Cafe. They locked the car, adjusted their sunglasses, and felt for their wallets.
It was ten o’clock, and most of Pete’s customers had left for work. Some of those who were in between jobs remained.
“I hear you won,” pete said as the Ambrosiano brothers entered the door.
“Yeah, but we still had to split money with some of the other teams.”
“I know that must have hurt,” Pete sympathized.
“Yeah, those things happen,” Guido said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Anyway, here’s for breakfast,” Massimo said, handing Pete a hundred dollar bill. “Spaghetti and meatballs.”
Pete took the money and put it in the cash register without a flicker in his eye as if this were the usual fare.
Guido walked over to the cooler and took out two Lucky Lagers. Pete ground up the pork and put the spaghetti on to boil.
“So now you go back to work on your orchards?” Pete inquired.
“Other guys takes care of that, we mostly manage. We gotta an office.”
Pete patted the meat balls. He put them on the butcher block.
“We need a vacation. Maybe we’ll go back home to Marsala. We might even visit Palermo,” Guido said in a raspy voice.
“Conducting business?” Pete inquired.
“No, we gotta family. We got relatives.”
“Your family was in Marsala a long time,” Pete commented.
“Centuries,” Guido replided.
“Why?” Pete asked.
“They lived there. That’s where they lived. What were they supposed to do? Move to France?”
“That might have been an idea.”
“Well, they wanted to stay in Sicily. They were farmers. They had roots.”
“Now you got roots in Santa Clara. Now you got orchards there,” Pete observed.
“The weather’s good, lotta sunshine,” Massimo repliced.
“Like in Marsala?”
Guido got a couple of more beers while Pete stirred the spaghetti with a wooden spoon.
“You know I got a vision,” Guido announced when he came back.
“You saw the Virgin Mary?” Pete suggested.
“It’s not a religious vision. It’s about money.”
“I figured that, ” Pete said.
“The Santa Clara Valley is jut right for olive trees and grapes. Some of the farmers have sold out to us. Maybe we’ll grow some olive groves and plant some vineyards.
“You made the farmers a nice offer?” Pete questioned.
“Sure we made them a nice offer,” Massimo replied. “I’m Sicilian. You think I got no honor?”
“That’s just my point,” Pete said.
“Well, we got the land. We got the right. We’ll wait a couple of years. Let the farms run down to get the depreciation taxes.”
Pete chopped up the green peppers and the onions and worked them into the ground pork. He put olive oil and fat into the skillet, and cooked them until they were brown. He added the sauce and served it with the hot spaghetti.
“You got something else in the meatballs?” Guido asked.
“Sure. I got something else in the meatballs. I always got something else in what I make. You don’t gotta know everything.”
“They taste almost as good as the ones mama makes,” Massimo said after he had taken a few bites.
“I’m not trying to compete with your mother. Anyway, every Italian’s mother supposedly cooks better than me, but you guys still eat here.”
“So you think you’re going to get all the land you need. What about Ampex? What about Lockheed?”
“Sure they might take a little,” Guido retorted. “The Aerospace and electronics industries are mostly in Southern California. We don’t got to worry about them.”
“Are you sure?” Pete asked.
“Of course, the land is only good for vineyards and olives.”
“Marsala in Santa Clara,” Pete declared. “Maybe you should import some goats and donkeys.”
“We certainly wouldn’t go that far,” Massimo answered.
“What you want is a ‘New Marsala’ with a palace in the middle, a mistress in San Francisco, and a son who becomes Pope.”
“That sounds okay,” Massimo agreed.
“Ampex and Lockheed, the aerospace, and the electronics industry are going to put a stop to your ‘New Marsala’ in Santa Clara.”
“How?” Guido asked.
“I don’t know. I just got a feeling.”
“I gotta vision,” Guido said. “Olive groves and vineyards.”
“Just like in Marsala,” Massimo agreed. “We got the land. We got the right.”
“I gotta vision,” Guido said again.
The Marine Corps Six-by jerked to a stop. The tailgate banged open. The driver, a grizzled gunnery sergeant, sat there chomping a cigar while we jumped off the back.
Suntanned figures stared at us. Were we a reconnaissance patrol? –Reconnoitering? Or were we an assault team coming to ravage and plunder Half Moon Bay?
There were three of us: Don Culp, Kurt von Angel and myself. [Although we did come close, none of us qualified for the Olympic team.]
It was 1956 and we three Marines were among the hopefuls for berths on the Olympic cycling road team. We reached in the back of the six-by for our bicycles.
Suppressed laughter, as if they had expected rifles. We slung our bicycles over our shoulders and began walking toward Pete’s Cafe.
Just then the door opened and I could smell the odor of strong black coffee, and could hear bacon sizzling.
If you want to be a champion cyclist or do well in any other sport for that matter, you need a good Italian restaurant. Our restaurant was Pete’s Cafe in Half Moon Bay, California.
For years, no one knew how long, Pete’s Cafe had been a jumping off place for training rides. By a tradition that had been established in a distant past. Hardly accidental, to be sure, it’ s near the Santa Cruz mountains. The food is good and reasonably priced. Pete is Italian and serves coffee that has a kick in the ass to it. True criteria.
We leaned our bicycles against the faded white wall and entered. Mariachi music played on the jukebox. We poured ourselves coffee. “Pancakes,” Don ordered. Pete ladled out the thick batter. Soon bubbles began to appear. Pete flipped the pancakes.
“How many you want apiece?” Pete asked.
“Four,” Kurt said.
“I make you four,” Pete answered.
He ladled more batter.
The gunny sergeant came in. He reached in the cooler for a beer and sat down at the bar. He smoked his cigar and listened indifferently to mariachi music.
Pete brought our plates. The pancakes were steaming, the butter melting into them. He handed us silverware that looked like it had been swiped from the NCO mess.
Don reached for a pitcher full of molasses. He poured it on his pancakes. Kurt and I did the same. Our forks sliced through four layers. The gunny sergeant looked over at us as if he were about to order some, but turned back and continued drinking his beer.
Pete began slicing up the onions on the butcher block…preparing for the minestrone soup.
Some of the farm workers talked to Pete. When they were well lubricated in the morning, at noon, or after work, they would confess that they had been unfaithful, that they had blown their payrolls, or that their wives were growing old. That they wanted to be something more.
Pete listened. He counseled, in Spanish, in Italian, English, Tagalog, Portuguese, and even Chinese. He spoke to all of us.
We could be something more. Pete had remedies: black coffee, cold beer, minestrone soup, and the whorehouse in the old Victorian next to the grainery.
“Say, Pete, what about that whorehouse you’re always talking about. Is it still operating?” Don asked.
“The Mexican girls are still there. The Filipinia girls are still there. The blondes are still there. The Portuguese girls are still there. Some they weigh, maybe three hundred pounds.”
“Why always three hundred pounds? Pete?” Kurt asked.
“I don’t know,” Pete said. “That’s just how much they weigh. Some of them just weigh that much.”
Three Mexicans and the gunny sergeant sat by themselves at the bar almost as if a chasm existed between the bar and this restaurant area.
The gunny sergeant drank his beer and smoked his cigar. Seemingly indifferent, but listening.
Pete chopped up the bacon for the soup.
“Alfredo Binda,” Pete said Now there was a compionissimo.
“Binda come by in a race. You don’t see nobody. Twenty minutes go by, then maybe you see the group.”
“Sometimes he trained on a track bike, with a fixed gear. You wanna get good. That’s the way you gotta train.”
“Nobody trains that way anymore,” Don explained.
“Then you make a big mistake,” Pete said. “Now Erich he listens. You gotta do it the old way. Just like Alfredo Binda.”
We gulped down our pancakes, listening to mariachi music while the gunny sergeant drank his beer and eyed the old Victorian next to the grainery. He chomped on his cigar.
They were there. They were ready.
We paid and we went outside to our bicycles. We began riding, forming a pace time. We headed down the Old Stage Road, toward Pescadero.
I, for one, followed Pete’s advice. I rode my Durkopp track bike. My track wheels were mounted with wooden rims, which had been used in the 1933 six-day bike race in the Berlin Sports Palace. They had belonged to Cocky O’Brian. And my friend Harry Guidi had shown me his old Six-Day Album, and in it were pictures of Cocky and Betty Davis. I had sweated coming over Old Stage Road. I had sweated right through my Durkopp jersey and it was absorbed by the rims.
That Jersey had been used in the last Berlin six-day race at the Berlin Sports Palace before Adolf Hitler banned six-day racing inside the Reich. I had sweated and my sweat had mingled with other sweat, laywers of it were on that jersey, and it felt good.
Later, after many strenuous miles, we would return.
Pete would be there. The gunny sergeant would be there.
The blondes would be there. The Mexicans, the Filipinas, and the Portuguese.
“Some, they weigh, maybe three hundred pounds.”