Rene had just turned 18, and was living on her own in Boston sharing a grimy one bedroom apartment with a mentally unstable roommate, but that’s another story altogether. It was the early 80’s, and although some people might have been benefiting from Reaganomics, Rene and her friends were definitely on the other end of the spectrum. They scraped by to pay a meager rent in the roach infested one-bedroom apartment. Not having much job experience, Rene set out to find herself a restaurant position. Maybe she could work as a waitress or hostess. Even a dishwasher. At this point, anything would do.
Someone recommended she try the North End, where there were plenty of small Italian cafes and restaurants. So, she decided to go check it out on foot. Walking through the quaint neighborhood, she saw a handwritten sign in the window of a small place called Café Pompeii. There were a couple of guys sitting at a small metal table in front, smoking and drinking espresso. They gave her the once over, and she looked down at the ground while walking in. She was very shy and awkward at 18, and extremely self-conscious. She forced herself to stick to the plan. Inside, the place was classic Italian, from the red and white checkered tablecloths, to the counter case with its shelves full of fresh pastries. The cafe also offered some of the best gelato in Boston. She quietly asked the girl at the register if she could apply for a job. The girl told her to have a seat, and she could get her an interview immediately for the waitress position.
Rene felt her heart beat faster, as she flushed with nervousness. Of course she would wait for the interview. She was excited and scared, since she had never actually waited a table in her life. But, she needed a job, and how hard could it be anyway?
A large masculine looking woman sauntered over. She introduced herself in a husky voice. Elena was the house manager. She asked Rene some brief questions about her experience. She seemed to understand that this was to be her first time waitressing, and told her she could have a day of training. She said that the job was pretty simple, and she was sure that Rene would catch on quickly, since she seemed to be such a smart girl. Not like the last girl, who was, according to Elena, a total dimwit.
Elena showed her the menu, and explained the system, pointing up the ceiling where there was a table number correlating with each table on the dining floor. Rene must have had a worried look on her face, because Elena quickly emphasized that after a while, the numbers would become second nature, but until that time, you just needed to look up to make sure you had the right order. Rene was hired to start immediately.
The next day she got up extra early, put on her makeup, along with the requested black pants and top. She hopped on her bike and rode across town, taking side streets to avoid traffic, all the way to the North End. She locked her bike in front of the café, so that she could keep an eye on it. It was her only means of transportation, and she was fearful of ever losing it. Looking up, she noticed storm clouds rolling in. In her excitement about actually making some money, she had forgotten to check the weather report.
As she entered the café, the place was buzzing. There were already customers at tables, most of them men. Loud conversations overlapped. Mostly in Italian. Elena motioned her to hurry up and put her backpack behind the counter, since they were already backed up. As Elena briskly pushed by Rene, she told her go take an order from table #6. Panicking for a moment, she looked up to the ceiling to find the number #6 table location. She looked down to find a table shared by two older Italian men. They gave her the eye and smiled as she walked over. Caio bella, che carina. They chit chatted, but she had no clue what they were saying. They seemed to be ordering, but she still didn’t understand. They asked for “doo caltz” and she had no idea what this meant. Just as they were starting to get annoyed, Elena intercepted with a quick offering of fresh bread, and grabbed the order form to scribble down 2 calzones. Rene tried to breathe and just focus. Elena barked at her to get to table #3. She had to look up again to the ceiling, and as she searched for table #3, Elena yelled at her to follow-up with table #6, then go give bread to table #9. Rene started getting flustered. She felt dizzy from looking up and down. The place was loud and customers were glaring at her. Mostly men, with the occasional younger woman. One of the men started calling her stupid in Italian “stupida”…this she could understand. She felt the tears welling up in her eyes. No, no she didn’t want to cry! Her face turned red as she walked over to the counter to compose herself.
She sniffed, and looked up to see a tall dark-haired, handsome man standing behind the counter reaching for her hand. He told her he wanted to talk to her and she needed to follow him. His name was Arturo. He was the owner’s son. As she walked with him, he told her he knew that the first day would be hard, it always was. He led her by the hand through the small café, past the mural of Naples on the wall, to the far left side, where just below the painting of Mount Vesuvius, was a door. He opened the door, waited for her to go in front of him, then slammed it shut and locked it. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. She looked around a dark large room painted black. There were two pool tables where a few young men were arguing over whose turn it was. The air was laden with smoke and smelled musty. There was music playing from a juke box in the corner, and a few guys sat around on leather sofas deep in conversation. She couldn’t understand a word, since it was all in Italian. Arturo led her through this room. As they walked through, 2 large dobermanns ran around them once, pausing momentarily to sniff her leg, and continuing their rounds. Arturo opened another door, this time he entered first. She looked inside to see a large 1960s painting of a naked woman on the wall. The woman had a huge blonde bouffant hair-do and was barely covered with a fur wrap. She forced a come hither stare under baby blue lids, along with her parted hot pink lips.
As her eyes shifted down from the painting, she saw an older man with thick grey hair and a mustache, easily over 70, seated at a large elaborately carved wooden desk. He smiled at her and told them to come in. He dismissed Arturo with a hand gesture, and Rene felt a twinge of fear come over her, as she was left alone with this stranger. His name was Joe. He told her to come over to sit by him. She obliged. He pulled her close to him on a chair and put his arm around her in a fatherly way. He proceeded to tell her that if she wanted to stay here, she would want for nothing. If she ever had a problem, he would take care of it. If she needed any money, all she had to do was ask. He offered her full protection. She was really not sure how this all happened so fast, since she had been such an epic failure as a waitress. But, he seemed sincere and very convincing that she was worth it to him.
She got quiet, and really didn’t know what to say. She was young 18. Naive. Maybe another girl would have jumped at this opportunity, but Rene felt uncomfortable with it. He told her to think about it and let him know. She said ok. He pressed a 100 dollar bill into her hand and closed her fingers around it. He then picked up his phone and called Arturo, who reappeared to take her back to the restaurant. By this time, it was getting late. She continued to try to wait tables, and actually began to get the hang of it. The kitchen staff began to leave, since the place was closing now. Elena told her she just needed to help reset the tables for the next day. As she set up the last table, she realized that everyone had left, and she was suddenly all alone in the dining area. She could hear the rain coming down and she looked out to see her bike being pelted with raindrops. The street looked black and slick.
Music was still playing. It was classic Italian romantic music, which she hadn’t really noticed until after the crowd had died down. The soft mandolin and vocals were a relief to her ears. Her mind drifted as she laid down the last utensils and straightened the tablecloths.
Finally, it was time to go. She took her backpack from behind the front counter, and set it on a chair. Pulling out a rumpled jacket, she put it on. As she brushed her long hair into a ponytail, she heard the back door opening. A man cleared his throat and she looked up to see Joe heading in her direction. Tesora? Where you go? Why was she leaving him, he wanted to know. She told him she needed to ride her bike home, and it was getting late. He was carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses. He told her he wanted her to stay and have a toast with him. She started to feel trapped. No, she said, she had to go. He insisted and came closer to her. He touched her arm and told her he needed her to stay. She reached for the door, and looked out into the rainstorm. He asked her why she was going to leave him. He just wanted to spend time together. Something propelled her to rush out the door to her bike. He stood in the doorway, watching her fumble with her bike lock. The rain was torrential, and within minutes, she was drenched. Wiping the water from her face, she pulled up the hood of her jacket, awkwardly glanced at Joe, then hopped onto the bike and rode away in the downpour into the dark streets of Boston.
Occasionally, Rene looks back at that moment as a missed opportunity, but ultimately, she knows in her heart that she probably dodged a bullet.