Waiting Tables for the Mafia

Until I moved to London and worked for them, the Mafia, to me, was rhetorical—the stuff of movies and marketing.  It was 2006, and my then-wife and I moved to a North London neighborhood so she could get her Masters in Theatre at a school called Mountview.  We ended up in a neighborhood called Crouch End.  It was up and coming at the time, with the feeling that it had been up before and remembered its coolness even if it wasn’t immediately apparent to those of us who rode the bus over Crouch Hill from the Finsbury Park station.  I heard that Bob Dylan had a house there and I once saw the red-haired guy from Harry Potter and I sometimes tried to steal Andy Serkis’ wireless, but those barely-glimpsed luminaries aside, Crouch End felt like a musically-talented middle child: ignored, and kinda pissed about it.

            My ex went to school about twelve hours a day, and although I had a degree and had published some stories, I’d been making my living as a waiter and chef and sometimes-bartender back in Los Angeles, so when we got to London those were the jobs I looked for.  After a short stint at the Strand Palace Hotel, I ended up at a place a few blocks from our apartment, called Florian’s.

            (The scene: We lived up Crouch Hill Road, middle in a line of Victorians subdivided into very small apartments—so small that, although we rarely saw our neighbors, we knew them pretty intimately.  Immediately next to us on our floor was a couple that fried fish every day, smoked like chimneys, and argued only in whispers.  Down the hill was Crouch End proper, a clock tower dead center in it, surrounded by green grocers and fashionable bars and a Kentucky Fried Chicken {and farther down a side street a K Fry knock off called Texas Fried Chicken or something}.  Florian’s was around the corner from the clock tower, across from a bar/restaurant called Monkey Nuts.  Yelp lists it now as closed, and the one review I could find wasn’t good—it’s one star, and says that the servers gave nasty looks to the reviewer because his mum was drunk on her birthday.  At the time, though, Florian’s seemed very cool.  Its windows opened out onto the sidewalk, and lawyers and stars of the soap East Enders gathered there to drink, and Terry Gilliam and Shane McGowan were both regulars.)

               I was happy to get the job at Florian’s, and after a couple shifts I became friends with a Polish guy who had studied Medieval architecture back in Poland.  Saying that he had focused on any one subject, though, is wrong: He had read everything.  During slow lunches we would stand by the bar and look out at Crouch End.  On a sunny day it was clogged with prams or the old-neighborhood wide boys, the fellas out to scam a drink or anything else of about that value.  On rainy days the narrow roads were reflective enough that one could see headlights doubled and clinging in the shimmering wetness, and every building and wetted wide boy was standing atop a duplicate of it/himself.  The Polish guy’s passion was sacred space.  To fill the time during these slow lunches, he talked about ancient woods and the mysteries that people encountered in them millennia upon millennia ago, and how those woods were now gone, and in their place were Gothic cathedrals, and where the altar sat—yes, that was the site of the ancient mystery.  Every sacred space, the Polish guy taught me, is ripped off from someone who came before.    

            These impromptu lectures, which also covered human sacrifice and martial arts and Communism and the labyrinth of mirrors that is American culture, were my favorite thing about bartending at Florian’s. 

            My least favorite thing was that, as bartender, I inherited a part in a hierarchy that I didn’t know about.  It was only obvious from the way others treated me.  The wide boys, say, these Crouch End lifers that moved in a cross between slouching and dancing—when they weren’t trying to cheat me out of a drink, they treated me with reverence.  And although they were never around when the owner—the guv, they called him—was around, they always asked me to say hi to him.  (The owner—name omitted—was on the decaying end of a Travoltian ascendancy: In pictures from the nineties his shirt stretched over large, hard arms, and he had flowing, curly black hair, and he smoked Marlboro Lights, and, when speaking, held his hands in a diamond shape in front of his crotch.  When I met him, he still had big arms, but also a large stomach and rattling breath and chased cocaine with cigarettes and booze.  One day, deep in my time at Florian’s, when I wanted nothing more than to go home, I remember thinking of the owner as a bull, and imagining that, as sometimes happens in myths, he wandered across a perfect human skin hanging from a tree branch, and he stole it, and put it on.  That was him—a bull in a very nice man suit.) 

The Bull had friends. They were other large Sicilian guys, most of them very nice, if a bit rough.  There was the guy who delivered wine and had the blossoms on either side of his nose of someone who used a lot of coke.  There was the hairdresser who did (had done?) so many drugs that he only ever said one thing to me: “Ya oll’roight?”, that being the London version of what’s up.  There were a couple hard Irishmen and central Europeans.  But the person that broke the spell for me was one of The Bull’s friends who used to storm into the bar, usually when I was slammed with other tables, and shout an order at me as he walked through—not making eye contact, not acknowledging me at all except to shout his order.  It made me mad, and one day, I decided not to bring him the bottle of wine he had called for.

“What are you doing, man?” My Polish friend asked. 

“Fuck him,” I said.  “If he wants something from me, he needs to learn how to treat people.”

My Polish friend put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. 

“This guy,” he said, “is in the Mafia.  You should bring him the wine.”

I shook my head.

“You think I’m scared?  I could take that guy.”

My Polish friend got very serious.

“He is not the one who would come for you.”

That shook me a little.  My Polish friend, besides being an expert in things I didn’t know existed until I met him, wasn’t scared of anyone.  And indeed I met The One Who Would Come for You a couple months later.  It was about one in the morning and we were about to close.  A guy knocked on the front door, and I went out to tell him that we were closed.  Before I could he closed the distance between us and from about half an inch away told me that he knew the guv, and that he was coming in, like it or not.

He had the tranquility of someone who knew he could hurt you, but for the moment was choosing not to.  I remember also that his breath smelled very good.

I let him in.  He hung out and was menacing but didn’t drink at all, or even talk.  I saw him a few more times over the next year.  By far the most uncomfortable time I spent with him was one day that I went in to the bathroom and he ended up using the urinal next to me.  This being an English bathroom on the first floor of what was once a Victorian tenement, as we stood at the urinals, our shoulders were touching.  We were that close. I could feel the rigidity and heat of the muscles in his shoulder as he spoke to me.

It was more of a speech than a conversation.  You can’t let people own you, he told me.  Every day they’ll take more and more of you, and finally, in the end, you’ll be someone else’s, body and soul.  Kay, I answered, and zipped up, and casually left the room. 

Besides The One Who Would Come for You (and I sometimes imagined him doing it, showing up in the trash-filled garden of my apartment, bald head shining in the moonlight) the Mafia-ness of Florian’s was pretty easy to forget.  Mostly I was supposed to know who was important, and serve them first.  The trick is that because they were important, they didn’t have to tell me that they were, I just had to figure it out.  That made my first few months a pretty tense time.  But once I knew what the pecking order was I began to enjoy the job, or at least to not enjoy it in a way that I didn’t enjoy any restaurant work: that is, it wasn’t about the Mafia anymore.  It was waiting tables, and being paid too little to do it. 

Sometimes wide boy types or hard-faced Irishmen delivered bags to the bar and I held them for The Bull.  Sometimes we took delivery of wine or food that seemed like it belonged to someone else.  Once I heard the man who had shouted for the wine that day telling another man that he’d bury him by a road—and, I knew, meaning it.  And I spent a lot of time keeping men and their mistresses away from their wives, who might appear at Florian’s unannounced.  I snuck drunk dudes out of back doors, told their wives that they were still at work.  It wasn’t the right thing to do, but some very draconian version of a bro code was part of the job.  Everyone expected that I’d help these guys keep their affairs secret.

Beyond that, I came to enjoy the middling authority I had.  Florian’s was unlike any customer service job I’d ever had.  I was nice to normal customers, and almost all of them were normal.  But the wide boy hangers-on, the half-assed dealers of pharmaceuticals or stolen phones or untaxed cigarettes, the people who came to Florian’s to look cool and seem important, I could treat them any way I wanted.  One night a guy left me 37 pence as a tip.  If that had happened at the Macaroni Grille, where I’d worked in LA, I’d have taken it and hoped it was a mistake.  But at Florian’s I went back to the man’s table and slammed it in front of him and told him to keep his bullshit tip.  When his friend got mad and stood up, the Polish guy had to pull us apart.  And then we kicked them all out.

They came to like me after awhile, although I think most of the Sicilian guys (and most certainly The Bull) saw me as naïve and privileged.  I was, too.  The Bull and his friends had done things to keep alive, to keep their families alive, that I’d never had to face.  To hear them talk about home was to hear them recount near misses and hard circumstances.  (Writing about it now, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a waiter I was working with at The Strand Palace Hotel, just before I took the job a Florian’s.  This waiter was Parisian, and during a break, he told me that he loved American crime movies and gangster rap.  After admitting this he smiled in this very subtle, almost secret way, and asked me if poverty and violence really existed like that in America.  It’s all for the movies, right?  I told him that it did exist, and the smile didn’t go anywhere.  He didn’t believe me.  That made me angry, but I could admit that I wasn’t very different.  Before I went to Paris, and in the middle of a long day of sightseeing, saw a man stabbed on a train, I thought of Paris as the Eiffel Tower, as poetry, as philosophical traditions that were a hundred years old and that I didn’t know very well but idealized anyway, as croissants and coffee.  In short, I wasn’t any better than he was.)   Before long, even though I knew that Florian’s was dangerous, I saw the Mafia guys as friends very much like the ones that I grew up with.  The main difference is that they were willing to do illegal things for each other. 

My last month at Florian’s the World Cup was on.  The Italian side ended up in the final match.  Florian’s went absolutely insane on the day of the game.  I worked the floor, taking drink orders and walking full trays out into the crowd.  It was almost all Italian, and everyone was joyous.  The energy was like nothing I’d ever felt.  There was laughing and crying in the crowd, and people politely parted so I could get through with my tray of drinks and then kissed my head and goosed me as I passed.  The Bull had purchased an expensive TV just for the game (and returned it to the store the day after).  But that day people started buying champagne ten minutes before the game ended, and when the final shootout went Italy’s way, the whole place exploded.  A wave of champagne hit us, and the crowd rushed outside and turned a car over.  I stood in the empty restaurant, smoking, for the moment blocking out the enormity of the clean-up job I’d have to do before I left that night, and watched.  The car was on its side and the person behind the wheel seemed to be crying.  The Bull, standing on the sidewalk and looking at the whole scene, yelled at the crowd, and they shuffled their way to the car, still smiling, and gently set it back on its tires.