The first time I ever heard Etta James was in his restaurant. At the end of a shift, after serving pizzas and pasta and some of the best New York style Italian food that you could ever imagine (in Niceville, Florida of all places), we would put all the chairs on the tables to sweep. Most nights, before I got too far into sweeping, Tom would have Etta James’ song “In the Basement” playing loud on the speakers. He would come, take the broom out of my hands and we would dance like wild, mad, feverish teenagers. Every time he played that song, it was like it was the first time either one of us had ever heard it. I don’t think that floor was ever properly swept.
I waited tables at Tom’s restaurant Tradewinds for so many years, I can’t even remember. I came and went and he took me in every single time I needed some cash. Sometimes I’d hang out for a year. Sometimes just a few months. He always had a place for me, even when he didn’t. He was maybe one of the strongest forces in my life from the time I was 19 until I was 25. Art school, first loves, bad relationships, unplanned pregnancy, college drop out, college graduation, young adult turmoil – he saw me through it all under his bespectacled and “well, of course” gaze. If I think really hard about how the hell I ever learned how to roll with the punches, it was because Tom watched me go through some of my toughest punches and taught me how to take each hit with grace, style, a bottle of wine and a good bowl of pasta. He never pretended to know the answers to anything. But he would listen. And he would fill my wine glass. And he would tell me that life was all about the “obstacles” and that getting back up was the best part of getting knocked down. He was a tough Italian from New York with an unrivaled temper, a great loud laugh, a sloppy kiss on the cheek every time I saw him and I just adored him. I adored his utter flaws and I adored the complete perfections that he maintained. I adored how the principle of the matter was, in fact, all that mattered. I adored how he banned smoking in the restaurant when I was pregnant and literally dragged a man out by his collar for lighting up a cigar in front of me and told him to not come back, ever. I adored how he was impassioned and full of light and fire. I adored him. Just him.
We never actually cooked together. I was a waitress. He taught me about wine and he would let me occasionally poke around in the kitchen. I made bread once or twice at the restaurant because I was teaching myself how at home and he was curious about what I was doing and learning. Had I wanted, he said, I could bake for him. I never did. He knew me only as Lisa Rierson, writer, painter, art student, single mom, wild idea chaser, a “bright eyed dreamer” he would call me. After I moved to Nashville, when I would come down to see my family, I would do my best to go see him and his wife Terry (a life force of a woman) at Tradewinds. We would hug. He would give me the best wet cheek kiss ever invented. He’d show me what was different or new at the restaurant. He would tell me how proud he was of me, every time. We would talk about food in a way that we never had or could before when I was just a kid who had not yet learned I was actually a cook. We were the same in so many ways and there was a connection there that was bigger than I think we even really understood. We honored each other and the impact that we had each had on one another. Above that, we silently acknowledged, just with a gaze, that we were simply just better off for having met each other.
And, tonight, even after having never cooked together in the seventeen years of knowing that man, I prepared his Chicken Principessa and Linguine con Vongole, simply by taste memory. I don’t know if I got it right, it was my fist time making either dish. But, I sat with my son, whom I learned I was pregnant with on the phone in Tom’s restaurant and cried in his office with my head in his chest fourteen and a half years ago, my daughter whom he hugged each and every time as if he were her long lost friend and my husband, who admitted to me tonight that he felt as much like he needed Tom’s approval as my father’s when asking me to marry him, and served them all his food. My son asked, “Why haven’t you ever made this before, Mom?” and I said that I guess I never knew I could. But really, it was because I only wanted it when it was in Tom’s restaurant. It was a homecoming food for a time long passed and when I would go to his place, he would bring me my favorite glass of Sangiovese and my favorite pizza and my favorite Linguine. And that was the only way I wanted it. I told my family over our dinner tonight, albeit through a teary choke, about our stories. I told them about the dancing, the Otis Redding and Etta James albums he would play, the food, the wine, the laughing, the many tears and the sadness I feel for having lost someone who was so much a part of who I am today. Despite the many years and distance, I knew that Tom was always rooting for me. And I was always up here, adoring him for all that he was and remembering all the advice and lessons he would nonchalantly pass on in his take-it-or-leave-it way, like a cigar or a glass of wine he wanted you to try but wasn’t going to force on you.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say that now he is just “up there” rooting for me, but nah. I can’t right now. I’m just sad. I miss my friend. I’m sad that I didn’t get to hug him one last time. I’m sad that there were too many years between our visits and, most especially, since the last time I saw him. I’m sad that my cheek isn’t wet with a sloppy Italian kiss but, instead, with hot tears. I’m just sad.
But damn we ate well tonight. So much of my body feels comforted and healed by that. I suppose my heart will catch up soon enough.