Of all the revolutions, wars, and diseases that had circulated the world by the October of 1920, food poisoning was the last thing Victor Reaver would have expected to finally nail his coffin. And of all the recesses in the world, the last place on Earth where he would have anticipated contracting such a dreadful bout of stomach flu was in his hometown of Jackson Heights, Queens. The restaurant in question: well, he didn’t know, for he had visited a couple over that late-October weekend, having been a local food critic reviewing the seven best eateries in the neighbourhood.
Out of twelve months of the year, the critic only allotted one annual visit to Jackson Heights, which amounted to a random weekend either at the start or end of the calendar. This spontaneous inoculation of criticism from one of the most revered names in the New York culinary business had been a practice with the Jackson Heights community for almost three decades. And not yet had Mr. Reaver ever found himself in a sorry predicament like he did in 1920.
As tradition went, he visited the first three on Saturday – for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner – and the next four on Sunday – for either breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a spectacular dessert – keeping the owners on their toes and having to be ready to prepare for any meal of the day, given the time he chose to appear on their doorstep. Each of the restaurants had a separate menu listing the four core courses they specifically promoted for the critic to indulge. These were ideally selected and usually classic, well-received meals among regular customers, awaiting his surveyal at a moment’s notice. By rule of thumb, these polished items had to be picture perfect set meals, which outlawed last minute readjustments to recipes or experimentation with ingredients, and thus made the off-chance of a food-related illnesses extremely rare – no, an impossibility!
Typically, such complacency with the four statutory courses themselves left only the standard of service subject to the surveyor’s unpredictable review. The employees tended to be on their fondest behaviour when the food critic was in town. He was friendly to them and never demanded more than they expected from him, a simple, principled sixty-eight-year-old man with a prodigious skill for taste. Mr. Reaver came to do his job and left with a satisfied belly on most occasions, usually glowing a smile on his face too beneath the signature tipping of his hat as he walked out the door. He duplicated the same classic gentlemanly gestures during all his visits, which was indiscriminate of the food that he was served or quality of the service he endured, in order to artfully conceal his variant opinions.
Each of the seven restaurants that made his list each year almost always received an objectively fair and complimentary paper review from the critic’s column in the New York Times the following week. The owners, chefs, waiters and waitress all wanted to see Mr. Reaver happy—and why wouldn’t they? There were only ever two rival owners on 37th Avenue who objectively differentiated themselves from this communal cause, and their businesses had been historically known for getting into a feud or two over food. However, these issues had never got completely out of hand. At least, not until the 31st October 1920…
A century later…
The Williamsburg Bridge was aged a hundred years older and the only time Vince Simmonds crossed it to get from Manhattan to Long Island was to take his grandmother to dinner there. She lived in a retirement home in Brooklyn, three days a week, which was all he and his cousin could really afford to upkeep. He was still sitting on the dregs of his student’s salary. An essential trip to Madrid in the summer of 2019 had financially set him back to where he was when enjoying the nuances at the start of culinary school. Over in Europe, he’d learnt the necessities of authentic Spanish cuisine and returned to a part-time placement as a prep cook at a tapas joint in Nolita. Vince was already receiving successive offers from every other restaurant in Lower Manhattan, just days after his second week on the job. It was a role he had become such a jewel at that even his grandmother was telling him he was “too invaluable for their billing”.
All his efforts to succeed at his passion derived from a respect and a testament to his grandmother. He and his cousin had been soliciting their grandmother’s wellbeing collectively, in legacy of their parents who had died in a ship capsizing near the Alcatrazes Archipelago, during a joint-anniversary cruise off the coast of São Paolo. In the wake of this disaster, Vince grew out of his teens desensitised to the qualms of responsibility and hard work. Moreover, it was his Grandma Simmonds who had helped him to recover from his grieving by first teaching him to cook as a young adult, so he owed this much to her. His toughest decision was not the three-year slog through cook school, it was funnelling a lonely old widow who had given him so much to live for, into a cold, deadbeat hostel for what remained of the epilogue to her existence.
Grandma Simmonds spent her three days a week at McCarren Park Retirement Home looking forward to dreary board game nights, frosty interactions with the staff, and dull carpools to church with the other vapid retirees. So, it was a far cry from the premium care experience she had been promised when Vince went off to college. The rest of the time, she was either lodging with Vince in Lower Manhattan (during his leave over the holidays), or offloaded by her care workers to go and spend the remainder of the week with her eldest granddaughter, Theresa, and her two great-grandkids, Kesh and Tyrone.
Theresa worked as a beautician at a VitaGen clinic in East Manhattan. Her shifts had been nonstop over the last three years, since she still had to feed her kids while cutting a share to help pay off her grandmother’s social-care bill at the same time. The whole retirement home situation had only been arranged so that Vince could go to chef school, Theresa could work six days around the clock, and Grandma Simm wouldn’t be left alone. That is what their parents would have willed them to do.
When Vince returned to New York after his twelve weeks in Madrid, the first opportunity he had to get together with Grandma Simm again was at a posh Italian coffee shop in Jackson Heights, named Fuori Freddo. It was a wallet-busting brasserie that Theresa had recommended he visit if he were a “true foodie”. It was sat on the 37th Avenue junction, facing another lucrative Mexican joint across the road.
Vince and Grandma Simm arrived at the café on 37th at half past five one dark October evening. They were lucky to get a table for two by the front widow. Customers were filing through the restaurant’s doors in bulked-up groups of as much as fives, sixes, sevens, and eights, like Black Friday had come a month early.
‘Is there a deal on?’ Grandma Simm asked her grandson, as if he were the expert.
‘Nope,’ he said. ‘They’re just really hungry and the confectionaries here are supposed to be excellent.’
‘And expensive. Ought to be a week’s wage for some of these folks I’m seeing mooove like cattle,’ she remarked light-heartedly. ‘Not too much for you, though, is it, baby?’
‘We’ll see how things pan out,’ Vince said humbly. ‘If I get that promotion, we will eat at places like this every week, not just every other week.’
‘Why don’t you ever work someplace like this?’ she asked him.
‘The delicacies are too time-consuming and elaborate,’ Vince admitted honestly. ‘I prepare meals at a commercial chain in the middle of the city and the quantity demand is much higher there. I prefer that environment. More room for error.’
‘Oh, I remember,’ she giggled, ‘you do fast food.’
‘Fast meals,’ he emphasised. ‘Not fast food. Gracious, Grandma! I didn’t spend half a year studying in Europe to flip burgers at Five Guys.’
‘Then why don’t you move up the ladder and start by at least trying to adapt to cooking with care?’
‘You expect me to just jump in at the deep end? It’s not that easy.’
‘It should be easier than it was, sweetie. You’ve had, gone, and done your scholarship in the culinary arts,’ Grandma Simm droned on. ‘That’s nothing to be taken lightly. You studied hard, you’ve come out with your first gig, you’ve earned your stripes as a junior chef. Now what’s up? That’s what I want to know. You’re going onto do bigger and better things. There’s got to be something else up your sleeve. I taught you to cook—never to prepare packed lunches like your lazy mother did for a living. If you don’t work your way up soon enough, before you know it, you’ll find yourself preparing them for my dribbling housemates at the McCarren Park canteen.’
‘There’s nothing new, grandma,’ he reported with a stringent decisiveness about him. ‘I’m staying put where I am for the while—and so are you, I should imagine—unless Theresa can manage to bump up her shifts, or get a pay-rise, which is unlikely—’
‘For the foreseeable while,’ she amended his rejective attitude. ‘Theresa is managing fine. And so are you. I wasn’t referring to how well you can both manage. I know that much. That’s old news. I was talking about transcendence, my boy. The way forward, the future! I don’t expect you to jump into the deep end, but at least dip your toes. Test the water.’
‘This little situation we’ve had to put up with these last few years is how I assume it’s going to remain for the convenient while,’ he said, making sure he had the last adjective. ‘I’m lucky to have anything at all with this absurdity going on.’
‘Your grandfather was whipping up omelettes for a dime a dozen, while a war was going on. They weren’t the crème de la crème, however, they tasted like rainbows to a hundred homesick soldiers. And he was happier than you look at the moment.’
‘That was all the way in Cambodia, though,’ Vince excused. ‘He wasn’t exactly fighting for his place there either.’
‘Lucky him,’ she said sarcastically. ‘What I’m trying to explain to you is that you can make happy customers out of anybody, as long as your spirit is just as much to die for as your food. You’ve worked on your menu, now you need to work on your attitude, even if you have to fake it until you bake it. If your grandfather can make it work on the frontline of the Vietnam War, you don’t exactly have to sell your soul to get a foot in the door at a kitchen like this.’
‘Nolita is as close to a warzone as I’d want to be right now, thank you very much. It’s dry, it’s barren, and I’m one of the last survivors,’ Vince confessed. ‘This is all because the only people who can afford to eat out aren’t ghosting around in Lower Manhattan. They head over here, like we do. These are the only sorts of places that are still going to be hiring through the winter and on into next year.’
‘Then go for it! Strive for something better! Hit those high notes, child!’ she urged. ‘Please! You’ll be safer here than in Nolita!’
‘Grandma, you know I’d take anything like that if it came by,’ Vince sighed. ‘I’d have to, even if it would just mean getting you out of that nasty home. I just can’t see it happening any time soon.’
He could not look her in the eye when he said this. As he turned away, he saw through the window there was a tall man standing out in the street. He was holding a fresh, steaming cup of coffee stamped with the Fuori Freddo label on it. The takeout cup was pressed against the back a menu for Tres Hombres, the Mexican restaurant across the road, which he was also clutching up in front of his face. The man was brandishing the menu like any casual citizen might handle a newspaper (or like any casual tourist might handle a map of the city). It was spread open broadly open by a pair of violet-coloured leather gloves. He didn’t see a face behind the menu, only a sharp, purple fedora peeping over the top.
The man was very tall and distinguished, somebody whom Vince wouldn’t have missed if he. For the most part of their dine, the majority of the customers he’d seen bustling in and out of Fuori Freddo had either been middle-class teenagers, millennial hipsters, or little old couples. So, one giant of a man with a wide, rhinoceros-like upper-body build, dressed in a Trick-or-Treater-worthy hat and coat in the crux of his forties would have been too much of an eyesore to miss. He was clearly a crazy enough to scour a menu from a neighbouring restaurant for its gripping literature in the middle of the street, Vince thought, probably a down-and-out who resided on the subway and was stepping out into the daylight for the first time to evade his lockdown buddies, the rats and pathogen spreaders. However, this oddity wasn’t what perturbed Vince, for he had witnessed hobos his grandmother’s age reading Fifty Shades of Grey in the middle of Farmer’s Markets, while sipping on a milkshake they had salvaged out of a trash can. What unnerved him most was the question of why this man had chosen to cross the street to read a menu for a rival restaurant. Or, perhaps, he was just waiting for someone – his date – to show up for a meal at Hombres, while he popped a cigarette and a drink outside?
‘I’m pretty sure that guy didn’t pick that coffee up from here,’ Vince remarked.
‘Who?’ Momma Simm said, following his gaze out of the window. She was squinting the old eyes under her glasses, straining to see where this person of interest was o the lively street outside.
‘That guy out there on the sidewalk,’ Vince proclaimed. He was practically pointing at the closest streetlight to the coffee shop, whereupon he saw the eccentric figure leaning upright.
‘What business is it of ours?’ his grandmother cussed. ‘Leave the poor man alone.’
‘Look at how he’s reading a menu in the street like that,’ Vince added. ‘It’s as though he’s using it to hide behind more than anything. Don’t you find that weird? Nobody reads a menu like that.’
‘He’s a tramp. What do you expect from a tramp, sweetie pie? He probably had a lil too much of the swig, or ain’t gone near his pills today.’
There was a still, deer-in-headlights, sense that the man in the fedora knew he was being watched through his engrossment in the menu.
‘He’s as stiff as the lamppost he’s standing next to now,’ Vince observed. ‘I think he’s seen us. He knows I’ve spotted him.’
‘Who on Earth—what are you talking about, sweetie?’ Momma Simm said, conclusive in her struggling search for Vince’s obsession. ‘There ain’t nobody there.’
She was right. At least, righter than he was as of that second glance. For, the man he thought he had seen had vanished into thin air.