The teenage girl ringing orders at Al’s #1 Italian Beef is questioning the man ahead of me in the lunch-hour line. He looks puzzled, an expression of passive amusement slightly lifting the corners of his mouth. The guy is mum. Froze solid.
“What you want on it,” she says rather than asks.
A black cashmere topcoat, a silk scarf, and wavy black hair give him a continental look. In his 40s, the gentleman–if he were not so slim –could be a credible Marcello Mastroianni look-alike, or an actor you glimpsed in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits.
“What you want on it.” She repeats the line three more times with growing loudness, until heads turn everywhere in the restaurant.
Exasperated, the register girl appeals to a nearby coworker, “He already said he wanted a double dog.”
“Maybe he doesn’t talk English,” is the response.
Customers in the lengthening line are getting restless. Some turn to each other and ask, why the slow-up?
The register girl, sounding calmer now, has an idea: “Maybe if we had pictures of mustard and relish we could show him.”
The kitchen, which is directly behind the counter, is open to view. A third employee, emerging from where the food is prepared, heads straight for the line. Expertly, she snatches the signor’s sleeve and ushers him to the condiments near the steam table. Smiling, she points them out broadly, as if giving a motorist directions. She is naming them out loud–“catsup,” “mayonnaise,” etc–to giggles from the crowd.
The gentleman is not getting the picture. He has yet to make an audible sound. By now, though, chatter mounts all around him; people are either entertained or irate. Nobody has been waited on since he first approached the counter.
“Aw, give him the works!” offers a stout kid in Reeboks and letter jacket. He could be the Fridge’s baby brother.
“Yeah, let’s get going,” other impatient voices chorus. The girls are not taking care of business.
“Are you through being good fucking samaritans?” cracks someone I cannot see, farther back in the line.
Heedless of the crowd, the gentleman wanders back to his spot in front of the cash register. The register girl now leaves her post without a word. With stylized, swaying arms, like a concert pianist playing a rhapsody, she dresses the wieners in question herself.
The girl bags the sandwich and hands the gentleman his double dog, for which I have not yet seen him pay. He walks away, the same passively amused look on his face he’s worn all along.
“He got everything on it,” beams junior Fridge. “Hot damn!”