“Why don’t we try that French place, Reynard’s?” I asked.
“It’s your birthday, my wife said. “We can go wherever you want.”
“Reynard’s it is, then.” (Not the restaurant’s real name, but it’s easy to figure out.)
To celebrate my fifty-third birthday, my wife Annie reserved us a hotel room in Montclair, NJ – a town I used to be very familiar with. When I was in high school a good friend of mine lived in nearby Glen Ridge and we spent many a Saturday afternoon in the 80’s walking up and down Bloomfield Avenue: playing in video arcades, catching movies at the Wellmont or Claridge theater, browsing through book shops and Hahnes Department store, window shopping at the Rolls-Royce dealership and, when we had enough money, eating at Thai Chef and enjoying chocolate souffles for dessert. With its plentiful cheap restaurants and hopping bar scene, Montclair was my go-to destination for dates when I was a young man. I still remember a winter date kissing a pretty young girl on Church Street like it was yesterday. Hiding in the doorway of a closed shop with the snow swirling around us, I still remember the feel of her lips on mine, the smell of her perfume and the thrill of happiness that ran through me. For a moment, it seemed like heaven had touched the earth. Good memories. Maybe, if I’m lucky, my wife and I will make a couple more.
Firing up my computer, I found Reynard’s website but didn’t see a phone number. Seems they wanted everyone to make reservations online but, when I tabbed over to Saturday night, they had no open tables. Disappointing, but not fatal. It was only Thursday, and I knew Yuppie/Millennials were notorious for cancelling or not showing up for reservations because they reserve multiple tables at multiple locations so they can debate their choices over the digital either, often until the last minute. Using my cell phone number, I put myself on the waiting list for an eight o’clock table. Then I perused the listings for a backup restaurant and read a brief but positive review for a little place called Le Salbuen on Walnut Street. They had a phone number.
“Le Salbuen,” a man answered.
“I’d like to make a reservation for two on Saturday night. Do you have anything at 8?”
“Can you do 7:45?”
“What’s your name?” I gave it to him.
“Okay, sir. You’re all set.”
“Don’t you want a phone number?” I asked, surprised. Compared to Reynard’s, this restaurant was very laid back about reservations.
“No, you’re good. See you then.” After hanging up, I felt a twinge of guilt, knowing I was going to cancel if a table at Reynard’s opened up.
Lo and behold, I got an email from Reynard’s on Friday night, telling me the spot I wanted had suddenly become available. Going to their website, I clicked “Reserve Now” and was greeted by a message saying a code had been sent to my phone. “This code expires soon” the message said. “Please enter it as soon as possible.” Two-factor Identification for a restaurant reservation? As usual, however, I’d misplaced my phone and, by the time I found it, the code had evaporated. I repeated the process, entered the new code and was then asked to submit my credit card information. “We charge $75 for any reservation cancelled after 3:00 PM,” the system cheerily announced. I guess Reynard’s was wise to those unfaithful yuppie/millennial types. Grumbling, I went upstairs, retrieved my wallet and entered my Amex card number, expiration date and security code.
“Sorry,” the system announced. “We cannot accept this card.” So, I tried my Visa. Same result. Now aggravated, I refreshed my browser and started all over again.
“We’re sorry,” the system announced. “That table has been reserved.”
“Goddammit,” I fumed. Then l searched to find the restaurant’s phone number. I found it hiding on Yelp.
“Hi,’ I told the hostess. “I tried reserving a table, gave your res system two credit cards, and still couldn’t book it.”
The hostess was very nice, took my name and said she’d try and help me. After hearing a long series of keyboard clicks, she said. “I’m very sorry. Someone took that spot.”
“Do you have anything?”
“No sir. Saturdays are very busy. Please try us again another night.”
Now I was pissed. Struggling to stay polite, I thanked the hostess and then hung up. Then I remembered something I’d written long ago; “The inability to secure a reservation drives yuppies absolutely crazy.” Now I was becoming the very thing I once despised. How’s that for irony? Taking a deep breath, I told myself Reynard’s would have to wait for another day. Then, later that evening, some friends texted and asked to meet my wife and I at our hotel for pre-dinner for drinks. “How about their rooftop lounge?” the text read. “You might need to reserve a spot.” I agreed and called the hotel to do just that.
“Sorry sir,” the concierge said, “You have to call the bar directly.” and then gave me a number which went straight to voicemail. “For parties four and under,” the prerecorded voice said. “Please use Open Table to make a reservation. For parties of five or more, please leave a message.”
“Oh, for chrissakes,” I hissed. Hopping on Open Table, I discovered the lounge was booked solid from open to close.
“Goddammit!” I almost yelled. “Everywhere I turn, it’s a dead end!” Then I had an uncharitable thought – I’m almost going to miss this pandemic. A month ago, this wouldn’t have happened.
Now seething, I felt my heart rate and blood pressure jump. On my last birthday I had to settle for lockdown takeout sushi. The year before that? I had to get a root canal. And, for reasons too complicated to describe here, I just wanted this birthday to go smoothly. Why can’t I just get what I want?
“You look upset,” my wife said, upon seeing me a few minutes later. I told her why.
“I almost want to cancel the whole thing,” I blurted out. Then I saw the hurt look on Annie’s face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, patting her shoulder. “I’ll be a big boy. I’ve just been spending too much time feeling like I’m being treated like a number. Just give me some space. Hey, how about we take Natalie for some ice cream?” Before my wife could answer, I threw my family in the car and drove to my favorite ice cream parlor two towns over – but there was not a parking spot to be found. The town was crawling with people celebrating the seeming end of the pandemic.
“President says no masks and everyone’s going nuts,” I grumbled. In the mood I was in, I would have been crabby on VJ Day.
“Let’s go home,” Annie said. “We can go another time.” Good advice. But I didn’t take it.
Turning the car around, I angrily hunted the streets until I found parking. One thing is going to go right for me today, I thought to myself. One thing. But, when we got to the parlor, it was also mobbed, understaffed and the line was moving very, very slowly. The temporal sluggishness was being caused by a small herd of high-school boys clad in varsity jackets flirting with and staring at the pretty teenage girl in short shorts behind the counter. Pull your eyes out of her butt, guys, I thought to myself. I want ice cream. Then again, when I was their age, I would’ve been doing the same thing. As the line crept forwards with diabolical incrementalism, pure rage detonated in my chest. I know, I was being childish, but those “complicated reasons” I mentioned earlier were very much on my mind. I almost shouted, “Fuck my birthday! Fuck that hotel and their rooftop lounge! Fuck Reynard’s! FUCK ICE CREAM. Fuck it all to hell.” I just wanted to go home and feel sorry for myself. But I didn’t
A few days ago, I was reading a rather dense treatise on the philosophical topics of potency and act – about how possibility becomes actuality. The author talked about God being “Pure Act” in whom all possibilities – kind of like a multiverse where every possible scenario gets played out – are contained within His Infinite Being, dwelling in and beyond time. We of course, cannot explore every possible action and inhabit every iteration of who we might become. We make choices and then that “wave of possibility” collapses the second we make a decision. There’s a theory in quantum physics that a particle occupies all possible positions in reality and it’s only when we look at that particle that it settles on a particular position and becomes observable or real to us. (As you can gather, I’m not a physicist.) To grossly oversimplify the author of that philosophy book’s views, he opined that God was source of that all those “possible positions” – Possibility & Actuality Itself – and that when we choose, we are, in a fashion, choosing the reality we will inhabit. Standing in the that ice cream parlor with my heart thudding angrily in my chest, I saw all the realities losing my shit could create for me- my daughter crying, my wife upset, getting arrested, eating Jell-O in a psych ward, my birthday canceled and general misery all around. But I also I saw another potential reality – a much nicer one. And the only way I could make it actually happen? Keep my mouth shut. So, I did.
Because I bit my tongue, the next day began swimmingly. My wife and I checked into the hotel, made some nice memories and then met our friends for cocktails at the perfectly serviceable bar in the hotel lobby. I had two cocktails and then feeling no pain, we all strolled down Bloomfield Avenue towards the restaurant. As we walked, I noticed how much Montclair had changed over the past forty years. Hahne’s was long gone, Thai Chef recently shuttered and most of the cheap restaurants and bars of my youth had been replaced by fancier joints. A bit disoriented, I also noticed how the physical landscape had changed. Many of the old buildings I remembered had been bulldozed and replaced with luxury apartments, chichi shops, parking garages and my hotel. It was like a different world. But Church Street was still there and the doorway where I had kissed that girl in the whirling snow. Whatever happened to her? Why didn’t it work between us? Why did my life go one way and not the other? Could I have been happier? Possibility and actuality. Potency and act. Maybe God dwells in every life I could have lived, but I’ve only got this one. Suddenly, sadness started threatening my buzz. Probably vodka trieste.
Saying goodbye to our friends, my wife and I headed over to Le Salbuen. We were a bit late but were greeted warmly and ushered to an outside table. The waiter asked if wanted tap or bottled water, so I ordered some Aqua Panna. A minute later, a lovely little girl in mask and white dress brought it to our table.
“And how old are you?” I asked her.
“And you’re working here?”
“This is my mommy and daddy’s restaurant,” she said shyly. Then, like a sylph of radiant light, she disappeared.
“Can you imagine Natalie waiting tables?’ I asked my wife. She chuckled. My daughter’s a wonderful spitfire of a kid, but doing chores is not her thing. Then we ordered off the eclectic menu. As usual, Annie ordered what I wanted but being a gentleman, I diverted to my second choice. Then, as my wife and I were chatting over our appetizer of tahini infused zucchini spaghetti, heaven once again touched the earth.
I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was my wife’s face beautiful face by candlelight, the wonderful food, the warm night air, the joyous music, the still familiar rattle and hum of a restaurant going full tilt, several ounces of 80 proof alcohol, the old dog sleeping under the next table, the happy murmur of contented diners or that small child weaving between the tables like a seraph of incandescent glory, but I suddenly felt absolutely happy and at peace. “I got upset over nothing,” I thought to myself. “I’m so glad to be here right now.” And all those “complicated reasons” – while not going away – suddenly seemed much less threatening.
Now that I’m fifty-three, I’m well aware that I’ve made some awful choices. Through my stupidity, anger, willful ignorance, and pride – and sometimes those of others – many opportunities, many possible lives, have slipped through my fingers. Trust me, I sometimes mourn them to an unhealthy degree. But there, sitting at that table, Infinite Possibility revealed It had always, and always would be, infinitely merciful. Despite all my wrong turns, my life turned out much, much better than I ever deserved. And, floating within that radiant boundary which words fail to describe, between what was, is and could be, I felt like I was glimpsing a new heaven and a new earth – the New Jerusalem where “every tear will be wiped away.” I swear to God, I heard an angel’s trumpet begin to sound, as if proclaiming, “Now, aren’t you glad you kept your fucking mouth shut, Steve?”
Then I ate dinner. Hey, I was hungry.
After our plates were cleared, the owner came to our table. I complimented him on his cooking and his daughter. “When she stops wanting to do this.” I told him. “Rent out another kid. It’s your secret weapon.” Then he gave us after-dinner drinks gratis, the little sylph took my credit card, and my wife and I began our trek back to the hotel. That’s when I noticed my phone buzzing to alert me about all emails that had piled up in my inbox. My first restaurant choice had messaged me several times during while we ate at Le Salbuen, trying to get me to grab one of their coveted tables. As Annie and I walked up Bloomfield and passed Reynard’s, we looked though its large windows and saw that it was packed to the rafters. Using algorithms and software, they were trying to get every last dollar out of every last person until the very last moment – and I didn’t blame them. I was in the business once and it’s brutal. But I was very glad my first choice didn’t work out and that my backup turned out so deliciously well. Funny how that happens. Then we took a small detour down a residential street.
Walking blithely under a canopy of trees past some old houses, my wife and I watched as other people’s lives flickered through lighted windows; every one of them the result of a choice – the possible made actual. Were they all happy? Did they all make wise decisions? Like me, probably not. And truth be told, I knew my little aura of grace would fade and bad days would soon get my blood boiling again. But as we passed each small revelation, I wondered if the souls in those homes had caught a glimpse of Jerusalem too. Brief as it was, it was a memory I knew I could turn too when the going got rough. We all probably need to start making better choices but sweating the “what-ifs and might-have- beens” is a waste of time. Because maybe in the end, when we are face to face with Pure Act Itself, we’ll discover the possibilities are actually endless. That’d be nice.
As the spring breeze stirred the new leaves high in the trees, I could almost hear it uttering my favorite line from Scripture – the one after all that talk about a new heaven and a new earth – when every tear, bad choice and “complicated reason” will be wiped away. When who we are finally becomes what we were meant to be. When the impossible becomes actual. Squeezing Annie’s hand, I softly said the verse aloud.
“Behold, I make all things new.”
Just beautiful! I miss your writing. Hope there is another book in your future!
That was a lovely, epic entry, there, Steve. Happy birthday. The 50s, I’ve discovered, are good at reexamining what was and looking at what is. Holding my tongue isn’t easy but I’ve learned some times it’s best in a situation. Like today. I’ve had multiple moments where I held my tongue rather than shout out at stupidity – including in my own home. So, good on ya for keeping it together.
I just finished you book and absolutely loved it; I don’t eat out much but it’s fun to get a glimpse into the restaurant world. Your stories came vividly to life; I could imagine myself there easily. Especially your description of the catacomb-like bowels of the old buildings in New York.
Wonderful writing, I always look forward to these bits and pieces of your life woven into words.
Thanks for capturing and sharing this experience so vividly!
diabolical incrementalism. brilliant. good to hear from you Steeve.
Steve, everytime I think I cannot learn anything more from you, you prove me wrong.
Beautiful Steve, just beautiful.
In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson – ‘You make me want to be a better man’. 😄