Monday, August 29, 2005

El Gastrónomo

It was on a late summer night in the East Village that I first saw the Machine.

I was out with friends one Friday evening and after drinks, snacks, and talk at a funky saloon, they decided they wanted to get something to eat. We walked a few blocks to a Dominican restaurant and managed to get a table. It was late, I wasn't that hungry and the menu wasn't doing it for me. So I ordered a bowl of chicken soup.

I happened to look over to a corner table and I saw this young man, heavyset with a porkpie hat and sun glasses--even though it was 10 o'clock at night. He looked like a character from a seventies cop show, the kind of guy who knows what's going on in the hood and feeds the detective tips.

He had two Cuban sandwiches on his plate surrounded by french fries, which were adrift in ketchup, and he was showing his meal who was the boss. Slowly but deliberately, he polished one sandwich, then the other, and knocked off the french fries along the way.

After cleaning off his plate, the Machine got up and walked to the juke box. He didn't look Hispanic, but he certainly knew his way around the food and the music. As he made his selection, a young African-American with dreadlocks sat down at the Machine's table with his blond girlfriend.

The Machine came over very calmly and leaned over to speak to the guy, who quickly apologized and took his date to another table. I thought, hey, guy, if you're done eating, you really should give up the table.

Of course, the key word here is "if". And it turns out the Machine wasn't done, he was just warming up. As he sat down, the waitress brought him a huge plate of rice and beans, while a waiter came over with bread. I don't recall seeing him ask for any food, the staff just brought it over.

It was like Round Two in a prizefight. The Machine sat down and methodically took on the rice and beans. He didn't stuff his face. He was like a great athlete or skilled jazz musician, working in food. I'm usually repulsed by such gluttony, but on this occassion I would have tipped my hat if I had been wearing one.

The restaurant's owners must pray for this man's good health every night. I know some day the Machine is going to wish he had taken better care of himself, watched his diet and gotten some exercise. But on this night none of that mattered.

Tonight the Machine was working his magic.


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