Caffe Shines During Visit From Oliver Twist and Bouncer

I have a thing for orphans. My favorite writer is Charles Dickens, and all my favorite stories have orphans in them. That's probably why I like retarded people so much. Many of them were abandoned by their families, often to be raised by other unscrupulous people. Many of them are also locked in a perpetual childhood because of their disabilities.

Take, for example, my favorite man in the whole world, Joe. He is in his mid-60s but is at a functioning level of a 3-year-old. He was raised in a zoolike institution and has lived in horrible group homes where they literally fed him gruel and entertained themselves by having other clients beat on him. These days, Joe's fortunes have changed, and he is a happy person. He has lived the life of Oliver Twist.

The first thing you notice about Joe is how cute he is. He's tiny, and his eyes are kinda crossed. My co-worker calls him “Ten-and-Two” (from a clock face) because his feet point way out when he walks. He has a killer sense of humor and he loves meeting people. Unfortunately he usually seeks “negative” attention, something he learned in his shitty childhood. It's not too serious, it just involves going up to strangers and grabbing their hands with a supplicating look that alarms them. He has to say hello to everyone, and when we go out he likes to be waited on hand and foot.

Consequently, Joe is a great person to take along on my Bouncer jaunts. You can tell a lot about a place by how staff members treat their, er, strangest and most demanding guests. This week I took him to the wine bar at the Emporio Rulli Gran Caffe on Chestnut near the Marina. Though they did look us both up and down when we walked in (I was wearing a Strongbad sweatshirt and jeans; Joe was, well, Joe), they gladly sat us at the bar. So far so good.

“I can't drink that,” Joe pronounced loudly to the bartender who was pouring a glass of wine. “I can't eat beer.”

“No problem,” she said back to him with a smile. “You don't have to drink to sit here.” Joe smiled and clapped his hands together with glee. To this day, the smallest kindness makes him happy.

The cafe is supposed to look like a Northern Italian joint. Having never been to Italy, I was reminded of a French joint. The place has high, expansive ceilings with paintings that look like frescoes, bistrolike seating, and a gigantic dessert cabinet that looks like a big, colorful, edible quilt of calories.

“I can't eat that cake,” Joe pointed out. “I'm tryin' to lose weight.” This is an inside joke we have. Every time we see something yummy we say, “I can't eat that, I'm tryin' to lose weight,” and we pat our tummies. Then I suddenly do a possessed Cookie Monster impression and pretend that I am inhaling whatever it is with giant chomping sounds. Joe laughs and claps his hands. Jesus, I love me some Joe.

We ordered Italian sodas — strawberry flavored, or “red,” as Joe calls it. They came in tall glasses with even taller straws. “I'm too short for this drink,” said Joe flatly. The bartender laughed kindly. Joe had, in the first five minutes, said hello to the busboy, the waitress, and some other dude, all of whom were super nice to him and even tried to chat.

The bartender put some snacks in front of us. We did our little routine, and when my Cookie Monster bit was over, I settled into checking the place out. The clientele was indeed well-heeled and attractive. An older woman was sitting with a younger man behind us. “Here is something you need to know about my personal life,” she said to him. Oh God. I was all ears. Were these two on a date? There had to be like a 40-year difference between them. Oh my God, was he a gigolo? Cool! “You see —” she continued. I was just leaning in for good reception when Joe let out a huge coughing fit, spewing his gourmet potato chips all over the bar. Ack. I gave him a tender pat on the back and cleaned up the mess. The bartender didn't even bat an eye. This place was passing the Joe test with flying colors.

I perused the wine menu, which was expansive and expensive. I could see coming to this place for a lunch with your boss or something, but it wasn't particularly romantic. If I'm going to spend that kind of cabbage, I need mood lighting at least. However, for my purposes that day, the cafe was just fine. Joe was quiet and content, staring at people. The bathrooms were in easy proximity — always a consideration with him. The staff seemed not only polite, but genuinely taken with him.

It came time to go, and Joe had to go up to everyone individually and say goodbye. This was after I overheard him knocking on the stall in the men's room, informing the guy of his presence.

“My friend?” he said, “I gotta go bathroom.” There are some Joe situations that I just can't intervene in, and the men's room is one of them.

We walked to my car, and on the way we passed a cupcake shop. I pressed my face up against the glass. “You can't eat that cake my friend,” said Joe with a sly grin. “You tryin' to lose weight.”

“I know, I know,” I faux-lamented to Joe. “I can't eat that. I'm trying to lose … mwhahahahahaajchompchompsnortslurpchomp.” Joe laughed and clapped his hands. Then he slipped his hand into mine and we slowly made our way up the street.

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