We just got off the day shift at our respective “writing factories,” two fellas trying the change the world one sentence at a time. Shaking off the ghosts of carpal tunnel, each nursing hangnails, each weather-beaten following a full day of search-and-rescue missions for misplaced modifiers, we duck inside the East Side Café like men used to do daily at this hour. Here’s where a fella can find relief, pretend he’s a character in a hard-boiled Philip Marlow novel, eat decent grub, drink himself silly if he chooses, and no one asks any questions.
"What a day," Danny says.
"What a day," I agree.
We order a round.
The sun just zipped the day to a close like a body bag. Winter has been dismantling itself, a fair maiden after an ugly night, her mascara running. All this snow mixed with mud, mixed with something green, maybe a desperate clump of grass, maybe an errant mitten, maybe a Marlowe-like metaphor that escapes me.
After months of mindless circling, those ski lifts up there at Bosquet now resemble something more organic than mechanic, like a crawling vine with dangling fruit. In the booth here, under orange light, with the Sox pre-season game on the muted tube in the background, I rub my eyes and Danny rubs his hands.
"Danny," I say, "is it true this place serves the best pizza in the county?"
"Truer than true," Danny says. And Danny doesn’t lie. He sometimes gets things horribly wrong, but he never lies. He grew up a mile away, here in the Lakewood section of Pittsfield, Mass., in the shadows of the former G.E. Here in Lakewood, old Italian-Americans like Danny’s father still grow a year’s worth of tomatoes in mattress-sized gardens, still shuffle down to the East Side Café at 5 p.m. and still don’t talk about those medals that were pinned to them during the horrors of World War II.
Danny, Pittsfield’s one-man mob scene, a blogger who has been causing this city’s leaders to spend their days and evenings nervously pressing the refresh button on their computers, knows most of the things that are good to know as well as the things that are best not to know. He even knows most of the things he says he doesn't know because it's best for you not know, as you may well imagine.
And that's why, with Danny, I try to keep the conversations culinary-, Red Sox-, and word-warrior in nature. We call that "subject-verb agreement."
“So is the crust thick or thin?”
"It's thin. It's greasy. It's good," he says.
"A big pizza, please," I tell the waitress.
"We don't serve pizza on Wednesdays," she tells us.
I turn to Danny. "You should have known that," I say.
"I did know that," he says.
Maybe he thought it best I come to know these things on my own. Or maybe a split infinitive knocked him cold earlier in the day. It's difficult to know. Things can get confusing in the Lakewood section of Pittsfield.
"Why don't you serve pizza on Wednesdays?" I want to ask the waitress, but then decide otherwise because I’m certain I know the answer: It's because they don't feel like it.
We both order the gnocchi with meatballs. We order another round. Though the gnocchi tastes nothing like the best pizza in the county, it's tasty.
Here in this working-class neighborhood that rings around the collar of the junk heap of G.E., we marvel at how working men of previous generations used to stop at bars like this each day on their way home from work. Till the dinner bell rang in their heads, they would toss darts and drink beer that tasted like the residue of slow combustion. Between work and home they led lives that thrashed about like Houdini in handcuffs.
“Jeez, I never do this,” I say.
“Who has the time?”
“Who has the money?”
“My wife would be really ticked off if this became a habit.”
“My boy would pretend he doesn’t know me; in fact, maybe he wouldn’t know me.”
For Danny and me, in contrast, ours is the trajectory of a yo-yo (of the Duncan variety, not the dopey variety). We rock the cradle. We walk the dog. We fling ourselves out in the morning then ricochet back home.
I rub my belly. Danny rubs his eyes. The waitress takes our plates away. As much as we're tempted to order another round and become part of the East Side décor, we live in different times. Plus, I’ve got to paint the bathroom trim, and he has to do something involving his wife’s internet connection.
So we leave, Danny and I — he knowing what the best pizza in the county tastes like, and me knowing how there are some things I’m not meant to know, including whether I would’ve been an excellent dart player back in the day.