Purpler Eggplant

This column appeared Tuesday, April 10, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


“Will you work hard?” “I will.”

“Will you be on time?” “Yes.”

With that 2-question interview, I was hired for what turned out to be a job that helped shape the way I think about loyalty, fair play and what’s important.

The interviewer was Jack Fasciano, 30-something manager of Angelo’s Italian Restaurant in Wichita. I was 16 with long hair, a short attention span and my old man breathing down my neck to get a job. Now I was a busboy. Black pants, white shirt, white apron, and the pièce de résistance, a paper soda jerk-style hat with the distinctive Angelo’s graphic script in red and green letters emblazoned on each side.

Jack was first generation American, son of Angelo and Anna Fasciano. Angelo was born in Caltinisetta, Sicily and moved his young family to Wichita to build aircraft at Boeing. Neighbors and friends liked his cooking so much, he opened a restaurant, then two, then three.

Like most American immigrants, Angelo was proud of his new country. He served in the military and when he and Anna had a family, the kids got American names: Jack, Lenny and Carol. Jack’s Italian lineage was unmistakable. Olive skin, black hair, cheesy mustache. He had these way cool yellow-tinted aviator glasses, leather jackets, alligator loafers and double-knit polyester pants. To teenage busboys in Wichita, Kansas in the mid-1970s, Jack Fasciano was an Italian-American demigod.

Bussing tables is an under-appreciated art form and I wielded a creative dishrag. Glasses first, then silverware, followed by plates, cups, saucers. Swoop the paper placemats and napkins into the trash and wipe the table clean. I could do a four-top in 30 seconds.

Jack noticed. After three months he gave me a dime raise. I was now earning $1.70 an hour. The new Furr’s Cafeteria down the street was offering $1.90 to wash dishes. My newly-acquired work ethic had given way to another first-time life dynamic. Mo money. Seeya Jack.

Furr’s would not give me a week off for a church youth group retreat in Colorado. Dipping into my 16-year old reservoir of judgement, I up and quit. After realizing my error, I needed an answer for my father, so I went back to Jack and asked him for my old job. I could start as soon as I returned from my Rocky Mountain high.

“I already hired a new busboy,” Jack was unapologetic. He had a business to run. I never even had a chance to remind him of my table bussing artistry. “But I could use a dishwasher.”

Deal.

Compared to dishwashing, busboying was glamorous. You stayed (relatively) clean. You could engage with customers, flirt with waitresses, sneak the occasional slice of pizza. Washing dishes at Angelo’s was hot, greasy, back-breaking work. Lasagna tins with baked-on burnt cheese remnants had to be spotless. I remember scrubbing those tins until 4 a.m. some weekends.

Mo problems.

I wanted back out in the restaurant so badly I hatched a plan to get rid of the new busboy. I told the new kid Furr’s was hiring at $1.90 per. If I bit, maybe he would too. Meantime, I parallel-tracked Jack and told him I’d be interested in the first busboy opening he had, even if it meant a pay cut. It worked. The new kid split, and I returned to my art.

Jack didn’t have to hire me back. He didn’t have to move me back to busboying.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Jack’s long since retired, but wants back in the restaurant game for two reasons: He’s really good at it, and his former customers were literally knocking on his door, asking him to whip up some braciola or spaghetti and meatballs. Jack launched a unique venture capital raising effort. Free pizza and lasagna comparable to the level of your investment.

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I dropped in on Jack shortly after he re-opened Angelo’s. My Italian-American demigod is older today and walks with a cane. The first thing you see upon entering is a poster-sized photo of his late father, smiling, dining on spaghetti. It’s a humble little restaurant on Wichita’s east side, flanked by a storefront insurance agent and a Jiffy Lube. True to his father’s heritage, Jack reopened Angelo’s in a working-class part of town.

The aromas, the tastes, the patina of olive oil fashions an ambience that takes me back. I’m 16 again, learning valuable life lessons. Get the new job before quitting the old one. The other man’s eggplant is not always purpler. When it comes to employment, money is not everything. Impulsive decisions are nearly always wrong.

“Stay close,” Jack told me on my way out. “You never know when I may need a busboy.”

I lay claim to a very small part of Angelo’s. It will always own a big part of me.