Mr. Mario’s Downhome Café
The fluffy scrambled eggs, the buttered toast, the crisp bacon and homefries on the side smell mighty good. I’m feeling mighty good being served this beautiful platter of food by Mr. Mario himself. Meanwhile, though, I’ve got stuff on my mind—my nephew Patrick, a minister in our church, is torn up because he broke up with Naomi, a black woman rabbi he met back when they were both undergraduates at Harvard. And my son, Andre, is about to marry Nina, an actress and model I don’t trust.
All this is to explain why Mr. Mario’s fluffy eggs, attentive service, and radiant smile mean so much to me. Mario is not a smiling man, but this morning he’s happy because I gave him a copy of Jet magazine from back in the seventies with him on the cover.
“Lord, have mercy, Albertina,” he says, “where in heaven’s name did you find this thing?”
“Baby,” I reply, “I’m going to pray before this delicious food gets cold. Then I’ll tell you. You’re always welcome to pray with me.”
“Gotta tend to the grill. Give my best regards to that God of yours. Tell him He’s doing a helluva job maintaining world peace and harmony among the races.”
I ignore Mr. Mario’s cynicism—I’ve known the man for years—and pray. Father, I just love You, I just worship You, I just thank You for being the God that You are. I thank You for the chance to relax this morning and reflect on all that is good in my life. Father, You are what is good in my life. I pray for peace, Father, especially for those who have no peace, for those who don’t know You, for those who struggle with temptation and doubt. Grant my son, Andre, wisdom and clarity. Grant me the strength to pray for Nina, my daughter–in–law–to–be. May my own prejudices be lifted. Deepen my understanding so that, like Jesus, I can meet people where they are, accept them as they are, love them as they are, and help them as You help me. I pray all this in the precious name of Jesus, Amen
Just as I’m about to take my first bite of egg, in walks Justine, my forever friend. I can’t say I’m thrilled to see her—I was looking forward to a meal by myself—but I’m not about to hurt her by telling her so. Justine’s been through a lot lately. I should know. As her next–door neighbor, I hear every detail of her roller–coaster love life. Whoever invented the term “Drama Queen” was thinking of Justine.
Justine’s wearing a large tent dress adorned with drawings of oversized sunflowers. The design makes her look even larger than she is. She seats herself at my table.
“I didn’t know you were having breakfast here this morning, Albertina,” she says. “How come you didn’t invite me to come along?”
“It was a spur–of–the–moment thing, sweetheart,” I say. “I didn’t know myself until I drove by and decided to stop. I’d been at the hospital visiting parishioners.”
“What time you get there?”
“That’s just about the time I was seeing Johnny Marbee to the door. Have I told you about Johnny?”
“Is he the man who works with you at Target?”
“The very same. And girlfriend, he was sure working with me last night.”
I shake my head in wonder. Justine is incorrigible.
“Nothing builds up an appetite like some good old–fashioned lovemaking,” she says.
“You were talking about a diet last week,” I say, changing the subject. I never know what’s going to come out of Justine’s mouth.
"I’m starting that Palm Beach plan tomorrow. So today is my last day before going to Starvation City.”
“What’s the Palm Beach plan?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but all the Hollywood stars are doing it. It has to work ‘cause they have to look good for the movies. I got the book. Gonna read it tonight. After dessert.”
I can’t help but laugh.
“No laughing matter,” says Justine. “Doctor Foster says I got to deal with my weight before it deals with me.”
“Baby,” I say, “I know it’s serious, and I’m behind whatever program you take on. I’m here to help and encourage you. Wasn’t laughing at you, sugar. I was laughing with you.”
“Where is that fool Mr. Mario? I’m dying for French toast and a side of bacon. Doesn’t that man make a mean French toast?”
“Mr. Mario is the Sam Cooke of the pots and pans,” I say. “He’s the maestro, and his dad was a chef too. Fact is, his dad also owned a restaurant. He was Italian.”
“How long has the Downhome Cafe been here?”
“He opened up just after he was put off that TV show,” I say. “That had to be 1975 ‘cause I just gave him a copy of Jet with him on the cover from 1974 talking about his final episode. I found it at home in an old trunk.”
“They’re still playing that show in reruns. You’d think he’d have enough money so he wouldn’t have to cook.”
“Well, that’s a long story,” I say. “He’s never told it to you?”
“I’m not that crazy about the man. I don’t ask him any questions. I eat his smothered steak—he can put a hurting on smothered steak—but I don’t like him. The man’s always angry.”
“He got burned bad,” I explain.
“In the kitchen?” she asks.
“No, by that show. He was the star of the show but never owned a piece of it. He says the producers cheated him bad. Says he could have been a millionaire many times over had they treated him fairly.”
“The character he played on the show is the same character he plays up in here. He always has an attitude,” says Justine.
“He had an attitude on Stay Out of the Kitchen ‘cause he was a black cook feeding a family of uptight white folk. That was the humor.”
“Didn't they use your song ‘Stay Out of the Kitchen’ as the theme of the show?”
“They did. I wrote it a little before I wrote ‘Sanctified Blues.’ But it never made any money till they turned it into a sitcom theme song. Then it made me a whole lot of money. That’s when I first met Mr. Mario. He was the only one in the cast who knew the song when it was floating around the bottom of the R&B charts. He loves the old music.”
“The brother is light enough to pass. Looks to me like they darkened Mario’s skin to make him look blacker on TV.”
“They did,” I say. “That’s another reason he doesn’t have good feelings about show business.”
“So why does he take it out on his customers?”
“Well, he’s sweet to me,” I say.
“Everyone’s sweet to you, Albertina. You make them that way.”
“Sweet Jesus is the one who makes them that way.”
“I’m just looking for that sweet French toast. Mr. Mario!” Justine shouts. “Can I put in my order?”
“Hold your horses!” he yells from the grill.
The Downhome Café is a small place, just four booths and a counter, and Mario Pani services it all himself. In my view, Mr. Mario loves cooking and especially loves cooking for his own people. On TV he cooked for unappreciative rich folk. When he was written out of the show, he moved back to this South Central L.A. neighborhood where his black mother had raised him and decided to do what he likes best.
“See that nasty look Mario just gave me,” says Justine. “That man does not know how to treat a customer. He doesn’t like his work.”
“That’s just a façade, baby,” I tell her.
“I say he’s surly.”
“His bark’s worse than his bite,” I explain.
“I just wanna bite of French toast.”
“Have a bite of my potatoes,” I offer.
“Don't mind if I do.”
A few minutes pass and Mr. Mario still hasn’t taken Justine’s order.
“This is the last time I’m eating here,” she declares. “The man is flat–out rude.”
“He’s not moving as fast as he usually does,” I observe.
“You got your
food,” says Justine. “The man’s always been in love with you. I saw that years ago.”
“The man has a wife at home.”
“As if that makes any difference. Whenever you’re in here, he treats you like the Queen Bee.”
“Justine,” I say, “he treats me that way because of something I shared with him.”
“Pastor Merci,” she says, “what did you share with Mr. Mario? I know it wasn’t your bed.”Justine is just too much
, I think to myself.
“No, it wasn’t my bed; it was a secret of my heart.”
“This is getting interesting, Albertina. Tell all.”
Mr. Mario has finally made his way to our table. He’s a big man with a handsome moon–shaped face. His hair is white and cut close to his scalp. His beard is also white and neatly trimmed. He stands over six feet and probably weighs close to three hundred pounds. I’d put his age at sixty–five. His nose is broad, his chin square, and his eyes dark brown and intense. His voice is deep and his exacting enunciation the product of the acting school he attended in New York back in the sixties. He told me that he once played Othello in Central Park.
“Justine,” he says, “I saw you giving me the evil eye. Now what is it I can make for you?”
“You can make me happy by making me a double order of French toast with a side of bacon. And by acting civilized to your paying customers.”
“I am the cornerstone of civilization in this neighborhood, Justine,” says Mario, “whether you realize it or not.”
“I just want you
to realize that I’m starving to death,” Justine shoots back. “Go cook.”
“Make this woman behave, Albertina,” he says to me. “Or I’ll throw her out on her rusty dusty.”
“I’ll do my best,” I assure him.
The second he’s gone, Justine asks, “What’s the secret?”
“Then why haven’t I heard it?”
“It’s painful to tell it.”
“Albertina, you wouldn’t have mentioned it if you didn’t want to tell it,” she insists.
“Sweetheart,” I say, “you’re probably right. Every time I come to Mr. Mario’s I think about it. Maybe that’s why I come here. To work out the memory.”
“Did something happen here?” Justine asks.
“No, but it happened in a place very much like this in Oakland.”
I pause to breathe deeply. “In a place just like this,” I say, “my son Darryl was killed.”
“Oh, Albertina, I never knew. You never told me how he died.”
“He was shot to death sitting at the counter eating his breakfast just like I’m eating my breakfast. Shot in the back of the head.” I pause again, shut my eyes, try to catch my breath. The pain that has never gone away is back in full force. I see Darryl as a baby, Darryl as a toddler, Darryl as a curly–headed ten–year–old hitting a baseball; Darryl going to the movies with his big sister, Laura, and his big brother, Andre; Darryl scared on his first day in junior high, Darryl on his prom date; Darryl drifting away from college, Darryl drifting away from me and his dad and his siblings; Darryl gone for months at a time, Darryl showing up high, Darryl begging for money, Darryl running away from rehab, Darryl lost in the ganglands of San Francisco, Darryl picked up by the cops in Oakland, Darryl jailed and released and jailed again, Darryl not responding to our calls and disappearing when we came to visit him; Darryl’s eyes darkening, his eyes filled with tears, his body emaciated, his speech slurred; Darryl showing up in the middle of the night and taking my jewelry from the safe, Darryl weeping as he flees the house, Darryl calling the next day, swearing he’ll pay me back, swearing he’s okay; Darryl saying how he has a job working in a warehouse, how he has a girlfriend and a place in Oakland not far from Lake Merritt.
And then the call.
It happened in a coffee shop.
Seated at the counter.
The back of his head.
“He owed money,” the detective concluded. “These dealers are ruthless. This dealer was sending a message to all his other customers. A public execution is a message that no one can ignore.”
“When I first walked by this cafe,” I tell Justine, “I’d see Darryl sitting here at the counter. I’d envision his murder. I’d have to cross the street and hurry away and swear I’d never pass this way again. I’d avoid any cafe that reminded me of what had happened. I’d avoid eating out altogether. I’d pray to God and then read the Scripture that says, ‘A perfect love casts out all fear.’ Perfecting that love meant facing that fear. I read Second Timothy 1:7 that says, ‘For God has not given us a spirit of timidity.’ My friend from high school, Florence Ginzburg, also urged me to face the fear. Florence is a psychologist with a loving heart. So one morning, my hands shaking, I walked into this place.
“As I said already, I knew Mr. Mario from my show business days. He knew me when I was singing the blues and touring with James Brown. He also knew that I was the one who wrote the song ‘Stay Out of the Kitchen.’
“ ‘I heard you live in the neighborhood, Albertina,’ he said. ‘I always wondered why you never came in here.’ I told him why. The words just poured out of me. As I told the story, I surprised myself by crying like a baby. I knew Mr. Mario, but not well enough to break down and sob right in front of him. You know what he did when he saw me weeping like that?”
“What?” Justine asks.
“He made me the lightest, most delicious cheese omelet I’ve ever tasted. He made me fresh–squeezed orange juice. He served me fresh coffee with lots of cream. He asked me how many sugars I wanted. I know that sounds silly, Justine, but the way he served me calmed my troubled soul.”
“I told you he loves you,” she says.
“Yes, but not with a romantic love. It was a love based on compassion. He knew what I had gone through. And the reason he knew was because he had a daughter who had gone through the same thing. Crack killed his daughter before her twenty–fifth birthday. He told me that. And then he told me about his own life. His white Italian American father never married his black mother and left her soon after Mario was born. Mario was named for his father, but they had a strained relationship. Out of guilt, Mario Pani, Senior, sent his son money for college and then acting school. That’s where Mr. Mario learned Shakespeare and all the classics. But back in those days, black actors had it rougher than they do today. He might have passed for white but the idea infuriated him. He couldn’t find enough work on the legitimate stage to support his family. That’s when his father let him apprentice at a restaurant he had opened in New York City. Mario became a cook, and a great one.
Excerpted from Stay Out of the Kitchen! by Mable John with David Ritz. Copyright © 2007 by Mable John. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.