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  • Perhaps it 1984 or 1985 when Steve, Laura and I explored lower Manhattan. Steve’s family lived just across the river in New Jersey. Naturally he was our de facto guide. We were on a working holiday. As graphic artists we went to see the Society of Illustrators' art show and to tour the Upper and Lower Case typography displays. Then we headed downtown to check out a few Soho art galleries. All on the company’s dime.

    New York City is big. Much bigger than Philly. We walked the 20 or 30 blocks with youthful wide-eyed exuberance. Everything about the city was exciting. Steve showed us locations of some of our favorite movies. “Remember Harry and Tonto? That was filmed right there!”

    By the time we reach our destination we were very tired. My legs ached but I didn’t mind. I remarked, “New York City blocks are longer than Philly city blocks.” It was a weekday and New Yorkers didn’t seem to mind us interloping on their hectic lives. The hustle-bustle of NYC was other worldly, surreal and intoxicating. The vastness of NYC was filled with incredible detail. Our eyes were overloaded with countless categories of shapes and colors. Everything was saturated with brilliant colors, even the grime had a languid sensualness.

    Steve and Laura were Italian-Americans, third generation. “Hey, Let’s go to Little Italy for early dinner?” Steve suggested.

    Where’s Little Italy, I asked.

    “Not far from the World Trade Center.” Steve said.

    Laura coaxed me, “Come on. It’ll be fun!”

    Okay, okay. My feet are killing me.

    We turned a corner and the magnificent towers came into full view. I stood at the base of the South Tower crammed my neck to see the top. Awesome. Everything about New York was bigger, longer and wider than my hometown, Philadelphia, but the towers were in a league of their own. Even the vastness of NYC could not constrain the majesty of the pillars of steel.

    I was still standing there, neck bent at a ninety degree angle watching the twin buildings scrape the sky when Steve called me, “Rick! Rick! Come on man. Let’s get some food!”

    The tiny restaurant was nearly empty. It was a relief to be in an environment of human scale. There were travel posters on the walls. Romantic images of Rome, Venice, Milan, Florence beckoned us to come to Italy.

    In a darkened corner booth was a big, husky man. He eyed us cautiously.

    Steve ordered for us, pronouncing the menu in proper Sicilian dialect. Laura laughed. She only knew a few words in Italian but she recognized the language of her grandparents.

    The big man spoke, “Where you from?”

    Steve said “Just outside of Philadelphia, I'm originally from Jersey City.”

    The big man grunted, “You Italian?”

    Steve explained that he and Laura were Italian. But that I wasn’t. We all laughed. The big man took a liking to us. His brooding face broke into a half-smile.

    The big man spoke again, “Mangia. Mangia. Enjoy yourselves. Don’t worry about the bill, I’ll take care of everything.”

    We thanked the big man. We had a delicious early dinner. We said goodbye.

    We took the train back home. Steve said, “Hey guys, I think that guy was a gangster! A mob guy!”

    Laura said, “No way, Steve. You’ve seen too many gangster movies.”

    She turned to me and asked, “What do you think Rick?”

    I was the oldest in our group. I had ten years of life experience on them. They deferred to my accumulated wisdom.

    “I think so Laura. I knew a couple of guys like that in South Philly. He definitely fits the bill. I wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that place wasn’t a mob hangout!” Small neighborhood restaurants acted as cover for the numbers racket in Philly.

    Laura laughed and shook her head in disbelief, “You guys are crazy!”

    When the towers fell on 9/11 I wondered about the big man in the little Italian restaurant. Did he survive? Was he a mobster? Did we stumble into a mafia hangout?

    I hope we did, it makes for a better story.

    Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
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