It was a magic time, living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before things went all haywire. You could still get your shoes fixed or buy a bag of loose nails. You could sit across the room from John Lennon and Yoko Ono and eat lunch for three and a half bucks. Vegetable Foo Young, up the street, came spilling over the plate for about three bucks. Laundry was also about three bucks, fluffed and folded. Ruelles - killer desserts - was open all night. It was a magic time.
Amd there, on Columbus, the block between 74th and 75th, west side of the street, was Cafe Il Cantone, owned by Ritchie and Lina Varela. It was a comfortable room and a simple place before Ritchie got pie-in-the-sky ideas about "expanding." He was a mover and a shaker, a glad-hander and, all right, he did introduce my 12 year-old nephew to Al Pacino one afternoon. Al was slumming it with some softball buddies, fresh in from the park with a bandana around that ridiculous hair of his. He shook my nephew's hand and made small talk and, to this day, Greg can recount every detail.
But it was Lina, behind the counter and manning the espesso machine, who was the real draw. She had that incredible Mediterranean look, the hair, the skin, the beauty mark. She was the one who made the foam on the cappucino, just so. She was the one who got you to talk, to relax and talk while, outside, the world walked by. She was Mom and Mother Mary and Lover all rolled into one. She looked you in the eye and you were the only one. She put a hand on your arm and all was right with the world. Cares and worries vanished and everything would definitely be all right.
One night, I finally got to give her something in return for all the advice, kind words and coffee. A few of us were in her apartment celebrating something, a birthday or holiday, I can't remember. I disappeared to use the bathroom and while there removed my shirt and shoes and socks, pulled up my pant legs and wrapped a towel around my waist. Back in the living room I broke into the festivities and to blank stares asked, "Is there any soap?" Lina fell out, just fell out and even years later would remind me of my prank.
I left New York in1987 and never saw her again. She and Ritchie moved to Boca Raton and every Christmas I sent a card. When I married I sent a wedding picture, then came shots of the boys. Once, maybe twice, Lina wrote in her loopy handwriting, her self-conscious, printed English. She was content, she said, but she missed the New York days. And my bare chest.
Today, an email from a mutual friend. Lina was killed, hit by a car while running to her own, in a Florida downpour. The online news article was short and emotionless. A 70 year-old woman struck by a 67 year-old driver, in the rain. No charges will be filed.
And the sky was crying.