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Driving Uncle Dante

On that Friday afternoon in 1967, Nonna Kate was in a state of bliss because at the moment everything was right in her world. Sitting at the kitchen table in her beautiful Broadway Victorian, her radiant, wrinkle-free complexion belied her 75 years. A Kent cigarette dangled from her lips and a tumbler full of Carlo Rossi Red Mountain Burgundy, her “nectar of life,” was at hand.

Alameda Post - A radio sitting on a tableShe and I were singing to the Sinatra—Nancy, not Frank—that boomed forth from her newly repaired Wards Airline table radio.

“These boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they’ll do, ’cause one of these boots are gonna walk all over you. Are ya ready boots? Start walkin’!”

Nonna laughed, took a puff of her Kent and a gulp of her wine, then said, “Gil, tell your Alameda High radio shop teacher thanks for showing you how to fix my old Airline. I thought she was a goner.”

Alameda Post - A large jug of red wineI put down my delicious foccacia-mortadella-garlic aoili sandwich and replied, “Yeah, Mr. Lynch is the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

We were interrupted by a loud, hacking smoker’s cough, coming from outside.

“O marrone, (darn) here comes old rum-dum,” Nonna Kate moaned. I looked out the back door window and replied, “No, it’s Uncle Dante.”

“Like I said, here comes old rum-dum. You’ll see,” she answered.

The back door opened, and in shuffled Uncle Dante, wearing his fishmonger’s apron. His thick, graying hair was unkempt, his shirt and pants stained, and his face drawn. He smelled of cigarettes, bourbon, and old fish.

He looked at me, smiled and said, “Hey, Bill, you’re just the guy I want to see.”

Nonna Kate winked at me and barked, “His name is Gil, you old rum-dum!”

Uncle Dante laughed and replied, “Gil, Bill, it’s all the same. Ah, what can you do?”

“You look like you need a highball, Dante,” said Nonna Kate. Uncle Dante  brightened, “Sure do, Mom, make it a double.” Nonna Kate shook her head as she got up to make the drink.

“So, Uncle Dante, what did you want to see me about?” I inquired.

He looked confused. “Wait a minute, let me think,” he said. “Oh yeah, hey Bill, you got a driver’s license?”

I ignored his identification impairment and replied, “Yeah, a learner’s permit.”

“Perfect!” he said. “I’ll pay you $20 tomorrow to help me deliver my orders. I got fish for the Red Sails and Le Bouc restaurants, and booze for the Time Out, Buckhorn, Encinal Lounge, Lincoln’s Address, and Jensen’s bars. We’ll have a busy day. Can you drive a column shift?”

I was excited over the prospect of earning $20 for just one day’s work.

“Sure I can drive a column shift,” I said. “I learned in my dad’s ’46 Chevy.”

Alameda Post - An old, white panel Chevy truck for driving Uncle Dante“Great! My Chevy panel truck is a ’46. I bought it after I married your Aunt Margaret.”

“And now she’s stuck with two old wrecks,” laughed Nonna Kate.

That Saturday morning, I met Uncle Dante in front of his garage, where he was loading his truck from a walk-in fridge. He looked tired and disheveled, with dark bags under his eyes. He still reeked of cigarettes and bourbon.

“Feeling okay, Uncle Dante?” I asked.

“Never better, kid, like a champ!” he responded. “Now, let’s load this stuff in order of delivery. Load the Buckhorn crate first, and the Red Sails box last.”

The loading completed, we made a gear-grinding trip to the Red Sails, where Dragon Rouge is now. As we traveled, Uncle Dante taught me some sales philosophy.

“Kid, I run my business like I run my life, by the Golden Rule: Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you.”

“Uncle Dante, that’s not the Golden Rule,” I interrupted. “It’s from a speech by President Kennedy, and it’s backwards.”

“It is? Ah, what can you do?” he replied.

As we pulled up to the Red Sails, Uncle Dante barked, “Kid, this cook, Freddy, thinks he’s the best. So to help me make the sale of all this flounder, I want you to walk in and say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful kitchen! The best cook in Alameda must work here!’”

I did what I was told, and sweaty, rotund Freddy slapped me on the back and roared, “The best cook in Alameda? You’d better believe it, baby!”

He was so flattered that he didn’t haggle and offered us fish sandwiches, which Uncle Dante declined. As we left, I was irate. “Uncle Dante, I’m hungry. I could use a fish sandwich.”

Uncle Dante grinned.

“Not his, kid. He’ll cremate the fish, burn the bread, then pour orange cheesy glop all over it. You’ll be burpin’ burnt toast, cheese glop, and flounder all day.”

Alameda Post - Materials from Le Bouc Restaurant. A brown menu with a tan goat on the front and the words We made a similar delivery to Le Bouc—where Speisekammer is now—with an identical decline of a tasty snack, this time a Gallic cassoulet of beans, cabbage, and sausage. “We’ll be passin’ gas for month,”  advised Uncle Dante.

The fish deliveries were complete, and the booze deliveries began. Uncle Dante perked up as we neared the next stop, near the spot now occupied by Alameda Golfworks.

“Let’s hit the Time Out,” Uncle Dante said. “They open early.”

We pulled in front of the bar, and Uncle Dante held the door while I wrestled a crate full of liquor bottles and took it inside. Delilah, the bartender, yelled happily, “Look who’s here! It’s Dante, the doctor of bottles! Hey Dante, you’re lookin’ kinda rough. Need an eyeopener?”

Uncle Dante sounded like he was gasping for air.  “Yes, please. A double seven-high.”

Delilah looked at me and said, “Sweetie, it’s a beautiful day for boys under 21. How about you wait outside until Dante finishes his drink?”

Thus evicted, I sat in the truck and waited. And waited. Almost two hours went by before the bar door opened and Delilah beckoned me inside. “Hon, help me pour Dante into his truck,” she said. “He’s a tad over-served.”

Uncle Dante was passed out, his face on the bar. We grabbed him and foot-dragged him out to the truck, where he mumbled something, fell asleep, and began to snore. Delilah handed me $100 for the order. “Tell him to dry out,” she chuckled.

Because I really wanted my $20.00 pay, I decided that I’d finish the deliveries myself. When the various bartenders would ask about Uncle Dante, I’d take them to look in the truck. When they finished laughing, each of them paid me $100.

On the way home, Uncle Dante fidgeted and snored.  When we got there, I folded the money and put it in his shirt pocket—minus my $20. I left the truck keys in the ignition and proceeded to lock him in for safety.

“We’re all done, Uncle Dante,” I yelled. “Thanks.”

He opened a rheumy eye just a slit and grumbled, “Ah, what can you do?”

Gil Michaels is still searching for the perfect taco at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gil-Michaels

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