Center of the Universe (14)
Lucky 13. Or 14.
The sisters aren’t sure. And that uncertainty, along with their essential modesty, even shyness — and maybe something more — was reflected in the night’s celebration.
Yes, they wrapped the building in the silver tinsel skirt that signifies a special occasion at Sorellas. And they put up a thirteenth anniversary poster. But there was no performance by the Bernal Beat, the rousing grupo Latino for which John plays traps and Gail guitar and which, with its eight or nine members — plus jamming friends, plus instruments, amps and stands — reduces seating capacity by 40%, while increasing hippie shimmying by 100.
Instead, Wendy was at the spinet in the back, like any other Saturday, but, for the first time I can remember, working solo. The Company She Keeps, as she calls her ensemble, was keeping company elsewhere. Steve the bassist, her beau, in his Book of Mormon white shirt, black suit and skinny black tie, was playing a wedding with another band. The ubiquitous John — Soy’s guy and, in these parts, the drumslinger to beat — had been dragooned into helping out in the restaurant, which was extra busy and down a staffer.
Eventually, Dave and his pocket trumpet showed up to soothe Wendy’s sonic solitude. And soon after, Peter the harmonica dude materialized, blowing licks that, in their limpid joy, seemed the perfect homage to the joyful man of clean, clear music, Toots Thielemans, who invented jazz harmonica and had passed the day before. Then here comes Carol, Sorella’s first lady of flute, rolling suitcase of music and toys in tow.
Soy squeezed a chair in the corner between Wendy on the bench and Peter on the window sill. Carol was holding out for a table, the better to unfurl her flute-things. But on a jammed night in that jammed back room, there were no two-tops left. So Soy checked with us and then Carol, silently indicating the chair, double-checked:
Could she take the seat at the end of our table for seven?
Carol is part of the family, of course. The problem wasn’t familial, but logistical. We’d picked up one bonus diner in Flor, who’d been regaling us at the door with the story of her recent arrest at the Fairfax Roastery. Well, it wasn’t quite an arrest, but it did involve two of Fairfax’s finest, summoned when the proprietor decided 20 minutes was way past legit for a visitor in her bathroom — never mind that the visitor was a regular patron, way past 70. Turned out Flor was locked in — first embarrassed, then afraid. And though the impish lady from Shanghai (not the Philippines, as reported, by me, earlier) chuckled when I said I was going to write the PD a letter of commendation, she certainly didn’t when the constabulary burst in. And Roni was quick to assure her we were absolutely done with the Roastery. Done.
So when Soy came to shepherd us to our table, how could we leave her behind?
Which meant, when the big sister stopped back to ask about Carol, we were already sitting with Flor. And waiting for Kang and Maria. And expecting Gary, who shares a birthday with the bistro and, as part of the joint celebration, was coming in for a delicious Sonia dinner — much as he does six or seven other nights of the week. Since Gary’s a beer freak and a Blue Öyster Cult fan, we came bearing the gifts of a 22-ounce bottle of craftiness that cost as much as three uncrafty six-packs and a collectible backstage pass to BÖC (because our bud Sandy was their svengali).
Plus, by the way, matching bottles of Champagne — capital-C — for the sisters.
Needless to say, we always leave space on Saturdays for Dave’s Joan, who comes halfway through the last set to escort her hepcat home. And what about George? Soy said the boisterous ex-Merchant Mariner was boisterously committed (she’d canvassed the guest list via text this afternoon). So we also had to save a seat for George.
In short, for a mostly empty table, we were mostly full.
But family’s family, and I immediately said sure to Carol. We’ll figure it out. More the merrier. But it wasn’t long before the table was actually full. And here comes twinkly-eyed Joan.
It was Reverend Kang, the restaurant patriarch, who slipped a chivalrous chair into the table’s last dubious slot, next to the flautist — right next to the flautist — and gestured for Joan to take a load off.
Even as Joan did, Carol couldn’t. It wouldn’t work. Just as it wouldn’t when well-meaning Heather, the tall waitress, tried to stow Carol’s wheeled treasure chest around the corner — out of the perilous pathways between tables, feet and runaway rugrats that Sorella’s servers must continuously navigate, but also out of mama’s protective sight. Sweet, California-grown Heather didn’t know that in New York, where we both come from, where we all three come from (Roni, too), where they’ll steal anything that isn’t surgically stapled, three ways, to the thickest part of your body, you don’t leave your treasure chest around the corner.
But the point is, after our noted local aerophonist sets herself up — with teleprompting iPad, flute stand and giant flute-cleaning Q-tip — and definitively ascertains, within the challenging interstices of the back room, a viable arc of motion for her axe (so no yo-yo will accidentally jam it in her teeth), she’s not going to be overly interested in moving. Or having anyone else move in — for reasons not everyone may bother to understand. Maybe because not everyone has tried to play the freakin’ flute — pro bono, out of the love of music and goodness of her heart — in a cheek-by-jowl Korean-Brazilian Italian. To be fair, she doesn’t usually verbalize her discontent — Carol’s sure, but demure. It’s more a defensive puff, a stiffening of the shoulders, and sometimes an illustrative horizontal swipe of the old Jethro Tull stick.
And, as a guy who’s particular about his personal space, about elbow-room for his craft, the guy who vehemently hung on to his office when the whole damn company went open-plan, I get it.
Still, family’s family, and seeing Joan lower herself to the chair and then pop back up — not knowing from the force-field of flutes — I felt compelled to rush over and say:
Here, take my seat.
Which left me, at the end of this music-related musical chairs, chair-less — out of the family, logistically speaking — with a fast-cooling plate of pasta. And that’s when Wendy, chatting with our table on break, gestured at a miraculously unoccupied chair one table away and said to me:
Why don’t you sit with Patti and Steve?
With no other obvious choice and a generously enabling snootful of vino, I gathered my spaghetti bolognese — topped, per custom, one meatball, one sausage — and my teeming goblet of Nero and, to their surprise, plopped myself down with the neighbors.
Black-suited Steve had made it to the last set, but just to pick up Wendy. Patti, it turned out, was Peter the harmonicat’s squeeze and had lived in Fairfax since 1962.
I remember this place, she said, when it was a gas station.
The living link! I exclaimed. And the stories took off from there, not always in the direction I expected.
If the sisters weren’t sure before the busy evening about their celebratory mood — let alone the years they were celebrating — after, they were too beat. But by relentlessly emphasizing that it was Gary’s day, too — and offering to drive the folks home beforehand — I was finally able to lure/guilt them into joining Gary, George, Heather, Roni and me for a nightcap, a block away, at Nave’s.
Nave’s is a whole other trip — Volume II-V of the Fairfaxiad, at least — that I won’t fully engage now. Let’s just say it’s a hundred-year-old dive that was a dive a hundred years ago and opens daily at six a.m.
I’m pretty certain the sisters were a smidge subdued due to jonesing for Jack, Soy’s oldest and a real charmer, who’d just left for college in Santa Barbara. And since Sonia is much more than an aunt, more a co-mom, she was feeling it no less than big sis. But we got a couple of their favorite vodka drinks in them, and Eddie, the bar’s current owner (for 40 years), greeted them fondly — not as unforeseen lovelies in a late-night saloon, but as esteemed fellow Fairfax entrepreneurs — and eventually dropped a slightly slurry anecdote about how the big, loud guy with the cravat and blazer, but never a shirt, the longtime local character who has something to do with Hollywood and drives a sick 1963 Avanti, likes to come in Sunday mornings, command the barkeep to dial up channel 193 and perch on a stool into the p.m. watching, not football or basketball, but old movies.
Eventually the sorellas lightened up, and we chatted about the history of their restaurant and their history in restaurants. And then Roni and I started into some grilling of our own:
Wasn’t last year the thirteenth anniversary?!?
Chef Sonia has an endearing little-sisterish way of looking up from under her eyelashes when flummoxed, while Maitresse d’Hotel Soyara maintains a crisp, big-sisterish demeanor all the way till the moment she puts the back of her hand to her mouth and busts out laughing.
Which she did now, as her sister — and business partner of 13 or 14 years — leaned lovingly on her shoulder.