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Center of the Universe (56)

Center of the Universe (56)

Giovanni singing with Robert Duncan

Take This Job and Shove It

Giovanni, who has played Italo-German-Polish accordion on Friday nights at Sorellas for almost the entire decade-and-a-half the restaurant has been in business, is done. Finito. Fertig. Skończone. The guy I sang “Brown-Eyed Girl” with a hundred times is saying later-sucker to the workadaddy world. Called Soy one recent afternoon and said you won’t have John (his non-accordion name) to kick around anymore because John is now a millionaire. I forgot to ask Soy if, after that, he laughed like a maniac or it was all straight-up ice.

If the farewell seemed abrupt, even a tad tart, I’m not sure it was aimed at the sisters. They treated him well. Fed him. Watered him. Hugged him. Celebrated him in their signage and spam. Paid him. Advanced him (when needed). Encouraged him to put the tip jar out front. And at the end of a three-hour weekly shift, helped make sure he would take home a couple hundred bucks from their little mom-and-pop Italian. Which is not a million, granted, but not terrible for this historically undervalued class of artisans — among whom are some really good accordion players (which my brother, an almost-graduate of the conservatory, confirmed Gio is) clearly deserving of more from the cosmos.

More likely, that tartness is aimed at light tippers and heavy accordions and merciless landlords and unsympathetic bosses and unjust bouncers and faithless girlfriends and relentless bill-collectors and incompetent VA doctors and even a little bit at me. I know he got pissed at a post in which I kidded (affectionately, I told myself) about his banishment from Peri’s for cold-cocking another “kidder” in the pool room, as well as about his propensity to misunderstand in weird ways. Like when I gave him Joel Selvin’s wonderful bio of Bert Berns, who wrote and produced “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and he gave me, in return, a Rodney Dangerfield movie co-starring Gilbert Gottfried, as if the book had been an insult. Or like when Sandy would join us, and Gio would trot by to play “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” Time for me to go, the black-leathered progenitor of heavy metal would announce. I can only guess that at some point, tucked into Table 10, mere inches from Gio’s high stool — and attentive ear — Sandy had dropped one of his darkly ironic remarks, something about McCartney or bouncy pop or post-Revolver Beatles, and the accordionist had taken it 180º wrong. Gio didn’t do irony.

I thought that was funny.

But it may be that I deserve daggers most of all for things Gio doesn’t know. Because right when my friend and sometime singing partner was scraping bottom, having been laid off from his longtime day-job as a technician making false teeth, when my 60-something buddy-boy got in a tussle with his nasty stepfather and was banished from his mother’s house and affections, when the maniacally laughing man who had given me so many Friday evenings of joy was sleeping in his car, I was not only in a flush phase, but sitting on a surplus apartment — the in-law unit at my house (quite separate from the other surplus apartment we were renting in the city) — and didn’t speak up. Left it to a human with way more humanity — and a lot less money — to take him in.

Now  it seems inescapable: the wheels at the center of the universe are turning.

Too much hassle, I rationalized. Too close quarters. Too open-ended an engagement. Too risky all around. Anyway, house is a mess — we’d have to spend a week cleaning. Plus, I argued to my better angels, the guy’s not without his quirks. Of course, when his benefactor decided to throw him out for not washing the dishes, I felt justified. But even guiltier. And still feel it today. Except today I also feel like I might’ve missed out on an Instant Karma jackpot — if and when Gio pays back all his friends with interest (though I haven’t yet noticed Gail tooling around in a new Escalade). Because my friend, the small-town troubador, is now officially Big Pimpin’.

Still, it’s kind of a sad story. The wicked stepfather died, so Gio was able to reconnect with mom. Then mom died. Which, despite the prior unpleasantness, was terribly sad — all the way up till Gio reconnected with her estate. Turns out mom not only owned her house in Marin County (ka-ching!), she owned an apartment house in Los Angeles (ka-ching! ka-ching!), and he was her sole heir. Kind of sad. Kind of not.

After Gail had finally motivated him to move on — but not before, ignoring her warnings about the slippery porch, he had badly broken his leg and temporarily relocated to Marin General (overlapping, it so happened, with Sandy, admitted two days earlier with the brain hemorrhage that ultimately killed him) — Gio, just to draw the circle tighter, took a room in Lynette Shaw’s. She’s the retail pot monopolist who makes a cameo at the Fairfax town council in the previous post. (Like I said, it’s not just a strange town, it’s small.) Unsure how they first crossed paths — never knew Gio, a reformed juicer, to be a pothead — but I imagined him sitting on the edge of a single bed, in a sparse room, in a haze of sampled product, flipping open his vintage cell (back in service, since the windfall), and calling the restaurant to belt out his accordion transcription of Johnny Paycheck’s biggest hit.

I thought that was funny, too.

I pressed Soy for more. Would Giovanni ascend the high stool one last time? Could we have a going-away party? Or are we really never going to see him again? Her reply: Gio said he’s a millionaire, and that’s that.

The truth is, in deference to my fitness regime, I’d largely abandoned my friend over the last year, deciding that Saturday nights at the sisters was enough indulgence for my blood sugar and foreswearing Fridays. But every once in a while, I’d crack. Stop by, glug a glass or three of Nero and join Giovanni for high harmonies and a rollicking “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But even when I wasn’t there, I knew he was. Gio was part of the family and the scene. A character in the longrunning play. A star — alongside Kang, Maria, Wendy, Steve, Gary, Flo, Jacquie, George, John M., the sisters and whoever else happened to be in the mood that night for hot lasagna and warm companionship — of the movie continuously unspooling in my mind. The one about home. But now — with this, with Dave’s exit and, two years earlier, Sandy’s — it seems inescapable: the wheels at the center of the universe are turning. They’re always turning, of course — it’s the nature of the universe. Just that sometimes, in the glow of friends, family and well-played accordion, you forget.

When Soy told me about Gio, I knew that, more than funny, this was breaking Italian-restaurant news, and I was duty-bound to write it up. But I thought for sure I’d be able to track down the maestro for the full horse’s mouth. Maybe even convince him to haul out the squeezebox and take a dip in the Bert Berns songbook. I thought Gio would tell me, in his own lovably leery words, how it feels to be free and easy, sitting on top of the world, a millionaire. And so, notebook at the ready, I waited. And waited. And this morning it occurred to me it’s never going to happen.

Finito. Fertig. Skończone.


Center of the Universe (57)

Center of the Universe (57)

Center of the Universe (55)

Center of the Universe (55)