You've seen it dozens of times in old movies. It's snowing, it's freezing, the wind is blowing, the sky is dark, and Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello or Charlie Chaplin, or Bob Hope (or whomever) finds himself out in the cold. He's hungry, really hungry hasn't eaten in 3 days but he doesn't have any money. Unable to withstand the hunger pangs any longer, the poor soul walks into a café and, sitting down at a table, orders a sumptuous meal (it's never just a small sandwich; it's always an elaborate multi-course feast).
At the end of the repast the waiter brings over the check and, after the obligatory hemming and hawing, the fellow finally admits to the waiter that he has not the funds in which to pay for his dinner. Upon getting this news, the demeanor of the waiter changes from pleasantly solicitous to pompously indignant. The waiter calls the manager over, who angrily confronts the diner in an embarrassingly intimidating manner. "So! You cannot pay for your dinner, eh?"
Sheepishly, the diner utters some lame cliché like, "I beg your pardon, my good man, but it appears I have misplaced my wallet" or "You've caught me in somewhat of a financial dilemma. I'm afraid I am, for the moment, monetarily embarrassed." Words to that effect. Cut to the next scene where we find our pathetic hero standing at a sink in the restaurant kitchen, dressed in an apron and washing what appears to be mounds of dirty dishes and huge army-sized pots and pans. The idea is, of course, that the guy will work off his debt by washing dishes. (Unless the freeloader is Bing Crosby, in which case he would be allowed to work off his debt by singing a couple of songs.)
That's the way it works in the movies, anyway. In real life I always figured that if someone really ran up an expensive restaurant tab and couldn't pay for it that the owners would probably just call the police. In any case, the situation seemed farcical to me a bit of business from an old movie or animated cartoon surely not anything that would really happen to anyone. I was wrong. It happened to me.
Valentino is one of the best restaurants in the state, perhaps one of the best in the entire country. Known not only for its exquisite Italian food, it also boasts an extensive and impressive wine list. The place is sophisticated, romantic, famous, and expensive. And although we had certainly heard about it for years and wanted to experience it first hand, for one reason or another we just never got around to going.
On the occasion of our 29th wedding anniversary my wife and I decided to celebrate by having dinner at Valentino at long last. That evening we allowed ourselves plenty of time to dress and make the drive over to Santa Monica. Surprisingly, traffic was relatively light and we made it to the restaurant with time to spare. We pulled into the lot, a valet took the car and we walked through the front door, not really sure what to expect.
Piero Selvaggio, the owner, was right there to welcome us with an ingratiating smile and the warmth of hospitality which reminded me of the style of Los Angeles' legendary fine dining establishments of long ago. As we were shown to our table, I felt that Valentino fit right in to that grand tradition of restaurant. Scandia, Perino's, L'Orangerie, and L'Ermitage all come to mind. All very elegant. All very haute cuisine. All very expensive. And all graciously comfortable. And all of them now gone with the wind.
We were shown to our table (a very nice banquet in the main room) and greeted by our waiter. We ordered martinis (they even had my favorite brand of hard to find gin) and relaxed with our drinks for awhile before ordering. The total experience was perfect. The martinis were icy cold and perfect. The food was outstanding. The wait staff was attentive without being obvious. Everyone treated us royally and the two hours we spent dining that evening seemed to fly by. As I said, everything was perfect.
I requested the check and as the waiter brought it to the table I thought to myself how this anniversary dinner will be a memorable one for us. I had no idea just how memorable it would soon turn out to be. I took out my wallet and went for my credit card. Not there. No driver's license either. The reason was I usually change from my everyday wallet to my "dress" wallet when I'm wearing a suit for an evening out. This time I somehow neglected to transfer the license and credit card when I made the switch.
I turned to Jane, of whom it can be said always comes prepared for nearly any emergency situation. Need a tissue? Jane's got it. Need a mint or a stick of gum? It's in her purse. Do you need a Chapstick? Here. Toothpick? Yep. Shoehorn? Handy-wipes? Extra socks? Mittens? She's got it all. So when I turned to her to tell her what I didn't find when I opened my wallet, I expected her to give me one of those looks that only a wife can make when she knows her husband has been stupid once again, and then with a sigh, reach in to her purse and pull out her credit card and hand it to me. But she didn't give me one of those looks. Her face dropped and she said that for the first time she didn't take her wallet with her.
In a matter of less than a minute I went from feeling like Cary Grant at a fancy supper club in New York, to Oliver Hardy trying to beat the restaurant out of the cost of a dinner in the depths of the Depression. Suddenly I was one of those guys in the middle of the old "Gee, I must've left my money in my other suit," routines. I felt my dinner turning over in my stomach.
Whenever a life-threatening situation arises, the human brain immediately begins to process some way out of it. It's the natural instinct of survival, I guess. In split-second increments, my mind started to spit out options and just as quickly rejected all them:
Let's see, I could leave Jane, as collateral, at the restaurant while I went home to get my cards…no good.
Or I might excuse myself and pretend to go to the men's room while I hightail it over the hill and pick up my cards….no good.
Maybe I could find an ATM somewhere nearby and….no good.
None of it is any good. No, Jane and I will wind up washing and drying dishes at the sink in the back of the restaurant kitchen for the next several hours. We have no choice since I can't sing like Bing. Either that, or the police will be called and they'll take us away. That's all.
Unable to come up with a way to worm my way out of this, I agonizingly called the waiter over and just told him the truth. Next thing I knew the Maitre D', Giuseppe Mollica, came over and said quietly with an understanding smile, "Please don't worry about it, sir. These things happen. It's okay." He said these words not in a condescending or arrogant manner, but in a way that at once put me at ease. He gave me his card and asked me to call him with my credit card number once I got back home. Still feeling stupid and humiliated, I assured him I would.
As we were heading to the door I was stopped by Piero himself who put his arm on my shoulder and assured me that it was okay and not to worry about it. He even told me that this very thing has happened to him on occasion. I don't know if that part was really true or not, but I know that this gracious man went out of his way to make me feel better about myself and the situation in general.
So our memorable anniversary dinner at Valentino was saved thanks to the class and kindness of the owner and his staff. We didn't go to jail. We didn't have to wash dishes. And fortunately for all concerned, I didn't have to get up and sing a couple of songs