The head shot was there in the window when Hank walked by. A young blond man with pearly white teeth and the name “Joseph Atkins” imprinted at the bottom. Hank stopped to look for just a minute. This photo had been hanging in the former home of Molly’s Photo Lab for at least 10 years. This was about the only smiling human face on shabby Newsom Street the main drag of once proud Newsom, Massachusetts.
Hank worked at Nino’s Restaurant and it was his habit to walk from mother’s double decker house on Willow, to start his job as a waiter, delivery boy and all around worker at the only surviving business in this dying fishing town. Nino had survived because he was famous and even people who were scared of Newsom Street fought fear to eat his famous fettuccini now and then.
Nino was about 50, with a bald head, high cheekbones and a widening girth. He looked somewhat like Pope John Paul II. His restaurant specialized in Sicilian dishes: tomato based sauces, pizzas, garlic bread, red wine, etc. Nino’s was where you went for your first date, for a cheap meal, for reassuring home cooked dishes.
Hank had worked for Nino two years after high school. There weren’t many opportunities for success in this fishing town in southeastern Massachusetts. Hank was never a good student. He sucked at athletics. When other classmates were getting scholarships to M.I.T and Harvard, Hank was thinking about how he was going to support himself and his widowed mother now that he was out of high school and a man of 19 years of age.
Newsom Street had thrived in the years just after World War II. The town had many Portuguese with a mix of Irish, Italians and Slovaks who worked in the fishing industry and brought in loads of cod and lobsters. Newsom Street had a fishy stink that was legendary throughout southeastern Massachusetts.
Newsom was now a mostly abandoned street. Too homely to support renovation, too far from the high tech corridor to attract yuppies, it dwelled in memories and regret. Buildings still carried the names of their closed businesses: Schwartz Toys, McMann’s Hardware, Aiello Barbershop. The streetscape contained sagging double-decker wooden houses, peeling paint, broken windows, and utility poles covered with political advertising.
Yet Nino’s continued to survive. New Englanders are by nature attracted to the past and many families who had moved away from Newsom Street and vicinity would come on Sunday evenings and dine at Nino’s. Prices were still wonderfully affordable: $12.95 for a lobster dinner including garlic bread, salad, antipasto, entree and the famous bread pudding.
One Tuesday morning in October the chill of autumn was in the air. The maples were showing their red leaves and the smell of burning pine logs permeated the hazy air. Hank was walking to work again and thinking of how he could tell Nino that he wanted to quit.
This decision had taken even Hank by surprise. He had intended to stay at Nino’s throughout the winter and then by spring he was going to enroll in the Boston School of Computer Animation and take some classes. Eventually, he hoped to become a web page designer and move to Boston and work in the high tech industry.
But something inside was trying to dissuade him from learning HTML and the complexities of computer animation. It was the head shot that he had seen of the young blond man hanging in the window of a store that no longer existed. Maybe that guy was a famous actor. Maybe there was an easy way out of hard work. It was a picture that you could make up a story about.
Hank often imagined that he would be working in the restaurant and someone would just come in and tell him that he should be an actor and he could make millions, become famous and get out of Newsom forever. That was just a dream though…..
Nino was busy loading in tin cans of olive oil. He struggled to get them off the truck and down into the basement of the restaurant as Hank arrived.
“Morning Hank. Can you get these off the truck and just move whatever you need to down there?”
Hank was eager to help. This was his nature to assist people. He was the delivery boy, the obedient son, the kind friend, a thoughtful young worker.
But on this particular morning, he felt resentful at this early exertion. He wanted to speak to Nino but there wasn’t a chance.
“I have to talk to you when we finish,” Hank said.
Nino looked at him and shook his head in disbelief.
“Hey. Just watch what you’re doing and don’t drop the oil. It’s extra virgin and I can’t afford to puncture any of these cans.”
“When is the pasta coming in?” Hank asked.
“I don’t know. Manelli said that there’s construction delays on that fuckin’ Central Artery and I don’t think they can get it down to me by tonight. I’m scared cause I only got fettuccini and I need some penne, spaghetti, and lasagna.”
“Did you see that some of the garlic has gone bad?” Hank asked.
“What? Why didn’t you tell me Sunday night?”
“I just noticed it when I went downstairs. Geez, it’s not my restaurant Nino!”
“What do you mean its not my restaurant? Of course it is! You work here you contribute.”
“I want to quit Nino.”
Nino droppped a box of artichokes and stared straight into Hank’s frightened eyes.
Hours later, over a few cups of coffee, Nino understood why Hank wanted to leave. He just didn’t buy his reasoning.
“Listen, you should get out of Newsom and especially waitering. You can’t make a living at being a waiter unless you intend to open a restaurant and from a man who has been running a joint for many years I’d advise you against it. But don’t you think computers is the way to go?”
“Yeah. I mean look at Bill Gates or that guy that started the bookstore Amazing or whatever it’s called.”
“Millionaires!” Nino yelled.
Nino pounded his fist on the table. He looked like a little godfather telling his son what the true way in life was.
“Up in Boston you got guys maybe 20 or 21 years old. Geniuses at M.I.T. making millions on some stupid computer game. My daughter said she went out with a Chinese kid whose father invented a language that all the computers use. Invented a fuckin’ language!”
Hank was laughing. He was picturing a Chinese man who couldn’t speak English inventing a language that everyone would use around the world.
“But Nino,” Hank insisted, “I’m not going to get into M.I.T.!”
“Why not?” Nino demanded.
“I’m not Chinese for one thing.”
“O.K. Funny. So when do you want to walk outta here? I need to know so I can hire someone else.”
“I need to go up to Boston to register at the BSCA….and maybe look for a place to live.”
“All right. Why don’t you go on Wednesday on your day off and take Thursday too. Do you need some money?”
“No. That’s all right Nino. I have some saved.”
“Nonsense. I’m giving you $200.”
Nino went into the back room and came out with two freshly printed $100 dollar bills. Hank looked at the money and wondered whether Nino had a secret counterfeiting operation. The bills just looked too good to be real.
Hank went home and told his mother that he was taking the bus into Boston the next morning and staying the night at the YMCA. He took out his homely green army duffle and threw some t-shirts, underwear, athletic socks and a pair of black leather shoes in. He took a Ziploc bag and packed toothpaste, toothbrush, hair gel, deodorant, shaving cream and razors.
In his closet, buried on the top shelf underneath all the winter woolens, he kept a cardboard box leftover from a long ago Christmas. He reached up and threw his sweaters on the floor and took down the box. Inside were 50 head shots of him which a photographer had taken almost 2 years ago. He looked at the photo and wondered if he still looked 17 years old. When you are 19, even a few months can change your looks radically.
He packed the box with his photo inside the duffle bag and the next morning boarded a bus for South Station Boston.
When he got to the Cambridge YMCA he was disappointed. It was a brown dinosaur from the 1920’s: homely, spartan, cold looking. It was neither welcoming nor hostile—just indifferent. Central Square was full of students, homeless men, delivery trucks, cars, noise and confusion. It was a hodgepodge of modern clinics, hospitals, M.I.T satellite buildings and fast food restaurants.
After registering, he showered, put on a fresh white oxford shirt and walked over to the Boston School of Computer Animation. When he got there he was sickened. He had expected a Gothic building or maybe a Colonial campus but instead the school was in a three story building next to the Mass Turnpike and shared its quarters with a McDonalds, a nail salon, and a accidental injury lawyer.
He entered the building and walked up the narrow off kilter stairs and into a florescent lit office. A purple haired punky girl sat at the front desk. Beyond the girl, he could see dozens of computers jammed into a small room with young hackers staring beetle eyed at flickering images on their cathode ray tube monitors.
The girl at the desk had a nose ring and tilted her head at an angle when she talked.
“Hi. I’m interested in your computer classes. Can you tell me anything about the courses?” Hank asked.
“What do you want to know?” she asked with her mouth full of gum.
“I want to learn HTML.”
She handed him a course catalog outlining the classes offered.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked.
“No. I don’t think so.”
Hank walked out of the school and felt like vomiting. This shithole! Was this why he had traveled up to Boston and rented a room at the YMCA? To walk into a school where they didn’t even answer your questions, acknowledge your presence, offer you a tour?
Was he a loser? Could they look at him and see that he didn’t belong or wasn’t smart enough? Did he have small town written all over him? Were his clothes not hip enough?
Fuck that place! Fuck that fucking girl!
There was a consolation though. He was enjoying Boston. The sights were beautiful. He took a walk through Beacon Hill at dusk and saw the gas lamps turned on and the gentle glow of the setting sun against the red brick townhouses on Louisburg Square. Boston was incredible when you turned down the right street. At the Massachusetts Statehouse he could look over the gorgeous grounds of the Public Common and imagine Paul Revere riding up the street.
After a cheap dinner in Quincy Market, he walked around and stopped to buy a gift for Nino. It was a wooden frame with the engraving “Greetings from the North End.”
He wasn’t ready to go back to the YMCA so he stopped off at an Irish type bar near the wharf. The bar was full of Bostontonians, some men in suits, rowdy students, women in tight skirts with cardigan sweaters and push up bras. It was lively and loud and what he needed after a day alone in the big city.
He could barely edge his way to the bar to order a Becks. He stood on the counter rail to increase his height and caught the eye of the bartender.
A young and harried guy came over to Hank.
“What can I get you?”
“Can I see some I.D?”
Hank pulled out his driver’s license and handed it to the bartender.
The bartender looked at it.
“Sorry man. You still got another year. Can’t serve ya.”
Hank was really annoyed. There were girls, probably 16 or 17 around the bar. He just didn’t believe that he couldn’t get served here. Nino never cared. Why should this guy?
Strangely, the bartender motioned to Hank to come to the side of the bar. Hank went over to him.
“Where are you from kid?” the bartender asked.
“Newsom! No kidding! So am I?”
“I thought you looked familiar!” Hank said.
“Geez. I don’t know. I’m probably 10 years older than you.” the bartender said.
“What’s your name?” Hank asked.
“Joseph.” The bartender answered.
Hank wondered. “Joseph………Atkins?”
“Now how did you know that!”
“I think I’ve seen you on Newsom Street.” Hank answered.
“That’s so funny man. Hey Hank I’ve gotta get those two chicks down there. I’ll catch ya later.”
Hank walked out of the bar satisfied that he had finally met Joseph Atkins. The young man in the head shot.
The next morning, Hank went back to the school of computer animation to see if maybe he hadn’t been a bit too hasty in judging the merits of this institution of higher education.