“May I take your coat?”
My leather jacket is about as attractive as a burst basketball with sleeves. It’s a hobo suit, cut from the hide of an animal so lowly even PETA wouldn’t argue its case. The texture even resembles faux-chicken or tofurkey. Or maybe it’s just tailored duct tape. Whatever. I love this jacket. I’m sentimental and it keeps me dry.
The coat check woman politely slipped my rags on a hook and gave me a ticket that was nothing less than an American Express credit card with a hole punched in it and a number written in gold felt pen.
I knew then we were in trouble.
My sister was taking me out for a belated birthday dinner, and she had waved down my first suggestion, Subway, saying she had money these days and wanted to treat me. I then suggested this quaint Italian place I’d passed by numerous times, Cioppino’s. The reek of money should have driven me out, but my sister, bless, who must have realised before me what a pit of opulence we were entering, gamely continued following the maitre d’ to our table placed directly before the open-faced kitchen.
A wine list thick as a phone book was shouldered to our table. Flipping it open halfway the first bottle I noticed was listed at $888. I checked the floor around us for the decimal point that must have fallen out. The next bottle in my random inspection cost $1,255.00. Towards the end, but not the very end, I discovered a bottle of fermented grape juice somebody somewhere was prepared to pay $6,777 to drink and slammed shut the tome.
“I think,” I whispered loudly enough to be heard over my hammering heartbeat, “this place might be a bit much for us! Let’s sneak out now.”
“We can’t,” whispered my sister just as loudly, staring over my shoulder at the entire staff of the kitchen paused in their work to stare at us. “They have your coat, remember? Just find something we can afford…”
My three-dollar coat or a dinner that could swallow a mortgage?
I’m sentimental. It keeps me dry. We stayed.
Now, the go-to plan here, obviously, would be to order the seven grand vino, sip the waiter’s obligatory sample and turn up my nose.
“Ew! Corked, I’m afraid, dear boy! Rum luck, eh what? Chizz chizz!”
After the sobbing waiter had poured the hundred year old bottle of Chateau de la Chateau down the sink, while the chef’s staff stared hard at my throat, testing the heft of cleavers in their hands, I would have to sit and watch as the kitchen staff, their bloodshot eyes never leaving mine, formed a queue to hurk and spit openly in my food, fart wetly over my plate, crouched over my dessert with their pants down, coiling fresh mousse onto the delicate Madeleine biscuits. A huge heap of Italian mousse on French biscuits. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
What if I had simply ordered the wine and drank it? When the bill arrived and I didn’t have the gold brick needed to pay for it, what would happen? What’s the punishment for Grand Theft Ambrosia?
I would be sent to a prison in the Okanagan where the prisoners while away their penance treading barefoot in vats of bubbling grapes. Where else would they find the manpower cheap enough— in BC— to make the stuff? Hidden away in golden orchards, beyond hills lined with green vines and glistening grapes, lie walled compounds filled with unwashed men covered with shiv scars and tattoos of heraldic crests and Latin mottoes of ancient families of Langue d’oc and Champagne, trudging rhythmically in huge buckets, naked from the waist down, taking extreme care not to drop the soap.
“What are you in for?”
“Drank a bottle of Chateau de la Chateau on my birthday. You?”
“Killed a man who lied about a corked bottle of Maison sur la Maison.”
Newbies – fresh fish who would’ve had one last cleanse in the days before incarceration – would make nothing fancier than Merlot. After a few years building up scabs, crabs, lice and armpit lobsters, they work their way up to Burgundies, Syrahs, Bordeaux, Barolos and Chiantis. The oldest, leprous men, wielding crutches made from the bones of dead cell mates get to make Semillons and, if they are especially rancid, Retsina.
That is the only way I can see a bottle of wine, intended for drinking – for washing down good food and putting a warm fuzz over a lovely evening with friends or a beautiful date – somehow costing $6,777.00: because a man gave his life to produce it.
Let me say, however, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the staff of Cioppino’s were incredible. There was never a single instant of bad behaviour on their part. Never, not once, were my sister and I made to feel like anything less than the wealthiest patrons there. In fact, swarming our table, administering to our slightest care, they actually put more attention to our comfort than they did the customers who were clearly spending thousands of dollars on their meals. If I owned a gold mine I wouldn’t hesitate to eat there again.
When I made a passing joke about it being my hobo suit, the coat check woman handing me back my jacket, dismissing my humbleness with a smile.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You’re fine. You folks are welcome anytime.”
I slung on my coat and slunk out into the rain, ashamed of my cynical fantasies, but lushly sated and dry.