Under strict observation, human behavior can be just as fascinating an example of complex model systems as any software design or any chemical interaction. Read works by John E. Douglas, and you’ll learn of the more bizarre machinations that can be conjured by the human mind. Like the dutiful meticulous work of a spider that weaves its web, the prolific investigator describes how these shattered souls can entrap and enshroud themselves within the complex constructs of their own imagination, curtailed to fit their particular fetishes and foibles. Yet still, these intricate tapestries somehow still aren’t incongruous with the necessary rituals of mundane life; they somehow still mesh with reality. As with other examples of eccentric psychology, it’s possible to conduct investigative therapy and find an artifact from this mental dig, something that helps to explain where it all went wrong…but physiologically, it’s usually a complete mystery.
For centuries, chefs have known that brass serves as better cookware when preparing various egg dishes, but they could never tell you why. Eventually, the enigma was solved in the late 20th century, only after a group of physicists was curious enough to seek its explanation. So, how many more years are left before we finally understand the human mind, down to the firing of every neural synapse? Take a fight between two romantic partners, for example. Sure, we can understand when an alexithymiac couple evades a painful topic, lets it fester beneath the thin surface like trapped methane, and then ignites it suddenly in a bright display of fireworks and a frightful brandishing of razor-sharp Wüsthof knives. That and the occasional subsequent trip to the emergency room are normal, of course…but on a neurological level, what exactly leads to such a dilemma? After putting down our sharpest cleaver and consenting to a truce with Rhonda, I was in the midst of wrapping my head around this enduring puzzle during a stroll intended to calm my nerves. I had made some progress with my walk (but little with my biological homework) when I felt the familiar buzz from my pocket. Hoping that the peace accord had not been rescinded, I saw with relief that the incoming call was not from Rhonda. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to contact the United Nations to warn them about any impending violence in the near future.
Octavio…hmmm…I wonder what he wants…
“Hey, kid,” I said in greeting to the young lad on the line. “Long time, no see. I haven’t seen you at the gym for the last few weeks. Where’ve you been?”
The voice on the other end was Octavio…but he didn’t sound like his normal effervescent self. “Hey, Pete…uhhh…can you meet up with me at White Mana? I got something to tell you.”
“Sure,” I answered, curious about the tone of his voice. “Which one?”
“There’s more than one?” questioned Octavio incredulously.
Even though he wasn’t physically present, I shook my head disapprovingly. Though it wasn’t completely necessary to be aware of local trivia, you would think that anyone with roots in this area would be aware of an indigenous restaurant feud that had lasted for almost a century. (Or, at the very least, be aware of one that’s lasted for several decades, like the muzz feud between Vito’s and Fiore’s in Hoboken.) These townies on the Palisades… As a young lad in West Virginia, I appreciated the ethereal serenity that beset me in those lofty peaks, offering its bounty of crisp mountain air…but I and other natives of my age couldn’t help but always yearn to simply glimpse at the menu offered by the world, for to even hope at tasting its offerings was beyond the feeble limits of our jejune imagination. These spawn of the Palisades, though, could observe the entire world from their vantage point. From their apartment windows, they could watch the Empire State Building change its colors every night. They could hear the loud cruise ships docking in the Hudson from the east, and from the west, they could hear the whistle of trains blowing through the North Bergen Rail Yard. On a summer wind that would have inspired Sinatra to sing from his grave, you could taste the salt from the sea in the air during the day’s summer swells. Then, that very night and from below, you could smell the brine and decay of the mysterious, swampy Meadowlands (including its now permanent residents dropped off by mobsters of earlier decades). So much, including New York City, surrounded them, and it was all at their fingertips…yet for most of them, it was simply a background to their existence, as real as a mile-high projection screen for 360 degrees.
Don’t get me wrong…it’s common for the young to be unaware of their surroundings as they frolick, rolling in their new morning clover and feeling the cool dew of life immortal on them. Everything has a tendency to fall into the background when narcissism runs hot in a teenager’s veins…but, these rapscallions, though, seemed to suffer from a hotter fever. Was it just another odd trait in those born to the Palisades? Was it yet another tiresome aspect of an immature Millennial Generation, who seemed to seek reclusion from “adulting” and reality like the Swiss during wartime? Or maybe it was just my perspective as a curmudgeon (a.k.a., an old bastard), as another example where the grass is greener on the other side (or, in this case of a bucolic upbringing, where the buildings are taller)? I had to admit it: there was a good chance it was an amalgamation of them all.
“Yes,” I answered with emphasized exasperation, “There’s another one. But I’ll be down there on Tonnele in a few minutes. Okay?” And after quickly affirming our arrangement, Octavio disconnected from the line.
I could have arrived early by riding the local jitney buses (otherwise known to some locals as “the chicken trucks”), but keeping with my elitist attitudes, I tended to abide by a standard of cleanliness that has been adopted by North America. So, I chose public transportation as the more faithful option. Switching between a couple of NJTransit buses, I finally rode the Route 125 until I arrived on the doorstep of my eventual destination. Looking upon the White Mana Diner once more, I couldn’t help but smile at it with the fond appreciation for anything that has the ability to elicit nostalgia, even when there are little to no experiences involving yourself. For that’s not the important point for such a place to earn respect: it held the key that could unlock memories for so many others. As with any woman who wields subtle power, there is nothing of extravagance worn on its septuagenarian outside to invoke any maudlin feelings of the observer. (The same could be said about the plain-looking Ringside Lounge across the street, though its Siren call has wooed many famous boxers into its midsts. Even Mike Tyson has entrusted it with his beloved pigeons.) However, when one enters the White Mana’s miniscule intimate space and takes a seat at its circular counter, one can easily envision the many generations who have sat and conversed with each other and with those behind the counter, whether during a day’s sober lunch or while having a drunken snack during the wild hours of the night, whether talking about the weather or while arguing about the Yankees’ roster. On this day, I found two policemen arguing about the very same roster on one side of the counter’s circular ring, and spotting Octavio on the other side, I waved and then sat down beside him.
“Man, it’s been too long since I’ve been here,” I admitted to Octavio, feeling sudden pangs of hunger at smelling the grill in the donut’s center. “They do make a damn good burger…I might even have two or three…Hey, why the long face? You hungry?”
Octavio turned to me with downcast eyes. “I’m…I’m sorry, Pete…I wanted to tell you…but he said that it was better this way…”
“Hello, Mr. Bolton,” said a voice cheerfully from my other side, as I detected someone sitting down alongside me at the counter. Did this kid just set me up? Am I about to be blackmailed or arrested for smoking pot with a minor? I suspiciously glanced at the cops on the other side of the diner, who now looked back at me in much the same way.
I turned to face the voice’s owner: a polished handsome man in a sharp Armani suit, obviously tailored to fit his frame. Definitely Giorgio and not Emporio…only the best with this guy. He flashed an easy smile, with the confidence of one who knew his ability to charm came effortlessly. Much like his overall presentation, it came naturally to him. An ambivalent jealousy arose in me, where one side resented him out of a hateful envy while the other wished to emulate such an aesthetic superiority. Though both sides of me continued to debate that subject, they did agree on one thing: this guy was not to be trusted. At least…not yet.
Well, there’s only one way to find out. One, two, three, allons-y.
Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.