I was in a restaurant the other night eating a plate of fettuccine with mushrooms — $26, can you imagine? — and thought, my, time flies.
Was it really so long ago that my wife, Wink, and I took our four little kids to an Italian joint on Montauk Highway in Bayport and paid $3 for each squirt to have a bowl of spaghetti?
Answer: Yes, it was long ago. No sighs, please.
Reverie can be lethal at this age. I’m not pushing my luck.
But $26 fettuccine seems worth mentioning, don’t you think?
OK, the restaurant was on the West Side of Manhattan, but not one of those celebrity destinations where you put an entire Social Security check at risk just by ordering appetizers. Nothing special, in other words.
I can hear it already: Hey, it’s the city. What do you expect?
Let’s get real. Long Island’s no bargain, either.
You can part with nearly $20, or more, for pasta out here, too, sometimes at the local pizza place. Cheese ravioli at one of our favorite, regular-people spots goes for $18. Eggplant parm sets you back $23.95 at a popular, ahem, trattoria, nearby. And it’s not just Italian — the national cuisine of Long Island — that can cost an arm and a leg. Wink had a tuna melt at a diner the other day that retailed for $11.95.
At hand is not the cost of the food — restaurants probably buy pasta by the bale — but of doing business. It’s an expensive and high-risk enterprise, the restaurant game, and not easy to survive in a crowded field.
Anyway, it’s a mistake to see restaurants as places where you mainly go for food. If all you want is nourishment, stay home, cook up some brown rice and beans, toss a salad, consider maybe a baked apple for dessert. You might live forever.
The restaurant offers something else — diversion, audience participation, humanity!
Servers slipping between tables, lovers whispering secrets, Frank Sinatra singing, “Come Fly With Me,” on another so-so sound system, your voice joining all the others and, now and then, a burst of laughter from across the room — “Har-har, Eddie, you’re a card” — and, inevitably, an off-key “Happy Birthday” rendered by the Weary Waitperson Chorale.
Forget the food. This is entertainment.
But not everyone gets to enjoy the show.
What hit me most after the West Side meal was recent news that, for millions of people, there is no such thing as a splurge. If you’re lucky enough to have a few extra bucks to spend on dinner out, it’s easy to forget all those who can’t.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York says more people are behind on auto payments than at any time since the Great Recession 10 years ago, and another government survey shows that 40 percent of adults aren’t able to put together $400 in an emergency. They have to borrow the money or find something to sell.
Newsday columnist Michael Dobie recently noted that one in five Americans can’t handle the bills if they miss a single paycheck and that younger folks — those 25 to 34 — earned less in 2017 than in 2000.
This is stark stuff, and familiar.
Long ago, we lived in Blue Point. With a big family, money was tight — tight, as in “ouch.” When calamity struck — the washing machine broke down or our Volkswagen bus needed a valve job — we had to ask my mother in Brooklyn for a loan.
One winter I was in downtown Sayville checking the window of a men’s shop. There was a scarf that looked swell — brown plaid — and, with a gasp, I bought it for $10.
That was big money for us, and by the time I got home I felt slightly faint. Did I just spend 10 bucks on something that wasn’t milk, eggs or Life cereal?
Well, Wink is a sweet person, and though I might have sensed a slightly raised right eyebrow, she said, forget about it, no big deal, every guy in his 30s should have a scarf, how many fish sticks do you want for dinner?
My splurge didn’t mean the kids were going to miss any meals, or that the bills would be late. But I bet there wasn’t any $3 spaghetti that week, just the way there’s no $18 ravioli for many of our neighbors these days. As for high-end fettuccine? Not if the rent is due.