Some fifteen years ago, a possible miracle occurred in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. To set the stage, my favorite local eatery had sadly changed hands. After refurbishing the place, its new owner—a man named Nick—reopened its doors. Many of the old customers returned for this second act, including a remarkably cranky old couple. No, not a husband and wife, but a seventy-year-old man and his ninety-nine-year-old mother. My frequent dining companions and I had long ago nicknamed the pair “Charlie and Mama.”
Witnessing a dutiful son lovingly caring for his aging and ailing mother is often uplifting, but it very definitely wasn’t in this case. In fact, it was downright deflating, even a bit creepy. You see, very old Mama was the embodiment of mean—looked it, sounded it, and acted it. She scolded her septuagenarian son like he was a five year old. But this was all going down in 1996—not the Roaring Twenties. Son Charlie, however, merited very little sympathy and understanding because he was an incredibly fussy, inconsiderate, and annoying man. Mother and son were frequently spotted walking the streets arm-and-arm, with antiquated Mama looking like she was a light pat away from crumbling into the dust from whence she came.
Suffice it to say the entrepreneurial-minded Nick didn’t acclimate very well to the diner milieu and its colorful cast of characters, which included bothersome eccentrics like old Mama and her insufferable son. Charlie regularly ordered a burger for his beloved mother sans the bun. Despite it saving him a hamburger roll, this request really got under Nick’s skin. But it was the three or four French fries that Charlie wanted for his mother that irked him to no end. When Charlie informed the diner's put-upon proprietor that old Mama couldn’t possible eat a regular order of fries, he didn’t say it nicely and, too, expected the sparrow’s portion to be on the house.
Eventually, the mere sight of the approaching Charlie and Mama sent Nick into spasms of rage. They came to embody everything he hated about diner irregulars, if you will. Nick desperately wanted his place to be a bona fide restaurant and not a neighborhood greasy spoon. And Charlie and Mama with their bunless burgers and three or four French fries just didn’t fit into his grand plan. Then one day, Nick overheard Mama’s anything but dulcet century-old tones saying aloud, “He’s not going to make it.” His body furiously shook, but he uttered not a word to them. Instead, he beamed hate—the genuine article—their way.
Come Christmastime, I spied a row of cards taped atop the refrigerator accommodating the Jell-O, rice pudding, and apple pie—from various food suppliers and even a handful of customers, I supposed—despite the fact that Nick was the epitome of ineptness, irascibility, and miserliness all rolled into one disagreeable package. The man had raised all the prices and reduced all of the portions in one fell swoop. The formerly considerable and otherworldly hamburgers of the previous ownership had become McDonald's-sized, flavorless, and much pricier.
While I wasn’t about to send Nick a Christmas card, I nevertheless thought it would be warm and fuzzy if he received one from his worst tormentors—Charlie and Mama. And so he did. The miracle—the Christmas miracle, actually—was that I was present when the postman delivered the card, when Nick opened it, and when he read it. I witnessed the expression on his face as he came upon the sender’s names: “Charlie and Mama.” Nick expressed uncharacteristic glee, immediately showing it to his staff. He just couldn’t believe he had received this holiday goodwill from such a sinister duo. I heard him repeat several times—to no one in particular—these two words: “Charlie and Mama.” And, I can honestly say, he had a big smile on his face the entire time.
I have long believed that my being privy to the fruits of this endeavor was divine intervention, or maybe it was because I often had breakfast there at around the time the postman knocked. Still, I’d rather believe that miracles do happen on occasion. And, as things turned out, old Mama was prescient concerning Nick’s fate. He didn’t make it.
(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)