It was the night before Thanksgiving and the A&P on Fulton Street, the one under the El that went from the East River all the way out through Queens, was about to close. I was a teenager, on a mission for my mother to gather last-minute items for the next day's family feast. The supermarket was oddly quiet. There was one cashier, a manager sitting in a platform that overlooked the cash registers, a Con Edison worker picking up a six-pack of Rheingold Extra Dry ... and me.
Or so I thought.
"Pete," I cried, startled when the familiar face appeared without sound or warning. "How you doin?"
"OK, kid, OK, good, pretty good, see your uncle today, see him, did you?" Pete said in that rat-a-tat-tat way of his. "Thought he'd be at The Club this afternoon but he never showed, no, he never showed, your uncle didn't show, didn't show."
Uncle Joe was both head of our family and, arguably, the tightly defined corner of the immigrant-rich Italian-American neighborhood where we lived. People relied on my mother's eldest brother — for favors, kindnesses, oftentimes money — and so, too, no doubt, did his friend Pete.
"Dunno, Pete, haven't seen him, probably on a job," is all I needed to say in order for Pete to wish me a happy Thanksgiving and move along.
That is, until I stopped him.
"What's this?" I asked pointing at the two strangely familiar-looking cans in Pete's grocery cart.
I wish that I had allowed that poor man to be on his way. Because his answer has haunted me every Thanksgiving since.
"They're good," Pete said, lifting a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. "We run them under water, get all the sauce off, get it all off good. Then my brother makes his own gravy and we pour that on top, know what I mean? Right on top, on top. They're good, they're OK, yeah, kid, they're not bad, pretty good, the ravioli are, they are, not bad."
Pete and his brother Johnny were in their late fifties, I'd guess. Neither had ever married, and they lived together in the house that they had shared as boys with their immigrant parents. Johnny was a mailman who walked with a limp and rarely spoke. I don't think I ever knew what Pete did for a living, if he did anything at all.
They were a sad couple, Pete and Johnny, in the way that only lonesome men of their kind and in their circumstance could be. Even as a little kid, I remember feeling sorry for the brothers. But never more so than on this particular Thanksgiving eve, when I learned how poor Pete and Johnny's big holiday meal started out with washed, rinsed and pre-cooked ravioli that came straight out of a metal can.
Their holiday pasta course (yes, many Italian-Americans have pasta before the turkey) was not only sad but confounding to me. Johnny, according to his brother, made his own tomato sauce from scratch. What's so hard about boiling a pot of water and throwing real ravioli into it? This was Brooklyn, after all. Real food was everywhere! What were these two thinking with these cans? On a holiday, no less!
I have lived with this riddle, this burden, for nearly 40 Thanksgivings. This year, I decided it was time to exorcise my demons, by confronting them head on. I made a special trip to the supermarket and only paid for one item in the express lane: a 15-ounce can of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli in Tomato & Meat Sauce. When I got home I opened the can, dumped its contents into a colander in the kitchen sink, then turned on the tap and let the water wash away all that was red. Or was it orange? The naked ravioli looked pale and gummy, more like yellow Play-Doh than actual food-grade product.
I am never without some quantity of good, homemade tomato sauce on hand. And so, like Pete and his brother Johnny, I proceeded to apply my red stuff to the washed-and-prepped Chef Boyardees. Then I cut one of the ravioli in half with a fork and, yes, took a bite.
Next Thanksgiving, when my thoughts go to Pete and Johnny, as they do each and every year, I will likely feel as heartsick for the two lonely brothers as ever I have. Chewing only one-half of those awful little things provided no greater insight into what those men could possibly have been thinking.
I guess some sadness just cannot be explained.