We’ve All Come to Look for America

Patrons in a restaurant
Dinner in a nice Italian restaurant is a microcosm of what makes America. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

5 December 2018 – Back in 1969 Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper made a film entitled Easy Rider about two bikers who went on a road trip to look for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere. It was depressing and helped introduce a whole decade of depressing films.

Fast forward to the current millennium, and last Friday the Cuddly Redhead and I did find America in an Italian restaurant in Naples, Florida. We’d been passing the place several times a week for a decade, but had never stopped in.

So, when we found ourselves collecting our Christmas decorations from our rented storage unit nearby just at dinner time, we decided to stop in. We’d been semi-regular patrons at a restaurant of the same chain in Estero that happened to be near an art gallery which regularly exhibited my work. We’d found the food in the Estero franchise to be consistently excellent, so, maybe it’d be good here, too.

After navigating the rabbit warren of frontage streets and parking lots under-serving businesses along the six lanes of traffic zipping along Tamiami Trail in that part of Naples, we parked the Cuddly Redhead’s SUV, its hatch-back full of boxes of decorations, in the restaurant’s parking lot.

We were a little early for the dinner rush, so the place was nearly empty. The young (early twenties), friendly, middle-eastern-looking maitre d’ seated us at a nice table butted against a divider separating this section of the restaurant from another section that we couldn’t see – because of the divider.

When I asked the maitre d’ to direct me to a place to wash my hands after handling dusty boxes in our storage unit, he smiled delightedly and said: “I’m going that way now, just follow me.”

He pointed me to a Men’s Room door hidden to one side of the main entrance. While I was washing up, a Cuban man brought his son in to use the facilities.

Back at the table, the Cuddly Redhead observed that this restaurant seemed older than the franchise we’d frequented in Estero, but it was still nice. I replied that, yes, it was older and smaller, but seemed well maintained and equally well appointed. “It’s more intimate,” I said. “I like it.”

She agreed.

Our waitress was a large black woman who smiled a lot and showed infinite patience while I fumbled over trying to decide between spaghetti with meat sauce and ravioli. Eventually I gave up and ordered the Fettuccine Alfredo I’d been thinking about in the car on the way here.

The Cuddly Redhead knew exactly what she wanted: the lobster special.

While we waited for our food to arrive, I noticed the only other patrons in our section were a good-looking young Hispanic man and his black girlfriend. They were smiling and happy, having just finished a meal that, in the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie: “Couldn’t be beat.”

They’d finished their meal, finished a final cup of coffee, paid their check and got up to put on their jackets to leave.

While they were going out, the maitre d’ brought in an elderly couple (well, maybe not as old as me and the Cuddly Redhead, but looking pretty retired, anyway) and seated them at a four-person table next to where the Hispanic man and his black girlfriend had been sitting. The elderly white couple sat down and soon started talking about real-estate investments that they were excited about.

Naples is chock-a-block full of elderly white couples excited about real-estate investments.

Meanwhile, a couple of families came in and sat together in the section of the restaurant on the other side of the divider that we couldn’t see because of the divider. But, we could hear them. Since we couldn’t hear any adult male voices, just a couple of adult females and a passel of children, I surmised that they were a couple of single moms enjoying a night out with their kids.

Pretty soon a tall, narrow, waitress with long dark-hair came over to take the single-moms’ orders. We could see the waitress past the divider ‘cause she was standing up, while we couldn’t see the moms and their kids ‘cause they were all sitting down. I saw that the waitress was a Hispanic woman in (I estimate) her forties, with patrician features.

By the time that waitress had sorted out the orders from the single moms, the maitre d’ brought in a second white couple to join the folks who were excited about real estate investments. These additional folks appeared to be Jewish by their features, and spoke with thick New York City accents. Soon, they’d added fishing stories to the animated conversation at the table.

There are lots of retired couples in Naples that are fixated on fishing, too.

About this time an ancient man being steadied by what I took to be his daughter, or maybe a younger wife, walked slowly by on their way out of the restaurant. They, too, had been in earlier, finished their meal in a third, even larger section of the restaurant away over there, and were now leaving.

Yes, Naples is also home to vast quantities of ancient people dependent on younger care givers.

By now, the restaurant was beginning to fill up with patrons, it being time for the dinner rush to begin. Black, brown, yellow, white, the patrons represented every ethnic extraction imaginable.

It began to dawn on me that this was America! We are a nation of immigrants. From the tough-looking busboys with the hunted expressions of folks unable to present legal work documents, to the retirees secure in their privileged status handed down through multiple generations of lives well lived, we were gathered together to create a shared experience of dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Naples, Florida in the United States of America.

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