I looked forward to returning to work in New York after spending the holidays at home in St. Louis for one reason only. I had a message to deliver.
He was upstairs, as usual, hunched over his desk, his hair bushy. His name was Joe Falco. His work space was decorated with pictures of his sister, the actress Edie Falco. Edie at the Emmies. Edie teaching an acting workshop for kids. Edie in her role of Carmela Soprano, looking fed up with Carmela's mob boss husband, Tony Soprano.
"Joe," I said, "I have to tell you something. I had a Sopranos holiday. No, I didn't whack anybody. But I took videotapes of the first two seasons home and watched them with my mom. Thirty-six episodes we watched them all. Every time the credits rolled, I said, 'I met her, Edie Falco, I work with her brother, she came by the office one day, dressed down, all hagged-out as my sisters would say, and we chatted for quite a while. Like an idiot, I acted like I could relate to her life in the limelight, having been a traveling musician. Ha ha. The big shot musician. One hundred and fifty bucks split six ways was a good night for us.'"
Joe's hair was bushy. He hadn't budged from his chair.
"Listen. We spent so much time watching the Sopranos that we started to live it. Started to dream it. My wife woke up one morning and said she had missed one thing in life. She never met a mobster. Never got connected. She'd make one hell of a boss' wife, too, believe me. Like Carmela and Tony. She whistles, and I waltz. Tough woman."
Joe was still hunched, but not over his work. He was hunched over my story now.
"I started to live it, too. You see, I have a lot of connections in St. Louis. I wrote for a newspaper there. Taught college. Played in bands. Was active in radical politics. Plus, my family is there, across the river, on the East Side, the Illinois side. I know hundreds of people in St. Louis. But now, I'm maturing a bit and realizing the importance of family, so when I visit, I stay on the East Side, stick with my family for the most part. When I see people on the St. Louis side, I have them meet me at this tiny little Vietnamese sandwich shop way on the south side of the city where no white people ever go, except me, me and my ... appointments."
Edie as Carmela stared at me from the wall. She was pissed at Tony, but she was looking at me. She looked pissed at me.
"Let me explain. My mom is this terrific cook, so I almost never eat at restaurants when I'm home. Except, my favorite restaurant in the world happens to be there, too, this little sandwich shop, No. 1 Sandwich Banh Mi So which makes soups, too, and spring rolls, and whatever you want from a Vietnamese restaurant. So when I'm home, any time that I leave my family to see friends across the river, that's also my chance to eat at No.
1 Sandwich, so I try to double up on objectives and get people to meet me there. It's a carry-out shop, with only two tables, so when I set up there and start meeting people, we sort of take over the place."
If you had hair as bushy as Joe Falco's, you would smooth it at this point. Then again, if you ever smoothed your hair, you would not have hair as bushy as Joe Falco's.
"The woman who runs the restaurant is named Lynn, and I'll tell you what I tell my wife, that she is the most beautiful woman I never touched. She's old enough to be my mother, but you'd never think about age when you see Lynn. You just think about porcelain and petals of weird flowers and the tangy taste of her fish sauce, which is so delicious a lawyer offered her a lifetime of pro-bono legal work just for the recipe. Which Lynn refused, because she doesn't have a recipe, she just knows how to make it. So the lawyer gave her the legal work anyway, just for the opportunity to make the fish sauce with her one time an excuse to get next to her in the kitchen, if you ask me and Lynn said the lawyer's fish sauce was no good."
Edie looked attractive but tough in all of her pictures except the one at the Emmies, when her name was announced as a winner. In that picture, her mouth, an ample mouth, is opened wide, extraordinarily wide. You can't look tough with your mouth opened wide, unless you show teeth, too, and all you could see in her mouth, besides her joy and surprise, was darkness.
"So Lynn and I have become like family. It started with an item I wrote in the newspaper. Best Spring Roll in St. Louis. That brought business. Then Best Gourmet Beef Jerky you should see real Vietnamese beef jerky, it looks powdered with gold dust, and is tender as veal. I became a regular. A friend. Family. They were even the first people to call me after September 11 to make sure that I didn't go down in flame."
Edie, done up as a mafia wife, looked down from a page of The New York Times, suspicious yet concerned.
"This time home, every time I showed up, Lynn just said, 'Sit, down, Chris. You always order same thing. Pork meatball sandwich and spring roll with beef jerky to go. I want you to taste different thing.' And out comes the food. A little plate of curried chicken. Some roast pork. One of my friends appears. Some rice noodles with cilantro, fried egg rolls and fish sauce. Another appointment shows up. Chicken soup in curried coconut milk. We talk about projects. A compilation of songs about dead presidents. An art show of homemade books. Different little dishes of carefully spiced food continue to come out from the kitchen. We talk of Web sites, collections of poetry, field recording journeys, all the while new faces coming in to see me, occupying her two tiny tables as this Vietnamese angel hovers over us, dropping down food you'll find nowhere on the menu. No order is placed. No money ever changes hands. Finally, one friend looks at me and says, 'Look at you. You're like a little mobster don operating out of a damn ethnic food storefront. The eclectic mobster!' It was like the Sopranos!"
"No, it wasn't," Joe said, straightening up. "My sister and them, they are just actors, working from a script, doing their job. You were really living it."
Chris King grew up in Granite City, Illinois, in a storytelling kind of family. He studied literature at Washington University, quit grad school to tour with the rock band Enormous Richard and eventually settled in New York City. He is married to Karley, a former Olympic athlete from Togo, and edits a travel magazine for money. For kicks, he maintains two Web sites, www.hoobellatoo.org (an oral history/ field recording project) and www.skuntry.com (an indie record label), and writes an e-mail newsletter called "Art Dog" based on his travels and life in the big city. He still misses St. Louis.