OH OH BAM-BI-NO’S

There came that one day when I just, no longer wanted to be an auto mechanic. My hands were constantly stained with grease and grime, I worked in an environment full of VOC’s and I have no doubt that smelling gasoline and solvents, all day, every day, did nothing to help my personality. Even though I had a union job, making good money, I quit. Wait for it. To become a bartender.  Little did I know, that one decision who forever change the course of my life and provide me opportunities to see the parts of the globe I honestly did not know existed.

I chose not to go to college straight out of high school. Being bullied in grade school, I opted for the rebellious teenage mantel during high school. I proudly graduated with a C average. Straight A’s in auto shop, D’s in every other course. (These were the years when one would not be failed out of high school.) Back then it was as acceptable to enter the Trades as it was to attend college. You could also pay for college, live, eat and have a few beers on minimum wage job back then too. (I’ll save the social commentary for the next election.)

I was fortunate enough that my father offered to pay for my tuition at a 9 month trade school in Phoenix Arizona, called Universal Technical Institute. Deciding to wait until September to start classes, missing the heat of summer turned out to be a wise idea, I packed up my belongings in an old steamer trunk and took the family car, now mine, through the desert into the Great State of Arizona.

“Living on the road my friends, was meant to keep me free and clean.”

All was well and good. I got a job, sharpening saw blades. Having always been handy, this seemed an appropriate manner in which to earn my living. I rented my first apartment and experienced my first roommate. Oddly enough, he and I shared the exact same birthdate. Same date, same year. Cheers to you Keith. Now to set the stage a tiny bit more. I had recently spent the last few seasons working at the Renaissance Faire. For those of you born later than I was, consider it the Burning Man of my time. Hippies, marijuana and communal showers. Everything a teenage boy needed to . . . well . . . be a teenage boy.

I made dear friends at the Ren Faire, many I still have today. All were my senior. So imagine coming from a smoke enhanced, communal hippie setting only to find yourself into an anxious group of turgid (Yes I know what turgid means and I mean it here.) 18 year old men. I felt, and was, most certainly out of place. What I needed was to find, my safe place. Enter Gina and the Statler Lounge. At that time in Arizona the drinking age was 19 and I was 18. While this was mildly problematic I thank Gina for never carding me. The Statler Lounge was the first place where I learned that you could lose money playing pool. That there were many kinds of mixed drinks, other than the Highballs and Gimlets that my parents enjoyed, and that some people could be very nice.

Gina was the bartender. She was old, 40 I think. Back in those days you could run a tab.  The very first night I drank more than I could afford. I was embarrassed and asked to pay it the following week. Which I did. I was shy at the bar but kept coming back every week on Friday night needing a safe place of my own. I never ran my tab that high again and only ever ordered 2 drinks even though I wanted more. Gina taught me about tipping and I started to feel like I fit in. Gina, it turns out, was from San Francisco. She recognized the Bay in me and took me under her wing. About 4 or 5 Fridays into our relationship Gina made me a deal. She promised to rip up my tab if I would do just one thing for her. Near the end of the night she needed help carrying out the beer from the back room to the bar to restock the refrigerators. The cart was too heavy for her to manage easily. My job on Friday nights became this: Drink for free; bring the beer from the back.  I had my safe place. When I finished my technical tenure, I was proud of what I had learned and was ready to return to the City by the Bay. Even before I left I missed Gina. I miss her and the Statler Lounge today where I had become a regular. And yes, I miss the free drinks. Yukon Jack and grapefruit juice, if you must know.

Last week I popped into our newest Italian restaurant in town: Bambino’s at 301 Georgia At. Does it remind me of the Statler Lounge? Not really. It more reminds me of a little bar and Italian restaurant that I worked for in Rodeo. That was my first job as a bartender after a few years working as an auto mechanic. That place had the Statler Lounge feel and great Italian food to boot in a family friendly environment. It was that job that sent me to my next where I ended up managing restaurants, then to culinary school, then abroad cooking on motion pictures.

Bambino’s is that kind of family friendly restaurant. The evening I went, I saw a few of my Vallejo friends enjoying dinner in there as well. The food was well prepared, their cooks obviously skilled at their craft.  I chose the Chicken Marsala. The chicken was tender covered in a light mushroom sauce. The dish was served with an expertly blanched bit of broccoli that served as the perfect foil to the rich chicken sauce. That and glass of Chianti had me saying ‘Per Piacere’ for more.

I am happy that we have another place in town.

May each meal bring you joy and every companion, happiness.

Tommy Judt

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