I reported on board USS BURLEIGH (APA 95) early on 19 December 1945, and was immediately assigned as the Engineering Officer. I spent the day meeting the senior watch standers in the Engineering Department, verifying that their preparations for getting underway the next day were satisfactory, and then getting acquainted with the machinery plant.
Lunch on board confirmed my expectation that wardroom meals would not be in the same class as those that were part of my Italian-American culture. Thus, that evening, with the four dollars I had left after twelve days on the beach, I went to Romeo’s Spaghetti House, then located on the north side of Market Street, a few blocks east of the turntable for the Powell & Mason cable car.
Romeo’s Italian-American cooks worked directly behind the counter and had only to do an about face to serve freshly-boiled spaghetti a la dente that was smothered by heaven-sent meatballs, tomato sauce, and Parmesan cheese, to salivating customers seated on the counter stools. There were no tables. Romeo’s, if not the first, was among the earliest fast-food establishments in San Francisco. My dinner tab was about two dollars. I had set aside a dollar for a cab ride back to the ship and I expected to have one dollar left over.
A minute before my meal was served someone occupied the seat alongside of me, placed an order, and asked for a glass of wine. The cook explained that wine was not sold by the glass. The smallest amount on the menu was a one-dollar half bottle. I heard the new arrival say, “A half bottle is too much for me to drink.”
My mind went back to one of the summer dog days in Brooklyn when I was in my uncle Harry’s Rochester Tavern. A pathetic-looking obviously-parched little man entered and nervously asked, in front of six or seven patrons, if nickel beers were sold. At that moment nickel beers were extinct for at least five years. As he drew a beer my uncle replied, “Not anymore except in your case.”
The situation in Romeo’s wasn’t the same, but I reacted just as magnanimously. I ordered a half bottle. The cook didn’t need further instructions. He filled two glasses and set one in front of my neighbor. I then looked at the pleasantly surprised patron for the first time. She was about my age, attractive, and was not wearing a wedding ring.
In the subsequent chitchat, I learned that she had done a bit of shopping after work, had stopped in Romeo’s because she liked it so much, and was then going to go home where she lived with her widowed mother. She learned that I had that very morning reported to a ship that was leaving the next day for the Philippines. She was flabbergasted when I said, “Today in the wardroom, I overheard some of the officers say they were going to a dance in the Saint Francis Hotel. I would ask you to go to the dance with me but that dollar I spent for wine was my last dollar.”
I suppose that she was overwhelmed by Brooklyn gallantry because she replied, “Let’s go anyway. I just got paid. We’ll go to my house first, it’s just a short ride on the Powell & Mason car. I’ll drop off these packages, and freshen up.”
I thought it was a great idea and there was the slim prospect that I could borrow a few bucks from one of the officers I had met earlier that day.
Her’s was one of a block-long row of abutting two-story houses in an area just west of Russian Hill. The first level was dominated by a garage door next to which there was a one-step-up entry door. The latter provided immediate access to a flight of steps that led to a small apartment over the garage. Thus in a style that seems to be peculiar to San Francisco, at ground level the entire block on both sides of the street was dominated by a series of garage doors interspaced with single-door entries.
After about ten minutes, during which I met and conversed with the young lady’s mother, there was sudden pounding on the entry door below accompanied by loud and manifestly angry shouts, “Let me in!”
Mother and daughter visibly paled, as the younger one said, “It’s my husband!”
I surprised myself with my reaction. I think that under any other circumstance I would have been at least nervous. Instead I became manifestly angry as I said, “Your what?”
Quickly, the young lady explained, “We’re legally separated. Both of us grew up in this neighborhood. One of his friends must have seen me bring you home.”
Downstairs the pounding and yelling continued. I was angry, but I was also methodical. It seemed to register on the two women that anger and control were a deadly combination as I grabbed the fireplace poker and said, “I have done nothing wrong. If you let him in and he comes at me, I’m going to hit him with this.”
The younger one, in a desperate manner, replied, “I’ll get rid of him.”
She went halfway down the stairway, and from there shouted, “Only my mother is with me.”
After a short argument yelled through the locked door, she added, “You gave me a headache. Go to the drugstore for aspirin and I’ll let you in.”
There was silence for about two minutes when she addressed me, “You can go now.”
When I voiced suspicion that he could still be out there, she replied, “He’s dumb. I’m sure that he really went to the drugstore.”
Afterwards I wondered what the few people on the coasting cable car thought when a Navy officer swung aboard while simultaneously throwing away a fireplace poker.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo