BITS and PIECES # 22

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February 13, 2013 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 22

Hello from Luquillo,

Immigration is a hot topic these days — committees in both houses of congress are currently crafting immigration reform bills — President Obama, in his February 12, State of the Union message stated that he would sign an immigration reform bill into law as soon as it reached his desk…

In his message, the president also reaffirmed that “The basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from” is a vital tenet of our country’s beliefs…

Over fifty years ago, I witnessed a shining example of how powerful that concept is, and how it played-out in the lives of a hardworking, over-achieving, immigrant couple — here is the story, as best as I can recall it:

BRUNO AND ELSA

In the mid 1950’s, I began a lasting friendship, witnessed an American success story unfold, and somewhat later, discovered a marvelous Italian restaurant — these three events were linked in a single concomitant bundle, so to speak — let me explain…

I had recently completed a four year Air Force enlistment, joined the California Air National Guard as a ‘weekend warrior’ upon separation from active duty, and was now eking-out a ‘civilian’ living as a radar technician, working the night shift at Douglas Aircraft Company, while attending UCLA on the ‘GI Bill’ — a hectic schedule with only occasional weekends free to relax and consider other pursuits…

On Venice Boulevard, just a few blocks from the bachelor ‘digs’ in Mar Vista that I shared with Dick Nichols, a high school friend and fellow veteran, was a Spudnut Shop — if you’re an old-timer like me, you may recall that they were part of a national franchise that purveyed distinctive, potato flour doughnuts. The proprietor of our local Spudnut emporium was a jolly, rotund, dark-haired, thirty-ish Italian chap named Bruno. He was full of energy, always smiling and often serenaded his clientele as he scurried about preparing and serving his unique pastries to early morning arrivers — kids headed to school and workers on their way to jobs in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles…

Bruno’s cheerful demeanor masked his always thoughtful business acumen — when he got to know me better, he would often pause while handing over my bag of Spudnuts, look around secretively, and whisper “Confidentially, I have sold over two hundred Spudnuts already this morning, and it’s only 6:30 am! — this far surpasses my sales forecast”…

Bruno had only recently become an American citizen — he had enlisted in the U.S. Army while still an immigrant with a limited workers visa. After undergoing basic training and some additional infantry training, he was shipped-off to the war in Korea, where he saw combat and attained the rank of corporal before his two year tour was over — the agreement was that if he volunteered to serve his adoptive nation, he would be granted a ‘fast track’ to citizenship upon separation – a covenant that proved extremely advantageous to Bruno and quite satisfactory to his newly embraced country…

Thus began his version of the American success story…

Bruno swiftly outgrew the Spudnut franchise — he and his beloved wife and business partner, Elsa, an Austrian émigré, rented space in a nearby building, obtained a small bank loan to buy a pizza oven, and the requisite counters, tables and chairs, and ‘Bruno’s Pizza’ was born…

In our spare time, Dick Nichols and I volunteered our services to help Bruno get started — Dick, who had been a pipefitter in the Navy, hooked up the gas lines to the pizza oven, and I did some electrical work – installing fluorescent lighting and so on. On opening day, we were on-hand to congratulate Bruno and Elsa on their new enterprise and to wish them well. Bruno’s Pizza was an overnight success – He and Elsa worked tirelessly to ensure that their product was of superior quality, and that their tiny store afforded clients the proper ‘ambiance’ for a pleasant and relaxing culinary experience…

Bruno was soon sharing ‘confidential’ information about how many large and small pizzas, and how many individual pizza slices he had sold, each time I stopped by — looking offended when I reached for my wallet, declaring “please, you are my friend – friends do not speak of such things”…

Regrettably, when I moved on a few months later, as so often happens, I lost track of my friends Bruno and Elsa. Seven years later — by now, I was married with two small children — I had returned home after completing an assignment in Hawaii and was working as a systems engineer at the System Development Corporation in West Los Angeles. One day, a colleague casually mentioned a “Fantastic new Italian restaurant in Mar Vista — everybody is raving about it — it’s so popular you’ll need to make reservations — it’s called Bruno’s”. Bruno’s, I mused — could that be my old friend from Spudnut days?

The following Saturday, after finding the restaurant’s telephone number and address in the yellow pages (remember them?), I called Bruno’s to make reservations — the accent of the female voice that answered my call sounded suspiciously Austrian! Elsa, I wondered, as I hung-up the phone after securing a 6 pm reservation. Later that afternoon, I assembled the family and we drove across town to the old, familiar Mar Vista neighborhood — and ‘Bruno’s Italian Restaurant’. I was excited with the prospect of a delicious Italian meal and a pleasant, surprise re-union with old friends…

The attractive woman, who rose to greet us when we arrived at Bruno’s was indeed Elsa – with her blond hair tied back in a ‘bun’, she looked a little bit older perhaps, but her wide smile was just as I remembered — radiant and welcoming. I gave her my name and she looked me over carefully — as the light suddenly dawned, she cried “Alan! – is it truly you!? I must tell Bruno immediately — let me seat you and your family first, and then we will talk!”

Moments later, Bruno burst from the kitchen — he was just as I remembered him — a little grayer around the temples perhaps – but still the same shiny face and ebullient manner – he was clad in classic cook’s garb complete with checkered trousers, white shirt and apron, topped-off by a flamboyant red neckerchief and a tall white chef’s ‘toque’. I jumped up to greet him and was immediately enfolded in a bear hug — “what a magnificent surprise” he exclaimed, holding me at arm’s length, while he looked me over “life has surely treated you well, my friend”. I replied that the same seemed to be the case with him and Elsa, and quickly introduced them to my family. We chatted briefly, and then they both excused themselves and rushed off to attend to their customers…

Our meal was outstanding, as expected — when I asked for the check, Elsa said that Bruno had insisted that we were to be his guests — when I objected, she would have none of it — “Bruno and I are celebrating the return to us of a dear friend and his new family – please do not deny us that pleasure”. What could I say, except to thank them both, profusely…?

We returned to Bruno’s often over the next year — I finally got Bruno to accept payment for our meals, with one stipulation — he insisted that he would prepare a special desert for our children, Michael and Lisa — at no charge, of course, and I realized that no amount of haggling and cajoling would change his mind — and the children loved the special treatment they received, as much as the special treats…

We moved once again — this time across the Atlantic Ocean to Ankara, Turkey, and then to the mid-west and finally to New England — I lost touch with Bruno and Elsa — but they were always resident in that special part of my memory reserved for good friends — more important, their unique ‘American Success Story’ — which took them from immigrant arrival to personal attainment through persistence and unceasing hard work, was one that I treasured having witnessed…

While working on this story, on a whim, I ‘Googled’ Bruno’s Italian Restaurant – Los Angeles, on my laptop’s browser — up popped a ‘hit’ — an address in southern California’s San Fernando Valley, including rave reviews about the cuisine — I wondered if it could be that fifty eight years later, Bruno and Elsa’s progeny were carrying on the accomplishments and tradition of their hard working forebears — and if so — wouldn’t that be lovely?

© 2013 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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