Your Father Isn’t… James

11 Jan

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a large, loud, outgoing family, but I don’t think I’ve truly done them justice. Then again, Tyler Perry would have trouble doing them justice. Let’s just say that when I’m homesick I like to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and hope that someday my own wedding will go that smoothly.

I know I’m lucky to have a family with so much love, but sometimes it can be a bit too much love. Perfect example occurred over the holidays this year.

Every December 30th, my family descends on this little family-style restaurant in Little Italy, with brick walls, rows of red and white checkered tables and a Hispanic Elvis look-alike named Jorge, who provides live entertainment. We’re used to being the rowdiest group there, standing on our chairs for Jorge’s signature song, Shake Your Napkin, or snaking a conga line through the restaurant and into the slushy streets of New York. The establishment loves us because we get the entire restaurant smiling, singing and drinking more (lots more) wine, and eventually promising to come back again next year.

So we all choke on our calamari fritti when the table at the other end of the restaurant starts chanting for Jorge to come out, louder than even we could muster. Within minutes my mom and aunts, having faked a visit to the bathroom in order to scope out the competition, learn that they are all firefighters from New Jersey here for their annual year-end celebration.

Well, my aunts waste no time coming to grab me by the wrist and drag me over, ignoring my protests and the brilliant shade of red I’m turning. We stand at the head of their long table, lined with at least twelve muscular firefighters to each side, and I go another shade or two redder while my aunts flank me, each holding an elbow and say,

“This is our niece, Heather, who’s single.”

The throaty, heavily-accented chorus of “Hi Heather” can probably be heard for three blocks, but the heat rising from my face could melt snow for six. I stand around and talk with a few of the firefighters closest to us for a bit, but it’s still awkward and we’re blocking the already disturbingly narrow pathway to the kitchen, much to the obvious displeasure of the overloaded waiters. I take the opportunity to make my getaway and scurry back to the safety of my own table. Immediately my face begins to cool.

Within ten minutes, however, my dad starts up the conga line, which turns into a much better mingling opportunity. I find myself clinging to the rock-hard shoulders of Vinnie, a shorter, dark-haired New Jersey Italian who is the self-appointed leader of the bunch, while a taller Irish-looking fellow joins the line behind me. This is really not a bad place to be, I think to myself.

The conga line breaks up after a couple laps through the restaurant and dissolves into small groups dancing to such hot singles as the Brady Bunch, Dominick the Donkey and That’s Amore. My friend from the conga line, James, suddenly has me twirling and dipping as he pulls me in close to try to talk above the din of our two groups “singing” (trust me, the quotes are warranted). We chat for a bit, yelling each phrase two or three times to be understood, and continue to mingle and dance with the mass of people we’ve pulled from their dinners to dance to cheesy songs played on an electric keyboard.

At one point my brother and his girlfriend stumble over to me, with one arm around each other like contestants in a three legged race, to tell me that they like the guy I was just talking to.

“What’s his name?” asks my brother.

“James,” I reply.

My brother’s eyes go wide and he proudly pounds his chest. “That’s MY name! It’s perfect. Go back over to him.”

They stumble off.

As the night goes on, and the wine flows with increasing generosity, everyone continues to get rowdier. We’re shouting now instead of pretending to sing, jumping up on chairs, twirling anyone nearby and generally descending into madness. Each time Jorge tries to stop, the firefighters start a threateningly loud chant and form a small, impenetrable wall of drunken enthusiasm and Jorge starts back up with his fifth encore.

James finds me again while I’m talking to a couple of his friends. Instead of waiting or interrupting the conversation, he throws an arm around my waist, lifts me up high above the crowd and walks away. That’s one way to to do it.

He immediately tries to kiss me, which I dodge, and point out that my father is the guy who just sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling standing on chairs with an Italian guy, a black guy, and James.

“THAT’S YOUR DAD?”

The pain is written on his face. He likes my Dad, and wouldn’t want to disrespect him… but still would like to make out in an alley if that were an option. I take that moment to point out that my mother is the woman standing on a chair behind me doing kicks to New York, New York and pouring wine for anyone whose glass is within her reach, including James.

“THAT’S YOUR MOM”

I can’t help but smile. His face is an open book.

He settles for my number and a promise that whenever I go out in Hoboken, I call him, which isn’t a bad deal, except that I no longer live in New Jersey. Our groups go our separate ways, with promises to make sure our nights at Puglia’s coincide again next year, and at least one invitation to join their party bus through the city for the rest of the night, but I decide it’s probably wise to leave with my family.

~~~~

Kids, your father probably isn’t James, but your family sure is crazy. In a good way.

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