The quality of your life improves when you’re mindful of your speech and say what you really mean. Here’s what I learned about that from Buddhism — and the Mafia.
In Los Angeles there’s a certain elasticity to the concept known elsewhere as “truth.” Ever since the Gold Rush people show up late to most meetings, shrug their shoulders in ersatz disbelief, and say, “Traffic.”
Traffic, can you believe it? I mean, who woulda thunk… in a city of 10 million people and 5.8 million registered vehicles… who would ever imagine that today, of all days, there would be traffic? Imagine: Traffic in Los Angeles!
You were born in Encino; you went to UCLA for undergrad and USC for grad school and have lived in West Hollywood for the past 25 years. Did you not get the memo?,” is how I respond when someone pulls the “traffic” card with a confounded look on his or her face.
Miraculously, he or she would be able to factor traffic into the equation for a lunch with Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but for everyone else it’s going to be “Sorry… traffic…” with long sigh followed by fatuous shoulder shrug. I guess the only reason one would learn about mindful speech is if one’s life depended on it.
Thirteen years ago I met a woman on December 30th and we hit it off so I decided to ask her to dinner for New Year’s Eve. She accepted and then I had to scramble to get a reservation, preferably at a restaurant sans the usual outlandish $150 prix fixe New Year’s Eve menu.
My favorite restaurant in town was owned and run by what is affectionately known as “goombas.” At any given time there were more loaded concealed firearms in the establishment than a Fort Worth truck stop, but the food was sublime and there were always fascinating people at the bar so it was my favorite place to have a glass of wine and a meal.
Around noon on December 31, I called and asked if they were serving the regular menu that evening and after receiving an answer in the affirmative I kindly asked if I could please make a reservation for two people.
The hostess guffawed and after composing herself stated, “I’m sorry but we are completely booked.”
I thought for a moment and then my sense of entitlement had the audacity to ask, “May I please speak with Dominique?”
“Hold on,” she answered placing my sense of entitlement on hold.
A minute later another voice bellowed, “Dominique here.”
“Dominique, this is Mr. Israel. I’m so sorry to trouble you, but I met a woman yesterday and… is there any chance that you could find a spot for us for dinner at eight o’clock this evening, please?”
A few seconds of silence alerted me to the fact that I was causing him an undue hassle.
“Mr. Israel, you have always been a good customer so I will make a table for you this evening but we have a second seating so I have one request…”
“Anything. What is it?”
“I need you to vacate the table by eleven o’clock.”
I knew we had a party to be at by eleven-thirty so it was not going to be a problem to leave the restaurant by eleven.
“Absolutely, Dominique. We’ll be gone by eleven o’clock. Thank you very, very much!”
And then it happened.
The only way to describe it would be to say that I felt Dominique’s muscular hand reach through the telephone cable as he asked formidably and sternly with his gruff Italian accent, “So then, we have AN UNDERSTANDING?”
This caught my attention and I reflected before gripping his hand to seal the deal. I recalled Al Pacino explaining to Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco what it meant when someone says, “He’s a friend of the family.” It meant that the new guy had been vetted and could be trusted 100 per cent and that the speaker of those words was willing to bet his life on it — a bet that Al Pacino loses in the film. He’s a friend of the family. We have an understanding.
There was something about the way Dominique said “AN UNDERSTANDING” that made those words rhyme with “cement shoes” and “Jimmy Hoffa” more than any other words in my mental dictionary. An understanding between gentlemen. A verbal contract. An agreement. A bond. Old school. Old world, really.
For people who recognize that language creates reality, language creates reality. People who live by the creed that their word is their bond and if they say that they are going to do something or be someplace at a particular time, then goddamnit, it shall be.
“Yes, we have AN UNDERSTANDING,” I replied.
I picked up my date and as we arrived at the restaurant. I greeted Dominique with buona sera and a handshake and he led us to a makeshift table that was practically in the corridor. That Dominique had taken the time to literally “make” a table for me, to add an additional table to the restaurant that evening was truly heart-warming.
The food was spectacular as usual and the restaurant was especially vibrant and festive. The date went smoothly and as we exited around a few minutes before eleven, I shook Dominique’s hand with both of my hands and said, “Everything was lovely. Thank you very much. Happy New Year,” the way supplicants deferentially thank Marlon Brando in the first scene of The Godfather. He smiled back to thank me for being a gentleman and keeping up my end of the understanding.
After being away from Los Angeles for five years I recently bumped into Dominique at another restaurant and after saying “buona sera” and shaking his hand I reminded him of that New Year’s Eve many years ago that he also inexplicably recalled.
“You taught me a great lesson,” I told him.
He smiled and knew exactly what I was talking about. We had AN UNDERSTANDING.
That is mindful speech.