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The Allure of Cheesesteak and Abuse


By Theodore P. Friesd

It is late at night.

"Welcome to...Tommy's," reads the yellow sign on the back wall, high above the dingy, easy-wash tables, the cheesesteaks frying on the grill, and the students in their black weed coats, waiting in the long line to place their orders. On the right edge of the sign is a credible illustration of a hot pastrami sandwich, on the left edge is a color photo enlargement of proprietor Thomas Stefanian's head. In the picture he is bedecked in a while French chef's hat and neckerchief--garments only the photographer has ever seen him wear. His mouth is parted, exposing all 32 teeth, and he radiates a strong yet clusive emotion.

A novice to Tommy's would interpret the grimace as the captured moment of a restauranteur's self-advertisement: "Chowtime! Soup's on! Step on up to the counter and get yourself some mighty fine fast food!" But one of his veteran countermen offers a more plausible interpretation: "That's Tommy's expression before he tells you 'Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.'"

Tommy's thrives on the tantalizing moment that exists between when it attracts customers through its doors and when it kicks them back out. Step insider and you've centered an arena with its own rules--transgress once and you're back outside.

The reasons people go to Tommy's are simple. "Because I'm hungry," says Romana A. Vysatova '86. "Because I'm stoned and hungry," says another student. Tommy's is open until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on the weekends, and is closer to most river houses than The Tasty, so convenience and a late-night monopoly compound its popularity.

Most of the student crowd comes from nearby Adams House, although you are sure to see at least one Crimson staffer hunched over a Tab and fries, bivouacking before a late press run. On the weekends, after a Hasty Pudding party or a punching function. Tommy's overflows with well-dressed, poorly behaved men and women from Harvard and other local colleges. The countermen refer to these last years as "the outsiders"--the troublemakers.

Cambridge resident Albert Puell says he comes to Tommy's "to relax and hang around with the Harvard crowd--they've got brains." Steve, who manages a video store in Milton and has been coming to Tommy's for 15 years, likes to sit on a stool by the counter and "watch the world go by" through the tables in the middle of the floor and the booths against the back wall. Steve likes the ambiance, which has remained "pretty much the same" as long as he's been a patron. When questioned more specifically about this ambiance, he says that Tommy's is a place for friendships, not for pick-ups. "But sometimes it's crowded and you're sitting mext to a woman--then if it happens, to happens. If it doesn't, that's cool," he says with a wink.

Tommy himself believes he attracts customers because he runs a clean place, uses the finest quality food and because he has weathered the vagaries of fortune. He responds to the recent demise of late-night gastronomic competitors Cahaly's and Harvard Pizza philosophically, saying "I was here way before any of those places opened up. A lot of people come here because I'm still here after 28 years."

Viewing Tommy's over the course of almost three decades, a sense of continuity may emerge; but, in the cause of an evening, the place in is anything but stable. Lunatics prowl at all hours, yelling in foreign or private languages, while the less crazed sweat over the video games (Marble Madness, Punch Out, Karate Champ), make secretive phone calls, chain smoke, binge, purge, engage in brawls to which the police are summoned--or simply attempt to mind their own business.

Yet even this last approach to Tommy's is no guarantee of peace. Although it is not difficult to absorb the rules, which 14 sings on the wall set forth (no loitering, no smoking in these booths at such and such a time, no food or drinks on the machines, no, no, no), you can easily fall afoul of Tommy's unwritten code. Says Jeffrey A. Edelstein '84-5, "One of the things that makes Tommy's so special is that a longtime patron such as myself can be so rudely treated." John, one of the countermen, flexes his heavily tattoed forearms and says with an ironic grin. "Where else can you go in Harvard Square to spend good money to get insulted?"

The most famous enforcer of Tommy's code is Ralph, who has earned the curiously child like nickname "Ralph Rotten" in the course of his years behind the counter. Ralph, who often wears his nickname proudly emblazoned across a stretched and sweaty T-shirt, occasionally carries the code--no combing or booze, no feet off the floor, no combing your hair, no profanity, no clove cigarettes--to it's illogical extreme. As he works over the grill, slicing and frying, he radiates certain anger--feeling each new order is an unwarranted imposition. On occasion he explodes, and leaps over the counter to confront the felon--in this case an unsuspecting clove cigarette smoker: "Get out of here with that fag cigarette!"

"I hate Rotten Ralph. says Cathleen R. Wilson '86, "I think he's a thought criminal." But there is a soft underbelly to the Ralph Rotten story, a sense that he delights in his pastime of epaler le bourgeoisie. "Watch this," he'll say, winking to the older customers perched on their stools by the counter, and then he'll direct his stentorian bellow towards he rear booths: "Hey Lucy, put your feet on the floor!" "Lucy" is his collective name for all women; when asked about it he le laurels, surprised. "I don't know--'Lucy,' it sounds cuckoo. I use it to embarrass them a little bit, I guess, so they won't do whatever they're doing again." His co-worker John says, "I think Ralph really takes pride in his nickname."

But both countermen and customers are quick to point out that their rudeness is usually reserved for uncontrollably rude customers. Although Tommy says he tells all his employees not to take abuse from anyone, they are subjected to a lot of it each shift. "They're really nice people," says Soroush R. Shehabi '87 of the countermen. "Snotty kids come in here when those guys are working hard. You can understand their response--they have a dismal life."

Much of the tension must be attributed to the fact that some of the counterman don't want to be at Tommy's, and most of the students don't want to be anywhere else. Homer Lewis, who's been working there for several years, and whose other interests are ezlibited on Tommy's walls in the form of his color photographs, says, "I don't like working here at all. I don't like working with the general public. I just do it to take up some time I don't want to have.

Many students, on the other hand countess come to Tommy's specifically to avoid the reading and writing they should be doing. Tommy, who admits quietly that he has served as a father figure to several students over the years, says he always advises students. "Don't waste your money on the pinball machines--study for your money. I've seen plenty of guys flunk."

Partially because Tommy's is a late-night haven for procrastinators with fertile minds and rest-less bodies, it has a hazy, mystical quality that is as clusive and puzzling as the ellipses in "Welcome to...Tommy's." The most Dorfman figure Tommy's is second-hand bookseller Mel Dorfman. Sporting a white beard and a black beret, he can be seen reading and drinking coffee in the last booth at any hour of the day or night. Tommy's is his office, and he has commuted there for the past 20 years. Romana Vysatova says that her freshman year she was convinced that Dorfman was a police investigator, "turning kids on to drugs and working undercover. I told so many people that..."

There is a counterman who, students claim, has a perpetually, broken arm. There is the graduate, student who gained notoriety last year for graduate blue books while sipping coffee under Tommy's plastic tiffany lamps. And Homer Lewis reports that "Once I met what's her name, the movie star. You know on what's here name--I recognized here voice and there she was."

Tommy dismisses questions about unnecessary insults and mythic intimations with a wave of his hand. "We run a clean place," he says. The man who used to own "Honest Tom's" used car dealership takes great pride in his restaurant, and chooses his words carefully when he explain the reasoning "Tommy's code."

Escentially, he doesn't want to see behavior in his restau that he wouldn't want to see at his own dining room table. "Do you brush your teeth o. comb year hair over the soup bowl in year dining hall?" he asks. "Then why do it here?" He tells his employees never to serve a sandwich they wouldn't at themselves: he wants them to take everything as he does-personally. "If you don't want to obey my rules," heavy calmly "then I don't want you in here."

When asked about the photo enlargement of his head that adorns the welcoming sign, Tommy turns to look at it and grip widely. "What do you mean, what am I expressing up there?" he say. "What's up there--that's me."

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