Danny May, who worked many years at Beardsleys, published this piece in the Berkshire Homestyle Magazine in November 2006, shortly after Danny Constance’s death. He sent it along to me, and kindly agreed to have it reprinted in Kirbyontheloose. .
Early on the morning of September 24, I opened an envelope that I had just been mailed from a customer who lives in the Pioneer Valley, my post-college address for several years. It contained no letter, only a news clipping, an article that took three paragraphs to get to the point— my mentor had suddenly perished. I had always known that this day would come, that “Big Danny” wasn’t destined to exceed our nation’s average life expectancy. And I had also long suspected in my heart of hearts that his passing would be ignominious, an insult, almost, to his life and the raw talents with which he had lived it.
Sometimes I hate being right—after a life of Dom Perignon, fifty-foot yachts, and Nantucket summers, a cleaning lady had found Big Danny dead of undetermined causes on the floor of his modest, post-prison home. He was 68.
Had he been born into different circumstances, Big Danny might have become a more legitimate sort of business magnate, or a big-shot lawyer or even a U.S. senator. But without a formal education to match his lightning intellect and innate, animal smarts, he was instead drawn into the service of those who valued his natural facility with probabilities and point spreads in sporting events, talents for which he was handsomely compensated. Individuals with a steady flow of unaccounted cash have cause to find the restaurant business appealing, especially if they’ve developed a fondness for rack of lamb and first-growth Bordeaux during their rise through the ranks. And restaurants with hands-off owners need hard-working young managers of unquestionable trustworthiness to run them in their absence, and so Big Danny hired me to do so at the age of 25, and no one ever called me “Daniel” again, for I was immediately re-christened “Little Danny.”
I had already known that Big Danny was an imposing and contradictory figure, equally famous for his volcanic temper as for his huge heart. He couldn’t help but command a roomful of attention wherever he went, so energetic and forceful was his presence. Many were naturally drawn to his obvious power, as if by some sort of magnetism, while others were repelled in fear of him. As his protégé, I was privy to two sides of Big Danny. The stress of working directly under him at that young age sometimes felt like being in a fire, a crucible in which I was annealed against future adversity; and yet I learned much.
Under Big Danny’s alternately stern tutelage and genuinely warm encouragement, I was afforded the opportunity to absorb via total immersion a wide array of restaurant skills, from menu design to hiring and managing the staff. (They’re gonna call you an a-hole behind your back no matter what you do,” counseled Big Danny. “So you might as well do the right thing,,, at least they’ll respect you sometime down the road.”)
Ours was considered by many to be the finest restaurant in western Massachusetts, with a superbly talented kitchen, an attentive cadre of servers, and the finest cellar within our area code. Accordingly, I had the chance to taste many wines about which most of my fellow young wine enthusiasts could only read and dream—there was always some hundred-dollar stuff open on Big Danny’s table late at night, rare and famous wines that he always insisted I taste with him and his well-dressed, important-looking guests.
That Big Danny was a criminal of some sort was never in dispute. Those seemingly distinguished dinner guests of his were usually intense, rivet-eyed men whose names no one dared utter in public, but were well known to the FBI. Gambling was a year-round business, but autumn Sunday afternoons seemed to be the most stressful times for Big Danny, especially at 4:00PM, when the early NFL games ended, and then again at 7:00PM. Once I naively asked him which team he rooted for, who his favorite was.
“I don’t give a f___ who WINS,” he snorted, amused at my ignorance of the nature of his trade. “It’s all about the point spread… who covers the spread, and who don’t.” And then every autumn Monday a pair of leather-jacketed, husky young fellows would sit and have lunch with him, thick briefcases at their sides, and the three of them would somehow communicate with clipped words and in hushed tones between mouthfuls of hot chicken breast sandwiches. Through all of this, Big Danny strived to maintain an impenetrable firewall between me and his non-restaurant activities, as much to protect me, I believe, as to conceal them from another potential witness. Whether or not his gains were largely ill-gotten, Big Danny was unfailingly generouswith them. After one non-stop springtime fortnight of lucrative yet exhausting graduation dinners, Big Danny pulled me aside at the conclusion of the season-ending Sunday dinner shift, his coal-black, Irish-Italian eyes impishly twinkling. “I hear you’ve been looking to buy a new suit at Yale-Genton,” he said. (His spies were everywhere, even in a high-end West Springfield clothing store.) “Go down and get it fitted tomorrow,” he chuckled with satisfaction. “It’s all paid for.” He was equally generous to those considerably less fortunate than I. The homeless man who more or less lived in the shrubbery in front of our building one summer ate like a king, served by Big Danny himself. And our dishwasher was always delighted to get a ten-dollar bill for starting Big Danny’s car on cold winter nights, though we later learned that this was probably because one of his previous vehicles, a white Rolls-Royce, had exploded right in front of the restaurant a few years before. I have many such “Big Danny stories” etched in my memory; few of them, however, are suitable for publication in a family magazine.
Ten years ago I ran into Big Danny in a cyber-café on the main thoroughfare not far from where our restaurant once famously stood. I had long since moved on, gotten married and divorced, and was working as a wine salesman while raising my two young children by myself. Big Danny was recently out of prison, and he shared with me the tale of how he had finagled a work-release job for himself as the manager of an officer’s club on a Florida air force base while serving his federal sentence. “There I was, supposedly in f—- in’ prison,” he chuckled, “and I could throw a sirloin strip on the grill for myself at midnight, if I wanted… and then take a ten-mile Jeep ride!”
But it was obvious that his confinement had broken both his spirit and his bankroll, and that he didn’t want me to see him that way. It was awkward for both of us. Although I never saw him again after that chance encounter, I hadn’t left without taking a moment to sincerely thank him for everything he had done for me, for being a father to me in so many ways and giving me a career path. That I had been blessed with the opportunity to do this when he was still alive leavens, only ever so slightly, my profound sadness at his passing. I shall remember him fondly for all of my years, for in spite of the inherent shadiness of his chosen profession, Big Danny was extremely generous to me, as he was to many, many others.
I have come to believe that we humans are each a mix of light and darkness, of good and bad, but that what matters most in our life’s indelible ledger when we finally depart this world is the balance of goodness in ourselves that we have extended to others. By that measure, I’d have to say that Big Danny has gone to his eternal slumber having covered his spread.
I began working at Beardsley’s Café-Restaurant in September of that year, and it felt like a great fit. I had a pre-existing interest in wine, and I was eager to fill the huge gaps in my knowledge of food and fine cookery. Soon I was collecting cookbooks and replicating French sauces in my apartment, and I advanced quickly to eventually become the General Manager at Beardsley’s in 1984. The deep and widely varied collection of lessons I learned in that job has served me well in many succeeding positions, from running restaurants to selling wine.
To read an older posting on Danny Constance, click on this link