If you knew Senior, which is what most people who knew Ray Valente Sr. called him, you can hear his voice in your head right now.
“Sure, Dave, go ahead and break every glass in the house. I’m made of money,” the legend of North Denver and Wheat Ridge told me on, sadly, more than one occasion during my long tenure as a sometimes clumsy waiter in one of his famous 38th Avenue restaurants back in the 1980s.
Senior’s gone now, but the legend, and that booming voice everyone could hear all over Marc’s and Valente’s restaurants will live on forever. As least for me. He died May 6 after living one helluva life for 91 years.
He, and the rest of his family, were my foster family for years. At least that’s what I considered them. Ray Jr., Mark and I became friends in our late teens when the infamous Port o’ Entree was the stomping grounds for delinquents back in the day. It was the 1970s, a fun and different time, and we had more than our fair share. Of everything.
That’s when I first met Senior. It was a world of Garceos, Spanos, Rotolas, Carbones, Smaldones and a veritable parade of real North Denver. We’d drink all over town and then end up eventually at Valente’s to eat macaroni — which is what North Denver Italians call spaghetti — or fried chicken or scrambled eggs and peppers or pizza to try to prevent or soothe a monstrous hangover.
“You get enough to eat?” Senior would always, always ask in his tough North Denver Italian growl.”Huh?” he’d follow, because he always did whether he heard you or not. He wasn’t just a restaurateur. He was a host. He was a father. He was a friend.
A few years later his son, Mark Valente, spearheaded a new venture and opened Marc’s across the street from Valente’s on the well-worn West 38th Avenue. A social worker, I was considering going back to school for a new career in writing, maybe journalism, and I needed a job to get me there. And so I joined my friends for several adventurous years.
Senior became my surrogate dad while I worked my way through journalism school. I was good at what I did, and he knew it. He appreciated it, although sometimes he didn’t sound like it.
“Dave, treat these people nice,” he’d say as he sauntered up to one of my tables. “Don’t make ‘em beg for stuff like you make me.”
The customers loved it. They loved him. And he loved them.
But he didn’t just hand out the shtick on the floor, in the middle of the rush, when you’d clench your jaw and take deep breaths to keep it together while your station full of customers seemed to be falling apart, he’d suddenly appear in front of you.
“Those people couldn’t say enough good, Dave,” he’d say. “Thanks.”
And then he’d ask if your apron was getting tight or something and maybe you should lay off the bread. And just like a dad, he’d be talking to you, maybe seated with customers, and suddenly say, “When are you gonna cut your hair? You look like a damn girl.”
And just like a dad, when things were bad. He was there. When I was going through a divorce, he pulled me aside to tell me that if I needed anything “anything” just say. When I needed a car and loan, “I know a guy.”
Damn, did Senior know a lot of guys. He was the face of North Denver, which is what people who grew up here still call it. “Highlands” is for uppity Realtors and immigrants from the Midwest, Texas and SoCal.
He was among the natives of “North” (high school), “Tee-hone” “Show-Shone” and “Pea-kus” streets to venture into Wheat Ridge. But his heart and soul forever haunted the ‘hood at Holy Family, Mt. Carmel, Carbones and everything between. He did his haunting in the famous 38th Avenue Trolley, his beloved El Camino. Even before he got his “Valentes” vanity plate, everyone knew his ride. He probably drove a few hundred thousand miles up and down that North Denver boulevard, picking up sausages or dropping off pans of pizzaiola or cavatelli to someone with a death in the family. God only knows how many errands had Senior on that street from early to late. Not that many years ago, I’d frequently see him in that miraculously preserved El Camino, buying fruit or bread in the barrio even though he lived miles away in a swank house in Lakewood.
“They had cereal on sale,” he said in the parking lot of a neighborhood market one day when I saw him years after I’d left Marc’s and went on to be a journalist. “You want one? I got a few.”
Senior’s generosity was surpassed only by his love of cereal. But that was nothing compared to how much he loved his kids and his grandkids. That’s when he shined as the world’s best dad. He was painfully proud of Mark and Ray, and he adored their wives and grandkids when they came along. I never once saw him waver from that. While so much of North Denver and Wheat Ridge benefited from his attention and generosity — firefighters, cops, the bereaved, the schools, the Carnation Festival and generations of employees and causes — his immediate and extended Italian family were gold.
He taught me that. Family isn’t just the people who would match your DNA sample, they’re the people you grow up with and live around. Senior’s love of North Denver and all the funny, peculiar, wild, talented and mostly everyday people in the ‘hood were real family.
Last week, Mark, Paula, Elaine, Junior and Linda weren’t the only ones to lose an amazing patriarch. We all did.