MODESTO — Every story has many layers stories within the stories and some can lie fallow for decades.
Last month, The Bee reported that the old Cote d'Oro restaurant building on Yosemite Boulevard soon would be torn down to make way for one of those dollar stores.
The Cote closed in 1987 and the building has been vacant and vandalized over the past six years. But for more than two decades, the Cote enjoyed a reputation of being Modesto's most popular and elegant restaurant a favorite of brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo, and so many others.
Joe and Hazel Pastore started the Cote in the mid-1960s. Joe died, and Hazel continued to run it until she sold the business to her longtime waiter Tony Cardoza in 1977.
"I needed a job," Cardoza told me. "So I bought the place."
Which brings us to the story within the story:
Cardoza, 80, ran the restaurant for the next 10-plus years. And like the building connected by a tunnel to the Prohibition-era speakeasy next door, Cardoza kept a secret of his own: "I was legally blind," he said.
One day in the early 1960s, Cardoza experienced what he described as a flash of light that affected his vision. The sensation lingered. So he went to an eye doctor, who told him he had retinitis pigmentosa, for which there was no cure or treatment.
Some people with the condition have only a narrow tunnel of vision. Others, like Cardoza, see only peripherally nothing in the middle and not very well at that.
Over the years, he was able to slow the decline of his eyesight by embracing a healthy diet supplemented by vitamins, minerals and herbs.
"I stayed away from junk foods," Cardoza said.
Only his co-workers and employees knew of his condition, he said, and they kept his secret. He never told his customers he couldn't see. And if they knew, they didn't let on.
"I didn't want anybody feeling sorry for me, to have pity on me," Cardoza said. "I don't feel I'm different than anybody else. You have handicaps, you just adjust."
He bought a house about two blocks from the restaurant so that he could walk to work. No one ever asked why he didn't drive.
Regular customers such as the Gallos had their favorite tables. They became his friends, Cardoza said, and brought in so much business that they deserved preferential treatment. Their tables had to be available. Hence, Cardoza and staff went over the scouting report each night because he couldn't read the reservation list.
"I did pretty well," Cardoza said. "I was legally blind, running the restaurant and at the same time I was a single parent raising two children."
His eyesight didn't mean he wasn't a visionary. When Cardoza bought the Cote, he mapped out a five-year plan for the business. One goal was to make Holiday Magazine's list of America's top 100 restaurants.
"Ernest (Gallo) brought Robert Balzer (editor of Holiday Magazine, which produced the list) into the restaurant to see if it was qualified," Cardoza said. "Ernest knew I wanted that award."
The Cote made the list in 1980, three years into the plan he envisioned but could not read.
Numerous celebrities dined at the Cote.
"Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford," Cardoza said. "Burt Reynolds, Rocky Marciano and the Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore). Art Linkletter, Slim Pickens and an African king or prince or something. It was prestigious to come to the Cote when anybody came into town."
The restaurant went out with 1987, closing after the New Year's Eve crowd departed that night. His landlords, the Fusco family, sold the building to Alfonso Lara and his two daughters, Alma Vasquez and Sarah Lara. In 1988, the Laras opened Alfonso's El Castillo Mexican restaurant, which closed about six years ago. Sarah Lara now is selling the property to become a Dollar General store.
Cardoza kept the rights to the Cote d'Oro business name but decided not to reopen elsewhere, in no small part because of his vision. He maintained his secret for many years after the restaurant closed.
"One gal across the street caught on," he said. "She'd worked with blind people. But even my girlfriend (Carol Mendonsa) I fooled her for seven years."
"One time, a woman at the Taco Bell wanted to give him a taco," Mendonsa said the very kind of pity he wanted to avoid.
"The lady was so persistent that I finally took the taco from her," Cardoza said.
He finally began talking about his condition when longtime acquaintances began reprimanding him, saying, "You walked right by me and didn't even say hello," Cardoza said. "Heck, I couldn't see them."
A military veteran, he receives periodic training for the visually impaired. He recently went to a Veterans Affairs facility in Menlo Park to update his computer skills. In an earlier training session, "they put me through cooking school," Cardoza said. "But I could have taught them a few things."
Now, he doesn't care who knows. Life is good. He and Mendonsa dance their days away at the various senior centers. His body is strong, and his wit remains sharp.
Yes, the old Cote might be about to meet the wrecking ball, but Cardoza can still see it clearly.
Memories, after all, exist in the mind, not the eyes.
And every story has its layers.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.