“Thanks, New York!”

This week your friendly bartender is appearing on your side of the bar, for a sip and a trip down good old memory lane. So if you don’t mind me pulling up a stool, dear reader, and insisting on buying the next round, I’d like to bend your ear with a personal bar tale. It’s a story that came to mind last night as I was watching the movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, and it’s yet another reason I’m glad I moved to New York. Stuff just happens here.

Now for those of you not familiar with the film it’s the story of Rocky Graziano… middleweight champ in the 1940’s… portrayed admirably (though a bit overdone) by the late Paul Newman. The story comes off a bit schmaltzy in places which was Hollywood’s wont in those days, but it did manage to capture the man’s essence… a rough and tough kid from the lower eastside as soft on the inside as chocolate from “old Benny’s Candy Store”. Something I know to be true as soon you will see.

As a kid growing up in the city of Pittsburgh I idolized Rocky Graziano (especially after seeing that film), which was long after he’d hung up his gloves to become a show biz performer. He was half of a song and dance act by then with comedienne Martha Raye, in which Martha was the self-proclaimed “big mouth” in the act and Rocky was her hapless foil, but even in his role of  “My Gumba” (goomba)… a term Martha used both affectionately and a tad condescendingly… he was still a knockout and someone you couldn’t help liking. He just made you smile. He was also someone I actually got to meet and on my very first freaking night in New York City.  Can you believe it? Here’s what happened…

The only person I knew in New York… my guide on this very first night… took me to a place on Second Avenue then called Elmer’s. Elmer’s was the site of the old El Morocco and when I walked in the door I thought it was the El Morocco. That’s because the first person I saw was Rocky Graziano.

And so my friend (which blew me away at the time), to both impress and to try and help me, walked right over to Rocky, told him I was new in town and needed a favor. Now my friend barely knew the real live “Rocky” beyond saying “hi” like everyone else in New York, so I couldn’t believe he had the balls to do this. And Rocky, which I couldn’t believe even more so, came over and shook my hand and bid me welcome. Then, after a minute or two of small talk (his way of checking me out, I guess) he walked to the pay phone and delivered the so-called favor. He set up a meeting with me and some guy about writing.  He then shook my hand again and resumed his evening. That was it.

So the next day, after finishing my sit-down with “the favor”,  as I got up to leave his office he said, “Now make sure you go back to Elmer’s and tell Rocky we met. He’s there right now.” He wanted to make sure that Rocky knew favor done!

“But it’s not even noon,” I said, “are you sure he’ll be there?”

“Are you kidding?” said the favor. “The man fucking lives there, believe me he’ll be there!” So I jumped in a cab and headed across town to Elmer’s.

“Hey, champ,” I said upon entering, as if we’d just done a six rounder, “I just wanted to stop by and thank you again for last night.” And as the fog rolled in and settled on his brow telling me he didn’t quite remember last night’s encounter, I added, “I just met your friend, Mr. White, remember you set up that meeting last night on the phone?”

“Oh yeah, right,” he said, the fog quickly burning off, “now I remember, you’re the guy wants to write.  Hey, bartender, get this kid a drink will ya’ and put it on my tab.” He winked when he said “my tab” because Rocky never had a tab anywhere in town!

Now here’s where the story gets good.

As we’re sitting there shooting the breeze… well, Rocky is sitting and I’m hovering about three inches off my bar stool… in comes his boyhood partner in crime, Jake LaMotta. That’s right, the “Raging Rull” himself, and he takes the stool on my other side putting me in the middle. Is this even possible? And this was the year his movie had come out so Jake was enjoying renewed fame, which Rocky, in a good natured way, was about to begrudge him.

These two had a history of breaking each other’s chops, figuratively speaking of course (they never met in the ring), and now was no different as the two immediately went at it. Back and forth they threw out their jabs, like two kids in front of a candy store, and me in the middle just soaking it in like a sponge. I was in pugilist heaven. But then just when Jake seemed to get the upper hand, bringing up money and his movie, Rocky delivered what amounted to the knockout punch.

“So, Jake,” he said, “tell the kid about that building you bought for your Pop. He’ll really like that one!” Jake actually blushed when Rocky said this, if you can imagine a raging bull with a touch of rouge.

“Nah, nah, fuggedda-bout that, will ya’, Rock?” Jake responded as though blocking the punch with his left, “that was a long time ago, for Christ Almighty sakes. ” But as he broke into a laugh trying to cover his obvious embarrassment, Rocky was already coming around with the right.

“Get this, Kid,” said Rocky, poking my ribs for emphasis, “when Jake first started makin’ money he buys a building and puts it in his father’s name. You know, as a… whaddaya’ call it… A in-vest-ment, right? So Uncle Sam don’t get half the fuckin’ money. But then what do you think his old man does when this happens? Well I’ll tell ya’ what he does. He sells the fucking building, takes all the money and moves himself back to It-ley.”  Pow, a standing eight count! But then Jake comes back with “Graziano / Zale Three”!

And on it went from there, dear reader, much to my sheer delight… twelve verbal rounds of boxing… with Rocky Graziano in one corner, Jake LaMotta in the other, and me in the middle who couldn’t lick a three cent stamp. Now is that an introduction to New York City or what? And I swear it’s all true!

Listen, gang, I got a little long-winded here but I still have more to add, how about I buy another round here before I finish. Is that okay? Good!

So over the next ten years, and up until his death in 1990, I saw Graziano many, many times in many, many New York spots, and he was always a smile and a handshake to anyone who recognized him. Which of course was everyone. He was not only that lovable mug you saw portrayed in the movie of his life, but proof that given the chance in life (and given his childhood of reform schools and a stretch in prison), anyone can turn that life into something positive. And as I watched Paul Newman doing his thing, hitching his shoulders and bouncing his way through his role last night, I couldn’t help smiling and thinking, I met the real deal. Thanks, New York!

Now let me pay my tab, bartender, and I’ll see all you guys next week from behind the stick.

23 Responses to ““Thanks, New York!””


  1. 1 Ken March 7, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Now that’s a great story Scrib. Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta: a true meeting of the minds. Plus that story of Jake’s dad taking Jake’s dough and running. That move was soooo Italian.

    I don’t remember that show with Martha. Did she really call him that? And I agree, the biopic starring Paul Newman is a very entertaining film.

  2. 2 Jennifer March 7, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Awesome story.

    Did Mr. White look like Harvey Keitel?

  3. 3 scribbler50 March 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Ken: Yeah, it was a meeting of the minds. But these guys weren’t so much dumb as they just talked funny! And the gig with Marta Raye was just an occasional thing in night clubs and The Ed Sullivan Show.

    Jennifer: Glad you liked the story, and actually Mr. White looked more like Robert Duval. But all those guys, Keitel included, were obviously part of that New York thing in and around show business, as was (or so he said) Mr. White. Nothing ever came of it.

  4. 4 jc March 7, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Now I know why my relatives call me Goomba all the freakin time. Great story!

  5. 5 Anonymoustache March 7, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    That is one great story Scrib50! Your reflexes must have been pretty good to have survived a Graziano/LaMotta crossfire!

  6. 6 Jennifer March 7, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    …Mr. White. Nothing ever came of it.

    Mr. Pink sounded like he had a better deal anyway. :)

  7. 7 scribbler50 March 7, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Jennifer, you’re too much! Thanks for that little add on, that explains your reference which I didn’t quite get. Very clever, my friend, here’s a :) back at ya!

  8. 8 physiobabe March 7, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Your stories are great, Scrib, both behind and in front of the stick!

  9. 9 scribbler50 March 7, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    JC: Take heart. According to the word which I Googled to get the right spelling, “gumba” among other things mean “trusted friend”.

    Anonymoustache: It was worth every friggin’ minute, my friend, believe me.

    Physiobabe: Thank you, bella mia, glad you enjoyed!

  10. 10 jc March 8, 2010 at 8:58 am

    They *definitely* don’t call me Goomba because they trust me! It’s more like they are waiting for me to screw something up, again. It’s a synonym for dingbat in the family. I’ll have to watch clips of Martha’s show.

  11. 11 brenda March 8, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    YOU are the stuff New York legends are made of, S. And do you know, I actually remember Elmer’s. The zebra stripes? Please, please feel free to get long-winded anytime. This was brilliant!
    PS You’ve seen the doc, Toots, right??

  12. 12 scribbler50 March 8, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Brenda: You’re my “Gumba” in the best sense of the word! And yes, you’re right about the zebra stripes, the owners were trying to recapture the old El Morocco theme which of course was ALL zebra stripes. Ahh, not to sound like an old fart but where are those places today? Instead of Bogart / Bacall in one booth and Sinatra / Ava Gardner in another, we have gang wars in the VIP room and Lindsay Lohan throwing up in the ladies room!

  13. 13 d-a-p March 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    …just for tonight…let me pay your tab…what a great story…living in new york city can’t get much better than that…
    d-a-p

  14. 14 unclevinny March 8, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    What a story!! And for a minute there, when you appeared on my side of the bar, I imagined you as Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski… although I’m guessin’ you don’t drink much in the vein of sasparilla?

  15. 15 scribbler50 March 8, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    d-a-p: Thanks, man, but you’re too late. Tab’s paid, the bartender’s tipped and I’m already out the door. Appreciate the offer though.

    uncle vinny: Not a sasparilla man and a far cry from Sam Elliot, mainly because I can’t twist my neck like that when I talk. :) Glad you enjoyed the story.

  16. 16 Donna B. March 13, 2010 at 2:56 am

    What is amazing is how you manage with mere words to make me feel like I was there with you. Me, never a fan of boxing and never having been to New York.

    Excellent.

  17. 17 scribbler50 March 13, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Thanks, Donna, glad I could bring you to New York in your mind but some day you have to visit the place for real. (No boxing match required!)

  18. 18 Rob D March 15, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Great, great story..thanks for sharing it.

    My Canadian version involves running into a hockey legend (Aurel Joliat) on my first day in my new home town of Ottawa. He was a star of the 20’s and 30’s in the nascent NHL.

    It was like meeting a ghost from the past. I was awestruck. He was a tough old coot who drank beer in huge gulps and never seemed to get drunk..He still skated on our famous Ottawa canal several times a week.

    He was also a big boxing fan and Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson came up in conversation.

    Anyway, your story brought up that old memory and had me smiling after a long, hard week of suffering the slings and arrows of daily life.

    Thanks so much ..

  19. 19 scribbler50 March 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Rob D: Hey, man, welcome aboard and thank YOU so much for sharing that story. Really enjoyed it. I guess a lot of us have had that encounter where we meet a childhood idol, but to have it happen on the first day in town makes it special. As in… “Damn, this must be the place!”

    Cheers!

  20. 20 D.R. Marvel March 15, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I remember the show with Martha Raye and Rocky from when I was a small kid…Maybe it was aimed at small children, but I enjoyed the hell, out of it…

    Fast forward from the early ’50s to ’69 and I ran into Martha in Danang…She did a “show” outdoors in a pouring rain for maybe 50 of us and then changed into her LtCol uniform (Army Nurse Corps) and swept into the enlisted “club” and had a beer with us…

    God, I loved that woman…

  21. 21 scribbler50 March 15, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    D.R.Marvel: Thank you so much for sharing that, it’s those kinds of responses that make this blogging stuff fun and informative. I say “A”, someone else says “B” and on it goes. Meanwhile, when you met her, she had to be (as they used to say) a great broad!
    Thanks again.

  22. 22 Abel Pharmboy March 16, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    This is a fantastic story! I wish I was there on the barstool next to you to hear it but reading the written version was almost as good.

    I love how these life experiences happen when you are least expecting them. Thanks for bringing this one to life for us.

  23. 23 scribbler50 March 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Abel Pharmboy: And thank you for checking in, my friend, it’s been a while. Glad you’re feeling better and back in the game.
    Cheers, Bud!


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