When a total stranger comes into the bar and begins his conversation a little too early, like yelling his words from the entrance before he’s walked in, your friendly bartender’s antennae immediately go up. For he’s seen this bullshit too many times and almost to a man when this happens, when these helium balloons finally do alight and order the drink of their choice, they’ll slowly let out their air with a hundred questions. And it’s all nonsense. For while you’re trying to answer question number one, with glazed over eyes they’re already on to number two. And then two bows to three. It’s the social equivalent of “hit the ground running” with all the finesse and warmth of a full-on carpet bombing.
So late Wednesday night when a big balloon gassed his way into Bar-land, along with his partner in crime who was anything but, I sighed and thought, Here the hell we go again! Twenty Questions!!! And I was right… well, sort of. For I was right in the fact that the bullshit flowed and the questions just kept on coming, but wrong in the fact that this guy was your typical blowhard. He wasn’t. He was genuinely glad to be in New York and happy to be in our bar, he listened intently to all that I said and his non-stop rap was simply a case of exuberance. He was three hundred pounds of glee so let’s call him Happy!
And because it was close to closing time let’s call me Grumpy.
His friend, on the other hand… one third his size and low key as hell… was the last guy you’d ever expect to be here with Happy. With his pin-striped suit and diminutive frame to Happy’s Hawaiian shirt and gargantuan bar sprawl, and his bow tie lashed to his throat to emphasize “conservative”, he looked like Happy’s agent or his C.P.A. Yet there they both were.
Happy ordered a Grey Goose martini with olives, while Bow Tie requested, in an almost whisper, a Grey Goose with Seven-Up and a splash of cranberry juice. Then, after Happy had finally run out of questions to be posed to your friendly bartender (falling short, thank God, of, “What’s your social security number?”) the two finally turned to each other and left me alone. I walked to the end of the bar and pretended I was busy.
Well, I later found out, while giving “last call”, that both were in from L.A. on some kind of business. So I started questioning.
“L.A., huh? And what do you do out there?” I asked, while pouring.
“I’m a comedian,” said Happy.
How appropriate! thought Grumpy. That explains the prevailing glee and the non-stop rap to try and hold my attention.”Where ya’ from? What’s your favorite drink? How long have you been doing this?” etc., toss-out questions hopefully triggering a punch line. Or seeking acceptance. For show me the comedian who doesn’t seek that and I’ll show you a person as rare as an honest politician.
But just as I put those pieces together Happy then made a left and broadened the horizon.
“However, the comedy hasn’t been going so well so I got involved with my friend here in some kind of real estate thing.” Bow Tie let out a sneeze when he heard “real estate thing”.
“Wow, that’s quite a departure,” I said, “and how is all of that going? The real estate I mean.”
As Happy shrugged his shoulders and smiled wanly, Bow Tie said, “It’s fine,” then sneezed again. And again and again. Which, in addition to pissing me off at this point as I watched him spray the room and gobble up bev naps, it got me to thinking.
See, I once knew this guy in L.A. (coincidentally) who was a hustler of the first water… movies, TV, music, he did it all. Or so he said. Because whenever you asked him a particular question regarding a particular project (“You can actually get Metallica to do a concert for you?”), he would begin to sneeze uncontrollably for ten solid minutes. Always! So perhaps my late night visitor here, in cahoots with big ol’ Happy, was just another bullshitter who sneezed when cornered. That’s one theory.
And the other is… there is this thing in Bar-land we call the “whiskey sneezes”. It happens when someone’s had too much to drink, then a meal and more drinks after, and they fall into fits of sneezes that blow out the room. And I don’t know why. But whatever the reason this past Wednesday night for this a-choo-freaking-itis, when I tell you that Sneezy blew twenty five times I grossly underestimate, so double that number and add ten more to the equation. Which is conservative. Until finally, with my back to the whole performance as I’d retreated down to the register to get out of spray range, I heard “Ahhhhhhh-Chooooooooo!” and the sound of a chair crashing onto hardwood. Ka-da-boooooom!!! Sneezy had sneezed his ass right on to the floor. Astounding! And funny… if you’re not your friendly bartender left to deal with it. Napkins all over the bar and the floor, germs floating freely through the room, and a grown man wearing a bow tie lying on his side. I thought I was Woody Allen in a goddam Fellini movie!
“Jesus Jumpin’ Christ,” I shouted, when I heard the crash of the chair, “get it fucking together, man, get it to-fucking-gether!!!”
I know that sounds rather harsh on my part but the sound of the crashing chair had given me a start, and that was my gut response to this thing called startle… a cuss-filled tirade.
And now Sneezy, back on his feet and somewhat in control, amazingly started towards me, then decided instead on a dirty look as he high-tailed it into the men’s room, while Happy in his absence tried to make things right. Happy the Peacemaker! “Geez, you’re overreacting,” he said, “the guy didn’t mean any harm, he just had to sneeze. He couldn’t help it, and the chair went out from under him on that last one. Know what I’m sayin’?” Of course Happy was right. I had overreacted which I admitted to. Begrudgingly! Then Happy kept on apologizing more, over and over again… ever the comedian still trying to please… so I shook his hand and told him everything was cool. And this time I meant it. And I said the same to Sneezy upon his return.
“Hey, man, you all right? Sorry I blew.”
“Yeah, I’m all right,” he said, miraculously cured of his sneezes. “It’s these god damn ahhll-er-geeeeze!”
Uh-oh, Sneezy was also drunk, I realized, as “allergies” doesn’t take that long to pronounce. So the plot thickens. Then when Happy (ever the positive force) raised his glass to his friend and proposed a toast, “C’mon, my man, here’s to New York City!” the plot turned into soup as thick as gruel. Because Sneezy clanged his glass so hard that Happy was left with nothing in his hand but a stem. Shards from the top of the martini glass coated the bar.
Well, friends, if you can picture Gleason’s Kramden sending Norton out of his apartment with that pointed finger to the door and the word “Out!”, you have a rough idea of the scene I was about to create here. But thank God Sneezy in a moment of clarity prevented it. “Holy shit,” he slurred to Happy, “l-l–et’s pay the b-b-bill and get the hell out of here! We’re f-f-f-ucked!!!” And they did get the hell out of there, in record time I might add, but not before Happy had pulled me aside and apologized two more times, shook my hand and hugged me, then promised to return but next time with his wife.
God bless comedians, they do aim to please. And God bless you, dear reader, for not having to end your work day with anything like that!
Over and out from Bar-land… see ya’ next week-end!
Monday morning update: Not to toot my horn here but… in addition to another nice mention last night by the mighty James Wolcott over at Vanity Fair (thank you, sir!), I see that I’m linked to a very cool boxing blog called The Boxing Dispatch. Journalist Mike Colapietro wrote a very kind intro then posted a story of mine about the time I met Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta in a bar. If you like boxing or you just want to read about an amazing experience I had on my very first night in New York City, please (Click here).