A long time ago when I asked a friend, the late Leo Wilson, maitre d’ from P. J. Clarke’s and a character out of the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, what it was about Neary’s he liked so much (Neary’s is a legendary pub in midtown Manhattan), he craned his neck, jutted out his jaw, tugged and pulled at his collar like Rodney Dangerfield (all a part of his repertoire when searching for THE word), then said with a sniff and a huff, “It’s positively civilized!”
Well, having just completed some fill-in work behind the stick at Neary’s, I’m here to say that Leo was “positively” right. It is a very civilized bar with a fine clientele to insure it, as the focus is conversation not blasting music. And this past Sunday night, my final night, was the icing on the cake of that civility… literally icing on a cake as the owner had a birthday.
I took up my post around six o’clock to only two customers, one was a former regular of mine from a place where I used to work whom I hadn’t seen in years, the other was Dominic Chianese late of The Sopranos. Mr. Chianese couldn’t have been nicer or any more down to earth, in fact it was he who broke the ice by reaching out his hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Dominic.” No sense of self-importance, just a real Bronx guy. Then soon after as we started to chat and after I’d offered my condolences for James Gandolfini, I moved us into the show to ask a few questions. Chiefly… was his character really demented at the end or doing a Chin Gigante, the real life New York Mob boss, who walked the streets in a bathrobe to fool the Feds? He said, yes, Gigante was the inspiration but no his character at the end really was demented. Uncle Junior had Alzheimer’s. I then said how much I loved the show, every single minute of it, except of course that final ambiguous minute. To which Dominic smiled a Mona Lisa smile and said not a word but I think he totally agreed. Then his son Alex came in, a real estate developer and architect up from Florida, who joined his pop for a drink then they moved to a table. But that would not be the last I would hear from Mr. Chianese.
The bar itself filled up somewhat and the tables filled up a lot, but nothing at all like the night before, the actual day of Jimmy’s birthday (Mr. Neary is now a spry eighty three who moves like a thirty year-old), but Jimmy made it a two day affair to accommodate fairly his observant Jewish clientele. And me having missed that night before I was grateful to be there on Sunday, for as the old song goes (though I’m changing the tense), “What a swell party this was!” and here’s why…
This young man rolled in around eight o’clock and began to play his accordion, to which pockets of singing broke out here and there at the tables. But then Mr. Chianese, after his dinner, grabbed his guitar from under his table, walked to the front of the room and politely took over. None of this was planned, by the way, as Dominic had no prior knowledge of a birthday. So with the accordion guy now his back-up, gladly so, I might add, given who the lead was, Dominic sang some Irish classics in honor of the man of the hour, which actually had Jimmy dancing at one point a cross between a jig and a forties jitterbug, culminating with the two of them singing Danny Boy. And what a sweet moment that was to all in attendance. Dominic Chianese, age eighty two, Jimmy Neary now eighty three, an Italian and an Irishman, not only celebrating song but celebrating life… two men who had lived it. And if that’s not downright “civilized” what the hell is?
Then Mr. Chianese alone did something special. After a beautifully touching speech about family and family heritage, how all of us came from somewhere before America (in his case Santa Lucia from where his grandfather emigrated back in 1904), he then sang a song in Italian about the heartache of leaving those shores never to return. And except for his dulcet tones you could hear a pin drop. Or should I say tear drop?
Then it was time for one more song, the singing of Happy Birthday to Mr. Neary. So Jimmy’s daughter, the lovely Una, hostessing on this night, brought out a cake and placed it on the bar and Dominic played his guitar behind all our voices. Which meant that Jimmy got to beam one more time, this time for Birthday Night Two (when you get to be eighty three it deserves two nights, right?), and as I stood there watching this scene unfold, feeling the warmth that bathed the room thanks in no small part to Mr. Chianese, it was then that I thought, “What a swell party this was!” And how “positively civilized!”
Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you down the road…