The Soprano Is A Tenor

A long time ago when I asked an old 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 of the run, 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 condolence 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 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 Dominic.

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 and 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

“Reed” ‘Em And Weep!

While reading the latest (blog entry) by the master of words, James Wolcott, which glimpses the tumultuous life of the late Oliver Reed, memories came flooding back to me of the day when I served this over-sized “one man wrecking crew”.

I had just arrived in New York City, was working as a waiter at P. J. Clarke’s, when Mr. Reed and a very young woman (almost illegally so, for they seemed to be a couple) took a seat in my section shortly after lunchtime. And the first thing that struck me at the time, besides of course, Hey, it’s Oliver Reed!, was how unbelievably polite he was and how gracious. Almost too much. And how ridiculously tall he seemed at the time from a sitting position. Our eyes were almost on the same level (and I’m about the same height) or perhaps it was just his arresting blue eyes that commanded your attention to the point where you thought you were eye level. They were pools.

“Good afternoon,” he said when I arrived, “this is a lovely place you have here,” he added. He spoke in a smooth-as-silk, high-British accent worthy of any of Shakespeare’s best-loved roues. Then he smiled the broadest of smiles awaiting my response.

“Er-ah, good afternoon,” I replied, “and thank you very much. This is a great place.” I was somewhat taken aback by his act, his almost seductive act, for if he hadn’t been with a girl I might’ve thought he was flirting. But then I suddenly realized the reason for this “act”. See guys like him with wreckage in their wakes are fearful their reps precede them, so putting their best foot forward hopefully obliterates that. And when you have that voice and those acting chops, let ‘er rip!

He ordered a glass of white wine, the goblet looking like a thimble in his hand, the “woman?” sitting beside him ordered a coke. Then I served their lunch and all came off without a hitch. But a few hours later, right about the time my shift was ending, Mr. Reed returned to P. J. Clarke’s for round two. The “girl” was at his side again (I found out she was his traveling companion whenever he was on a shoot, under the hopeless notion he’d behave when with her), and this time they took a seat in the section near the bar. Not my section.

“Back again?” I blithely said to the two as I passed their table on the way to the bar. And like all drinker’s who have a problem, instead of a normal reaction he gave me a guilty look. Where you shrug as if to say, “What can I tell ya’?” His face was now a boiling red as though he’d been drinking since lunch, his demeanor now more outgoing, much more animated. A frozen grin was plastered across his face.

But I said to the waiter working the table, based on what I’d experienced, “Reed’s a pretty nice guy, you won’t have a problem.” “Oh yeah?” said the old timer as if he knew something. Which of course he did.

For the next day when I returned to work and inquired about Mr. Reed, the story that followed was right out of one of his movies. Around nine thirty or ten o’clock Mr. Reed put his “sitter” in a cab, then bellied up to the bar for some real drinking. His celebrity purchased his entry in the group, his money its continuance after he got rowdy. Which of course he did. Until finally, after he banged his glass on the bar garnering everyone’s attention, he roared aloud (in that golden voice), “I want all you women to leave this bar immediately. Bars are not for women, bars are for men! Am I right, guys?!? Whoopeeeee!!!” Then he poured his beer over his head and started hugging and kissing everyone in sight.

My friend, George, who worked the door and doubled as a pro wrestler, was quickly called to the scene for Oliver’s removal. Which wasn’t easy. But George knowing a move or two wrestled him out the door, but not before Oliver struck his head on the cigarette machine. It required putting some ice on his head which Mr. Reed strangely stood still for, as it seemed to suddenly jar him back into amity. Then, when the cut had stopped its bleeding after a band-aid had been applied, George put his arm around Oliver’s shoulder and walked him across the street as though they’d grown up together. Across the street to the Blarney Stone Bar, a blue collar joint that welcomed Mr. Reed as a hero. George then bought Mr. Reed’s first drink and tip-toed out the door the first chance he got. Mr. Reed was now their problem, not P.J. Clarke’s.

But when you think about it, for Oliver Reed and all of his ilk who roared through life when not in front of the camera, as though breaking up bars was cool and what is expected, what a terrible waste and what a shame it seems to piss away all that talent and then die young.

Or to quote James Wolcott’s eloquent words… “Mr. Reed seemed to have no respect for the craft or vocation of acting, a form of self-hate a number of once-studly, life-force actors seem to succumb to, stewing in their own pissiness and sinking deeper into hooded gazes and self-caricature punctuated by paroxysms. It’s a species of stardom that doesn’t exist much any more and I don’t miss it a bit.”

And as a bartender sometimes dealing with some of those “paroxysms”, I don’t miss it one bit either!

Til next time, dear reader…

On The Corner Of Reflection And Change Streets

As many of you know who have been following this blog for a while, your friendly bartender has not been that of late… your friendly bartender. Okay, “friendly” yes (at least I hope I’ve been), but “bartender” no, as I haven’t poured a drink in over a year. (Ergo the sparse posting.) So why the long time off without any pouring? Call it a planned hiatus that has lazily become a lifestyle, call it an earnest intention to finish a book which is nowhere near finished, or simply call it a time of reflection and change. Or maybe all three. Because who knows why I did what I did (or didn’t do which is more like it!), but that’s what it was and this is what it is right now, which brings me to a crossroads. One that will spirit a whole new adventure or one that will re-stamp my ticket right back to Barland, which sure ain’t a bad thing. All I know is the time has come to get myself off my duff and get something going.

So what are my options?

I thought about joining the circus but I’m told the food is bad, which really pisses me off ’cause I look good in tights! Then I pondered the rodeo circuit into which to cut a new swathe, but doesn’t that inch-thick clown make-up damage your skin? Then there were thoughts of becoming a sage getting rich off of people’s futures, but the turban I felt would surely invite racial profiling. Then finally and most remarkably, in a moment of true heightened fancy, I actually thought of pro wrestling as an option billed as The Mad Mixologist, where all of my bone-crushing holds would be named after cocktails. You know, instead of the familiar Pile Driver, I’d have the Harvey Wallbanger. Instead of the vile Triple Suplex, I’d have the Triple Sec Sleeper (it puts my opponent to sleep in exactly three “secs”). Of course tossing a man across the ring would now be the Singapore Sling, and instead of the classic Body Slam (are you ready for this, dear reader?) I’d have the Alabama Slammer to close out the deal. {Ker-freaking-splat!!!} But alas… despite all this diligent research and my visions of mat supremacy, and several passes in front of a full-length mirror, I was shocked to find that I don’t look good in tights! So no pro wrestling.

So what’s a mother to do, you ask, especially a bad mother – (shut yo’ mouth) like me? Time will tell. But in the meantime, in order to keep this blog alive which is limping along at best, and because I still don’t have a “stick” behind which to stand and observe and later to write about, I’ll have to rely, like mighty Marcel, on “remembrance of things past”, as I did in the previous post, or things present observed from your side of the bar.

Like this ditty that covers both past and present. It’s called “Don’t Assume”…

So I’m watching this TV commercial the other day (Didn’t I start the last post like that? I’m watching too much TV!!!!)), and this spot came on for airline travel or something. Or maybe it pitched a credit card company boasting perks that can make your travel more luxurious, I’m not sure. And the reason I can’t remember is, the spot just pissed me off to the point of distraction. The final scene had a man and a woman sitting at an airport bar, a very upscale airport bar, and the woman dressed in business attire was drinking a bottle of Bud right out of the bottle.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve served thousands of women over the years who prefer drinking beer from a bottle, and never gave it a second thought when they did, but this seemed a ball peen hammer on the head given the way she was dressed and where they were sitting. It looked like overkill. But since women were the obvious target audience (for who the hell else could it be?) I let my liberated side kick in (my non-judgmental-equal-rights-for-all side), and let it pass as the copywriter’s version of the”now woman”. But what happened next sent me over the edge. The bartender placed in front of the guy (this guy who’s apparently with her wearing an open shirt and no suit jacket) a pastel green foo-foo drink with a huge wedge of lime clinging to the stem glass. And so now the ball peen hammer is a mighty sledge. And I couldn’t help thinking as they made their point, “Why don’t you put him in a dress and give her a hard hat?!?” But then I remembered…

This couple came into the bar one day, tourists I quickly surmised, and the man said, “Let us have a bottle of Bass and a Cosmo.” (I guess you know where this is going.) So of course I gave the man the Bass and gave the lady the Cosmo, stereotypically assuming and doing so wrongly. And apparently offensively. Because the woman gave me a look that said, “What! Women don’t drink beer?” And the man’s look said, “You sayin’ I’m drinking a girly drink?” (Which to me he was but that’s beside the point.) For the point is don’t assume anymore, especially in this day and age, simply say, “Which of you gets the Cosmo?”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my television set to see if another commercial will take me to Barland!

Until next time…

A Bird In The Hand Is Worthless…

I recently saw a television ad for a “new and improved” Listerine, that began with the question, “Do you realize most people smile at least fifty times a day?” The point of the ad and selling point was that Listerine now has a “whitener”, so now your fifty odd smiles can flash like a kleig light. (Please, pass the Ray-bans!) But you know what crossed my mind, dear reader, the moment I saw that ad? It wasn’t that I should run out the door and purchase a lifetime supply (though as Jackie Mason would say, “It couldn’t hoit!”) I thought of a guy named Joe from long ago. Because Joe was not only forty nine shy of his fifty smiles per day, but the one that finally did part his lips came only after his first drink behind the bar. Near the end of his shift.

My grandmother owned a boarding house/saloon which I’ve talked about here before, and Crabby Joe was her night man behind the stick. And to prove that he was Crabby Joe just like his nickname said, each night before he poured his first drink he placed a plaque by the register announcing that fact. It read “Crabby Joe Is On Tonight”, which a customer had made up and Joe loved. It seemed to give him permission to be a grouch. Or at least to play that role because he really wasn’t as mean as he liked to act. Call it a defense mechanism. And given the way he looked one could see why.

He stood five foot four in his wing tipped spades, wore his apron up around his armpits, had a fist for a nose like W.C. Fields and his hair, a copper red, was thin and wavy. He looked like a character right out of Guys And Dolls. And just like the “guys” in Guys And Dolls Joe always had some action going on the side. He booked numbers for most of the patrons, was always hustling some odd contraband (everything from cases of Clark Bars to women’s make-up), and whenever somebody got in a jam Joe always knew some guy who knew some guy. Capish? But what really used to knock me out as well as make me laugh, above and beyond his folly outside the law, was how he claimed expertise on everything he touched. For example the day he bought a couple of canaries he immediately became an ornithologist. If he hondled a case of stolen sunglasses, Joe was now an optometrist. And God forbid if someone got sick, the man had more home cures than a Hopi Shaman. Which brings me now to this terrible tale of woe.

(Warning: If you’re squeamish, don’t read on.)

This lady came into the bar one day, a heavy set woman in a flowered dress who looked to be well in her fifties. She had a purse in one hand, a bird cage in the other which housed a solo canary, and a hangdog look on her face only whiskey could lift. She climbed up onto the stool and set down her cargo.

“Let me have an Early Times, Joe,” she said with a wheeze of despair, ” then the two of us need to talk about birds.” Since Joe had bought his canaries (immediately becoming an expert, of course) Joe was now, to all who knew him, John Audubon.

Joe got her drink… a pour to the line, a water back… then folded his arms and prepared to dispense his wisdom. “So what seems to be the problem, Kate?” he asked. With his customary frown.

Pointing to the cage she said, “You’re looking at it, Joe, this bird won’t sing.”

“He’s just in a strange place is all, all yer’ birds clam up when they’re in a strange place.”

“No, Joe, it ain’t this place, this damn bird don’t sing even when he’s home. Not a note‘!”

So Joe approached the cage, peered through the string-thin bars, then got that look on his face we all knew too well. That all-knowing-Joe look. “Aha!” he said, sniffing his nose for effect. “Now I see yer’ problem, his nails are too long. That’s why he’s quiet. This bird’s pissed off.” See Joe had recently come to the knowledge that wrapping the perches in sandpaper filed down the nails, and so proud was he of that new found knowledge he applied that cure to everything ailing sick birds. His “long nails theory”.

“See all my cages over there?” he said, pointing across the room (Joe was a boarder who lived upstairs and often brought his birds to the bar when he worked.) All the poles have sandpaper on them and that’s what files down the nails and keeps them happy. Birds hate long nails!”

“Well I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch,” said Kate, “I never woulda’ thought of that.” (Not exactly an All Creatures Great And Small episode!)

“Well now you know,” he said, tapping his temple. “But I’ll tell ya’ what I’ll do,” he continued, reaching into the cage and grabbing the bird. “I’ll clip its nails for now til you get that sandpaper. How’s that?”

“Would you, Joe?”‘ said Kate. “That would be great.”

So Joe took out his nail clippers, clipped away at the talons, put the bird back on its perch then walked away. And the only thing that spoiled this moment, this moment of veterinary triumph, was the scream let out by Kate that shattered the room. For not only was the bird unable to sing he was barely able to stand, as blood dripped down from each toe to the the bottom of the cage. Joe had clipped the talons well above the nail line. But typical Joe who’s never in the wrong and as if he had nothing to do with it, cooly proclaimed, “That bird’s gonna’ die.” Then he grabbed the bird, put it in his pocket, walked it back to the kitchen to put it to sleep. And Kate continued to scream at the top of her lungs. She was inconsolable.

“You killed my bird, you son-of-a-bitch, I’ll sue your ass forever. Do you hear me?!? I’ll sue you!!! A-a-a-a-a-a-h-h-h-h-h!! A-a-a-a-a-a-h-h-h-h-h!! You killed my goddam bird, you son-of-a-bitch. A-a-a-a-a-a-h-h-h-h-h! A-a-a-a-a-a-h-h-h-h-h! A-a-a-a-a-a-h-h-h-h-h!!!!!

Joe stayed in the kitchen til Kate ran out of gas, at least a good ten minutes, then walked back out to the bar and plied her with drink. He then gave her a bird from one of his cages, called her a cab from the pay phone, then sent poor Kate on her way from this night of horror. And again, as if he had absolutely nothing to do with what happened, he yelled to Kate as she walked out the door, “Don’t forget that sandpaper when you get home, dear!”

(Geez, if only that bird had “tweeted”, huh?)

See you soon, my friends, have a good week…

Red, White and Blue…

So I’m thumbing through the New York Post making my way to Sports, when what do I see jumping off the page but a picture of David Caruso almost smiling. You know, the guy who almost never smiles… that actor who found a second career after jumping ship from his first, on NYPD Blue, half believing he was James Dean destined for bigger things, only to fall on his freckled tookus til CSI Miami threw him a script, a pair of sunglasses, and apparently Clint Eastwood’s voice coach from the Spaghetti Westerns. To comical yet preposterously popular results. But I digress. David’s picture was just a grabber (it grabbed my attention, didn’t it?), simply because the man happened to be a redhead. That’s right a redhead! For the title above his picture read, NYPD ‘RED’ ALERT’… Hair-Bias Warning, and David seemed to be the perfect poster boy.

Here’s the Alert… “An anti-bias message went out this month to Manhattan sergeants and lieutenants, who were told that redhead harassment would not be tolerated.” Translated… no more disparaging words to the amber coif set, or a lawsuit could ensue.

And why, you ask, would this be a topic of interest to me? In other words why is your friendly bartender taking the time here? Because I, dear reader, was once what you’d call a redhead. That’s why. Or to put it in the verboten, I was a carrot top! And though my hair has gradually darkened over the years and I’m pretty much in the clear, I still can feel the pain these cops are suffering. And I can’t stop laughing. Because this is political correctness directly from Mars. You know, the “red” planet?

I mean did a cop actually go one day and complain about this to his sergeant, that one of those mean I-talians called him “Red”? Or worse, “Carrot Top”?  If so, a portion of New York’s Finest is now it’s Wimpiest, it’s politically correct-est. Which makes me wonder how Erik Thorvaldsson would’ve handled this. Certainly not this way…

“Oh, Halgor, Halgor, would you please tell that Sven to please lay off. He just called me ‘Red’ again.”

“But you’re Erik The Red, for crying out loud, why shouldn’t he?’

“Oh yeah, that’s right. Never mind, keep rowing.”

No, no one would’ve given old Erik any guff, as red as that bastard was, or soon they’d have found themselves overboard swimming back to Iceland. As well they should’ve been. So in honor of all the great redheads we’ve known (myself and Erik chief among them) I’ve put together this list to bring back some pride: Thomas Jefferson, Lucille Ball, Vincent Van Gogh, Red Barber, Red Skelton, Woody Allen, Maureen O’Hara, Napoleon Bonaparte (yeah, crazy Nap), Greer Garson, Danny Kaye, Winston Churchill, (no, not Carrot Top), Red Grange, Galileo, Mark Twain, (still no Carrot Top), David Bowie, and Elizabeth I to name just a stellar few. And the list goes on…

So to those who suffer from red, white and blue… that’s red hair, white skin and feeling blue ’cause you have them… buck up, old chums, you come from pretty good stock.  And to those on the New York Police Department who deal with some of the toughest crime in the country, and who have red hair, surely a little carrot cake ain’t gonna’ hurt ya’.

See you soon, dear reader, I’m off to paint the town red!

“Sacre Bleu!!!”

One of the things that used to drive your friendly bartender nuts, along with those um-teen other things he’s chronicled over the years, like a credit card payment for just one drink or a stranger asking, “What do you recommend?”, is when someone takes a seat at the bar and gags those already there with the perfume they’re wearing. And that goes for women too! Because dudes can stink up a joint as well with fancy sprays and colognes, and I have no qualms about telling those people what for. While fanning my nose and squinting my eyes I might lean into some guy and say (with a smile on my face, of course), “I assume you’d like a nice French wine because you, my friend, smell like a French Whorehouse!” Or simply, “I’ll take your order in a second, man, once I can see through the haze.” But with women I’d usually let the thing slide unless she’s a pal and can take it, as her perfume might’ve been a gift from a beau and who am I to rain on her “Charade”? But the fact remains I’m keeping my distance from either.

But all that having been said, dear reader, your friendly bartender also knows what it’s like to stink up the joint, to be the dreaded stink-er and not the stink-ee. And I blame the French for that.

Now before I go any further here, I’m not a member of the French bashing crowd who thought it was cute and patriotic to order Freedom Fries, I’m not in third grade. I like the French and I love their zest for life. But here the French are clearly to blame or at least a cadre of scientists closely aligned with them, for it’s they who must’ve assented as one, “Oui, oui, monsieur!” after sniffing their latest concoction. Which is called Old Spice. That’s right Old Spice! That revered and classic after shave whose slogan once jauntily echoed in song, “Look for the package with the ship that sails the ocean,” must’ve done just that… “sailed the ocean”! And to France for heaven sakes, if not in actual relocation then olfactory authorization, which I will gladly get to after this back story…

I’ve been using Old Spice (the after shave never the cologne), since peach fuzz first appeared on my cheeks my freshman year in college or shortly before that. Which is back when dinosaurs had the run of the land. And except for a few foolish forays into popular concoctions back then… exotic “Jade East” and “Canoe” for two, then English Leather my sophomore year when me and a few fraternity brothers literally gutted a room with the cloud that trailed us… Old Spice has been my chosen brand forever. And that of every man in my family before me. The name was almost eponymous for what it was. Like if you had a runny nose back then you didn’t go out and buy tissue you bought Kleenex. Or if you had to ease that post shave burn and wanted to smell like a man, you didn’t go out and buy “after shave” you bought Old Spice. And women, up until now, seemed to enjoy it. A few months back while standing in a bar a young woman standing next to me asked what I had on. She liked the smell of it. And I told her jokingly, “It’s new, it’s called Old Spice.” “Hmmm,” she said, leaning in for a closer whiff, til those all around her chuckled and gave me away. But the point is the stuff’s still passes after all these years. At least for me.

So the other morning I opened a new bottle, slapped some onto my cheeks, then noticed some curious writing staring back at me. All in French. Where it used to say “Original” it now had the word “Classique”. And where it used to say, “After Shave”, it now had the words “Apres Rasage” to replace them. “Well Sacre bleu, Depardieu! Qu’est-ce que c’est, mon frere? Should I be wearing a beret when I leave the house?” Or worse, “Should I leave the house at all, smelling like a trollop?” Because after I splashed this crap on my face, liberally as per usual, my eyes began to water after applying it. And not just because of the pungency factor, which believe me was considerable, but because another American tradition (just like real Levis) had gone down the drain. Probably forever.

But hey, I did have some errands to run that morning so I took my brand new scent out the door for a test drive.

Maybe it was just paranoia on my part but standing in line at Food Emporium watching the woman in front of me turn and look at me, as if to ask “Why in the hell so much of it???”, made me surmise my reek had entered her check-out space. And maybe it was just my shrinking self esteem in a bank line moments later, that caused me to have a similar pang when the woman in front of me made her own u-turn. I felt like I was a walking, talking stink bomb. And even after I got back home and tried to wash it off with soap and water, just like the gang on Seinfeld when they couldn’t get rid of the funk they got from that cab ride, a tinge of this stuff still lingered on my hands and upper lip. This wasn’t a brand new scent, this was a stigma!

And the worst part of all (save for the fact that Old Spice is no more!), I was thinking of having some lunch that day at a pub just up the road, but I didn’t want the friendly bartender there to ask if I’d like a nice French wine with my meal, so I passed. And you think you have problems!

Au revoir, mon ami, see you on The Seine…

Women In Bars

I just finished Rosie Schaap’s, Drinking With Men, her insightful, delightful memoir of a life spent in bars. And I do mean “life”. For each local pub she claimed as her own at various stages of her life going back to her teens, soon became more of a home than her own, its patrons more of a family than who she grew up with. And where some might say she drank too much or flirted too often with what you might call a “drinking problem”… while glorifying what to many is a horrifying pastime, especially for a woman… when you read her heartfelt take on that world along with her endless quest to belong somewhere, anywhere, you see why the warmth of an amber-lit bar… a mini cathedral of oak and mirrors sprinkled with interesting characters… became such a magnet. And great education.

With poets, painters, architects and teachers (the clientele she sought) sitting around her with her all alone at first, not to mention bartenders who took on the role of big brother (many of whom were artists as well as most of her bars were downtown), saloons to her were less party rooms than classrooms. Or as she put it, social centers where people happen to drink. But each new bar into which she gained entry had its step-by-step process… listen and learn, speak and be listened to slowly over time, matriculating though the system as though it were a college… til she reached what to her was that coveted status called “regular”. An unofficial member of a grown-up fraternity, she its only sister, where someone once told her (and which she cherished), “I love you because you’re one of the guys. But you’re not!”

Now do I recommend that life for a woman? No. Do I condemn it? Bigger no. It’s just a path this woman has taken in a quest to find herself, where each new bar marked a new beginning (the next in an evolution), and where each one she walked away from left her the wiser. Wise enough to not just survive but, just like the ring that’s etched in a bar left from a cocktail glass, she’s left behind this wonderful memoir as proof. She also writes the “Drink” column for the New York Times Magazine, and one night a week tends bar somewhere in Brooklyn. So “Cheers!” to you, Ms. Schaap, you’ve not only done yourself proud but the world I know well.

I often thought when reading this book how different it is for a woman to do what she did. To become a “regular”. To walk in a bar all by yourself, decide you like the place fine, then go about making that place your brand new haunt. Because a woman alone to the opposite sex can often send out the wrong message, innocently of course and even in this day and age, and some guys never fail to take it that way. If she’s reading a book or going over papers (which Ms. Schaap did in her teaching days), she’s pretty much sent out the vibe “I vant to be alone! But if she’s just there having a glass of wine or God forbid something stronger, the alley cats sooner or later will move in to scratch. And the bartender, if he’s alert, then has to de-claw them. All it takes is a glance from the woman without a word being said, and the bartender knows she’s not there to find Mr. Right. Or worse, Mr. Wrong. She just wants a drink like any other patron to simply pass the time, and to let the tension of the day wash away with each sip. But it’s not always easy.

And for her to move to the next level, to frequent a bar as a solo woman and then become one of it’s regulars… “one of the guys”… it’s never easy. But I’ve seen it happen over the years and it takes a special kind of woman, a woman who’s not afraid of the bullshit and bluster. And just like our memoirist did many times, the key is to ease yourself in and not barge in. Because once “getting laid” is out of the equation men can be very protective of their sacred turf. Their trust must be earned. And earned it is by the woman with smarts who backs it up with conviction, but also practices the intricate art of give and take. It’s almost like being in a relationship, sans the commitment. Which reminds me of probably the bravest of all when it comes to bar conversation, or at least the wittiest woman who “drank with men”… the great Dorothy Parker.

Ensconced in a booth in The Algonquin Hotel back in the 1920’s, surrounded by mostly male luminaries… Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun and George S. Kaufman, to name just an awesome few… Ms. Parker spat out her pearls of wisdom as easily as if they were pits spat out from martini olives.

To wit, (all you yungins’ who never heard of her):

“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look who he gave it to.”

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

“I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.”

“Tell him I was too fucking busy…. or vice versa!”

“The woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say, ‘No,’ in any of them.”

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force!”

“Wit has truth in it. Wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

“Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.”

“I don’t care what’s written about me as long as it isn’t true.”

“It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard!

“A hangover is ‘The Wrath Of Grapes”.

And her most famous of all… “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her drink.”

(Ms. Parker wasn’t “one of the guys”, she was The Man!)

So to all you women who frequent a bar in which you’re thought of as a “regular”, may the company be good, the conversation rich, the bartender kind and attentive, and the drink made just to your liking because you’re a regular. You’ve earned it!

See you next time, dear reader, have a good week…

Patience Is A Virtue-oso

Or… Hats off to those who tickle the ivories!

Having plied my trade in a piano bar for more years than I care to count, I’ve seen first hand the ups and downs of piano playing. And believe me there are some. The ups of course are the cheering patrons, the tip jars filled with kale, the downs are those times when they’re singing to pictures on a wall. Or worse, the room is filled but with far too many who think that they are the show, and shout as if they’re spending the night in a sports bar. But whether the tempo is up or down or somewhere right down the middle, one thing that always stays on course amazing me to no end, is the patience most players display in all situations.

Because if I were trying to do my job which is mix a drink and pour it into a container, and some drunken A-hole grabbed the bottle while leaning into my face to shout his order, I doubt if I’d have the patience to (how you say?) cool it. In fact, I might just think about taking that bottle and permanently printing its logo on said A-hole’s brow, like a one-of-a-kind Dewar’s tat! But those are the things I’ve seen going on or at least their fair equivalent, to the guys and gals who play the piano in Barland. There’ll be someone grabbing the piano man’s mike (his version of a bottle), or someone screaming a request in his face while still in the middle of a song (his version of drink mixing), only to smile in return and keep playing through it. Which to me is astounding. For it not only shows a professionalism and patience beyond what I could muster in a decade, but a total grasp of the fact that the show must go on! Or better put… they’ve taken the words to Billy Joel’s classic and carried them out to the letter in content and feeling…

“Sing us a song you’re the piano man

Sing us a song tonight.

Well we’re all in the mood for a melody

And you’ve got us feeling all right.”

… no matter how many A-holes try to prevent that!

A guy I worked with for many, many years is a guy named Elliot Paul (currently playing at Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar) who happened to be a master at handling these A-holes. In fact, given the things I’ve seen him put up with, the man is more like Job than the man called Joel. Because whatever the gods would drop from the sky for a drunken two point landing, Elliot would manage to “taxi” that guy to a stop (or the gal in some cases!). And always with a smile. For example, if someone grabbed his microphone while still in the middle of a song, he’d lure him into a duet then regain control. Or if someone shouted a request in his face from no more than two feet away (while still in the middle of another’s request for fuck sakes!), he’d just nod and wink which said, “I’ll do that song next.” And it worked. Where I might’ve shaved my head on the spot, stood up and done DeNiro’s “You talkin’ to me??!!” But that’s the difference between Elliott and me and all the others just like him who tickle the ivories, they know their job is to keep them all “feeling all right”.

And speaking of playing through “moments”, there were times now looking back on those days where some of the stuff that went down was just like a cowboy movie. You know, where a ruckus suddenly erupted in the place (in the cowboy movies, a shooting), the room fell silent for one scarey moment then I’d have to signal Elliott to go back to playing. Which he did. And the end result was it did usually calm things down. Again, just like in those cowboy movies where the dastardly owner of the town saloon would shoot some guy in the back, then quickly tell his piano man, “Play!!!”, as if to convey “Oh, nothing. We’re cool, have a drink!”

But those situations were very, very rare and most of the time the mood in our place was up. Meaning not just “up” for the piano man’s sake with everyone singing along and jamming his tip jar, but up for your friendly bartender as well because he then got to deal with a happy bar. Yes, the people who do that gig for a living, often under most trying circumstances, really do warrant our applause, our attention and praise. Just ask the late, great Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most praised of all, who right up to the end proudly claimed “I’m a saloon singer.”

By the way, since I mentioned Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”… clearly the most requested song along with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in any piano bar, I’d like to add my own two cents to its accolade. And that’s this. Where some might say “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” is the greatest saloon song ever, I’d have to disagree and say it’s “Piano Man”.One For My Baby”, as great as it is, is just one man’s lament of a recent break-up, whereas “Piano Man” takes the saloon world itself and turns it inside out, how “it’s sweet and it’s sad” to every man… the patrons, the bartender, waitress and singer… holding them up to the light with a big aching heart. And that’s a saloon song!

In fact, in case you haven’t heard it in a while (here’s the earliest video of same) which I’m sending out as a tribute to all those who do this. Chiefly Rick McDonald, Bugsy Moran, and Barbara King (everyone’s favorite Jersey Girl), the three who along with Elliot knocked them dead at our place.

See you next time, dear reader, have one on me!

“Take Me To Queens, My Good Man!”

Just before the game on Sunday (you know the one I mean, it’s been in all the papers), Joe Namath appeared on screen for his personal analysis. And the first thing that came to mind when I saw him wasn’t his illustrious on-field career or shocking Super Bowl win which put the Jets and the AFC on the road to legitimacy, but rather his on-field antics in 2003 when a clearly drunken Joe Willy tried to kiss his interviewer. Who was Suzy Kolber. (Or maybe that thought had come to mind ’cause my friend’s wife sitting next to me brought up the incident. I can’t remember which as there were pre-game cocktails!)

But either way it does go to show how one sorry moment in a public life can dog that person’s career despite his accomplishments. We see it all the time in politics (right?) where some clown’s brains end up in his shorts and from that day forward he’s known as the guy who did such-and-such. Can anyone hear the name Larry Craig and not think about his Fred Astaire moment in a men’s room? Or Anthony Weiner’s “hot dogging” on his Facebook page? (I’d hate to think if I had been famous back in my oat-sowing youth, can anyone say the words, “one man blooper reel”?) Anyway, getting back to Joe’s “forward pass” which wasn’t nearly as bad as most things out there, Ms. Kolber handled the whole thing with class both during and after the incident (“A really good guy having a bad moment” is how she described the incident), and so did Joe in the aftermath as that incident proved his wake-up call to finally do some serious thinking about his drinking. Which he did and then quit.

After discussing Joe at length and seeing there was still some time before the kick-off, I shared with my friends another embarrassing wake-up call. And a rather funny one I think which occurred a few years ago.

I’d always been a night guy back then (I still am come to think of it), and every night when I came on duty I inherited the “happy hour” crowd which goes with the territory. But which also includes those pains in the ass who can actually kill the “happy” like this guy, Marty…

He was always drunk when I started my shift having been there since four or five, and I always had a problem settling him down. If he wasn’t babbling his bull to someone both loudly and non-stop, he was glad-handing this one or that one totally uninvited. Now I have to admit that he did mean well and he really wasn’t a bad guy, he simply had had too much by the time I got there. And since the day man seemed to like him just fine (rest in peace, Big Gene), I always continued to serve this guy out of respect. Until one day I finally had had enough having watched him annoy far too many, and I pulled him aside for a little bit of R&R. (That’s Rules and Regulations according to the Scribbler.) The “Rule” was to be he could only have one after I came on duty, and the “Regulation” stated he’d stay in his seat when he drank it. In other words no more working the room like a bad politician.

Well he followed the Rule part sure enough as I had control over that, but he just couldn’t stay in his seat which broke Regulations. So one day I cut the guy off completely and told him when I came on duty he’d have to leave. Period! And being, as I said, a good guy he thankfully abided.

Now cut to a few weeks later when a friend of his came in.

“Where’s your man Marty been?” I said to Marty’s friend. “We haven’t seen him in weeks.”

“You haven’t heard?” he said, suppressing a smile. Now normally those words might’ve signaled a death especially with a guy like Marty who was no spring chicken, or spring rooster, but again this guy was grinning so it couldn’t be that.

“No I haven’t heard a word,” I said, “what happened?”

Here’s what happened…

After Marty had left our establishment the last time he had been in, he moved on to P.J. Clarke’s to continue his evening. Another fine establishment. But his ongoing spree didn’t last very long as he showed up already blitzed, so the Clarke’s guys shut him off after just one drink. Disheartened as Marty was however he finally did get the message, Maybe it’s time to jump in a cab and go home. So he paid his tab, downed his Dewar’s and walked out. But then what to his wondering eyes should appear the moment he hit the sidewalk? A wonderful stroke of good luck is what the man reckoned. For right there sitting in front of the bar without him having to hail it, was a cab at a time when cabs are usually un-hailable. Especially when one is damn near legless which often causes a cabby to keep on going. So Marty thanked his personal gods, piled himself into the cab, and shouted in drunken bliss, “Take me to Queens, my good man.”

Well the gods must have been in a humorous mood because two good men were up front, and both were wearing matching uniforms as Marty had boarded a cop car not a taxi. (Obviously the light on the roof is what confused him.)

Shocked to the core and totally confused, Marty just sat there and tried to piece this together. Holy shit! he thought to himself, looking at the men in blue through a haze of Dewar’s, and that jail-like grating, Is this a freaking dream or am I in the hoosegow???

But the good part was these were good men and after a lecture on “when to say when” they actually drove Marty all the way home for his safety. A gesture to me above and beyond the call. And speaking of “call” this whole event turned out to be Marty’s wake-up one, as it scared him so and embarrassed him such that it put him on the path to sobriety the following day. (At least according to his friend who was also a colleague.)

Now did Marty stay with the program from that day forward? Well because I never saw him again and Big Gene was his favorite bartender, I’d have to say the answer to that is yes.

So in closing (and not to get too heavy here because that’s not why you came here), let me offer this bartender’s bit of advice. Any time you get a wake-up call, especially one this dramatic, it might just happen for a very good reason so don’t go back to sleep without at least pondering it. In other words, if you stumble home without your pants, sporting a facial tattoo and a bright pink Mohawk, and you work in a bank, to my way of thinking that might just be worth pondering!

See you next time, dear reader, and thanks for stopping by! (By the way, who did win that Super Bowl???)

When The Moo Goo Gai Pan Hit The Fan!

I’m currently reading Raymond Chandler’s The High Window noir (copyright 1942), just to enjoy the rhythm of his words and the wonderfully vivid descriptions he packs in each page. I’ve read all his books many, many times but I pick them up now and then just for the hell of it. Or, as I said, for the rhythm of it. I particularly enjoy his tough-guy talk, so rat-a-tat-tat on point (emulated hilariously, by the way, in Woody Allen’s short story, The Whore of Mensa), and what strikes me most when reading these books is how the times have changed as to what you could say back then. And get away with. Like this little gem on page 46, or lump of coal to be sure on the PC Scale…

In describing a man across his desk, “He had a sort of musty smell, like a fairly clean Chinaman.”

Now I have to admit when I read that line I actually did a spit take, while the voice inside my head said “Shame on you!” But I couldn’t help it, for crying out loud, it was funny. Just as I would’ve laughed out loud if the line had been delivered to describe an Irishman. Or a Frenchman. And then I got to thinking about just why the word “Chinaman” no longer flies. Which I’m sure you’re aware of. Where you can’t say the word Chinaman these days in describing a man from China, but it’s okay to say either Frenchman or maybe Irishman. (Someone enlighten me!)

Anyway, all of this leads to a story of mine which I’d tucked away for safe keeping, never to appear in print I swore, simply because the word “Chinaman” features heavily. So as not to offend. Well, still not intending to offend anyone but simply to relate what to me was an hilarious phone call, I’ve decided this morning to go to my “archives”, shake off the dust and paranoia, and tell that story exactly the way it happened. And I hope you see the humor in it.

This happened back in the 90’s, and all because we bartenders tend to over tip.

I had recently done some apartment-sitting for this friend of mine named Jim, who called me after he’d returned from his trip and I was cozily re-ensconced in my Kleenex box of a studio over in Tudor City. Here’s that phone call.

“Hello?” I said, in that cryptic way I have of answering the telephone.

“Yo, man, it’s Jim.”

“Hey, Jimbo, what’s up?” There was an ominous tone in his voice which I couldn’t put my finger on. Had I spilled bourbon on his new beige couch on one of my nights of debauchery during his absence? Had I failed to hit the bowl a few times creating some bathroom tile no longer pristine? Had he noticed that all his aforementioned bourbon was gone? What had I done???

Mercifully halting my inventory, Jim cut directly to the chase. “You order Chinese when I was away?”

“Uh, let’s see… yeah, as a matter of fact I did.”

“The guy downstairs?”

“Yeah, where else? Their stuff is great.”

“You tip him?’

“Of course I tipped him. I’m a bartender, for Chrissakes!”

“How much?” he asked, plowing straight ahead like Sergeant Friday.

“Five dollars,” I replied. Which is when the Moo Goo Gai Pan hit the fan.

What??? he shrieked, perilously close to a Maria Callas high C.

“I tipped him five dollars.”

“I knew it,” he screamed, “I fucking knew it! You tipped him five fucking dollars for getting on an elevator and riding six floors? Are you fucking cray-zeee?”

“Well what do you care? It’s my money,” I said.

“I care because I just gave him two dollars and he looked at me like I pissed on his fucking shoe. You fucked up my Chinaman! Before you ever ordered from here he was happy with a two dollar tip, in fact he actually bowed when I gave him the deuce. Now, motherfucker, if I don’t give him a five next time he’ll spit on my fucking food on the way up the elevator. If he has the time to spit on my food on just an eight second ride which is all it takes. Jesus H. Christ, I can’t believe you did this. You fucked up my Chinaman! For life!!! Now I can never…

At this point I pulled the phone from my ear as his stricken cacophony of sheer lament took on that high pitch wail you hear when Arab women wag their tongues and ululate into the desert to express their grief. And then, a full sixty seconds later when I sensed a pause in his rant (evidenced by my drapes which had ceased wafting), I said, “There’s a Thai place opening up on East 53d Street.” What else could I say?

Yes, Jim would’ve fit quite nicely into Raymond Chandler’s world, “musty” in thought like a “fairly offensive” American!

See you next time, dear reader, and sorry for all the blue language which couldn’t be avoided. Those were his words. In fact without those words this could’ve been a “Seinfeld” subplot.

Cheers!


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