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.