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…