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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!

‘Tis The Season…

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Happy Holidays to those who don’t and may all of you have a wonderful holiday season. It’s finally gotten cold in New York (enough already with the rain!) and my block is lined Christmas trees still for sale. Damn, I love this time of year!

Talk soon,

The Scribbler

So That’s Where The Word Comes From…

Hey! Anyone out there know how to make an Old Fashioned? Or a Side Car? Or a Stinger for crying out loud or even a Marty? Because it’s been so long since I’ve made a drink or even written about it here on this web site, I fear I’ve lost my skills, or worse, my way. (And you guys in the process!) But such is the terrible price one pays for not keeping up with his blog, and for being a man of leisure lo these many months. So before I fall even further behind and forget just who I am and why I do this, I’ve decided to climb back on the horse and put on my bartender’s apron (figuratively, of course), and ride to the dusty days of Barland past.

To the days of my childhood…

One could say your friendly bartender is “to the manor born”, if a boarding house/saloon in Pittsburgh can be called a manor. (I know, I know, it’s a stretch but let’s just go with it!) And the manor of which I speak, dear reader, run by my grandmother Milligan, was a joint aptly called The Column House because across the street sat a factory whose output was columns. You know, porch columns, pillars, posts of all sizes, even bannister newels which were turned on a lathe. I actually spent two summers of my youth working in that God awful place (for a dollar fifteen an hour, I might add!) while the children of a not lesser God spent their summers swimming. Or golfing. Or whatever the hell kids did that didn’t have to work. But it gave me a good education this job, a look at a slice of life I wouldn’t want to live. “Stay in school,” it screamed, “you don’t want to do this!”

The Column House featured thirteen rooms that made up the boarding house portion… twelve rooms up and one room down (the infamous #13 which was where I slept when I spent my summers there)… and each room to be sure was home to a character. There were drifters aboard and losers of all stripes, winners who had recently lost, guys I’m sure who were on the lam and guys whose wives had tossed them out for the night. There were also pensioners on fixed incomes who simply needed a room and a good hot meal. And Grandma Milligan, bless her soul, provided that. Everyone called her “Mom” in the place and each of those guys in her keep she treated like sons. She was up at six to cook their breakfast, she then launched into the lunches, and after her one hour nap at three she was up again to prepare their nightly feast. Then dinners wound down around eight or so after which she took another nap, then at ten she was up and running the bar til closing time. Don’t ask me how she did it, I can’t believe it as I type this, but this was the woman’s schedule six days a week. Her last name might’ve been Milligan which she acquired from my Grandfather Paul, but her German heritage I’m sure provided this work ethic. The woman was a machine! A machine with a heart as big as the sky above us.

Now since the “Blue Laws” were still in effect back then which meant you couldn’t serve liquor at all on Sundays, Gram ran an unofficial speakeasy there on Sundays. A side door leading to an alley next to the window to #13, provided access to those who knew we were open. They just rang the buzzer two or three times and if we knew who they were, by God, they were drinking on Sunday. I sometimes served as the let-’em-in-guy even though just a kid cause I knew all the players. “Make sure you know who they are,” Gram would shout, whenever I leapt to the door to act like a grown-up.

Well one day, a guy stopped by whom we’d known for years though he rarely frequented our bar, a big shot (and half a gangster I think) from the Teamsters Union. His name was (let’s call him) Armand and he looked like something right out of Godfather II… the “Michael” era. Heavily shoulder-padded camel overcoat, serious wide brimmed hat, shoes you could see your reflection in and a diamond pinky that dazzled if not distracted. No one looked or dressed like that who came to my grandmother’s bar, so it always was something special whenever he came. And I of course felt special letting him in.

“Hey, Kid,” he said with a wink, shaking my hand which was now a crisp dollar richer. Then he walked through the dining room, through the kitchen and made his way to the bar to join all our regulars. But when he walked up to my grandmother who was tending bar as per usual on Sunday afternoons, he filled her in to the following in a rather grave tone. “Mom, a guy is going to join me here in maybe a half hour, a friend of mine from Detroit who’s a pretty big deal. So make sure he gets in the door and we make him feel welcome, okay?”

“Why of course,” said my Gram, “any friend of yours is a friend of ours, Armand.”

“Good. But there’s one little thing,” he added leaning in closer. “You really gotta shout at him because he lost his hearing in the war and is hard of hearing.”

“Geez, poor guy,” said my Gram, displaying genuine sympathy, “I’ll be sure to speak up loud so he can hear me.” Then she made Armand’s drink.

Then a half hour later and right on cue his friend showed up at the door and gained entry. But after he made his way to the bar and was introduced to my grandmother, all hell soon broke loose (at least audibly).

“How nice to meet you,” the man shouted, “Armand’s told me so much about you, Mom.”

“Well thank you,” shouted my grandma, in an even louder voice, “as… I… was… just… saying… to… Armand… when… he… told… me… you… were… coming, any… friend… of… his… is… a… friend… of… mine. So… what… can… I… get… you?”

“I’ll… have… a… Seagram’s… and… ginger,” the man shouted back.

“And… a … Seagram’s… and… ginger… it… is,” shouted my grandma.

Well now there’s a knock on the front door and my grandmother fears that it might be a cop passing by. The knock was that loud.

“Shhhhhh,” hushed my grandma, waving her arms at the rest of the bar as she walked up to the window and pulled back the curtain. Then she dropped her head and let out a sigh indicating the coast was clear, as it was only a couple of strangers who’d heard all the shouting. They must’ve thought a party was afoot and wanted to join that party on a dry Sunday. But when my Grandmother walked back behind the bar to rejoin Armand and his friend, Armand was doubled over in a heap of laughter.

“What’s the matter?” said my grandmother.

“I have a confession to make is what’s the matter,” he said. “To both of you. See, Mom, before I got here I told my friend that you were hard of hearing… just like I told you, Mom, that he was hard of hearing. Well neither of you are hard of hearing I just wanted see the two of you shout at each other. And it worked like a charm!” Then he laughed even harder.

“Why you little pup, you,” my grandmother said, her favorite name for someone who had gotten her dander up. She also joined in the laughter after that with a face that was clearly redder than all the rest. “But if I had gotten a citation,” she added, once she caught her breath, “I guarantee you you would’ve paid it, Armand.”

To which Armand replied flexing his “I got connections” muscles, “If you had gotten a citation, Mom, no on would’ve paid it. Capeesh?” Then he bought a round for the bar and all was well

So not too long after that when someone said my grandmother ran a speakeasy, a light bulb went off in my head which I thought was brilliant. Oh… so that’s where the word comes from, I thought, “speakeasy” means “speak easy” so the cops who are walking their beat don’t hear you inside. (I know, “duh”, right??!!!) Geez, how clever! I kept on thinking that day.

And just to add some irony to the fire, who knew I’d end up working in a (famous speakeasy)?

See you next time, dear reader, thanks for stopping by!

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow…

Had a terrible shock on the way to the market yesterday afternoon, but before that shock came crashing down my patience was put to the test and not in a good way. A large crowd had formed on the corner completely blocking the sidewalk, so much so that I actually couldn’t get by. And just before my darker side made plans to rear its dim head… the side where I tell these people to “Make some room here!!!”… I noticed a little dog that wasn’t with its owner. Where’s Joey? I thought… the homeless guy I’ve known for years who always claims this spot along with this dog. Then I saw the flowers and candles on the ground and the written tributes that were taped to the wall of a building, and realized that Joey had died and was no more. And all I could think at that point was (along with an obvious sadness), I just saw him a few days ago and nothing seemed any worse for wear with his health. But when I questioned the crowd around me, the size of which was testimony to just how much this man had touched this neighborhood’s psyche, the consensus seemed to be, “He just died!” He just died? Jesus! Talk about “here today and gone tomorrow”! Fortunately a woman had the dog on a leash promising that she would take care of it, but I’m sure that dog was just as shocked as I was. And as sad.

So as a tribute to my late friend, I thought I’d link (this former post) that best describes the character of little Joey. In fact, Big Joey I should say given that “character”.

Rest in peace, my friend, til we meet again!

The Scribbler

The Birthday Dilemma

Today’s my birthday, “Hooray for me”. I proudly stand as the last survivor (to the best of my knowledge) of the Crimean War. Oh wait, that was in a past life, the one where I was a Russian soldier named Sergei. Jesus, never mind. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but all these past life regression sessions, in addition to being so expensive, often get kinda blurry as to which of my lives I’m living. No wonder I said, “Nyet!” this morning when my tailor asked if I wanted more ruffles on my tux shirt. Good grief!

And yet staying with the Crimean War vet thing, he’s probably how I’ll feel tomorrow after I go out tonight and celebrate the occasion.

But now the “Dilemma”…

Each year, when October fifth will start to get close and a close friend asks, “What are you doing for your birthday? Any big plans?” I always take the macho approach and offer up something dismissive like, “Aw, probably nothin’. Birthdays are no big deal to me, they’re just another day, know what I mean?” But then long about nine or ten o’clock on the actual day of my birthday, and I’m working behind the stick where exactly no one has said a word about said birthday, I start to get sad or antsy for fear the night might pass without one note of recognition. Some tough guy, huh? And then just like the big ol’ boob that I am at least when it comes to sentimental stuff like birthdays, especially my birthday, I’ll somehow get the news out there in the room. I’ll say, “Jesus, I don’t believe this, today is my freakin’ birthday and I almost forgot. Can you imagine? And it’s already ten o’clock!” In a performance Jeremy Renner would have trouble topping.

Then of course, word would make it’s way round the room and before you know it the piano man’s calling the room to order announcing what day it is, he’s leading a spirited sing-along thing of “Happy Birthday” to me, as a waitress is bringing a slice of cheesecake lit by a candle glowing in the dark as she walks. While I in the meantime, I who is so surprised by all this, am blushing as if to say, “Shucks, you shouldn’t-a done this!” But god forbid if the night had passed and none of that would’ve happened, your friendly bartender would probably pout until dawn. Again, what a boob!

But I’m not behind the stick tonight yet still the dilemma exists, as I go to my favorite bar to visit with friends. I mean I can’t walk into the joint and say, “Hey, gang, today’s my birthday.” That would sound too much like, “Hey, look at me!” And yet I don’t want the night to go by without a healthy round of good wishes, not to mention a bunch of wet kisses from the fairer sex. Now that’s a dilemma!

Oh well, I’ve got a few hours before I leave so I guess I’ll figure this out, plus there’s always that lame old ruse I used when bartending. You know, that, “I could-a had a V-8,” smack I issue sharply to my forehead, followed by, “I just realized what day it is!” I’ll just have to see.

And now in closing, if you think I wrote this post today to elicit some birthday wishes from you in the comment section, perish the thought. I mean, c’mon, guys! “Birthday’s are no big deal to me, they’re just another day, know what I mean?” 🙂

See ya’ down the road, dear reader, have a great week-end!


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