Archive Page 2

‘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!

This Bud’s For You…

In keeping with my present state of affairs as “bartender out of work”… I’m a customer now not a pourer… I thought I’d pull up a stool and share a story with you. It seems there are many things in my crazy past (my great and inglorious past) that might just carry this blog til I’m back behind the stick. But know this… while sitting here at the bar with you I promise to honor the Barland code by not ever being a gas bag, by not being argumentative, by being truthful at every turn without adding extra ketchup (well, maybe just a little!) and I’ll try to entertain as best I can. And if ever you find that I’ve failed “the code” by breaching any of its precepts, just ask the bartender to move your drink down the end.

So here goes, this is me as “guy on the stool” with a story.

A long time ago, when the world was young and so was I, I worked on a television game show called It Takes Two. Vin Scully was the host of the show and three celebrity couples made up the panel. I won’t go into just how the show worked, it would take up too much time (that’s me not being a “gas bag”), just know that I wrote up one of four acts produced in each day’s show, each one leading to a numerical trivia question. In other words, this wasn’t a typical Q&A thing like Jeopardy.

So one day my boss, a guy named Les Roberts who is now a successful mystery writer living in Cleveland, Ohio, where all of his stories take place, told me to write up an act about Bud Abbott. It happened that Bud was to do a guest spot and I had to write up some business to introduce him. Now for those of you not familiar with the name, Bud was half of a comedy team called “Abbott and Costello” (they were huge in the 40’s and 50’s) and Bud had played the straight man in the act to his rolly polly partner and genius, Lou Costello. And as far as what I could draw on when I sat down to write the script (thanks to the comedy gods up above) I had their classic baseball routine called “Who’s on First?” (you can find and view it on You Tube), which turned out to be the perfect way to introduce him..

So after Les had read my script and gave it his stamp of approval, he asked of me a rather unusual request. He said since Bud had recently had a stroke and was now confined to a wheelchair, would I mind picking him up on the day of the taping?

Would I mind picking him up? I thought. Why I’d push his wheel chair from his house all the way to the studio!!!  See as a kid I couldn’t have been a bigger fan of Abbott and Costello movies, now here I was not just writing for him (well not for him but about him) but getting to drive him to and from the studio. A fan’s dream!

So I drove up to Bud’s house, a modest but nice, ranch-style home on Redwing Drive in Woodland Hills, and there to greet me at the door was his wife Betty. Betty was a former burlesque dancer who actually performed with Bud before his Costello connection, who remained the love of his life for fifty five years. Betty led me through the door, she introduced me to the great Bud Abbott who was sitting in his wheelchair… frail of body but sharp of mind… and Bud and I shook hands and the gig was afoot. I then bid Betty good-bye, told her not to worry that I would take good care of Bud, then I wheeled him out to my beat up 66′ Mustang. I helped him into the passenger’s seat, buckled him into place, then we hit the freeway and headed for NBC. And all I remember looking back on that drive was me trying to act very cool, acting as though this was normal hanging out with legends. But I was terribly young and naive at the time and this was my way of trying to appear grown up. Pretty silly, huh?

When we got to NBC, a wonderful thing immediately happened when I wheeled Bud through the halls, as many of the old time stage hands who had worked with Bud in the old days (they were poker buddies when the cameras went dark), recognized Bud and ran up and shook his hand. This really meant a lot to Bud because he felt he was pretty much forgotten, and was only doing our show because he thought it might be fun just getting out there again. (And sadly because he’d get a Kelvinator refrigerator.)

So when it came time for his entrance after a short audio piece of “Who’s on First?”, Vin brought him on with my obvious line, “I can’t make heads or tails of this but here’s a guy who might just know how to explain it.”  Then the curtain slowly rose, there was Bud sitting in his wheelchair in front of a bunch of blow-ups taken from his movies, and the audience rose to its feet with a standing ovation. I mean a long standing ovation which brought down the house. No, Bud Abbott had not been forgotten which this audience clearly demonstrated, while the celebs on the panel (whose names escape me) ran to him in commercial emphasizing the point. It was more than mission accomplished, Bud was a hit!

As I was driving Bud back home, feeling now like the two of us had just won a freaking Emmy, I noticed a tear slowly making its way down his cheek. And he was staring straight ahead as if in a trance. One can only imagine what the thoughts were going through his mind, but I had no right to ask and of course I didn’t. Then fortunately Bud broke the silence and came back to earth.

“You know something,” he said, “it was pretty goddam nice of those people to stand up like that.”

“You mean the audience when the curtain came up?”

“Hell yeah, that’s what I mean. I guess they probably thought I’d already died or something.”

Well now it was time for me to drop the “cool” thing.

“Mr. Abbott,” I began, “I’ve got to be honest with you. I’ve been trying to act blase all day trying to appear professional, but this is the biggest thrill I’ve ever had. And I really mean it. As a kid back in Pittsburgh when we went to the Saturday matinees, and they showed an Abbott and Costello movie in the previews, we stood on our seats and jumped up and down and cheered. That’s how big a fans we were. And so I’m sure those people in the audience today were just like me… long time Abbott and Costello fans.” He smiled at that but the tear remained on his cheek.

When we got back to his house, a bittersweet moment occurred as we walked through the door, it was Betty yelling from the kitchen, “How’d it go at the studio today, hon?” Like it was still the good old days when he was actually coming home from THE STUDIO, and not appearing on a game show for a refrigerator!

“It went fine, dear,” he said, winking at me as he said it, “I actually got a standing ovation today.” I then chimed in and assured Betty this was true. Betty then asked if I’d like a drink, I accepted a glass of Coke, and Bud motioned me to the couch to have a chat. Now here’s where the story, to me, gets absolutely amazing.

I said, “Bud, I know you did it a thousand times but how did you ever keep track when you did “Who’s on First?”

“Are you kidding?” he said. “Lou was the one with the hard part, all I had to do was just correct him. Once I memorized the bases my part was easy. Here I’ll show you.” Then believe it or not, dear reader, after he walked me through “who was on what” he gave me his part to play, then he took Lou’s and we actually did the routine. Or at least a small part of it. And it was not unlike (given who I was and who was sitting across from me) doing a scene from Hamlet with Sir Freaking Larry!

And as if that wasn’t enough, after we’d finished he dropped this cherry on top. “Betty,” he called, “go on into the den and get me one of those records.” (One of those records!) Betty then emerged from the den holding a 78 LP of “Who’s on First?”. Bud took it from Betty, signed the label with a salutation, then told me there were only three of them in circulation. One he said was in Cooperstown in the Baseball hall of Fame, I forget where he said the second was (maybe in the Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame) and the third one was now clutched in my right hand. Can you believe it?

I thanked Bud profusely, told him again what a thrill it was to have spent the day with him, and just as I headed for the door he stopped me with this…

“Hey, kid, if you ever want to shoot the breeze or you want to stop by the house just give us a ring. You have our number now.” I got the feeling the day we had spent had awakened something in Bud, and he somehow wanted to keep that feeling alive. And the look on Betty’s face, without question, convinced me. Then she gave me a smile and out the door I went.

Now the bad news. I waited too long to take Bud up on his offer of getting together, he died before we ever could meet again. And the record he so generously gave me? It got lost somehow in my travels over the years. Absolutely shameful! But I’ll always have that day which I’ll never ever lose.

Oh, Bartender, I’ve talked for a pretty long time here, how about letting me buy these guys their next round!!!

The 69 Steps…

What luck, what timing, what a terrible turn of events for your friendly bartender. For just when he thought the world was his oyster ready to slide down his throat in one sexy gulp, the world took the shell from his hand an tossed it away. And what, you ask, symbolically, was on that shell? Well I’ll tell ya’, loveable barflies, I’ll tell ya’.

First off, my long awaited and inevitable knighthood aptly scheduled on the heels of the British Olympics (I’m a scosh English), had to be suddenly called off to the Queen’s dismay. Then my marriage proposal to a Lady of the Court (maybe not quite as inevitable) had to be quickly postponed until further notice. And my recent invitation to St. Pat’s Cathedral where I’m sure His Eminence, Cardinal Dolan, was prepared to mention my name at the height of his sermon, had to be tossed in the ash can along with my hopes. And finally and most disturbing, the defense of my current and coveted crown in the National Marbles Tournament held in New Jersey, from which I refrained this year, had to be sadly forfeited leaving a wide open field and a victory for a sharp-eyed sixth grader.

So, are you starting to see a pattern, dear reader, as to what all these missed opportunities have in common? What, no idea? Well it’s the fact that each of those heralded moments require my kneeling on one or two knees at some point. Which I simply can’t do. For I happen to be “patella non grata” and have been for quite some time, as I recently went and received an artificial knee. A partial replacement. I guess all those years of pacing the mats ensuring your glasses were full and the party kept going, finally took their toll on my ragged left hinge. And rather than look like Chester from “Gunsmoke” (Google it, all you young-un’s) I thought going under the knife was a better way to go.

“But seriously, folks,” as the Borscht Belt comics were prone to say after bombing badly with an intro as I have here, I have been laid up for quite a while which is why I haven’t been blogging (Yeah, Scrib, let’s go with that!) and why I’ve kinda’ been vegging out here in general. Percocet also played a  hand in that for if I did try to blog while under its spell it might come off like a Timothy Leary manifesto. I’m not very good on any kind of drug regardless of whether it’s legal, I’d rather have a Maker’s on the rocks but that’s not a pain killer. So veg out I did!

However, I’m happily rounding the far turn now and heading for the welcome home stretch, and I’m pretty much mobile without the use of a cane. But the hard part remains (ergo the title) before and after my walks, the fact that I have to deal with 69 steps. That’s right 69!!! See I live on the top of a five story walk-up (all right, in the penthouse if you must), and they really have been a bitch for me to negotiate. I’ve thought about hiring a Sherpa guide to set up a base camp in the lobby, who can follow me up the escarpment in case I fall backwards, but try finding inexpensive Sherpas here in Manhattan. Ever since Sir Edmund Hillary you can’t touch ’em!

But hey, I’m rounding that far turn as I said and even though all of those above events will not be a part of my legacy (one doesn’t get a second chance with Queen Lizzy), just bouncing around this city again is reward. Which I intend to do tonight for the very first time. I look forward to seeing good friends again and downing a glass or two, and look forward to doing some blogging again on week-ends.

And as far as my getting behind the stick which is something I haven’t done for over four months, that’s still on hold for now and I sure don’t mind it. We’re still in the process of trying to reopen and until such time you’ll see me on your side of the mahogany. (I’m the handsome guy at the end of the bar in shades who’ll be signing autographs, and showing the ladies his scar to play the sympathy card.)

But before I go I want to say “thanks” to all who have still stopped by despite my disappearing act, and I hope you’ll keep on coming in the weeks to come. But as I mentioned before in a previous post… not tending bar has sorely sapped my Barland update reservoir, so perhaps I’ll write about outside the bar for a while. After all, there was that Pulitzer Prize business that… aw, never mind, you read the papers!

All the best til next time, dear reader,

The Scribbler

“My Plates Or Yours?”

It’s certainly no big secret out there that stealing goes on in bars (an understatement right there with “Sweets can be fattening!”), from bartenders running their contracts with friends who in turn leave a gaudy tip, to the kitchen staff and waiters backing up the truck. And it’s not because they’re bad people or what I’d call out-and-out thieves, often they feel, in some state of delusion, that because they’re part of the place the place is theirs. To do what they want with it. As I say, delusional.

When I first started out in this business as a waiter in a midtown joint, I “stole” myself (I’m not happy to to report) but in my case not out of greed but because I had to. Or at least, being young and naive, I thought I had to. I feared if I played it straight down the middle I’d get in Dutch with the old guys, those waiters with whom I pooled tips, who’d have pegged me a goddam “house man” therefore a threat. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing! So right or wrong a Serpico I wasn’t, I didn’t play the honest cop, I played this game of quid pro quo as directed. Meaning, to ensure a major gratuity from a select group of customers who had been earmarked, I wrote up their checks totaling nowhere near what they should’ve been. And when I didn’t, which actually happened a time or three for whatever the reason was, the receiver of that honest tab made sure he complained about it. “Hey, Joey, what the fuck’s with the new kid? Didn’t you pull him aside and tell him who I am?” Then he’d leave a ten percent tip to make his point. Ah, the good old days!

So in keeping with the theme of bar theft but to lighten the mood considerably, I thought I’d share with you two of my favorites on the subject…

The “steak” out...

This first event took place in the old Mama Leone’s (the place I wrote about here) as told to me by Aldo, Mama’s grand nephew. And it goes to show the cure can be worse than the malady.

Back in its heyday, with over a hundred waiters on the floor and God knows how many people in the kitchen, you can imagine how big their inventory was and how hard it must’ve been for them to keep tabs on it. Especially, of all things, the shrimp for shrimp cocktail. Because every week there were cases of it missing, hundreds of pounds at a time, and no one knew just how the hell this was happening. Until one day, Aldo’s Uncle Gene who was the manager and who’d finally had enough of this, decided to call his contact down at the precinct house. That night, and for a quite a few nights thereafter, two big Irish cops came in and hung out “undercover”, posing as new customers while trying to solve this. But whether these thieves were just too crafty or these cops were just too inept, things didn’t move as quickly as Gene had expected. Not by a long shot. And now the pasta and steak inventory were a problem. Not to mention the Chianti! For these cops thought they’d hit the mother lode here as they ate and drank like kings, sometimes three times a shift, and to Uncle Gene who was witness to this the means soon sorely failed to justify the ends. So he had to pull the plug on it. And I tell you this story just for the way he did it. For when Gene got on the phone that night and called the precinct to cancel this two man stakeout (or should I say “pig out”?), the words he used in doing so were the following. “Do me a favor, will ya? Get these bums outta here. All things considered I’d rather get robbed!”

The Stigmata…

In a restaurant near where I last worked, a very upscale steak house, two geniuses who worked as porters had their eyes on a side of beef for stealing. So one night (why am I picturing Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall here?) when all the customers had paid and left, Leo and Huntz seized their prey and hid it until the coast was clear for the walk-out. Coast being clear when the manager made his exit. Well, shortly after the stashing was done the manager emerged from his office, but instead of heading for the door as usual he made his way to the can for a final pit stop. Only to notice as he sat there thinking, which all great can sitters do, drops of blood suddenly appearing on his thighs. Am I bleeding from the fucking forehead? he thought. Do I have that thing called Stigmata? Why are these drops of blood hitting my legs??? Til he finally looked up and saw the source of the drip. He then climbed up onto the toilet seat (pants not at half-mast I hope) removed the blood-drenched ceiling panel and there was Leo and Huntz’s ill gotten gains. The meat was quickly returned to the cooler and Leo and Huntz were quickly shown to the door. They had no beef!

See ya’ next time, dear reader, and if you have a similar bar story feel free to add it.

My Father’s Day

In all honesty, dear reader, this day has never meant much to me as my father was never around (I come from one of those single parent deals and I’m not a father myself) but I honor those fathers who were and wish them the best. So, indeed, Happy Father’s Day!

And apropos of this special day (not to mention the fact I haven’t blogged in a month and would like to sweep out the cobwebs), I thought I’d share a post with you from the past. The subject is my own father, who finally did show up in the strangest of ways. (Please click here.)

See you soon, I hope,

Your Friendly Bartender

“Here’s Johnny!!!”

First off… my apologies for being away so long, it’s just been a case of out of sight out of mind. Meaning, since the recent closing of our bar, I’ve kind of been on this mental holiday from Barland.

Secondly… my sincerest thanks to all you regulars who still stopped by every week (which I’ve noticed on my Dashboard page almost making me feel guilty) only to find a bar with no damn bartender. However, since I’m still in that mental holiday mode while my apron hangs unemployed on a goddam nail somewhere, I’ve decided to share a story that’s not about Barland. I hope you don’t mind.

I watched a show on television last night which aired on American Masters, a documentary on Johnny Carson’s life which was wonderful. For many reasons. It was thoughtful, it was probing (probing without being “tabloid-y”), it was filled with priceless photos and footage from Johnny’s Iowa childhood (beyond the obligatory tomahawk throw that put Ed Ames in the pantheon), and overall a worthy tribute to an American master. A television master! But there was one theme that ran through the show which everyone seemed to agree on… the “so-called” aloofness Johnny displayed and the distance he kept when the tape stopped rolling and the lights went out. To which I can personally attest having seen it first hand. Check this out…

A long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away (Los Angeles to be exact) your friendly bartender worked in television game shows. In a “Development” crew whose job was to create new shows. Well one day out of nowhere, and a day I’ll never forget, Dick Carson, Johnny Carson’s brother, who’d been directing The Tonight Show back in New York but decided to go off on his own and move back to California, walked through the door of our run-through room to join us. He’d just been hired as a writer/director/producer.

Is this freaking possible, I thought, Johnny Carson’s brother joining this madhouse??? But Dick had a good deal. If a show we created got on the air he wouldn’t just get to direct the thing and produce it, he would get a piece of the action in the form of a royalty. (Unlike me and the other guys who would just get a pat on the head and a healthy raise.) Anyway, Dick was a welcome edition to the gang, as down to earth as it gets, and he and I became semi-friends beyond work. So much so that one Friday night as we walked to our parked cars after closing the office, he invited me out to his house that Sunday for brunch. Then he added, “Johnny’s in town and he might stop by and join us.” The Tonight Show was still based in New York but a couple times a year they taped two weeks in L.A.

I tried to act tres cool when he said it as if his brother was Morty from Queens, the barber, so I casually said, “Great, Dick, I’d love to.”

“Terrific,” he said, “and since I live near a park we can work off the meal with touch foortball.” Then he gave me directions to his house and that was that. Until Sunday. When I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I drove to his house as nervous as a kid on a first date. I mean this was Johnny Carson!

So Johnny pulled up around eleven o’clock in a rented Continental Mark IV. He got out of the car, looked around, and in that trademark thing that he always did when he had to take off his blazer on the show for a bit, he sucked in his stomach, threw out his chest, and ambled across the lawn like Mr. Fitness. All of which I watched like a kid through the living room window.

“Johnny’s here,” I finally yelled, (no I didn’t yell, “Here’s Johnny!”), to Dick and his wife Pat in the kitchen making Bloody Mary’s. Then Johnny knocked on the door and it was showtime. I felt like one of those rookie comedians about to make his debut on The Tonight Show.

“Hey, John,” Dick said, walking him into the living room, “say hello to my friend who’s a colleague at work.” Then he said my name. Johnny shook my hand firmly, but looked like he’d just been ambushed by a Paparazzi. He had no idea there’d be a third party and when Dick and Pat returned to the kitchen there was Johnny and me in this awkward silence. A silence so thick it almost gave off a hum. But the funny thing was, and this I swear, Johnny seemed to be even more nervous than I was. After taking a seat across from me he fidgeted with the hem of his bell bottoms, craned his neck as he cased the room, until he finally broke the ice with, “You live here in the valley?”

“Ah, no, Sir,” I said, “I live in the hills.” Then more silence.

It was all too surreal because here was the greatest conversationalist in the world, or at least in television history, unable to relax and talk to little ol’ me. Which believe it or not made me start to relax. Dick and Pat soon rescued the moment with a welcome tray of Bloodies, then off we went to the table for Sunday brunch. But now the “awkward” was all on me because they had stuff to catch up on so I stayed silent. Until finally, when Jack Daniels replaced the Bloodies, Johnny’s request as I recall, things got a little looser and I got to speak. They’d been talking about New York City when Pat maybe sensing my alienation asked if I’d ever been there and that was my cue.

I said, “The only time I’ve ever been there was three years ago when I went with a buddy for New Year’s. The point was to go to Time’s Square and watch the ball drop, but since the mob looked way too nuts and we were staying with a bunch of stewardesses, I figured it made more sense to stay home with them.”

“Good m-o-o-o-o-v-e!” Johnny said, like he used to do on his show, then he tapped his temple and smiled as if to say “Schmart!” The glacier had thawed. Then things loosened up even more from there and we actually had a four way conversation. In fact, Johnny almost joined us for the football part but since he had to tape a show that night (in those days they taped from Sunday to Thursday working on a one day delay) he decided he’d better get back and take a little nap. And off he went.

And that’s when I said the following to Johnny Carson’s brother. “Ya’ know, Dick,” I began, “I’ve hardly ever mentioned Johnny’s name in all the time I know you, because I’m sure your tired of hearing, ‘Tell me about Johnny’. Him being the famous one. But I finally have to tell you now your brother’s my goddam idol, and this was the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. Hands down! But it’s also, in a funny way, the most disappointing.”

“How’s that?” he said, smiling as though he knew where I was going.

“Because I was expecting to meet that warm, charming guy from television.”

“See, I told you!” Pat shouted from the kitchen. For whatever reason.

“He just seemed so uptight,” I said,”like he didn’t even want me to talk to him. In fact I think he was really upset that I was here.”

Dick knew just what I meant and laid it all out. He said, “You see, my brother is terribly shy and he’s not very good at all in social situations. No matter who the person is. Plus, now that he’s not Johnny Carson but JOHNNY CARSON, he’s wary of people because everyone wants a piece him. And so that guy you see on TV every night, that warm, charming guy you described, that’s the real Johnny and the brother I grew up with. On the show is where he’s at home now, sitting behind that desk, that’s where he can relax and be who he is. It’s almost sad in a way.”

And that said it all. Then we walked to the park and worked off the meal with some football.

Dick didn’t stay with the company long, he’d gotten an offer to direct Merv Griffin and I remember him asking my advice at the time if he should take it. I said, “Hey, Dick, this stuff’s all on spec, it may take a year til we get on the air if we get something on at all, Merv’s already a show and that’s a payday.” I don’t know whether that made up his mind but he took the job on “Merv” and never looked back.

But I’ve looked back many, many times to that amazing afternoon I spent with Johnny Carson!

All the best til next we meet, dear reader!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

When the waiter handed me a check one day with a twenty five dollar tip on a forty dollar tab, I said, “Geez, nice tip, you must’ve given good service.” To which the waiter just beamed and said, “That’s my prestige!” To which I then beamed inside as I handed him the money.

Because despite the fact “prestige” sounded wrong or at best what you’d call a tad off (forte? calling card?) as far as I was concerned the word was perfect. And if you, dear reader, had linked the tease at the end of my recent post “Star light, star bright…”, you would agree “prestige” was the perfect word. Because it came from Tony! Or the guy I’ve been calling Tony since I started this blog. But now that things are out in the open and everyone knows where we worked, I figure it’s time to let Tony out of the bottle. To let breathe in the air of disclosure this rare vintage wine.

Tony’s name is Aldo Leone from the famous Mama Leone family, grand nephew of Mama herself who started her legendary restaurant in 1905. And because that name to this day carries weight especially here in New Yorkit gets Aldo out of traffic tickets because cops and nuns ate for free there, it gets him into sporting events because coaches ate there as kids, and of course it gets him into crowded restaurants (especially Italian restaurants)… Aldo just had to be “Tony” for me to stay anonymous. The man knows everyone! And knew everyone from Rocky Marciano to Eisenhower.

But rather than cover his life at this time which I definitely will in the future, whose stories are so Runyonesque you’d think they were fiction, I’d rather start off with how the whole thing got started. Meaning Mama Leone’s. For it’s there that Aldo starting as a busboy somewhere around age twelve (he once got a fifty cent tip from Al Capone) was forged through his formative years into who he is now. Which is classic and then some!

But now the restaurant…

Back in 1905, a thirty-something Louisa Leone along with her husband Geralamo, ran a boarding house of sorts for a few Italian immigrants. In which Louisa was the cook. And one day, while two of the boarders who ate at the place were discussing the previous night’s meal in the theater where they worked (they were stage hands), they were overheard by a tenor nearby who was rehearsing.

“Excuse-a me, signores,” said the tenor politely interrupting, “but where did you say you have-a this coniglio polenta? It’s my favorite-a deesh!” (stewed rabbit)

“At Mama Leone’s house,” one of the men replied.

“Well ask her please I can go there tonight-a for deener.”

And the men did. Because the tenor’s name was Enrico Caruso, the most famous Italian tenor in the whole wide world. Or tenor period!

But this is the part that blew me away when Aldo told it to me. He said Mama said when she heard the news that Caruso was coming for dinner, “Tell him I’m not doing anything special, I’ll make him the coniglio polenta and that’s it.” Can you imagine? Can you imagine being that cavalier about Caruso? That’s like bringing Sinatra home in 1955, and your mother saying, “He’s getting spaghetti, that’s it.” Fantastic!

So Caruso came and Mama conquered, her food was just what he’d hoped, so much so that he kept coming back through his run. Then soon, because the word had quickly gotten around that “Caruso is dining at Mama’s”, Mayor Jimmy Walker caught wind and joined in the gathering. And there they were… Enrico Caruso, Jimmy Walker, a couple of boarders and the family, all breaking bread at the long kitchen table at Mama’s. I mean talk about DaVinci’s Last Supper, what would you give for an oil painting of that?

Well eventually, after several dinners and at Walker’s prompting along with Caruso’s endorsement, Mama decided to open what you call a real restaurant. She just had to. So she took her talents to West 48th to a building the mayor had found, and the story that is Mama Leone’s took root and was born. And man did it take root!

For the place eventually grew in size to where it seated almost twelve hundred people, and that could mean serving three thousand dinners on a night. Which is amazing. Because even though they had about a hundred waiters and God knows how many cooks in the kitchen with Mama, I still can’t fathom how the food and the orders got out. But they did. All those dinners all in one night and for many, many years thereafter, all because a famous tenor happened to like rabbit. Can you say destiny???

In 1959 the business was sold to a group called Restaurant Associates, which was fifteen years after Mama’s death, and the name lived on from there in various incarnations. But none of course had the Mama Leone touch or the charm of the original location (which actually had a trout stream running through the place where you caught your own fish) and the franchise finally died for good in the 90’s. But the name Leone is far from dead as people in New York have long memories, and as long as Aldo’s around that memory will persist. I know I for one will keep it alive and just for the privilege of knowing him… the man’s a legend, his life is a book and the next time his birthday comes around he’ll turn eighty nine. Now that’s his “prestige”!

See you next time, dear reader, the bar may be closed but the voice of the joint still crows!