Posts Tagged 'P.J. Clarke’s'

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…

“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???)