DETOUR ALBANY

Copy of book-barWell, I’ve really slacked off on this blog. The book is finally finished and I’m looking for an agent, but other than bar shifts that’s all I’ve been working on. So for this post, I figured I’d put up the first chapter of the book . . . for free.  :)

 

DETOUR ALBANY

The strangest part is none of it should have happened. I never meant to stay, and certainly didn’t expect to work in a pub beside an old-timer named Johnny La La. Bored and a little stoned after dropping out of college, I left Cortland, NY with a duffel bag over my shoulder–headed for Boston and new horizons, but the Greyhound bus took a route through my sister’s city. “Come hang out for a couple of weeks,” she said on the phone. After that, everything in Albany became a blindfolded carnival ride.

First I extended the visit with a rundown apartment where I’d live broke and alone, then a short while later I was hiding from a bunch of punks who rode with a motorcycle gang. I stopped for a beer at a local bar and somehow spent three years making drinks there. “How did you wind up here?” a sassy little brunette wanted to know. “You’d be amazed,” I answered while pouring her second glass of wine.

Evening shifts at The Lark Tavern kept me busy. On a row of high seats, politicians and gangsters, college kids, local deadbeats and even the delinquent housewives waved their hands for attention. I immediately screwed up with Brenda, a married woman . . . and then met Jill, a teasing, seventeen-year-old virgin. Kristin was a tall, mysterious blonde who loved to be tied up and spanked. “Would you mind walking me home?” she asked the first night we chatted.

Sonny Capozzi, the undercover narcotics cop, waltzed into the bar shifty and grinning. He quickly made a point to show a young man how things work. Meanwhile, my sister’s ex-convict boyfriend lurked around the corner just waiting for a chance to get even. And an old tavern veteran everyone called ‘George the Polack’ watched from his barstool, quietly shaking his head.

I decided to laugh and keep on slogging. As customers settled onto the seats, it was easy to call up a smile, mix their drinks, and with a jukebox playing in the background become their friend. I fell in love with some and hid from others, but rest assured I heard from every single one of them; some of them changed my life.

And I’d only been looking for a cold beer on a regular summer day.

*****

LarkTavernTwenty-EightSeptEverything started off calm and quiet. During the second week of visiting my sister, I walked past The Lark Tavern at the corner of Lark Street and Madison. Under a lazy blue sky, I glanced up and saw the gold lettering–Est. In 1933–inscribed at the bottom of a wooden sign hanging over the front door. I thought, “Plenty of time for just one!” Inside, an old-school barman stood behind the taps dressed in a white shirt and red bow tie, his worn black pants pulled high on his waist. Short and moon-faced, thinning hair neatly combed, he leaned through a fog of cigarette smoke as he hobnobbed with the regulars seated in front of him.

Later, I’d learn this man was known as Johnny La La. He walked in early each morning to set up The Lark. He’d polish the bar, restock plenty of cocktail napkins and straws, then haul out buckets filled with ice from the machine in the back. Arriving at dawn, anyone else might have considered a legitimate breakfast made in the small side kitchen, perhaps two poached eggs on toast. For Johnny La La, the first thing touching his lips each day was a good stiff drink, a healthy pour of Seagram’s Seven whiskey mixed with Seven-up. More morning drinks followed. This was how Johnny La La put his world in order.

Most of the daytime regulars now sitting peacefully with their beers had been coming to The Lark since they were young men. Over the years, they’d met the folks who became friends and in some cases their wives, and they still stopped by as their kids were growing up. Finally retired, either widowed or divorced, these patrons appeared early in the morning as though this was their living room. Waiting to greet them stood Johnny La La, the professionally cranky bartender who for the last thirty years was the one thing in their lives that hadn’t changed.

George the Polack lived around the corner. He’d remained a large man beneath his flannel shirt. George never said much. His back straight on his stool, he didn’t take anyone’s side nor seek their support, sitting content as a monarch in the forever cherished spot next to the front window. “It’s a beautiful day out there,” George occasionally informed everyone.

No one knew where Johnny La La got his name, maybe it had to do with his attitude toward life. After thirty years behind these taps, Johnny lived the way he wanted and worked the way he wanted. For one thing, he’d never go past halfway on the bar if the basement trapdoor at the other end lay open. Although the bar stretched for thirty feet, if the trapdoor was up, Johnny went halfway and stopped. Did he think if he went any further he might fall into that dark hole in the floor, fifteen feet away? Customers by the sunlit window called out: “What the hell, Johnny! Get down here and give us a beer.”

“Not while the trapdoor is open!” Johnny always yelled back. “You’ll just have to wait. Maybe you shouldn’t have another beer anyway.”

Of course, I only learned the details once I began working at The Lark. But even on that first glance, I probably could have guessed half of it with the way things looked. On this particular afternoon I took an empty stool, settling a respectable distance from the old-timers. The bar itself was handcrafted, maybe made from mahogany, with a pattern of fancy wooden inlays across the top; it was the kind of bar you don’t see anymore.

I waited patiently as the bartender talked with his customers. At one point he scowled in my direction as though I had silently interrupted him, then he returned to the conversation and puffed out another cloud of smoke. I continued to sit alone, looking around. A row of tap handles displayed the selection of draft beers. In one corner sat an old Wurlitzer jukebox, but no music played. Ten minutes must have passed, and nothing changed. Finally I lifted my hand, “Excuse me.”

The bartender gestured to his companions with an exasperated air and said, “Hey, come on, pal. I’m talking to my friends!” It seemed like another five minutes but when he finished talking, Johnny La La came down to where I sat. “Well,” he asked, “what do you want?” I ordered a pint of draft beer, and the journey was about to begin.

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CLASSIC BAR LINES

I’m sure you’ve seen Meg Ryan’s famous antics in When Harry met Sally–she fakes an orgasm so well in a restaurant that a lady seated nearby tells her waiter “I’ll have what she’s having.” It’s a great scene, hysterically funny and seemingly original … but if you’ve ever worked in restaurants or bars you might recognize where that line came from.

We hear it all the time. A customer joins friends and when asked about a drink, simply tells the bartender “I’ll have what they’re having.”

At some moment in bar history, a customer must have watched someone fall off their barstool and then joked to the bartender: “I want the same thing he’s drinking!”

It’s a classic bar line that’s been bounced around for generations, so when I heard director Rob Reiner tell how he and his mom (who plays the nearby lady) came up with this original idea out of the blue, I started to think of how many times I’d heard it before.

Here’s one example from a movie made in 1986–three years before the production of When Harry met Sally. In Round Midnight, Dexter Gordon has the role an American saxophone player living in Paris in the 1950’s. Waiting for a drink after his night’s performance, Dexter watches a customer gulp down his last cocktail … and then fall straight back onto the floor. Dexter turns to the bartender and says, “I would like to have the same thing he had.”

Rob and his mom may have spent more time in bars than they care to admit. Click the image below to watch.

 

(2) Classic bartender’s line …

We’ve posted this before but I have to include one of my all-time favorite bartender lines. I first saw it on TV as part of an Oscars show while working the bar–a short clip in a montage of movies scenes. It took quite a few years of watching old movies and asking friends but I finally found it again. You can read the story of that long search here, but the actual short clip is below. Henry Fonda asks the bartender if he’s ever been in love … and the gentleman playing the barman delivers his line with perfect, deadpan acting.

 

(3) There’s nothing like bar conversation …

When I was working in Albany, a young nurse came into our bar after a hospital shift. She wanted to know how I came to stand behind the taps at The Lark Tavern. It was a long story which I tried to keep short–I was on my way to Boston when my sister suggested I visit her for a couple of weeks.

After running into trouble with a motorcycle gang and a big beef with my sister’s boyfriend, I began slinging drinks at The Lark where I’d meet politicians and gangsters, undercover narcotics cops, shameless deadbeats and scheming housewives … and eventually wound up living with a tall mysterious blonde who loved to be tied up and spanked.

It took me three years to leave Albany.

Meanwhile, as I told the nurse a few of the twist and turns, a frayed sort of man sat alone two barstools away. Wearing brown pants and a shirt that might not have been changed for days, he’d been bent over his drink, but now he slowly lifted his shoulders and joined our conversation.

“Life is a path of many windings,” he muttered, looking straight ahead.

The nurse and I laughed out loud. A drunk sat up to deliver a line from Confucius. You just can’t beat conversations in a bar.

 

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WAITSTAFF BANTER (nipple play)

steel woolThese two short events happened late last Sunday night.

During closing duties at the nightclub, one of the waitresses scrubbed the stainless steel counter of the service station. Only she was using an industrial steel scruffie!

“Stop!!!” I shouted. The metal curls of the steel wool will leave permanent scratches in the surface. The new, nearly invisible grooves will fill with dirt and as soon as you get them clean, they’ll fill up again. Never use steel wool on stainless steel counters!

“Stop!!” I cried out, but she kept on scrubbing. “Stop! Stop! Stop!!”

After a brief explanation, she begrudgingly nodded her head in agreement . . . although she still wanted to argue about it. “That’s the way everyone around here is doing it,” she said.

“Then everyone has to be told why they shouldn’t,” I replied. By now she’d begun using a bar cloth instead, but she didn’t seem completely sold on the idea. She continued the conversation. “I don’t understand why I have to use a bar cloth” and “What harm could it really do?”

“Listen,” I said, in a rough attempt at humor while making a point. “The next time you use steel wool on this counter . . . I’m going to use steel wool on your nipples.” She stood for a moment with a blank expression. I could see the wheels churning behind her eyes; she was searching for a comeback.

“Hmmm,” she said, staring straight at me. “I LOVE steel wool on my nipples.”

“OK,” I said. Clearly, I’d lost this little tete-a-tete. “Alright . . . next time I’ll use steel wool on you for fun, and then we’ll think of an appropriate punishment.” Well, at least now maybe she’d remember.

 

 Marg on the rocksThe waitstaff finished early, and immediately began drinking . . .

With the club area closed and the waitstaff done for the night, I stood behind the bar for the last part of the shift–the front area would remain open until 1:00 a.m. as a neighborhood bar. “I’ll have a Patron margarita for my shift drink,” one waitress said. Our house pour is 1 1/2 ounces and the margaritas are “double drinks” so we’re talking about three ounces of liquor.

She guzzled down the drink with four or five long sips through her straw. “I’ll have another,” she said.

Halfway through the second drink, she wanted to order one more. “You know,” I said, “ . . . there’s a lot of liquor in those and you’re knocking them down pretty fast.”

“Are you driving?” I asked.

“I drink these all the time,” she told me. “I know what I can handle.

“Yes,” I replied, “but I want to be sure you make it home OK.”

“I’m just drinking fast so I can get out of here and drive home before it hits me,” she explained.

That’s not something the bartender wants to hear. She’s drinking fast so she can drive before the buzz makes her too woozy? “Listen,” I said, “I think you have two choices. You can slow down and I’ll serve you again in a few minutes, or you can make that your last one.”

“I know you can handle your liquor,” I said, “but I don’t want to worry about your trip home.”

Now she laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’m done for the night.”

“And a word of advice,” I told her. “When you want another drink, be careful how you explain it to the bartender.”

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THE SCREAMING VIKING (barroom classics)

Copy-of-CheersFourDrinks … maybe as many as one-hundred-thousand and counting. How do you do it?” a young coed asks as I frantically work behind the bar. “How do you remember all the drinks?” With the place packed and me struggling to keep my head above water, she asks about knowing drinks.

I guess for customers, remembering each drink is what bartending is all about–but it’s just not true especially when the joint starts hopping. A bartender has to handle everything at once. You give someone their change as you ask the next group what they want, the waitress calls out her order, the ice is low, you need more limes, and the guy at the end is swaying back and forth on his barstool. All of this happens in an instant.

Then there are the customers. Everyone talks about dealing with the general public, and what an effort it takes . . . but in a bar, the public has been drinking. Try adding that extra difficulty to any job. Imagine driving a city bus filled with giddy passengers who stand up on their seats, and sing, and cheer. Trust me, remembering how to make drinks is only the beginning.

Besides, it’s not as difficult as it seems. Drinks fall into categories, like the vodka and juice drinks. Fill a highball glass with ice, one house pour of vodka and a changing juice. All you have to remember is which juice goes with which name.

Screwdriver = orange juice

Cape Codder = cranberry juice

Madras = orange and cranberry juice

Seabreeze = grapefruit and cranberry juice

Hawaiian Seabreeze = pineapple and cranberry juice.

A Black Russian is vodka and Kahlua, while a White Russians adds milk or cream. What about the Whiskey Sours, Vodka Sours, Amaretto Sours?  Make one sour and you know how to make them all.

There are always new drinks, something the bartender hasn’t heard of before. A few years ago at Johnny D’s, bartenders Eric Pierce and Felix Gailitis invented a drink that had dark rum and Captain Morgan’s, a little coconut rum and triple sec, shaken with pineapple juice and a splash of Grenadine. (I came up with the name … we called it a “Horny Pirate.”) One day a customer complained that she’d gone to another bar and they didn’t even know what a Horny Pirate was much less how to make it. Of course not, we’d just made it up.

Which brings me to the real reason behind this post, something I finally found online … a great scene about knowing/not knowing drinks in an episode of the TV series Cheers. Some of the regulars at Cheers decided to teach a new addition to the staff a lesson.  He was always bragging about his prior experience and his knowledge of bartending–so the regulars came up with a phony drink and made-up ingredients. Woody, one of the other bartenders, was in on it with them.

One by one as they pretended to be new customers, they asked the guy for a Screaming Viking, a cocktail supposedly made with a whole cucumber.  Of course the snooty bartender didn’t know it–there’s no such drink as a Screaming Viking (at least not at the time).

“Would you like your cucumber bruised first?” Woody stepped in to help one conspiring regular.

“Just slightly bruised,” Norm replied, and Woody gently tapped the cucumber on the bar rail. The pompous bartender walked out, pissed and humiliated.

It’s one of my favorite bar scenes. Click on the image below to watch.

 

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JOHNNY D’S WILL BE CLOSING …

Copy of SeanJohnnyDsSad news in the Boston area music world. Owner Carla DeLellis announced last weekend that the legendary nightclub Johnny D’s will be closing.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Bruce Cockburn once shared the billing at Johnny D’s … all three performing together on a stage that has seen so many, many outstanding shows. Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss played every year on their way to a combined 40 Grammy Awards. Irma Thomas, The Motels, Wanda Jackson, Booker T. Jones, and a list so long I won’t go any further.

Now Johnny D’s will be closing early in 2016, and I have the inside scoop on why. I worked behind their bar for 25 years, and though I moved on, over the last year I’ve been watching something unfold. It’s about the hidden struggles when running a business, one nightspot in particular, and it’s also a human story both sad and hopeful.

Let’s start with some history.

Copy of johnTinaTwo

Mr. and Mrs. Johnny D

Carla’s parents, Tina and John DeLellis, opened the club in 1969–back when Davis Square (Somerville, MA) was a different place. It was a gangster enclave and some of the old-timers still talk about the gunfight at a bar called The Rail Side across the street. One mobster leaned out the bar’s back door and fired his gun repeatedly at others shooting down from the windows of the adjacent apartment building.

When the Red Line subway put a new stop in Davis Square, digging up the ground where The Rail Side had been, everyone knew there were changes ahead.

The DeLellis family added a restaurant and raised the level of music from country and western to local, regional and national acts playing the blues, jazz, folk, world beat, and rock … a mix so varied you had to check the schedule before making plans. One night you might have Brad Delp, lead singer for the band Boston, performing on stage … and the next night it would be rockabilly legend Dale Hawkins, who wrote Credence Clearwater’s well-known hit, Suzie Q.

At that point, there were only three members left in the DeLellis family. Johnny D himself had died of a heart attack so Tina and her kids Carla and Dave began running the place together. They were a team.

David, Tina and Carla (front-page photo from the LIVING/ARTS section of The Boston Sunday Globe)

David, Tina and Carla (front-page photo from the LIVING/ARTS section of The Boston Sunday Globe)

Dave oversaw the bar, seated customers for the restaurant and kept a close eye on the physical maintenance of the place. Carla started a wildly popular brunch, and when she wasn’t tweaking the menu or handling advertising and promotions, she ran the booking office trying to pull in the right bands. Tina was the matriarch, watching over everything and handling the business end of the club. Tina had two separate business offices at Johnny D’s and one in her home.

They all worked long hours. Tina was at the club six nights a week while Carla sometimes worked seven days and nights in a row. Dave put in sixteen-hour-shifts, but always found time to squeeze in a day at Cape Cod. (He once had me Fed Ex the times cards to him so he could do the payroll on the beach.)

Dave died far too young. At 37, he fell to fast-moving cancer, leaving only Tina and Carla to carry on. It seemed there was always more work and fewer people to do it.

TinaCardTina DeLellis passed away in 2008. There are so many stories about this grand lady. She had grown up wearing rags in war-torn Italy, then came to America without completing high school and went on to become one of Boston’s most successful and respected club owners. (You can read more about Tina here.)

I can’t resist telling one story about Tina, something John B. and I were talking about on the phone the other day.

Booty Vortex was playing and Johnny D’s was packed. (For a short video of Booty Vortex and to see what the club is like, clock the image below.)

As the night rolled on, a young man came in with his wife to have dinner and dance. Then the wife went to the other side of the performance area and asked someone else to dance. The two of them continued to twirl on the dance floor until the woman’s husband got involved. There was a loud exchange and it looked like punches were about to be thrown when Tina stepped in. “My friend, my friend,” Tina said to the husband, “we won’t have any of that in my place.”

“It’s a misunderstanding,” Tina continued with her thick Italian accent and her country lawyer charm. She turned to the wife’s confused dance partner. “Did you know she was married?” Tina asked. After a few minutes everything settled down. “See, it was just a misunderstanding,” Tina said to the husband, “he didn’t know she was married.”

After the husband went back to his table and the young man returned to his spot on the other side, Tina turned to the trouble-making wife. “And you … you little hussy,” Tina said to the wife when the two men were gone. “YOU didn’t know you were married?”

“Don’t be starting trouble in my place,” Tina waved her finger in the woman’s face. “Or I’ll throw you out myself!”

Tina was one of a kind, and she was sorely missed … but no one felt it as much as Carla. She’d lost her mom and her business partner, an important ally in both respects.

Carla DeLellis (Boston Globe photo)

Carla DeLellis (Boston Globe photo)

By now Carla had married and become a mom herself, but when her marriage ended (another nightclub relationship causality) Carla was suddenly trying to raise four young children AND run a successful nightspot.

Maybe that was too long on the history part, but it sets the scene for the one moment in which I knew Carla faced some hard choices.

Carla had been at the club since early that morning, and was finally ready to go home and fix dinner for her kids when I walked into her office. Already held over for an extra two hours, her shoulders slumped when I told her there was something she had to deal with immediately.

“I’ll never get out of here,” Carla said. “Give me a minute. I’ve got to call the kids to tell them I’ll be late.”

While she began speaking to her youngest daughter, who was only five-years-old, it was as though I wasn’t even in the office. This was just a mom talking to a child who didn’t understand why her mother would be late coming home again.

“I know,” Carla said softly over the phone, “I know, honey … I miss you, too.”

“I’ll be home soon,” Carla continued, “but Mommy has to work right now.”

“No,” Carla said to her daughter, “No, honey … of course, Mommy loves you. I love you honey … but there’s something I have to do first.”

As Carla spoke, her voice was soothing and even, but she had tears running down her cheeks. Sitting in the office talking on the phone with her daughter, she continued silently crying.

“Mommy loves you, honey,” she said softly to her daughter. “I’ll be home soon, I promise.”

It took another two years to happened, but I knew at that moment something at Johnny D’s would have to change. When Carla made her announcement this past weekend, people wanted to know when I first heard about it … thinking that Carla might had told me earlier. Nope, I heard last Sunday afternoon the same as everyone else.

But that night with Carla in the office, I’d already seen all I needed to know.

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