"From bullets whizzing through the front windows of an Italian restaurant to a tall, mysterious blond who wants to be tied up and spanked — it's life behind the bar, a carnival recorded on cocktail napkins …. "
As Johnny D’s is about to close, a lot of us who worked there have been called for interviews. The club’s upcoming exit made the front page of The Boston Globe. It’s a big deal in this city … Johnny D’s has become an institution, winning national awards and featuring live performances by Dixie Chicks, Allison Krause, Neil Young, and Irma Thomas whose 60’s hit “Time is on my side” was later a smash cover for the Rolling Stones.
So, along with owner Carla DeLellis and others, last week I wound up talking about Johnny D’s with Amelia Mason of Boston’s National Public Radio Station, WBUR. (You can read the full transcript and Amelia’s oral history of our nightspot here. The actual broadcast on WBUR 90.9 was on the afternoon of 3/10; it may be aired again, so check their upcoming schedule. )
One of the questions Amelia asked . . . “What is one of the craziest, funniest things you saw at the club?” Speaking off the top of my head, the following story came to mind.
Ladies panties …
This story dates back to the late ’90s. It’s a slamming night at the club while a Cajun band plays, and the people here just want to dance. We’re serving as many glasses of water as mixed drinks and pints of beer. With the place rocking, I see a waitress approaching the service bar area. She’s got her arm extended way out in front of her and in her hand she’s carrying something between her forefinger and thumb.
“Someone found these at the edge of the dance floor,” she tells me, arm still extended at full length. In her fingertips, she’s holding a pair of ladies’ panties.
“Found them by the dance floor???” I ask.
“Yup,” the waitress says, “that’s what the guy told me. He said found them by the dance floor.”
Meanwhile, customers all around are waiting for drinks … so I take the panties and toss them behind some liquor bottles on the shelf. “That’s a good story,” I think. “Ladies’ silk panties found on the dance floor!” I’m wondering if, at the end of the night, I should put them in the large, lost-and-found tub beneath the coat racks by the restrooms. Someone rummaging through the tub for an umbrella or sweater they left here will have a good laugh seeing a lost pair of woman’s panties in with everything else.
The night rolls on, we keep making drinks and the incident is forgotten. Then at closing time, this cute little coed approaches the bar. “This is really embarrassing,” she tells me. “But did anyone turn in a pair of women’s panties?”
Turns out she’d been dancing like crazy and was beginning to feel hot on the crowded dance floor. She was wearing a long skirt, so she just lifted the skirt to her knees … didn’t take it off, but lifted it and reached underneath with both hands … and had slipped her panties off right on the dance floor, and then kicked them to the edge. When the song ended, she went to look for the panties but they were gone. Someone must have picked them up.
Did she stop dancing? No, she continued to dance all night . . . and then at the end of the night, she must have said to herself, “I guess I’ll check with the bar.” The night was over and now she stood across the bar from me, waiting to pick up her panties.
The book is finally finished and I’m looking for an agent! So for this post, I figured I’d put up the first chapter of the book . . . for free. 🙂
“One detail I’ll never forget about Albany . . . I met my girlfriend, Kristin, the nightsomeone shot a customer from another bar.”
The strangest part is I never meant to stay, and I certainly didn’t plan on working in a pub beside an old-time barman named Johnny La La. Bored and a little stoned in the summer of 1973, I left rural Cortland, New York with a duffel bag over my shoulder. Boston waited ahead with all its grand horizons, but the Greyhound bus took a route through my friend Stacey’s city. “Come hang out for a couple of weeks,” she said on the phone. That’s when everything slipped out of control.First, extended the visit by taking a rundown apartment where I’d live broke and alone; then a short time later, I was hiding from some punks rode with a motorcycle gang. I stopped in for a quick beer at a local bar and somehow spent three years making drinks there. “How did you wind up here?” a smiling, young customer wanted to know. “You’d be amazed,” I answered, pouring her more wine.
Lined down the bar’s high stools, politicians and Albany gangsters, several construction workers, college kids and local deadbeats, and even the delinquent housewives waved their hands for attention. This was where I worked, at a joint called The Lark Tavern. I immediately knew I’d made a mistake with Brenda, a married woman. Later, I met Kristin, a tall, mysterious blond who loved to be tied up and spanked. “Would you mind walking me home?” she asked the first night we chatted.
Working at The Lark was my first job, fresh from a small town, so I expected a learning curve and new challenges. But I didn’t anticipate the speed of everything when standing behind the taps at a city tavern. Sonny Capozzi was an undercover narcotics cop who waltzed into the bar shifty and grinning. He quickly made a point to show a young man how things work. Meanwhile, Stacey’s ex-convict boyfriend lurked around the corner, waiting for a chance to get even with me. 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. While still in my twenties, anything new held promise. 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 came to know every one of them. Some of them changed my life. And I’d only been looking for a cold beer on a regular summer day.
Everything started off calm and quiet. During the second week of visiting Stacey, I walked past The Lark Tavern at the corner of Lark Street and Madison. I looked up under a lazy blue sky 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 bartender stood behind the taps dressed in a white shirt and red bow tie with 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 showed up early each morning to open The Lark. He’d polish the bartop, restock plenty of cocktail napkins and straws, then haul out buckets filled with ice from the machine in the back. Sometimes arriving at dawn, anyone else might have considered a legitimate breakfast while opening the place—perhaps two soft-boiled eggs on buttered toast prepared in the bar’s small back kitchen. For Johnny, 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. 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. In this tavern, 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 and either widowed or divorced, these patrons appeared early in the day as though this was their living room. Johnny La La stood waiting to greet them, the professionally cranky bartender who was the one thing in their lives that hadn’t changed in the last thirty years.
George the Polack lived around the corner. A neighborhood fixture, he’d remained a large man beneath another 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 his forever cherished spot at the end, next to the front window. “It’s a beautiful day out there,” George occasionally informed everyone.
The Lark Tavern became a popular nightspot in the evening, but these old-timers were the only customers at the bar around noon. It was like a private club during the day, and they all looked out for each other. Scowls ran down the bar if a daily regular hadn’t arrived. With everyone’s eyes on the clock, a discussion would begin about whose turn it was to go see if an absent buddy was OK. “I had to look for Jackie Rabbit just last week,” one of them tried to skip their turn one day. “And it was raining!” Eventually, someone would leave their barstool, muttering on the way out. Somebody had to do it.
If Johnny La La wasn’t too busy, he’d keep that regular’s glass of beer on ice until they returned.
Only these old-timers knew how Johnny La La got his name. It came from a short ditty he sang under his breath while working, always ending it with, “La la, La la.” The words fit Johnny’s attitude perfectly. After thirty years pulling these taps, he lived the way he wanted and worked the way he wanted.
For example, he’d never serve the entire bar when the basement trapdoor at the other end lay open. If the trapdoor was up, Johnny walked halfway and stopped. Did he fear if anyone went any further, they’d fall into that dark hole in the floor, half a bar length away? Customers by the sunlit front 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 these details after taking a job at The Lark. But even with that first glance, I probably could have guessed half of it by how 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 chatted with his customers. At one point, he scowled in my direction as if I had silently interrupted him and then returned to his conversation, puffing 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, hold on now, pal. I’m talking with my friends!” It seemed like another five minutes, but Johnny La La came down to where I sat after he finished talking. “Well,” he asked, “what do you want?” I ordered a pint of draft beer, and the adventure began.
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 atThe Lark Tavern. It was a long story which I tried to keep short–that while on my way to Boston, my friend Stacey suggested I should visit her in Albany for a couple of weeks when passing through.
After running into trouble with a motorcycle gang and a big beef with Stacey’s ex-con boyfriend, I began slinging drinks at The Lark where I’d meet politicians and gangsters, undercover narcotics cops, shameless deadbeats, scheming housewives … and eventually, I’d wind up living with a tall 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 twists 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.
These 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 as she searched 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 the steel wool on you for fun, and then we’ll think of an appropriate punishment.” Well, at least now maybe she’d remember.
The 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.”
Drinks … 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.
Everyone has done it – you’re in a bar, looking for a scrap of paper to write a woman's name and phone number on, or just want to make a note to yourself so you don’t forget something. You grab a cocktail napkin.
(In the TV series The West Wing, a political consultant decides that Jed Bartlet – played by Martin Sheen – should run for President. He takes a cocktail napkin and writes down the slogan, “Bartlet for America.”)
I work in bars. Over the years, I’ve accumulated enough of my own cocktail-napkin notes to fill six liquor bottle boxes.
Here are the people and stories that wound up in those notes -- real-life characters like Jackie Rabbit and Maude the Broad, the narcotics cops Paul and Sonny, mafia guys, some shameless tramps and one suicidal young man. You'll meet an old-time boxer who wants to take me into the gym to teach me his trade, and a woman who thinks God is on the stool next to her, urging her to have one more whiskey and ginger. It's life behind the taps.