DETOUR ALBANY

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.  🙂

DETOUR ALBANY

One detail I’ll never forget about Albany . . . I met my girlfriend, Kristin, the night someone 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.

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6 Responses to DETOUR ALBANY

  1. John Almonte says:

    Looking forward to the whole nine yards! Let me know when it’s out! Hope all is well with you.

  2. MikeQ says:

    John … Good to hear from you, bro!

  3. Jake says:

    About time. Good stuff, though.

  4. Colleen says:

    John is looking forward to the “whole nine yards,”but nobody wants this finished more than me!

  5. Dan E. says:

    Pulls you in. We all relate to that time when we first got free without a plan. Anything could happen — and for all of us something did.

    I have a feeling the book will take us down the road to more of those things that might have happened.

  6. Bob Young says:

    Hey Mike – Good to see you at Johnny D’s in its last few days. Enjoyed the first chapter of your book. ‘Colorful’ is an understatement. Congrats all around. Shoot me an email if you want to talk more at some point.

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