HALL OF FAMERS (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

(Image from www.art.com)

Today’s post is quite a bit lighter than last week’s.  It’s about one of my favorite pastimes behind the bar — spotting nominees for The Hall of Fame.

There’s been a HOF in every place I’ve worked, and typically the guidelines are straightforward.  The nominees are simply the best in their class, as deemed by informal group consensus.

I love the Johnny D’s HOF.  In an environment spilling over with so many stellar candidates, there’s not much that gets by our panel of bartenders and waitstaff.

Here are two examples.

(1)  Spaghetti Night

We serve good food at Johnny D’s — it’s upscale dining in a causal environment.  You might sample the house-made polenta fries, then enjoy butternut ravioli in a sage, brown butter sauce.  We also have great burgers (free range, grass fed), along with the occasional comfort food specials.

One night several years ago, we offered a spaghetti and meatball special with Tina’s homemade sauce.  Tina was from Naples, Italy and her sauce was an authentic Italian treat.

On this particular night the club was packed.  We running around like crazy behind the bar when Mary came down to my section.  She told me a customer at her end had a dinner coming out, just in case the expeditor brought it to me.

“He ordered the spaghetti special,” she said, “Just drop off the plate.  He’s all set with a roll-up.”  (If you’re not in the business — a roll-up is silverware wrapped in a napkin.)

I delivered his meal and didn’t think much about it, but ten minutes later Mary was back in my section.  She could barely talk.  She had her hand over her mouth.  She was choking back the laughter.

“You have to go help him,” she managed between snorts, “I can’t . . . I really can’t!”

‘How is everything?” I asked the guy when I got there.  I said it automatically.  I should have looked before I spoke.

The man was sitting with his dish of spaghetti in front of him.  He looked up.  His hands were poised about an inch above his plate.  In one hand, he held a mound of pasta, in the other an over-sized meatball with a chunk bitten out.

He was eating a spaghetti dinner with his hands.

“It’s good,” he told me, “Really good . . . delicious.”

There were small pools of sauce and bits of spaghetti splattered all around the bar in front of him.  The roll-up lay untouched next to his plate; apparently he didn’t realize what it was.  Maybe he didn’t want to bother us while we were busy,  . . . so he simply began eating.

He continued to look at me with both hands still full.  Now he was chewing again.   “I guess I could use a fork,” he said.

I almost choked trying to keep a straight face.  I unwrapped the napkin and took out the silverware.

“It’s right here if you want it,” I said still struggling not to laugh, then walked away quickly.

When he got up to dance, Mary cleaned the bar top.

(2)  “How do I get to Johnny D’s?”

A couple weeks ago, I told you about the woman who called for directions to Johnny D’s, but didn’t want to tell us where she was coming from.  As you can imagine, people calling for directions include quite a few Hall of Famers.  Here’s one of my favorites . . .

“How do I get to Johnny D’s?” a man asked over the phone.

I grabbed the directions sheet.  We have direction from the Mass Pike, from RT 93, from New Hampshire, Maine, or New York — no matter where you’re coming from, we can get you here.

“Where are you now?” I asked, looking at the sheet.

“I’m in Davis Square,” the man said.

Johnny D’s is in Davis Square.

“Where in the Square?“ I asked.  No need for the sheet; I put it back in the folder.

“I’m at the Davis Square MBTA stop,” he said.

Johnny D’s is across the street from the Davis Square MBTA stop.

I looked out the front windows.

Across the street there was a man standing at the pay phones.  His back was to me and he was hunched over, holding a phone to his ear.

I looked at him for a minute.

“Are you wearing a red jacket?” I asked.

He straightened up abruptly.  His back still to me, the phone was now held out away from him.  I swear, he was looking at the phone in his hand.

“Yes,” he said as he brought the phone back to his ear, “I’m wearing a red jacket.”

View of Johnny D’s from across the street.

“Turn around,” I said.

“Turn around slowly.”

“Look across the street, and you’ll see a brick-faced building with a lot of flowers and plants in the front . . . then there’s a large sign that says, Johnny D’s.”


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This week’s post will be short.  I was running behind anyway, then one of our bartenders wanted to switch our Weds/Thurs shifts to attend a concert.

A full post is coming next week, but in the meantime here’s a short note from something we call The Hall of Fame.  The HOF is an informal collection of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the bar life — incidents and people we feel deserve special recognition.

This Hall of Fame moment comes from a woman who needed directions to the club, but didn’t want to tell us where she was coming from.

“I’d rather not say,” she told John Bonaccorso over the phone.

She’d rather not say?

John tried being reasonable.  “I‘m not sure what kind of directions I can give you,” he said, “I need more information.  Directions from where?”

“I told you,“ the woman persisted, “I’d rather not say . . . and I don’t want to explain why.”

“Let’s just say I’m coming from the general area of west,” she said.

The general area of west?  Western Ma?  New York State?  California?

John isn’t the one to suffer fools lightly.   “Ok,” he said, “If you’re coming from the West, my advice would be to catch a flight into Logan International . . . when your plane touches down, give me a call and I’ll tell you how to get here from the airport.”

(Back with a regular post next week.)

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FAVORITE NAMES (Johnny La La and others)

A stand-up comic on the TV series "Hill Street Blues" struggles with reaction to his family name . . . meet Victor Hitler. (Image from www.hulu.com)

I love a good name.  I love unusual names.  I love names that are just fun to hear pronounced.  I collect them, mostly by memory, although more than a few have been jotted on cocktail napkins.

Today, I feel like recording a bunch of my all-time favorites in one place.

I’ve previously mentioned Johnny La La — the loveable, cranky old barman who taught me the trade.  What a great name for him.  A lot of people thought Johnny La La was also a bookie . . . I have no comment, but if true the name is even more perfect.

We had quite a few good names at The Lark Tavern.   Jack Reynolds was a young cab driver when all the other cabbies started calling him, Jackie Rabbit.  By the time we all knew him, Jack was retired and that was the only name most people at the bar knew him by.  He even introduced himself that way, as though it were his first and last name — “Hi, nice to meet you . . . I’m Jackie Rabbit.”

Jackie’s girlfriend was Maud the Broad.

George the Polack sat on the last seat at the end by the window.  He occupied the stool with a regal air, as though King of a small domain.  (He was also affectionately known as Peckerhead.)

One of our late-night regulars, part of the younger crowd, was Stoner Bob.  I thought that was pretty cool, then years later there was also a Stoner Tom at Johnny D’s — and I realized there were probably Stoner Tom, Dick and Harrys all across the country.

After a few beers, Stoner Tom at Johnny D’s often referred to himself in the third person.  “I guess Stoner Tom would like one more,” he’d say with a quick nod of his head.

I’ve been collecting names for quite a few years — I remember how it started.  My frat buddy Jim Fennell was telling me about some of his friends growing up.  His best friend in high school was Joe Chingalini.  (Don’t know the spelling, but it was pronounced Ching-a-lini . . . Joe Ching-a-lini.)

Jim’s neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Spee-whack.  They had twin boys around Jim’s age . . . Larry and Terry Spee-whack.  Jim’s first girlfriend was Ellie Shaum-luff-full.

In college, Jim was known as “Foamy,” after his love of draft beer.  At Beta Phi Epsilon (SUNY Cortland), just about everyone had a nickname and after a while those nicknames became so familiar we stopped thinking about them.

"GORGO" (Image from http://io9.com/

Richard Rowcroft was a lineman for the Cortland State football team —  everyone called him “Gorgo.”  It became so routine that it didn’t sound odd for us to say — “Hey, Gorgo, can I borrow your car tonight?”

Bruce Saurro was known as “Z.”  The only time anyone called him “Bruce” was when they were pissed at him, or wanted to bust his balls:  “Come on, Bruce, don’t bogart the damn thing!”

Sometimes it’s clear how nicknames got their start . . . other times they seem to spring from nowhere.  In high school my nickname was “Duck.”  I was proud of the name, had it stitched on my letter jacket . . . but it began as a school-yard taunt.

In junior high, our civics/history teacher was telling us about quacks, illegitimate doctors who promoted fake cures.  John Dalpan was sitting across the aisle, and he turned and stared at me.  “Hey,” he said loudly, pointing, “Mikey looks like a Quack, doesn’t he?”

Everyone in the classroom burst out laughing.  Even the teacher laughed out loud, before she caught herself.  After that whenever I walked down the hallway, the school bullies would slow down and lean forward, calling out — “Quack, Quack!  Quack, Quack!!!”  I wanted to change schools.

As we moved up in class rank, the nickname was softened to “Duck”, and  I just hoped that everyone had forgotten where it came from.

(Original drawing by Nat Boucher)

We have a few good nicknames at Johnny D’s.  Craig Mckoene is now known as “Chombo.”  It began when brunch bartender Siobhan (pronounced Chee -von) Healey took a chipped parrot mug used for the mimosas to give to her elementary school class.  The class decided to name the mug “Chombo” — and when Siobhan told us later, someone looked down the bar and said, “Hey, that should be Craig’s name!”

Craig likes the nickname enough to include it on his Facebook page.

It is a good name, but it also has practical value.  Chombo is the bar-back on busy weekends, and when you’re yelling down to his station from the middle of the bar, it’s hard to get his attention.  You can yell, “Craig!” as many times as you want, but the only person to look up will probably be someone at the bar named Craig.  But when we yell — “Chooombo . . . tap a new keg of Clown Shoes!!!!” — he’ll hear us every time.

Oscar "Scar" Simoza

When not behind our bar, Oscar “Scar” Simoza is a semi-pro rugby player with the Charles River Club.  Bartender Jeremy “JerBear” Newcomer is also an extreme-athlete kind of guy.

But to be honest, lately it’s been a bit slow for good names and nicknames at Johnny D’s.  I remember ten years ago — back when we had real names that could match any club in the country, employee-for-employee.

Charlie Knoble still works in the booking office.  Charlie’s name falls into the category of “Names That say Something about a Person.”  Even at a reception for the Queen of England, Charlie could hold his head high:  “The Duke and Duchess of Yorkshire, your Majesty,  . . . and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Noble.”

We had a floor manager named Phil Savage — good name for a professional wrestler.  Phil had the thick neck and square jaw line to match.

We had a waitress named Ashley Sprinkle.  I’m serious, that was her real name.  I apologize in advance, because Ashley was such a sweetheart — but to me that sounds like a porn star.  Again, I apologize . . . but I didn’t name her, did I?

Another waitress was named Stacey Justice.  John Bonoccorso (then a bartender now our GM), said it sounded like a female state trooper, in full uniform.  “I picture someone in high boots, with one foot up on the running rail, ticket pad in hand,” John said.  “She tells the motorist — ‘Either I can give you a ticket, or you’re going to FUCK ME . . . and you’d better be GOOD!!!’”

(My apologies to Stacey as well; she was a championship tennis player in college  . . . a very smart, funny waitress.)

Speaking of champions, we had another waitress whose name was Ima Champion.  I’m not kidding, that was her real name.  For some reason, Mr. and Mrs. Champion decided to name their little girl, “Ima.”  I have the payroll records to prove it.

But enough of my interest in names and nicknames.  Back next week with more Life on a Cocktail Napkin.

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Regular post tomorrow, . . . today a sad announcement

We’ll be back for our regular post tomorrow night, but for those of you who knew Mike Daley, either in person or from here, I have some sad news.  Mike has lost his long battle with cancer.  He was a good man, . . . a great customer, friend, and sometimes also a bartender as he traveled from Boston to Hawaii, finally finding a home in Key West, Fla.

His soul mate Sonnia Rice tells us that throughout the battle Mike never lost that remarkable sense of humor, and dignity.  No one was surprised.  (You can read her letter in the comment section.)

Mike would never have allowed me to become sentimental, so I’ll keep this short, adding only my favorite Zen Koan.  Like the man portrayed below, each of us will someday face the end of the run, . . . it’s what we take with us from the journey that counts.

Koan: The Strawberry

A man walking across a field encounters a tiger.  He flees, the tiger chases after him.  Coming to a cliff, he grabs the root of a wild vine and swings himself over the edge.

Hanging on with the tiger growling above him, the man looks down to see another tiger waiting to eat him directly below.  Only the vine sustains him.

Two mice, one white and one black, start to gnaw on the vine.  Then the man spots a wild strawberry growing just within reach.  Holding on with one hand, he plucks the strawberry.  How sweet it tastes!

Rest in peace, Mike.

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ANOTHER DAY (behind the bar)

The day started out shaky and quickly got worse.  This past Friday morning, with only four hours sleep, I found myself at the computer working on The Book.  (At least I’m putting the time in now after all these years.)

By noon I remembered that there was a big show at the club later.  The Motels would be playing — they had a couple of top-ten hits back in the eighties.  The dinner reservations were full and the advance tickets had sold out.

“That’s OK,” I told myself, “There’s still time to write, then I’ll catch a quick nap.”

Soon it was 3:30, and any nap would have to be half an hour or less.  “That’s OK,” I thought, “At least I’ll be able to lie down and close my eyes for a minute.”

The phone rang.  It was John Bonoccorso from the club.  I’ve worked with John for fifteen years behind the taps; he’s now the GM at Johnny D’s.  Any call before work is never good.

“The phones are ringing off the hook here,” John told me, “Any way you can come in an hour early?”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll be in at 5:00.  No problem.”

No problem?  What was I saying?  I barely had time for a quick shower.

I put on my work shoes and rushed to the club.  At Johnny D’s, the day continued to go straight downhill.

Friday is pay day, when the employees get their checks.  (I do some office work aside from tending bar; I handle the payroll– go over the time sheets, call in the hours, then double-check the results when the payroll arrives.)

Something was different about this week’s checks.  On closer look, I saw that they were all printed to be drawn on our old bank account — an account we’d closed months ago.  With their new software system, the payroll company had sent us checks that weren’t any good.  If anyone tried to cash them, they’d bounce.

“Print me another batch of checks!” I yelled over the phone when finally connected to a payroll supervisor, “The ones you sent us are all screwed up . . . they have the wrong account number!”

I’ll spare you the details except to say it was a nightmare . . . but in the end everything was straightened out, and I still had half an hour to look over some food bills.  It was only 6:00.  With two bartenders already working upstairs, I wouldn’t be needed until it really got busy.

The intercom rang.  “Better get up here,” John said, “The bar’s getting slammed!”

The ice bins at the middle station of Johnny D’s, when in working condition.

When I stepped behind the bar, Julian was frantically melting down the ice in his left side bin.  Someone had broken a glass.

If you’re not in the business you might not know that anytime glass breaks anywhere near the ice, you have to melt it all down.  When glass shatters, tiny pieces fly just about everywhere, and you can’t see broken glass in the ice.  You have to make sure no small shards end up in someone’s drink.

“It’ll be fine,” I thought, “The waitstaff can come to my side.  I still have ice.”

I reached to grab a bottle behind me, and heard a waitress yell, “Oh, . . . FUCK!!!”

I turned back just in time to see the container of martini olives teetering over the edge of my service station.  Suddenly everything was in slow motion . . . my hands reached out in slow motion, trying to grab the container in slow motion, my mouth was open . . . “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!”

I reached the container just in time to receive a bath of olive juice as the remaining half of the juice, and approximately 40-50 olives splashed onto the ice in the right bin.

Cleaning up, the waitress had knocked the container over the edge.  Accidents happen, what can you do?

But now both 30-gallon ice bins at the middle station were temporarily out of commission.  Customers waved their hands, six waitstaff frantically shouted for their drinks, we were being slammed . . . and we had no usable ice.

Then behind me, Jeremy and Julian somehow smashed their heads together as they tried to scoot by in the narrow bar aisle.  Julian was standing with both hands holding his nose, and Jeremy kept asking, “Are you alright?  Are you alright?”

“This is not going well,” I finally admitted to myself.  The way things were going, next the roof would cave in.

Steve Morse

By the time the ice bins were operational, Steve Morse had come into the club.  Steve has been coming to Johnny D’s just about since it opened.  (He was the Boston Globe’s senior pop music critic for 30 years, leaving a while ago to work independently — click here to watch his interview with Joan Baez.)

Things had slowed down, I needed a break from the madness, so I stopped for a minute to talk with Steve.  He was telling me about The Motels, then branched off into other bands, . . . and somehow he began telling a story about a band that had once opened for The Eagles.

It seems he was in Springfield MA, covering The Eagles, and at a hotel bar he happened to run into the guys who were the opening act.  They started talking and drinking, and since they were in the same business and knew a lot of the same people, they ended up spending most of the night in that hotel bar, talking and recalling music tales.

Who was this opening act?  Jimmy Buffett’s band, before they became really big.

After that the only Boston area critic who got interviews with Jimmy Buffett was Steve Morse, of The Boston Globe.  It became so bad that after more than 20 years Buffett’s manager finally called Steve almost apologetically, asking if the band could do an interview — just one — with someone else, the Boston Herald.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” the manager told him, “But they keep calling every year . . . I really should give them an interview.  Is that OK?”

Steve said it was,  . . . but that he hoped it wouldn’t become a habit.  (You have to hear Steve tell the story to appreciate his dry humor.)

Gotta love those bar connections.  Anyway, talking with Steve put me in a better mood.  I do love a good bar story.

Back to work, and a woman came up to the bar.  “Can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said, looking at the beer list, “I just had a Lagunitas IPA, but now I think I want something a little darker.”

Feeling revived, I ran down to grab at taste of the Clown Shoes Brown Angel for her.  “Try this,” I said, “It’s made by a company in Lexington, MA . . . just up the road.”

Her eyes lit up with the first sip, then her whole face practically turned into one big grin.  “Oh . . . that is good,” she said.  She was beaming.  “That is really good . . . I’ll have one of those.”

Chef Rudy Garcia, out of uniform.

“Thanks for the sample,” she said with a genuine smile of appreciation.  I was beginning to see some light at the end of this day’s long, dark tunnel.

Rudy Garcia walked in.  He’s a chef with The Elephant Walk in Cambridge, MA . . . just a few blocks away.  We love Rudy.  He’s a great guy, and a great chef.  Usually when he leaves he’ll say something like, “Are you working tomorrow night . . . I’ll bring you something from the restaurant.”

It might be three or four more visits before he actually remembers, but when he does, it’s always worth the wait.

Leehea, with Cris Holt and Joe Shea.

Leehae (pronounced LeeHay) Choee walked into the club, just off her shift as a manager at The Blue Shirt Café.  She’s smart, cute as a button, and such a pleasant person.  She was the capper . . . the person who finally finished turning this entire evening around, 180 degrees.  I challenge anyone to stay in a sour mood with the lovely Leehae sitting at their bar.  She is such a sweetheart.  Damn, I was feeling good now.

Then The Motels broke into their top-ten tune, “Only the Lonely” — and everything else in the club stopped.  No drinks were served, no one was moving, no one talked.  People were spellbound listening to the song.

When it was finished, everyone in the place seemed a little high.

At the end of the night, the waitstaff happily tossed down their shift drinks.  And while us bartenders counted tips and enjoyed cold pints of Clown Shoes Brown Angel, I thought, “All in all,  . . . this been a fine day.”

(As I’m writing, I can still hear The Motels performing “Only the Lonely.”  Click the image below to listen.)



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