A lone fireman struggles in the aftermath of the 9/11 Pentagon attacks. (Photo by Mike Garcia.)

It’s always gratifying to hear from readers, but in mid-July someone named S. Dickens left a curious comment on one post:

“Came across the article after doing a search on 9/11.  How can I get a hold of the individuals you talked about in ‘Men with Brass Balls chasing Ghosts’ (Bob Guzzo Sr., Mike Garcia, and Charlie Kerrigan).  Would like to talk to them about a possible speaking opportunity.  Please contact me via email for more info.  Thanks.”

An exchange of email revealed that “S. Dickens” is Captain Samantha Dickens with the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado.  She wanted the men to speak at the Academy during a three-day conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — they are on route as this is being typed.  (For pics and bios of all the speakers, click here.)

Bob and Charlie are my fraternity brothers from Beta Phi Epsilon in Cortland, NY.  As a former Captain of the Rockville Centre Fire Department, with experience in “confined space and high angle” rescue, Charlie was called to Ground Zero on the day of 9/11.  Bob was at the Pentagon during the attacks.  He and fellow anti-terrorism officer Mike Garcia immediately rushed outside to help secure the area and assist with casualties.

Even now, listening to them talk about that day leaves me a little awed . . . so I hope you’ll forgive me for reposting the original article below.  Written a few days after Osama bin Laden’s death, I think it’s also appropriate here as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

(If you’ve already read it, I’d suggest browsing stories from the archives on the right, . . . or check out some of my favorite fellow bloggers:  David Hayden, The Hospitality Formula Network — Patrick Maguire, Server not Servant — Nick, Sock Puppet Army — Scribbler50, Behind the Stick — Joe Sixtop, These American Servers.)  Back on schedule next week.

********    ********

MEN with BRASS BALLS chasing GHOSTS (reposted from May 11, 2011.)

Fenway Park (Photo by John Bonaccorso)

The day after Osama bin Laden was killed, John Bonaccorso (The Drowning Frog, The Chocolate Starfish) was at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  Just before game time the announcer asked everyone to rise for a moment of silence.

34,000 fans in the stadium stood and watched as a giant American flag was lowered over the famous Green Monster wall in left field.  “During that moment of silence,” John said, “You could have heard a pin drop.”

This has been a week for reflection . . . and a temporary, collective sigh of relief.  It’s been a week to talk with friends near and far about about the events and emotions that have shaped us since 9/11.

Like most Americans I watched from the sidelines as 9/11 and its aftermath unfolded.   Over the next ten years I followed the news stories about the rise of Al-Qaeda and the search for Osama bin Laden.

But some of the friends I talked with on the phone this week did more than observe.

When I knew these friends in college they were just regular guys.  Many of them worked with me at the first bar I managed, The Mug in Cortland NY.  The bartenders and doormen were all from my fraternity — even the cleaning guy was a Beta buddy.  Jim “Cowboy” Van Wormer was a starting defensive end on the football team; he mopped the place up early each morning before heading to classes.

But when they left college, a lot of these buddies took jobs that led them directly into the tidal wave of events that followed 9/11.  Talking with them this week was like that first chill from the headlines — all over again.

At the time of 9/11 attacks, Mike Galvin was Commander of a SWAT Unit in Florida while other fraternity brothers were with the FBI, or were State troopers and police officers — and all of their jobs took on a new and heightened dimension following the attacks.  Matt Quinn was with one of the largest banks in America, and the department he headed quickly switched it’s focus from tracking potential money laundering by organized crime to tracking the finances of terrorist groups.

Ground Zero NYC on 9/11. (Photo by Charlie “Buff” Kerrigan)

Charlie Kerrigan was at Ground Zero on 9/11.  Highly trained in “confined space and high angle” rescue, Charlie and his men from the Rockville Centre Fire Department on Long Island were called to the World Trade Center immediately after the attacks.

Charlie’s nickname is “Buff”, short for “Buffalo.”  At 6’5″, 250 lbs., he was an offensive lineman for the Cortland State football team, big number “75”.  He was blocking the opposition as Billy Shear kicked his historic field goal during the homecoming game against Hobart College.  (Shear’s 61-yard field goal was the first ever “over-sixty” kick recorded in football at any level — high school, college, or professional.  The first “60-yarder” in the NFL wouldn’t come until four years later, in 1970.)

For as long as I’ve known him, Charlie has been the big/quiet type.  His emails are short, typically only a sentence or two, sometimes only one word.  (Like”OK”, or “No.”)  But I’ll never forget the email he sent us after being thrust into the carnage at the WTC towers.  He wrote about thinking that he was on another planet, in a different world.  He said that the devastation was the most horrible scene he’d ever witnessed, and that he prayed he would never see anything like that again.

Bob Guzzo became US Navy SEAL after leaving Cortland State, and it was speaking with Bob this week that for me really put a human face on all of this — all the work and sacrifice it took to bring to justice the most wanted man in the world, Osama bin Laden.

In his 25 years as a SEAL commando, Bob served in places like Croatia and El Salvador.  “I‘ve been all over the world,” he said, “There aren’t many countries I haven’t been to.”

Bob was assigned to the Navy SEAL’s “Red Cell” Team which conducted terrorist attack scenarios as well as vulnerability assessments for the Department of Defense on a world-wide basis.  (As we talked, he explained the difference between “anti-terrorism” which is working to prevent a terrorist attack, and “counter-terrorism” which is responding to such attacks.)

Late in his active career Bob was seriously injured and had to have both hips replaced.  “I figured it was time to give up the night missions,“ he told me, “Time to give up jumping out of helicopters and being a gunslinger.”

Bob’s new assignment was to the Pentagon as an Anti-terrorism Officer.  He and his team secured office space and were setting up the necessary equipment — they didn’t even have the computers installed yet.

Some of Bob’s team members were still checking in when the Pentagon was struck during the 9/11 attacks.

One hundred eighty-four people were killed at the Pentagon that day.  As Bob rushed out to help secure the area and assist with casualties, he was joined by friend and fellow Anti-terrorism Officer Mike Garcia, who took this photo of the devastation.  (“Mike probably took 60% of the photos you see from the Pentagon that day,“ Bob told me, “Some of his photographs are in the Smithsonian.”)

Bob was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism for his efforts on 9/11.

For the next year Bob worked for the newly-established Pentagon Force Protection Agency, then spent a year at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency before being promoted to Deputy Chief of the Anti-terrorism and Force Protection Branch of the Security and Counterintelligence Directorate.

“We were running around like crazy after 9/11,” Bob recalls of his counterintelligence work in those days, “It was like chasing ghosts.”

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Bob’s son Rob Jr. was in college at his dad’s alma mater, Cortland State.  Rob had also joined his father’s fraternity, Beta Phi Epsilon.

“On the night of 9/11 Rob called me called me from the (Beta) house,” Bob Sr. said.  “He told me he wanted to join the Navy SEALS after graduation.  He wanted to go after these guys.”

“He’s my son,” Bob said, “And I was concerned about him getting involved . . . there’s no guarantee when you go in that you’ll come out alive.  But I supported his decision.”

Rob Guzzo Jr. during the Iraq War.

Rob Jr. was in BUD/S class 251, and became a member of Navy SEAL Team 5.  Upon graduation he was awarded his dad’s old SEAL Trident, the first medal the commandos receive when they complete their training.

Rob Jr. went into battle at Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. His buddy Marc Lee lost his life there, the first Navy SEAL killed in the war.  Marc and Rob had gone though SEAL BUD/S training together.  (In background of the picture you can see the name LEE — the camp at Ramadi was renamed CAMP MARC LEE in Marc’s honor.)

Rob Jr. made it through the Iraq war and he’s back home now.  He’s pursuing a career in acting (in action films, go figure.)

Picturing Charlie K at Ground Zero on 9/11, and talking with Bob Guzzo and Rob Jr. who were actively engaged in combat in this war on terrorism, I thought their lives have been so different . . . it’s a little scary.

I’ve never thought of myself as living a quiet life.  During my years behind the bar, I’ve had my share of confrontations and scuffles, and I’ve had a few heart-pounding moments.

One night at The Mug, a guy walked up to the bar and pulled a gun on me. He cocked the hammer back and put the end of the barrel against my forehead.  I remember weighing my options sort of calmly and analytically — then I took the gun away from him and knocked him down with a blow to the side of the head.  I wasn’t scared until after it was over.

“But that was simply reacting to something I couldn’t avoid,” I told Bob.  “I don‘t think I’d have the balls to do what those Navy SEALS did . . . to willingly jump into the shit when I could just as easily choose not to get involved.”

This wasn’t a movie or a video game.  Those Navy SEALS flew in under the radar, unannounced in a foreign country.  Two dozen of them repelled from their helicopters into darkness; they lowered themselves inside the enemy compound of the world’s most feared terrorist.

They knew they’d be facing enemy fire, but didn’t know when or where it might come from.  They had to get in – win a life-or-death gun battle – and then get out without being shot down on the return flight by Pakistani fighter planes.

“They were just doing their job,” Bob said, “They were doing what they’d been trained to do.”

“On a mission,” he explained, “You’re not thinking about whether or not you’re going to make it back home.”

“You train and train,” he told me, “It’s unbelievable how difficult and tortuous the training is . . . but when the time comes, your body reacts.  You simply do what you have to in order to complete the mission.”

“An hour later, maybe two days later, you might think, “Holy Shit!” . . . but at the time you’re completely focused on the mission.”

That makes sense.  I can understand how it works . . . but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t know if I’d have guts to do it.  These guys are different; they’re flat-out heroes.

I can’t remember recent conversations that I’ve enjoyed more than talking with Bob Sr. on the phone this past week.  There were times as we talked that I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

Bob Guzzo Sr. and Rob Jr. at their daughter/sister Danielle’s wedding.

And throughout our conversations I heard the same thing time and again. I heard Bob’s great pride in America and his willingness to put his life on the line for his country if he had to.

During one conversation he stopped and said, “I am very proud to be an American, a Navy Seal and a Beta man.” His son Rob said the same thing in a follow-up email.

I guess it’s out of fashion nowadays to talk about your college frat — but I am proud to be a member of Beta Phi Epsilon and I’m proud to know these men.

Our fraternity is best known for its long string of All-American athletes, Olympic medalists and National Hall of Fame coaches.  It’s known for it’s high school and college teachers and administrators, and for outstanding contributions in many fields.  (I exchanged more emails this week with Beta alumnus and long-time friend Joe McInerney.  He spent two decades teaching and writing books on human genetics before becoming executive director of NCHPEG – the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics.  He helped educate state and federal judges about genetic evidence and the law after the O. J. Simpson trial.)

But being jocks at heart, many from our fraternity went into the military, law enforcement, and served as firemen — and that got them directly involved in the dedication and sacrifice that led to the events of this past week.

Today my hat is off to this group especially . . . these guys just have balls made of brass.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 13 Comments

“NEITHER SNOW, NOR RAIN . . . ” (The Hurricane Irene Pub Crawl)

Monday afternoon in Davis Square, after Hurricane Irene. (Here's the fallen tree I stepped over on the way to work Sunday night.)

By the time of its arrival in the Boston area, Hurricane Irene had diminished in strength.  For us, the worst was over by noon on Sunday.  Inside Johnny D’s, a trimmed-down crew of two waitstaff and two bartenders served just over two hundred brunch patrons, down from the usual six hundred.

That’s still a decent number for a limited staff, and when I arrived for my shift the brunch bartenders were ready for shots and beers.

It’s always interesting to watch the veterans after the crunch is over.  The newbies remain frazzled, but the veterans assume the quiet air of someone who has faced wave after wave coming over the top at them . . . and still the fort survived.  Or maybe it was just the shots and the cold beer that now gave them a calm, satisfied look.

I was on my own in the front of the house after the floor manager, Marie, left.  The bands had been cancelled; the club was in storm mode — one bartender, a neighborhood bar kind of thing.  At least the kitchen was open and we were serving food.

It’s been years since I’ve waited on tables.  There are two six-tops, two four-tops, and four deuces in the front bar area (aside from the bar itself), and at one point just about all of the tables were seated for dinner — but it was a chance to try out some things I’d read in David Hayden’s new book on profitable service.  I tried his “Don’t be The Server approach and actually had a lot of fun at the tables.

Then the pub crawl walked in.

I had heard them planning this crawl back on Friday, when it looked as though Irene might remain a Category Four storm.  These folks will party at a drop of the hat, but they usually don’t plan . . . they just go out and do it.  This was different.  As they talked about a Hurricane Crawl, there was something defiant in their tone.

Big storm, the environment threatens — to hell with that, they were going to party even harder.  Yup, the ones I knew in this group were exactly the type to thumb their noses at catastrophic weather, as though they’d been personally challenged and wouldn’t back down.

By the time the crawl crew hit Johnny D’s Sunday night, they were already on their second pass through the club.  They’d been here earlier for brunch, then had gone down the line to seven or eight other bars, and were now working their way back.  They didn’t look any worse for the wear.  These were experience partygoers; they knew how to pace themselves.

The (hard) core leaders of the Hurricane Pub Crawl. (From left to right; Lily, Brooke, and Brendan with Johnny D’s staffers Jeremy Newcomer, and Craig McKoene.)

Once they had their pitchers of beer (only a couple of mixed drinks), I was able to step back and enjoy the scene.  Most of them were wearing some type of Hurricane Crawl gear.  Jeremy wore a scuba snorkel, and when he came in, Craig was wearing a thick yellow slicker that made him look like the guy from Gorton Fish Sticks.  Someone carried a beach ball, which was immediately tossed up and down the bar.

I felt like the old dog, watching with nostalgia and affection as the young pups frolicked.

I remembered a blizzard in Albany, NY that “forced” us to stay overnight at The Lark Tavern.  There was another debilitating blizzard when I worked at The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square.  For three days there were snow drifts that sometimes reached up to the telephone wires, and many people had no electricity.  Half of the staff from The Sunflower Café spent their nights on my living room floor because I lived only a five minute walk away.  The Sunflower remained open, and that’s still one of my favorite restaurant memories.  Nice to take something positive from catastrophic conditions.

People’s attitude and behavior change when a storm hits.  As the wind howls and even walking is treacherous, people who might otherwise never say a word to each other now exchange a — we’re-all-in-this-together — type greeting as their paths cross.

I remember walking to The Sunflower during the continuing storm, and there were two or three passers-by helping someone push a car out of a snow bank.  I joined them.  When we finally freed the car, everyone was in an especially congenial mood.  Afterward we all shook hands and talked about the storm, all of us strangers.  One of the guys helping out was wearing a business suit under his winter trench coat.

There’s a human instinct triggered by the threat of nature that snaps us out of our usual self-centeredness.  It returns us to the strength of the group, whatever that group might be . . . close friends, neighbors, or simply other human beings.  Jack London called it the “community of survival.”

Maybe I’m becoming too philosophical here, but I swear that someday scientists will identify a “community” gene.  A gene which triggers our instinct to form these survival groups.  I swear that we all have that gene in us, and it may have been the single most important factor in the evolution of our fragile species.  Still today, we feel good when we follow it, perhaps even better than if the outside treats weren’t there . . . now if we could just follow that instinct in everyday life.

Anyway, as the crew from the Hurricane Crawl nursed their beers, Johnny D’s bartender-off-duty Jeremy Newcomer ordered two large plates of fries — one of French fries, and one of sweet potato fries.  He shared with everyone.

Another guy from our bar staff order a burger with fries, and I saw several in the group help themselves from Craig’s plate. You might think that would be risky; Craig’s nickname is “Chombo” . . . but he’s a mellow guy despite his size.

(Original drawing by Nate Boucher)

Nate Boucher, a weekend bar back at the club, penciled this tongue-in-cheek impression of Craig on a cocktail napkin.  (Nate is an art student.)  Craig’s reaction to the drawing:  “Hey guys, it’s a not a caricature, it’s a portrait . . . and a fine one at that.”

The Hurricane Crawl had started in the early afternoon, and by now they’d hit every bar in Davis Square at least once, some of them twice.  It was still raining hard, the wind was knocking the sign boards around out front, and a passerby came in to tell us that some of Johnny D’s lights had been blown loose and were flapping against the building.  (Alone behind the bar I couldn’t leave so our chef, Luis Alvarado, went outside to secure them.)

All of these folk had to get up early for their Monday morning jobs, even Craig who’s only at Johnny D’s on the weekends.  (During the week he delivers for Boston Wine Company.)

They all had to get up early  . . . everyone except Jeremy.  As a bartender, he wouldn’t go in for his shift until late Monday afternoon.

Tony takes a dry run in his gear just before the storm.

But the elements and early alarm clocks couldn’t deter their odyssey.  On to Orleans, where Tony Auivalasit was working.  (Tony got his start as a bartender at Johnny D’s, and although he works up the street now he and Jeremy got the crawl started.  Tony left early to go to work, but the rest of the crew would stop at Orleans three times over the 12-hour marathon.)

As everyone headed for Orleans, I expressed admiration for their efforts and wished them well in their journey.  “Neither snow, nor rain,” I thought as they left, “ . . . Nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep these guys from their duly appointed rounds.”

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 7 Comments


At Johnny D’s, a young woman leaned over the bar, almost grabbed my arm as I walked past.

“Hey!” she said, “What’s the matter . . . you won’t say hi?

For a second I thought she must be someone I should know, possibly a customer from years back that I couldn’t place now.

“Hey, there,” I said, just in case.

On closer look, I knew I wouldn’t have forgotten her.  With such a pretty face, her auburn hair fell over one shoulder.  She was wearing a loose white shirt, and while she spoke she moved just slightly beneath it, as though listening to some internal music.

“I’m sorry,” I smiled, “Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” she laughed, and looked into my eyes.

We talked for a minute about nothing much.

When I finished a waitstaff round, she was still looking at me so I went back.  Maybe she didn’t feel like sitting alone — bartenders are usually good for quick companionship, easy conversation.

A few minutes later, a businessman sat beside her and she immediately started talking with him.  She laughed and touched his hand repeatedly as he quickly warmed up.

Then two young men sat down on the other side.  She turned and started talking with both of them.

A hunch was beginning to take shape.

She turned back and forth between the three of them, and when a second businessman joined the first she somehow managed to juggle all four.  I kept an eye on them; this could turn into trouble.  Guys can be territorial about someone like her.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time.  The men vied for her attention.  They seemed surprised that this young woman in her mid-twenties had come on to them.

Johnny D’s isn’t a pick-up joint.  Lots of people end up meeting, but we’re known more as a music club.  People come in to dance and listen to the bands.  Her behavior stood out in our crowd.  She was a knock-out, . . . she was bright, funny, so full of life that she was bursting at the seams.  She could have gotten anyone’s attention just sitting there.  Why did these guys get so lucky?

Because she didn’t want to wait.  She wanted all of their attention, right now.

I’ve seen a few former dancers in the bars.  Usually there are small signs that give them away.  I’ve seen them talk with guys you couldn’t imagine they were remotely interested in.

I remember one very attractive woman years ago — she was such a pleasant person at the bar — but she was determined to engage any man within reach.  I once watched her turn and talk with the guy on the left, while at the same time reaching back to put her hand on the knee of the man on the right.  She’d just been talking with him.  She didn’t want to lose either one of them.

Maybe the attention made her feel good about herself . . . but no, it was more than that.  It was as though if she couldn’t keep the attention of a man — every man  — then she didn’t exist.  One night she got little buzzed and confessed that she’d been a nude dancer at a club in Providence, and suddenly it all made sense.

Back at Johnny D’s, the young woman in the white blouse was even more relaxed and I watched her continue.  As I walked by I overheard her talking to the two young guys.  “Two can be done,” she said, “ . . . one in the pink, and one in the stink.”

Where did that come from?  This innocent-looking woman — how did she come up with a line like that?

The guys almost choked, but then began to laugh.  I figured it wasn’t a monetary proposition.  She was just flirting, and by now she really had them going.

I was amazed with her ability to work these men.  She immediately discovered the key to each guy’s interest and exploited it to the hilt.  Did he hope to get laid?  Did he want to brag about his job?  Through raw instinct or cunning calculation she kept each of them leaning toward her.

One of the group left, and she was visibly disappointed.

I watched her gather herself, then immediately double her efforts to keep the rest involved.  She was like a hostess at a party after an important guest leaves, now determined that those remaining don’t get the same idea.

I once dated a dancer over a summer break during my college years.  I remember when she first told me she was a dancer, it sounded like she was saying, “I’m a stripper . . . You want to date me, don’t you?”

We did go out, and one night I went to see her work.  When I was at the bar, watching the other dancers while she was backstage, the bartender came over to me.  “Everyone thinks they’re jet-setters, high-rollers, because of the way they look,” he told me, “But most of them lead pretty sparse lives.”

“Some of them just manage to get by, living in run-down rooms. They’re just ordinary girls.”

I figured the one I was with must have told him we were dating.  In his own way, he was trying to put in a good word for her.

She was wild, this summer dancer.  She was a lot of fun when she had a few drinks and definitely uninhibited in the sack, but in the mornings, she’d be crippled by sadness.  Sometimes she’d talk about her childhood, her ex-husband, her life, and she’d just start crying.  I’d hold her in my arms, and rock her back and forth.

I’m sure it’s not the same for every dancer, or ex-dancer, but it’s true enough about many of them.  When you’re young and you learn that the foxy lady at your bar was once a stripper, your ears perk up.  Your first thought, “Maybe tonight’s my night!

As you get older you’re more likely to think “Do I really want to get involved?”

Now the young woman at Johnny D’s was too relaxed.  She’d had three drinks in two hours, but she was definitely buzzed.  Maybe she was taking pills, or was on medication.  She was becoming a little loopy.

When she asked for another drink, I leaned forward to talk with her discretely.  “I think I‘m going to hold off on that,” I said, “For tonight anyway.”

“You‘re shutting me off?”  She seemed surprised, but perhaps not entirely.

“I thought you liked me,” she said, “I thought we were friends.  I can’t believe you’re shutting me off.”

“I want to make sure you get home OK,” I told her, “I don’t want you to wake up tomorrow with any regrets.”

As I stood across from her, I was wishing I could help her in some way.

I stood there wondering if there was something I could say or do that would make this better, at least for tonight.

But this wasn’t the time or place, and I doubted I was the person anyway.  Best thing for her right now was exactly what I was doing.

“I do like you,“ I said, “But I think it’s time to stop while we’re all still ahead.”

“Really?” she asked softly, as though she couldn’t quite believe it.  She seemed so disappointed, still looking in my eyes.  “You’re sure?”

“Yea, I’m sure.” I said.  I gave her a light pat on the back of her hand.  “Want me to call you a cab?”

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 13 Comments

JOHNNY LA LA and the HICCUP CURE (And two more short notes)


This isn't a photo of Johnny La La . . . I'm sorry to say I don't have one. But this guy's attitude and pose are right on the money. (Image from www.life.com)

A guy at the bar had the hiccups.

It was at Johnny D’s this past Saturday night and the place was packed.  I’d come over to ask the man if he would like another beer, but he was unable to answer.

Two short words, then a hiccup.  Three more words, . . . and so on.

“I’ll be right back,“ I told him.

I was off to get him some relief.

“God Bless Johnny La La,” I thought as I turned away.  Years ago at The Lark Tavern, Johnny had shown me a cure that never fails.

Johnny La La was a cranky, loveable old dinosaur of a bartender.  (Read more about him here.)  He was of a breed that has essentially vanished from behind the bar; I guess the mold has been broken.

Johnny wore a constant curmudgeon mask, and sometimes he’d have a quizzical — don’t you know anything? — look.  But he was always there when one of us twenty-year-old bartenders had a question.

One day at The Lark a customer had the hiccups, and I stood across from him helpless.  I told him to try holding his breath.

Two bar stools away, another customer recommended drinking a glass of water upside down.  (This might be the funniest cure to watch, if you’ve ever seen anyone try it.)

More customers chimed in . . . eat a teaspoonful of sugar; try standing on your head.

While all of us advised him, Johnny La La grabbed a cocktail napkin, a slice of lemon, and reached for the Angostura Bitters.

(If you’ve been in the business for a while you may already know this cure.)

Johnny placed the lemon wedge on the napkin, poured some sugar on top of it, and then generously splashed on the Angostura Bitters.

He told the customer chew on the lemon slice.

Of course it worked.

This cure has never failed.

That’s what Johnny told me, and that’s what I tell customers even today as I set the concoction before them.

It has never failed.  It never failed Johnny La La.  It has never failed me, or any of the bartenders I’ve talked with over the years.

I once read on the web about a man in England who spent a year in the hospital with unrelenting hiccups.  The doctors were dumbfounded.

You can read on Wikipedia about a young American girl who hiccuped for five weeks non-stop.  Read further and you’ll learn about a doctor who has had some success with a vegetal stimulator implanted in the upper chest of the patients.

To stop hiccups?  Doesn’t sound like something you want your bartender to try on you.

Back at Johnny D’s, I gave the man the cocktail napkin which held something less invasive.

“Chew on everything but the rind,” I told him.

Afterwards, in answer to his look of awe, I said, “An old-time bartender taught me that many years ago.”

Maybe the doctors should consult with Johnny La La before operating.


2.)  MEL, at the Johnny D’s SUNDAY BLUES JAM

Hubert Sumlin, legendary bluesman. (Photo from http://www.nj.com/warrenreporter)

Speaking of a vanishing breed, the original blues musicians won’t be around much longer.  After Hubert Sumlin (then in his 70’s) played at Johnny D’s, one customer remarked,  “When guys like him are gone, there’ll be no one to take their place.”

Today all the pop stars are gorgeous.  Full of glitz, with special microphones that help them sing on key, their performances are as much about pageantry as about the music.

It’s as though they’re focused on formulas, techniques . . . doing what someone else has done successfully, repeating it with mathematical precision.

Not that their math is wrong.

But the old-timers sang from their hearts.  They played by ear.

Their music had soul.

There’s an old black man who stops in for the Johnny D’s Blues Jam now and then.  Mel is in his 70’s or 80’s, depending on who you ask, and he’s the real deal.  When he sings it makes you think that this is the way music used to be.

On a recent Sunday, Mel was on stage with some other veteran performers.  John Taylor on drums, Grant Kelly on guitar, Mike A on harmonica … and there was a new kid with them, a young man from the Berklee College of Music.

It was a study in contrast between the veterans, especially Mel, and the young kid just starting out.

This contrast was underscored as Mel was about to start his next song.  (I wasn’t on stage to hear, but Grant told me later.)

With one hand over the microphone, Mel had just informed the group what song he’d chosen and then he began to snap his fingers, “And a one, and a two, and . . .”.

The Berklee student interrupted him.  “Wait,” the kid said, “ . . .  What key?”

What key?

Maybe what was going though Mel’s mind is what I just talked about,  . . . but he turned and looked at the young man.  It was only a quick glance.

What key?

“This one,” Mel said, then immediately turned to the microphone and started singing.

(For those who love the blues, click here for a video of Hubert Sumlin.)



This note is about some traditional folk wisdom.

David Hayden is author/creator of the Hospitality Formula family of blogs.  (I mentioned his new book, Tips2 (squared) in an earlier post.)

Last week in Restaurant Laughs, David had a great little story about the delicate dance between customers and servers.  (Post title:  “I’m sorry.  I’m still kinda new to this.”)

It was a perfect restaurant vignette, . . . but there was something in the comment section that also struck me.  David went on to talk about his philosophy of blogging.

He said there are enough blogs out there already that simply rant.  Talking about his attitude towards writing, and his customers, he explained that he prefers stories that offer something more than a complaint.

He said there was a poster above his computer that keeps him on track.

Woody Guthrie (Photo from http://voices.washingtonpost.com

Printed on the poster are a few words from 1930’s folk singer Woodie Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”).

I hope Mr. Hayden will forgive me if I repeat those words here:

“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose.  No good to nobody.  No good for nothing.  Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that.”

“. . . But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that.  The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

— Woodie Guthrie

Back next week with more life on a cocktail napkin.

(Ed. Note, 8/11:  In his comment below, David Hayden was kind enough to send a link to the actual poster.  For a readable version of it, click here http://hospitalityformula.com/a-food-critic-intervention/08/guthrieposter/)

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 13 Comments

A CHILD’S TRICYCLE (and drinking to forget)

(This isn't the porch, or even the same tricycle, but I love the photograph by Isadora Murphy.)

I was behind the bar at The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square when I got the call from Bruce S.

Bruce was a drinking buddy from my Albany, NY days.  He and his girlfriend Betty had been regulars at The Lark Tavern.  They didn’t believe in the formalities of marriage, so Bruce and Betty had been living together for three years after dating all through high school.  They were the settled ones, and in some ways they had given our gang at The Lark a sense of stability.

At least we had friends who acted like adults.

Bruce was calling now to tell me that he and Betty had broken up.

“She ran off with Greg,” he told me over the phone, “I thought that guy was my best friend.”

Bruce wanted to make a road trip to Boston to blow off some steam.  “I can be there tomorrow,” he said.

It turned into three days of non-stop drinking.

After Bruce parked his car in front of my building, we walked around the corner to the bank where I withdrew $100 in twenty-dollar bills.   Then we took the subway downtown to Boston’s Combat Zone, where the strip clubs were.

Bruce bought the first round at a place called The Naked I.

I bought the next round with one of the twenties, and I remember that the bartender studied the bill carefully.  She glanced at a note taped to the side of the cash register.

Fifteen minutes later, two guys were behind us and suddenly I was shoved face forward down onto the bar.

“Don’t fucking move!” one of the guys said.

They both had guns.  Bruce was now held face down on the bar, too.

“Where did you get the twenty?”  The guy with his hand on my back did the talking.  “Where did you get the money?”

They were undercover cops.  Apparently the twenties were counterfeit.  They asked us to stand with our hands on the bar, then frisked us.

After a few minutes, I convinced them that I really didn’t know what was going on.  “I got the money from my bank,” I kept telling them.

“You know, I could keep the rest of the this,” the detective said as he handed me back the remaining twenties.  “Just don’t spend any more in here.”

Bruce paid for the rest of the day.  With our drinks and the tips for the dancers, he spent a lot of money, but we laughed all afternoon that the bartender at a strip joint had spotted the phony bills, and the bank didn’t.

(I still think the bank knew all along, and having been stuck with the phony bills just wanted to get rid of them.)

The next morning we woke up early and headed for The Abbey Lounge, which was around the corner from my apartment.  It opened at 8:00 A.M.

For the rest of Bruce’s visit, we drank from eight o’clock in the morning until the bars closed, then we’d go home and have a few more beers before calling it a night.  Back to The Abbey the next morning when they reopened.

Of course I knew why Bruce had come to Boston . . . if only for a few days, he wanted to stop thinking.

He wanted to forget.

He wanted to drink.

What kind of friend was I, if I let him drink alone?

We drank, and drank, and drank.

Wednesday was Bruce’s last night in Boston, so we went to The Sunflower Café.  It was in Harvard Square on JFK Boulevard, where the Pizzeria Uno is now.

Tommy Talbor was working behind the taps.  He’d been a bartender with me at The Lark Tavern, and I’d gotten him a job here when he moved.

While tending bar, Tommy called another Albany transplant – a nurse who had also frequented The Lark before moving to Boston.

She showed up at The Sunflower Café half an hour later with some nurses who worked with her at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As the night wore on, I was thinking this was about all the partying I could handle.  It had been three straight days, non-stop.

But at closing time that nurse said we should all go back to her place.

I told them I’d had enough . . . I was going home.  There had been moments during the night with these upstate New York friends that I thought I might collapse.

We wound up at her apartment in North Cambridge; Bruce, Tommy, the nurse and I, and some of her friends.  By now it was probably four o’clock in the morning and I kept telling everyone that I really had to go, but no one would give me a ride.  At this point I had no money left for a cab.

It would be an hour on foot back to my apartment, but I finally decided to split, a long walk ahead of me.

I had three beers with me for the jaunt home, one in each coat pocket and one in hand.

When I got downstairs, there was a child’s tricycle on the front porch.  I stood on the porch for a minute sipping my beer, looking at the tricycle.

I decided to ride it back to my place.

It was a cold night, and I was wearing the second-hand leather jacket I’d bought for fifteen bucks when I first got to town, at a place called Una’s Experienced Clothes.

I rode the tricycle down the right hand lane of Massachusetts Ave, serving toward the curb when a car buzzed by.

Some of them honked their horns.  I could hear them thinking, “Another drunken bartender riding his tricycle home at 4:00 A.M.!!”

The three-wheeled bike was so small that my knees hit the handle bars if I didn’t keep my legs spread wide. I knew this was crazy, but at the time it seemed better than walking.

I turned off Massachusetts Ave and went over the short bridge onto Beacon Street. This strip of road between Porter and Inman Squares has been under repair for years. There are large potholes, dips and rolls in the broken surface.

I must have hit a pothole.

I started to lose control of the tricycle.

I struggled with the handle bars as I continued to peddle, trying to stay upright.  I was going to crash!

I hit the road, landing on my side.  The bike’s wheels were still spinning.

The bottle in my coat pocket had broken, and now the jacket and one side of my pants were soaked with beer.  I wrestled with the tricycle, trying to turn it back upright on all three wheels.

Then I continued the ride home.

At my apartment building, I carried the bike upstairs and went to bed.

Early the next morning someone laid on my apartment buzzer and wouldn’t let up.  It was the nurse.

“The kid downstairs at my building was crying this morning,” she told me over the intercom.  “You don’t know anything about a tricycle, do you?”

She followed me up to my apartment, and I gave her the bike.

All I wanted to do was to go back to bed, and she lay down beside me for a while.  I remember that she had the sweetest kisses.  But I just rolled over and fell asleep, and she took the kid’s tricycle back to North Cambridge.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 8 Comments