“Is this way good for you?” she asked innocently as she shifted her body a little to the left.

With a playful tone, she broached the subject so easily it surprised me.

This was a rather awkward position for us.  We were pressed tightly together, just about wrapped around each other, with her right hip grinding into my side.  My face was only one quarter-of-an-inch from her bare shoulder.  Her blonde hair was falling over that shoulder, and it had such a delightful fragrance.

“Don’t even think about kissing her shoulder!” I told myself.   I knew it would be wrong . . . but being pressed so tightly against her somehow made me want to.

“I’m OK,” I told her speaking into her shoulder, “But thanks for asking.”

Photo from

We were crammed together on the inside steps of an MBTA Green Line trolley headed from the Fenway stop to Boston’s Park Street Station.

While waiting for this train, our every-growing crowd had watched a dozen trolleys roll by in the opposite direction before this one lone train finally pulled up on our side.  Of course it was going to be crowded.  Total strangers, she and I happened to squeeze onto the trolley car at the same time and she was now one step above me as the doors closed behind us, pushing us even more firmly together.

She was in her mid-twenties, a striking young woman with long blonde hair, wearing a sleeveless beige dress.  She had a suitcase in one hand with her purse over her shoulder.  As we stood mashed against each other, she was speaking with two other young ladies standing on the step above us; the three of them talked rapidly in a foreign language, laughing about it all.

When we debarked at Park Street, I spoke with her for a minute.  She said she and her friends were from the Netherlands.  This was their first time in Boston.  I asked if she’d mind me retelling this story in a blog.

“I won’t use your name,” I said, “But given our situation I thought what you said was pretty funny.”

Is this way good for you?

Now she understood and threw her head back laughing.

Riding on the Boston MBTA is never dull, and without the sense of danger famous in NYC subways, when crazy stuff happens on the Boston lines you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Photo from

I remember being on a Mass Ave Bus headed to Harvard Square one afternoon when this very large, clearly crazy man got on.  As he walked down the aisle toward the back seats he glared at everyone and swore at some.

“What the hell are you looking at!” he snapped at a poor woman who had glanced in his direction.

Once seated he began talking to himself as he looked around, making threatening gestures with those massive hands and arms.

“That’s right!” he said loudly, glaring at the passengers seated in front of him, “That’s right . . . be very afraid!”

Now a strange little man with glasses boarded the bus.

He walked slowly toward the back as the large guy kept talking.

This small man sat down on the empty seat next to the big guy. He smiled up at him.

After a minute, he laid his head against the big man’s shoulder, like a child leaning against a loving parent.  Maybe he was drawn to the big guy’s power.

The big guy was completely freaked out.  As the small man sat with his head contentedly on his shoulder, the big guy had a terrified look on his face.  Suddenly he was desperate.  His expression said, “Wait a minute . . . what’s going on here?  I’m the one who’s supposed to be crazy!

He began looking around at the other passengers as though seeking help.

The little man continued to smile, and the big guy finally got up and took another seat.

“Did you see that?” he asked, turning to the other passengers.  His voice was half-panicked.  “Did you see what he did?”

Gotta love the Mass Ave bus.


Another time I was headed back home to Cambridge after working an overnight shift as a volunteer counselor at Project Place, a 24-hour crisis center on Washington Street in Boston.  I’d worked at a similar center in Albany NY (see Suzie Creamcake and Jerk-Off Joe) and when I came to Boston I worked four nights a weeks behind the bar and one night as a Project Place hotline volunteer.

I’d go in at midnight and leave at 8:00 A.M. the next morning, usually completely wiped out.

This particular morning I was on the way home to get some sleep when I saw an old housemate of mine step onto the bus.  I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years.

Eli and I had never really gotten along.  He was a lot bigger than me and he always wished he could push me around but with my training in Karate he was afraid to try.  So I liked to tease him.

Now on the bus, I saw him but he didn’t notice me sitting on the other side of the aisle.

Suddenly I thought of a good way to break Eli’s chops.  Over-tired and a little strung out I thought it would be just too funny if I did it . . . but embarrassing him this way would require that I totally embarrass myself as well.  Was it worth it?

I weighed the pros and cons of my prank for fifteen long minutes as the bus worked it’s way down Mass Ave.

Finally I summoned the courage to speak.  Eli was extremely sensitive about his manhood. This would be too perfect.

“Eli,” I said loudly, getting his attention.  “Eli,” I said again, waiting for everyone to start looking at us.

Then I put on a meek face, and said in a small voice, “Eli . . . I want you to come home.”

People’s reactions varied.  Some tried to hide their bemused smiles, while others simply looked away, perhaps embarrassed to be included in this clearly emotional moment between two men.

One old lady sitting across the aisle was incensed.  There was almost smoke coming out of her eyes and ears.  She was furious.  Her glare said, ‘You are both PERVERTS!  How dare you bring your vile perversions onto this bus!  There are children on this bus!”

I have to hand it to Eli, he didn’t blink.  He shook his head laughing, and said, “Mike, you haven’t changed.”

Boston’s MBTA is the oldest transit system in America, and it’s one of the busiest.  As with any mass transit, some of the Boston conductors and drivers can be real jerks.

Photo from

One day I’d been visiting my friend Gretchen in Boston and she was standing with me as I waited for the bus home.  We saw the bus pull up to the curb and we gave each other a quick hug goodbye while the line of passengers boarded.

But when I turned to get on, the bus driver tried to pull away.  I lept onto the first step and grabbed the handrails as he gunned the motor.  I was half in and half out, holding on for dear life as the bus started to pick up speed.

We were racing down the street and the parked cars were whizzing by behind me . . . when the driver began trying to shut the doors on my arms.

Whap!  Whap!  Whap!

The doors were bouncing off my arms as I clung onto the handrails just inside the doors.  It was as though he was trying to shake me off.

“What the hell were you doing?” I snapped when I’d finally pulled myself to safety inside“Are you fucking nuts?”

He stared straight ahead.  “Next time get on with everyone else or wait for another bus,” he said smugly, as though he’d done nothing wrong.

Dealing with the public can fray anyone’s nerves — but this guy was a real asshole.

I personally know several MBTA bus drivers and they’re regular Joes, at least when not driving.  One of them, a guy named Lenny, was a part-time doorman at Johnny D’s for a while.

Lenny drives the one of the Mass Ave busses.  He’s a big guy.  At one time he spent afternoons during football season as the weight coach for the Somerville High School Varsity squad.

I was on his bus one day sitting in front talking with him when this scanky-looking kid got on and walked right past him without paying the fare.

“Hey!” Lenny yelled at his back as the kid kept walking, “Hey, get back here and pay!”

The kid kept walking.

“Hey!” Lenny said, and then he slammed on the brakes hard, jammed the pedal to the floor.  The bus rocked back and forth almost throwing people out of their seats.

When the bus was completely stopped Lenny got up and walked toward the guy.  He stood in front of the kid, dwarfing him.

“When I talk to you,” Lenny said towering over the young guy, “You stop and listen!”

The kid paid his fare, and then Lenny and I began talking again as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I can’t resist telling one more story about my friend Lenny the bus driver.  Lenny was in a downtown bar one night when a customer next to him knocked over his drink.  The guy turned without looking, and splashed Lenny’s drink all over his new leather coat.

“Hey, . . . what the fuck do are you doing?” Lenny yelled, shaking the flaps of his coat.

The guy apologized, but apparently he was a bit of a wise-ass and he kept telling Lenny to calm down, don’t make such a big deal of it.

They continued to exchange sharp words, and Lenny was getting hotter and hotter under the collar.  He decided to smack the guy.

“I drew my arm back,” Lenny retold the story later, “And as I watched my fist heading for his face . . . I kept thinking to myself, why isn’t this guy ducking?”


The guy went down and everyone in the bar looked first at the poor man on the floor, then at Lenny.

“Congratulations, Lenny,” an old-timer at the bar said without looking up, “ . . . You just decked a blind man.”

The guy was still on the floor, his cane beside him.

Every time Lenny stops into Johnny D’s now we bust his balls for knocking a blind man off his bar stool.

The Boston transit system has gotten it’s share of press over the years.  Back in the late 1950’s there was a national top ten song about the MBTA.

“Charlie on the M(B)TA” was originally written for the 1949 Boston mayoral campaign.  Ten years later The Kingston Trio turned the song into one of their biggest hits.

Click this photo for a video of the Kingston Trio performing thier hit

Now when you ride the MBTA (known locally as the “T”), you have to buy a “Charlie Ticket” or an electronically upgradeable “CharlieCard.”

I can’t remember whether it was in The Boston Phoenix or The Boston Globe but there was a funny, funny newspaper article once about a race between a commuter on the “T”, and a pedestrian.

The commuter was dressed in sweats and running shoes while the person on foot was wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase.  They started out at the same point racing from Park Street to the Copley Station stop.  One of them rode the “T” as a passenger, while the other contestant walked.  He had to walk all the way on a hot summer day.

The guy on foot made it to Copley Station first.

His challenger — after waiting for the right trolley, than pausing at other stops for passengers to get on and off — the guy who took the “T” came in a distant second.

Colleen visiting her parents in Florida

My best friend Colleen is always good for a story or two, including those about the “T.”

She had driven into Boston to take her mom to Massachusetts General Hospital, and we decided that while her mom underwent the all-afternoon tests we should meet for lunch.  I took the red line into the Charles Street Station, about half a block from the MGH.  As Colleen walked from the hospital we were on our cell phones, and I tried to direct her to me — I could hear her speaking with people on the street.

“Excuse me,” I heard her say.  Colleen is a cute little 5’3” sweetee, but when frustrated she can have the vocabulary of a trucker.  She was having trouble finding the MBTA station where I was waiting.

“Excuse me,” I heard Colleen say. I imagined her talking with a little old lady.

“Excuse me,” she said to the woman on the street, “But could you please tell me which way to the fucking train station!”

To this day Colleen denies she said that, but between you and me that’s what I heard.

Anyway, enough of these MBTA stories.  I’ve got errands to run before I go to work — and I’m headed for the “T” now.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 10 Comments


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 (Beta Phi Epsilon; SUNY Cortland) — 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, 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.  With extensive training 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 computers installed yet.

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

The Pentagon on 9/11 (Photo by Mike Garcia)

One hundred eighty-four people were killed at the Pentagon that day.  As Bob rushed out to help secure the area and attempt to rescue survivors, his friend and fellow Anti-terrorism Officer Mike Garcia 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 you 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.

(Ed. note, 5/12:  Mike Garcia just sent us more photos.  Here are three of them.  Please feel free to leave a comment on this post below.)

Aerial view of the damage. (Photo by Mike Garcia)

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 31 Comments


Sorry for the delay on the new post . . . it’s in progress, I’m still gathering info.  It’s related to the events of this past week and it will be an interesting one, I assure you.  (Probably coming this Monday or Tuesday.)

In the meantime, maybe you’d like a little music.

If you’ve read the post below on Tina DeLellis (Mrs. Johnny D), you know that a whole lot of people thought the world of her.  About a week after her funeral I got a call at the club from Grant Kelly, a guitar player and one of the regular crew at Johnny D’sSunday blues jam.

Grant had written an instrumental solo in tribute to Tina; I invited him down to play the new recording on our house sound system.  I was working a day shift and there was no one in the club by the time Grant got there.

With just the two of us at the bar, and the music echoing through a really good system, I thought his tribute was perfect — a beautiful, moving piece.  If you’d care to listen to it, click here.

Be back Monday or Tuesday with that new post . . . and trust me, you don’t want to miss it.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 5 Comments


Most restaurant workers don’t like their bosses.  Talk five minutes with anyone in food service and you’ll probably hear plenty about the egotistic son-of-a-bitch who makes their life hell.

John and Tina DeLellis (Mr. and Mrs. Johnny D) in the late 1960s.

I’ve been lucky.  I’ve worked for some great owners and today I’d like to share a few stories about Tina DeLellis, who for almost twenty years was my boss at Johnny D’s.  When she passed away on April 8, 2008, Tina was one of the last of the old-school proprietors.

Here was a strikingly attractive and gracious lady, but with that first handshake you knew Tina was also a tough, no-bullshit woman.  She had to be.

Somerville, MA — one of the hub cities that make up Greater Boston — was a gangster enclave in 1969 when Tina and John DeLellis opened Johnny D’s.  Old timers still talk about the gun battle at a bar called The Rail Side, across the street from Johnny D’s.  Gunmen fired round after round out the back door up at another gangster shooting down from the third floor window of the adjacent apartment building.

Somerville was so tough that Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, “Someone should put a fence around Somerville and give everyone fifteen years.”

John DeLellis was a Somerville Police officer for 13 years and he still commanded respect both by his former position and his reputation with police-issue firearms.  With his wife at his side John made sure their club was safe, and when he wasn’t there it was up to Tina to keep things under control.

“Sometimes I’d be shaking inside,“ she told me one night, referring to the time when she had to deal with gangster customers, “My heart pounded so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest, but I would never let them see me afraid.”

As Somerville changed The Rail Side was torn down and the gangsters were gone, but Johnny D’s was still a nightclub — and we’d have the occasional trouble-maker.

One night this huge guy started throwing his weight around.  He began to swear at people for simply walking past him.  “Fuck you! What are you going to do about it, ASSHOLE!”  He was aching for a fight.

Tina approached the guy, and the doormen and bartenders quickly spread out nearby.  (We were supposed to look like we were watching TV, or talking with customers a few feet away, only stepping in if the situation got dangerous — Tina always insisted that she be the first one to deal with things.)

As Tina walked up to the guy, he reached out — but  Tina avoided his grasp and took that huge paw in one of her hands, gently patting the back of it with her other hand.

“My buddy, . . . my buddy,“ she said, patting the back of his hand.  This guy was at least 6‘5“, probably weighing three hundred pounds.  He dwarfed Tina.  “My buddy, my buddy” Tina said, standing calmly in his shadow, “What seems to be the problem.“

The guy was taken aback, and Tina continued.

She explained that she thought of this club as her home, and as her guest she wanted to know what was going on with him, what she could do to make him more at ease.

“Why would you want to act like this?” she asked, “If I invited you into my home is this how you’d behave?”

The guy was no match for Tina’s savvy charm.  As he continued to listen he began to nod his head thoughtfully, his hand still in hers.  By the time she was leading him to the door, her hand was now between his two hands — two huge paws holding that one small hand of hers — and he was thanking her.

“Thank you,” he said, as she walked him to the door.  She was throwing him out and he was thanking her. “Thank you,” he said again. “Thank you.”

Tina was the master at this . . . I’ve never seen anyone better.

David, Tina and Carla (front page photo from the LIVING/ARTS section of The Boston Globe, August 9.1991)

With John DeLellis’ early death from a heart attack in 1984, Tina’s kids Carla and David had come back to help her run the place. They talked Tina into adding a full restaurant to the nightclub, and Carla began to book national acts.  It was an expensive, risky gamble.

Now Tina was worried about just staying afloat while the new business developed.  She watched every penny.

I remember she walked into the kitchen one day and a prep cook had just finished scraping ketchup into the line dispenser from a plastic gallon jar.  He tossed the empty jar into the trash.

Tina picked up the container and looked at it.  There was a least half a cup of ketchup still remaining along the edges of the bottom.  She called the prep cook on it, saying something like, “What is this?  Why are you throwing this away?”

He looked at her like she was crazy.  How much could it  be worth, that ketchup at the bottom?  I could imagine him thinking, “Why is she bothering me about a few pennies worth of ketchup?”

“I have to make a phone call,” Tina told him, changing the subject, “Do you have a quarter?”

He fished a quarter out of his pocket, and gave it to her.  Tina took his quarter and threw it into the trash barrel.

“How did that feel?” she asked.  “I know it’s only a quarter, but how did it feel?

“That’s how I feel,” she said.  “It might not seem like much . . . but now you know how I feel when you throw my quarters away.”

She reached into the trash and retrieved the coin.  “Wash it off,” she said, “And it will be as good as new.”

All this attention to the pennies made more sense when you knew a little about Tina’s background.

Tina (Chiarolanza) was born in Naples, Italy and she was nine years old when WWII ended.  Her earliest memories of post-war Italy were of her family just trying to find enough to eat.  Every day she and her older sister Rose were sent out to neighboring towns to steal bread so that the family could survive.  “In all my life,” Tina once told us, “That’s the one thing I’m most ashamed of.”

Tina and her sister were sent because they were young enough that if they were caught, they wouldn’t be shot.  Tina’s sister Rose did get caught once, and the police shaved her head.  That’s what they did to the kids to shame and humiliate them.

This youthful experience remained with Tina throughout her life.  She was determined not to fail.  She was determined that none of her children would go through that.

Things went well following the renovations.  There were hundreds of articles written about Johnny D’s in the Boston Globe and other local media.  Year after year the club won awards in one category or another — Boston’s Best Music Club, Best Neighborhood Bar, Best Sunday Brunch

Tina continued to fine-tune.  Anyone throwing away her quarters or just slacking off was sure to hear about it in no uncertain terms.  But if someone was making an effort and simply fell behind she was the first to help out.

I walked into the kitchen one day and she had the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up.  She standing in front of the sink, up to her elbows in dirty plates and bowls, helping a dishwasher who’d gotten slammed.  When she saw me watching, her expression said, “What are you looking at?“

If someone on her staff found themselves short on funds at the end of the month, Tina might loan them money.  I know of more than one instance that she never got it back.  She shrugged it off as part of her responsibility as an owner.

Tina developed a reputation in the community for the way she ran Johnny D’s.  I remember one afternoon when Somerville Mayor Mike Capuano (he’s now a U. S. Congressman) walked into Johnny D’s.

He was here to see if Tina would hire his sons part-time at her establishment.  His boys were still in school, but he thought they should learn what it was like to work for a living and he didn’t want them to begin anywhere else.  “I know you run a good place,“ he told her, “I want my boys to start learning here.”

Tina tried to hide it, but she sat there just about bursting with pride.

Tina with her son David

In 1998 Tina’s son David died of a rapidly-spreading cancer that seemed to come from nowhere.  He was only 37.  When Tina lost her husband she had worn black for a year — her clothing was always tasteful and attractive, but it always something black.  Now her son was gone.

I don’t think Tina ever completely recovered from David’s death.  Parents don’t expect to outlive any of their children.

But she was still at the club five nights a week, usually talking with long-time regular Kenny Branco who faithfully took the seat next to Tina’s every night.  She was still the consummate host.

I remember the last night her friend Luca came in.  Luca was a semi-pro hockey player from Canada and his team played in the Boston area once a year.  After meeting Tina at Johnny D’s several years ago, he now brought his entire hockey team to the club each time they came to town.

Luca loved Tina.

He was probably twenty years younger than she was, and movie-star good looking.  When he was at the club he’d spend the entire evening talking and flirting with Tina.

I think they danced one dance that Saturday night because we had a swing band playing and Tina loved to dance.  As always, at the end of the night Luca tried to take Tina out for a cup of coffee at one of the late-night espresso shops in the North End.  As always, Tina politely said no.

“You should have gone,” I told her when Luca left. “You might have had a good time.”

“Oh,” she said, “If I was ten years younger, maybe . . . if I was ten years younger, who knows.”  I still remember that small smile on her face.

Tina had a great time that night.  That’s something the other bartenders and I like to think about because it was the last time we saw her.  It was Tina’s last night at Johnny D’s.

Tina passed away the following Tuesday night, April 8, 2008.  She’d been at the hospital earlier that day to complain of chest pains.  They told her to come back for further tests and sent her home.

At her funeral, by request of the family, the bartenders were Tina’s pallbearers.  A woman came up afterwards and told bartender John Bonaccorso that it seemed fitting to have us as the pallbearers.  We had always been so protective of her, worked so hard for her, the woman said.

“It’s more fitting than you know,“ John told her.

He explained that we had always looked out for Tina, and one thing we didn’t like was for her to leave the club alone at the end of the night.  We insisted on walking her to her car. At first Tina protested. “Who’s going to bother me?” she’d say, putting up a tough front.

After a while she accepted it and walking Tina to her car became a kind of tradition with the bartenders.

“Today,“ John told the woman, “We walked her home for the last time.”

Tina was gracious and charming lady, but at the same time a tough, savvy business woman.  She didn’t graduate from high school but she was as sharp as a country lawyer.  She never forgot what it was like to be down-and-out, and that helped her relate honestly to just about anyone.  She was one of the most amazing people I’ve known, in this business or out of it.

Rest in peace, Tina.

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On Sundays, I’m behind the bar for the Blues Jam at Johnny D’s — it’s not much money, but there’s always good music and good people.

This past Sunday, regulars John (drummer) and Grant (guitar) played some rocking sets. Dan (also a drummer) stopped in, as did another Dan (harmonica) with his lovely lady, Ashley.

Then Mike Daley walked in.

I hadn’t seen Mike in almost a year.

He looked horrible. He looked like hell.

He must have lost twenty pounds. He looked tired and worn down.  His face was a little distorted and swollen along the jaw line.

“It’s cancer,” Mike told me. “I gave up smoking last year,” he said, “After 40 years I finally quit, and now I’ve got cancer.”

“My lungs are fine,” he said, “It’s in my mouth and throat.”

Before I go further, let me say this isn’t a sob story. Sometimes a customer will talk about his or her illness, and sometimes no matter how much you might sympathize, it’s difficult to listen as they go on and on. You still have to deal with other customers and everything that’s happening behind the bar.

Mike was different. “They had me down on the floor twice,“ he said, using bar-fight imagery to describe the sudden onset of the cancer, and then the chemo and radiation treatment that followed.  “They had me down twice but they couldn’t keep me down. I got up, and I’m still here.”

There was no self-pity in his voice. He was just filling me in on the details, which I wanted to know.

Mike Daley (Mike’s friend in Florida was busting his balls about having to spend the winter in New England, wearing long johns and staring Death in the face — so Mike sent him back this photo.)

He told me that his girl friend in Florida (where he’s been living) took a leave of absence from her job to stay with him while he got treatment in Boston. He talked about the side effects of radiation therapy. He said that he now had a tube inserted into his stomach that comes out through the intestinal walls and his skin. The tube ends with an IV connection on the outside so he can attach cans of liquid nutriment. It’s the only nourishment he can take, although he’s just now beginning to chew soft foods.

I was thinking that listening to this while working behind the bar wasn’t as awkward as it might have been — Mike kept cracking jokes about his treatment, about his doctors and himself. He still had his non-stop sense of humor. His cancer was something that happened, and now he was fighting back.

I was the only bartender while we talked. One of the waitresses came up to order drinks just as Mike was telling me about the tube, and I had to break away for a minute. Two customers at the other end of the bar wanted menus. Each time, I’d go back and talk more with Mike.

Then the conversation turned to the old days, and we rehashed some of the stories from when Mike was living in Boston.

Back then Mike worked at  MIT’s Draper Lab. He was a CAD (Computer Aided Design) Supervisor working on the Trident and Peacekeeper missile systems.

Mike had separated from his wife, although he still doted on his two young daughters, so we began to see him more and more at Johnny D’s.

He’d come in with his buddy, Jack, who also worked at MIT. Mike was a CAD specialist involved with top USA military projects, and Jack — well, Jack jokingly described himself as a custodial engineer. He was a janitor at Draper Lab.

Somehow the two of them became friends. Jack had wit and humor that easily matched Mike’s own. Mike was a member of the Faculty Club at MIT, and even though Jack could never be a member he’d always go there as Mike’s guest.

Edward Scissorhands (Image from

Jack had been born with only three fingers on each hand. His paws had a kind of Edward Scissorhands look. But he was so sharp and funny that he disarmed everyone immediately. After the first few minutes you didn’t notice his hands, or how difficult it was for him to just pick up his drink.

Let me give you an example, something so typically Jack. One afternoon he was talking with his next-door neighbor who had recently purchased a large attack dog. The guy who sold the dog had stopped by to see how things were going. I guess the guy made a six-month check up on all his customers.

Jack just happened to be standing there in the backyard when the guy asked the neighbor if there had been any problems. After the neighbor said no, everything was fine, the guy turned to Jack and asked if there had been any problems for him, living next door. Had the dog caused any difficulty?

Jack slowly lifted his scissor-like hands, with three fingers on each, and said, “Well, no . . . not after that first day.”

The guy’s face turned ash white before Jack told him that he was just kidding.

That’s what Mike and Jack did; they were always joking, always busting balls.

I’ve told a few stories about busting balls in this blog — Auntie Rosie, The Cute Blonde Nurse and After-hours at Cindy’s. One night, Mike broke my chops as much as they’ve ever been busted behind the bar.

That night Jack left early, and as he exited the front door Mike suddenly became serious.

“I’m worried about Jack,” he said.

It was a fairly busy night and I had to spin away to make someone’s drinks.

When I got back, I asked Mike what he meant.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Mike told me.

For the next hour, Mike gradually filled me in each time I rushed back from making drinks. The information he gave me came one piece at a time.

Jack was in danger of losing his job. “There’s a big shake-up going on,” Mike told me, “I think they’re going to let Jack go.”

This went on for an hour, piece by piece. Mike told me about a new woman who had recently been hired, a woman named Mary. “Sure, Mary comes in exactly at eight AM., but what does she accomplish after that?”

“I know Jack isn’t the type to go by the clock,” Mike said, “He’s always late. But when he gets there, no one does more.”

Mike told me that he was worried about Jack. This job was important to him, not only for the benefits and a weekly pay check — but the job was a big part of Jack’s self-esteem. Jack loved that fact that he was employed by MIT. Mike was worried what would happen if Jack lost that.

“He’s said something once about suicide,” Mike told me.

I was feeling sick about all this as I continued to work the bar, dashing back to Mike whenever I had a free moment. Jack was a great guy. Mike said Jack might kill himself.

I began thinking of taking up a collection for Jack. I wondered about finding work for him at the club, maybe checking ID’s. I was desperate.

“I’m sure it’s not an easy decision for the big shots at MIT,” Mike went on. At this point I should have smelled something fishy, but I had swallowed it all, hook-line-and-sinker.

I never saw it coming.

“I don’t know,” Mike continued, “I mean what would you do if it was your decision?”

“Tell me,” Mike asked, “What would you do if you had to lay one of them off.”

“Who would you let go?” Mike asked.

“What would you do?” he asked, “Would you lay Mary, or Jack off?”

It took a minute for this to sink in, what he’d done to me.

“Would you lay Mary, . . . . or Jack-off?” Mike had tormented me for an hour, he had me worried sick about Jack . . . he had created a fictional Mary and phony lay-offs just to pull that punch line on me.

He’d probably heard this as a joke somewhere, and thought that Jack’s name was too perfect not to pull it while I worked.

To this day, that’s the worst anyone has gotten me behind the bar.

Anyway, it was great to see Mike again. He’s in a fight for his life now, but it was good to see that underneath he’s the same old Mike. He looks different; he’s thinner, worn down, but the same tough, funny bastard continues to shine through.

I got an email from Mike on Monday, and he sent me the picture of him and the red-suited mannequin shown earlier. He’s improving every day.

I’m sure he’ll stop in again before he heads back to Florida, if for nothing else than just to bust my chops.

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