A FEW GOOD MEN (Famous cocktail napkin notes)

The idea for this week’s post comes from comrade-in-arms Scribbler50, author of one of my favorite blogs, Behind the Stick.

I got this email from Scribbler the other day:

“Hey, Mike, I just read something in the New York Daily News you might get a kick out of . . . It‘s an article about Aaron Sorkin and how he wrote his first few plays (including ‘A Few Good Men’) on cocktail napkins.

. . . It’s a good read and maybe something you can turn into a post.

Good luck, Scrib”

Aaron Sorkin . . . didn’t he just win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screen Play, “The Social Network?” And he started out writing on cocktail napkins? I had to check it out.

It turns out that after graduating from Syracuse University Aaron moved to New York City, where among other jobs he worked as a bartender (just like Scrib). Aaron later recalled his life behind the taps at The Palace Theater:

“I wrote ‘A Few Good Men’ on cocktail napkins during the first act of La Cage aux Folles . . . I would come home with my pockets stuffed full of cocktail napkins.”

“A Few Good Men” — I always liked that movie, and like it even more after hearing the story behind it.

I’d already used another Aaron Sorkin/cocktail napkin tale in the “About this Blog“ section on the right of your screen.

In the TV series, The West Wing, a political insider wants his best friend, Jed Bartlet, to run for President.  He grabs first thing he can find to write down the slogan “Bartlet for America.”

Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) does become President and later has the cocktail napkin put in a small picture fame.

I began looking for other famous cocktail napkin stories.

It seems that in the early 1960s, a local DJ in Los Angeles was at an all-night diner with Jan Berry, of “Jan and Dean” rock-and-roll fame.  DJ Roger Christian began scribbling down the lyrics to a new song on a napkin and “Honolulu Lulu” became a hit for Jan and Dean, rising to #11 on the national charts.

Southwest Airlines supposedly got it’s start on a cocktail napkin when a business man and an airline pilot were having a drink together in a San Antonio bar. They began discussing an idea for an airline that would provide short intrastate flights at a low cost. As they sat at the bar they developed a business plan, mapping out potential routes on cocktail napkins.

In 1974, economist Arthur B. Laffer of the Office of Management and Budget was in a downtown Washington DC bar having a drink with Jude Wanniski of the Wall Street Journal and Dick Cheney, then deputy White House chief of staff.

Mr. Laffer sketched out a diagram on a napkin to explain how lower taxes might spur economic growth. His “Laffer Curve” and the theory of supply-side economics became famous during Ronald Reagan’s Administration.

Marilyn (photo from fashiontribes.typepad.com)

Marilyn Monroe’s book, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, was written in at least in part on cocktail napkins.

“Marilyn never lost her insight, her passion, and her humor. To confront the mounting difficulties of her life, she wrote – on everything — cocktail napkins, cheap drugstore notebooks, and stationary from fancy-schmancy hotels.”

The grand design of Chicago began on a cocktail napkin. In 1905, a relative of movie critic Roger Ebert was having a drink with then Chicago big-wig, Daniel Burnham.

From the Chicagoist, we learn:  “Over cigars and cognac with Daniel Burnham, Hieronymus Ebert— Roger’s great-great grandfather—inadvertently inspired Chicago’s famous grid system of streets after drawing a tic-tac-toe game on a cocktail napkin.”

Tennessee Williams worked as a waiter early in his playwright career. You can’t tell me he didn’t jot down a writer’s note or two between serving tables.

But my personal first choice for a great cocktail napkin story isn’t famous at all. It‘s just something that happened at Johnny D’s, on a night that only two people will ever remember.

Dan Ehrlich (photo from www.bu.edu)

Dan Ehrlich has been coming into Johnny D’s for years, but it was a long time before I actually found out what he did for a living. He talks about everything and anything, and always asks how I’m doing with my book, but he never talks much about himself.

Yesterday, I found this on the internet — it’s from page twelve of the Boston University Department of Biomedical Engineering Annual Report, where they highlight their faculty:

“Dr. Dan Ehrlich joined the department in October, 2008 as a Research Professor. Dr. Ehrlich comes to us from the MIT/Whitehead Institute where he was a Principal Investigator and Director of the BioMEMS laboratory. Prior to joining the Whitehead, Dr. Ehrlich spent 18 years at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.”

It seems Dan’s research “. . . spans optics, lithography, biosensors and biomolecular assays, with a current emphasis on microfluidic instruments for highcontent, high-throughput cell-based assays and deep-UV imaging.”  Huh?  Oh, he also has 23 issued patents and over 230 publications, . . . and he won the R.W. Wood prize from the Optical Society of America for the outstanding discovery in the field of optics in 1991.

(Photo from www.asa100.com)

If you were tending bar with Dan sitting there, you’d never guess any of this. If he’s going to say anything about what he’s doing, Dan will talk about his travels to Asia or his passion for photography. When I sent him an email to tell (warn) him about this upcoming post, he was in Burma.

“I am totally enamored with Burma (Myanmar),” Dan wrote back. “The main reason is the people who relate to strangers in a natural and organic way. Their interest in you is as a human being first. Their rituals are fantastic.”

But, back to the main story . . . I remember the night at Johnny D’s when Dan seemed preoccupied. He’d just finished his dinner and was now sipping a cold IPA when he began scribbling like madman on a pile of cocktail napkins.

Months later Dan told me what he’d been doing on those paper napkins. He had been designing a laser. He’d been developing a business plan to start building and selling lasers.

Dan followed through with the plan, but the business end of it finally made him lose interest. He became tired of the daily personnel crises in his new high-tech company and eventually sold it to the publicly-traded company, FEI Corporation.

I’m sure with all the bars and restaurants there are in America and across the world, other customers — somewhere, at some point — may have sketched out the design for a laser on their cocktail napkin. But did their design actually work? Did they build functioning lasers?

But for me, the key difference between Dan and them is that I wasn’t their bartender as they jotted down their plans.

(image from www.orbitalvector.com)

I couldn’t have asked them, as I later asked Dan, if he would build me a laser that would fit on top of my car. No more discussion about who’s parking spot this is, and forget about being stuck in a traffic jam! I couldn’t have asked them for a personal hand-held laser to convince customers that they should leave a proper tip.

Dan politely said he was sorry he couldn’t help.

After I’d completed my online research, I emailed Scribbler50 back to thank him for suggesting this post.

With a history of famous cocktail napkins fresh in my mind– now I don’t feel so dumb for saving all the notes (boxes full of them) that I’ve pulled from my pockets over the years. Who knows what hidden gems might be found on the unread ones?



http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4070/is_1999_Oct/ai_57590699/  (Southwest Airlines)










http://asa100.com (Scott Stulberg)


Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 11 Comments


I had to think it over before putting up this week’s post. Will anyone be interested in bar fights?

Colleen in her home office

“I’m certainly not,” Colleen said. (Colleen is my best friend. She looks over everything I write and I often rely on her suggestions — see “A Holiday Thought” and “The Chocolate Starfish.”)

Then I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Restaurant Laughs, and this week there was a highlight on all the brawls taking place at Chuck E. Cheese. Yup, Chuck E. Cheese! Click here for a video on the story.

I’m sure it’s possible spend a lifetime behind the taps and never once be called on to break up a bar fight.

But in many neighborhood spots, where I spent most of my early years, you’re happy just for the nights when there isn’t a scuffle.

At The Lark Tavern, we only had doormen on weekends. During the week, the bartenders joked with the customers, laughed and slung drinks, but we also kept a close eye on things.

A big guy walked into The Lark one night, and we knew he was going to be trouble. He just didn’t fit in and considering all the different people we had at The Lark, if he didn’t fit in here he wasn’t going to fit in anywhere. Maybe that was his problem.

He was a huge guy, over six-feet tall and at least 250 lbs. He had a massive chest and arms bigger than my legs. He was wearing a tight T-shirt with his muscles bulging underneath. He was black, but sort of an albino black, with very light skin and a brush-cut of light orange – yes, orange – hair.

He didn’t say a word for most of his first beer, then he started talking to himself. He made sure that everyone in the place heard him.

He wasn’t happy here — “THIS PLACE SUCKS!” — that kind of thing.

“Fuck you!” he said to the man standing beside him. The poor guy had made the mistake of glancing sideways.

“Come on,” we told the big one, “No need for that. Why don’t we all relax and have a good time.”

He wouldn’t stop. Fuck this and fuck that, and fuck everybody.

“Come on, guy,” I said, “Keep it down, OK? Just relax, . . . no one is looking for trouble.”

“Fuck you!”  the big guy said as he leaned into my face.

Then he turned and hurled his beer bottle against the wall on the other side of the bar. A young couple at a table ducked as the bottle smashed over their heads.

“FUCK YOU!” he said to everyone in the crowd now staring at him. He shoved the guy next to him hard. Fortunately the man was already moving away, so he stumbled a bit but stayed on his feet.

“FUCK YOU!!!” he said as he swung back to me.

I didn’t have much choice. I had to do something. He looked like he was about to start swinging at people.

I grabbed the house billy club, and came out from behind bar. That club was a two-foot cylindrical piece of oak with a metal rod inside. On the other side of the bar, I stood about three feet away from him. It must have looked ridiculous. He was huge, and I was 5′ 9″, 160 lbs.

But I had the billy club.

“Time to go,” I said.

I’d been a collegiate wrestler and was now in my third year of Karate. In a few months I’d be an amateur boxer, fighting with Archie Goodbee as my trainer. I was young and fearless . . . and sometimes just plain dumb.

The guy looked at me, with one hand in his jean’s pocket. “Do you know what I’ve got in my pocket?” he asked.

The hand in his pocket was moving.

It could have been a knife. It might have been a gun. But in either case he’d have to bring it out before he could use it. His pants were so tight that if it was a gun, the barrel could only be pointed down. He wouldn’t be able to shoot without taking the gun out.

“Do you know I’ve got in my pocket?” he asked again.

At this point, I didn’t have time to think things over. How many times have I stepped to the other side of the bar, and then thought, “What the hell am I doing?” Standing in front of this guy now, I thought, “This is not what I planned. This isn’t good.”

“Go ahead,” I told him, “Bring it out.”

I jabbed the hand in his pocket with a quick stab of the billy club, then brought it quickly back, cocked behind my side. If he started to bring his hand out, maybe I’d have a split second to smash his wrist with the billy club. With his wrist broken, I’d have another hundredth of a second to swing back as hard as I could and club him across the face.

Why the hell did I come out from behind the bar?

“Go ahead,” I told him again, “Go ahead, bring it out.”

One of the other bartenders, or maybe a waitress must have called the police — it was an experienced crew at The Lark; they knew when it was necessary to call the cops. As this guy and I stood glaring at each other, two uniformed officers walked through the door.

The Albany Police . . . God Bless their rapid response time. They escorted him out.

Bar fight in the movie "GoodFellas". (Image from www.unrealitymag.com)

While working behind the bar afterwards, I thought about had just happened. You hear stories about people being killed in bars.

Usually The Lark Tavern was pretty laid back, and you could avoid trouble if you used your wits. Johnny La La taught me a lot about heading off problems.

Johnny was a cranky old barman but he could settle disputes, quiet customers down and shut people off as easily as someone might turn off a faucet. When he had to, Johnny could charm the skin off a snake.

Sometimes you watch bartenders do everything wrong, fueling the flames, creating problems for themselves. I‘ve seen bartenders yell: “You’re not getting another drink! You’re drunk . . . I’m not serving you anymore!”

Johnny would talk with them quietly. If you were watching from the side, you would have thought that Johnny and the guy were long-time friends, having a private conversation. “I’m not trying to give you a hard time,” Johnny would say quietly, “But I want to make sure everyone gets home OK. I want to see you back here another day.”

“Look, don’t take it personally,” he’d say if they were still putting up fuss, “It’s just my job.”

Always start politely, that’s what I learned from Johnny La La. There’ll be plenty of time to escalate if they won’t listen to reason.

Don’t let anyone else at the bar know what’s going on. Why make a guy feel that he has to defend his honor with everyone watching?

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll buy the first beer,” Johnny would tell them quietly on the side.

Sometimes problems start before you know it, and there’s no chance to get ahead of them.

One day at The Lark a group of big guys got out of hand. They were all friends just having fun, but two of them began wrestling. They thrashed their way to the seating area and knocked over a table and a couple of chairs.

I came out from behind the bar and pulled the two grapplers apart. I told them this wasn‘t a gym and it was time for all of them to go.

They seemed reasonable, these students from Albany State. I think they were football players at the college. I motioned for the group to follow me and walked toward the door.

Why did I turn my back?

Suddenly I was up in the air.

One of them had picked me up and had me over his shoulder. Now he was bringing me down fast and I saw the edge of the bar rushing up at me.

“Jesus Christ, I’m going to hit the fucking bar!” I imagined being paralyzed, spending the rest of my life in a wheel chair.

I spun out at the last second, kicking my legs back. By shifting my weight, with his momentum stretching him beyond his center of gravity, he was spun onto his back as we toppled.

I landed on top of him as we hit the floor — it wasn’t something thought out or planned, just a reaction from high school and collegiate wrestling.

I jumped up. The guy was still on the floor with his friends standing over him, laughing.

“OK,” he said from the floor, lying on his back, “Ok, I’m an idiot.”

At Johnny D’s we have a crew of trained doormen, but I remember one Sunday afternoon during the Blues Jam, when we had a young woman checking ID’s.

This big guy walked in, clearly from the streets, and the petite door lady stopped him. As they talked he was making angry gestures. “I want to speak to the owner!” the guy shouted.

I walked out from behind the bar.

“I want to speak to the owner!” the guy turned toward me.

He was huge. He looked like The Incredible Hulk. He had a massive chest and bulging arms beneath a ragged yellow T-shirt. The shirt was smudged all over with dirt. Was I imagining there was also blood on that shirt? It looked as though he’d already been brawling somewhere else.

“I’m the owner,” I told him. Of course I’m not, but sometimes I say that when I think it’s appropriate.

“What the fuck is the problem?” the guy asked. “Why the fuck won’t this girl let me in?”

He was two feet away from me, arms away from his body as though he was about to grab me and crush me.

I tried to calm him down, telling him that it would probably be better if he came back another time. As we talked, I was thinking about what this guy might do to me. My mind was racing with the moves I’d use if he started swinging.

I tried to straddle that fine line between being unbending, yet non-confrontational.

I would later learn that he’d just gotten out of prison. He’d been serving time for beating the crap out of people and sending them to the hospital. Right now he was clearly fucked up on some kind of drugs.

He stood there looking at me, and when he saw that I wasn’t going to back down the strangest thing happened. His eyes began to water.

He had a few tears running down his dirt-smudged cheeks.

“Give me a hug,” he said, stretching out his massive arms.

“What?” I thought.

“Give me a hug,” he said.

I hesitated. If he got those arms around me, I’d be fucked. There’d be no chance for a quick defensive strike to a vital area.

“Give me a hug,” he said again.

So I gave him a hug.

We stood in the open area by the front door, arms wrapped around each other for a minute, and I patted him on the back.

Then he turned and left.

“Thank you,” he said over his shoulder as he left, “Thank you. I know I’m all fucked up . . . I’m all alone.”

“That was the first time here I’ve actually been afraid for my safety,” the young door lady said afterwards.

“But all he wanted was a big hug!” she laughed.

Yup, I took a lot of ribbing for the rest of the shift.

That young lady was inexperienced (we always have male doormen at Johnny D’s now) but surprisingly, women are often the best at handling trouble.

Stacey Conway, one of the female bartenders at The Lark Tavern, could shut people off, calm them down or even ask them to leave, and they’d never blink.

Stacey was always polite but firm, and never raised her voice unless she had to – but when she had to, the snap in her voice and that angry wave of her finger commanded their attention. And no matter what she did, it never threatened their male ego.

A classic bar fight (image from www.fhmonline.com)

Years later in Boston, I was spending a night off at a bar called 33 Dunster Street, in Harvard Square. (It’s now the John Harvard Brew House.) A brawl broke out to rival the movies – three separate groups, maybe a dozen guys in each, brawling.

The manager was a tall, thin woman from England with flaming red hair. She stood at the top of the stairs and yelled: “Stop this! Stop this right now! The police are on their way!”

She stood at the top of the steps, yelling, “Stop this right now!”

And one by one, each of the groups stopped. Just like that. They all turned and looked at her, then raced toward the door to get out before the cops arrived. I’ve never seen anything like it.

In some bars trouble is a rare occurrence, while other spots have problems on a nightly basis.

I’ve seen bartenders who have a tough time dealing with these problems, and I’ve seen others who actually enjoy the excitement. They’re all pumped up after afterwards, as though they loved this part of the job.

Myself, . . . I really prefer a quiet night.
Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 12 Comments


From time to time as I’m writing these post, I take a break and check out other blogs. There are millions of them. Seriously, I mean there are literally millions of blogs to choose from (and I have to thank you sincerely for taking a minute to read mine.)     

This week I thought I’d highlight four of my favorites, ones that I’ve liked well enough to list on my blogroll. These include three industry blogs, and one that’s hard  to pin down — it’s heart-warming, sometimes a little twisted, but always fun.     

Let’s start with that non-restaurant blog.     

Hyperbole and A Half had me with its title. Author Allie Brosh uses prose and totally-engaging original drawings to capture priceless scenes from life, many from her early childhood.     

This site just cracks me up.     

Allie offers posts like “This is why I’ll never be an Adult” and “7 Games you can play with a Brick,” but my absolute favorite is her post “The God of Cake.”     

(This might not seem like a bartender’s first choice but go back to a time when you were a youngster, and cake was important. It was a piece of chocolate cake that changed my name.)     

In “The God of Cake”, Allie recalls being a little girl when her Mom was baking a birthday cake for her grandmother. She stood at the kitchen table looking up at the cake, which was now frosted and resting quietly. She had been warned that the cake was for later, but she couldn’t stop staring at it, mesmerized.     

Here are pictures from Allie of exactly what was going on in her young mind.     












What happens next makes for a wonderful story, and you’re cheating yourself if you don’t go to Hyperbole and A Half and read it.     

For a restaurant blog, I often head for I’m your SERVER NOT your SERVANT, written by Patrick Maguire.     

I wasn’t working the night Patrick stopped into Johnny D’s as a customer. He left a good tip . . . a tip so generous that the bartenders asked if he was in the business. He was, and he actually had a restaurant blog. He gave them a business card which they passed on to me, and I’ve been a fan of SERVER NOT SERVANT ever since.     

Patrick writes about the rules of engagement for servers and customers. He has a “Customer Hall of Fame“ and a “Customer Hall of Shame.” He writes about the best in restaurant human interaction, and about the audacity of some, including managers and owners. Click on the red letters if you want to read how just plain dumb an owner can be.    

One of my favorites is his post about illegal immigrant workers in the restaurant business. It seems that when one restaurant chain was charged with exploiting these workers, a popular regional restaurant TV program steadfastly defended the chain — was it because that chain was one of the program’s sponsors?     

For the second year in a row, in 2010 Patrick won the “A-List Award” as Boston’s Best Local Blogger.     

I came across Restaurant Laughs a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that a number of visitors here had been referred from that site. Restaurant Laughs had linked one of my stories on its blogroll.     

As it turns out, Restaurant Laughs is part of a larger network called The Hospitality Formula Network. Here’s the complete list:     






This is a mind-boggling group of sites, a golden resource for anyone in the restaurant business, or for those who are simply curious about it. There are current affair articles, inventory suggestions, food-knowledge posts — how does David Hayden, author of the sites, come up with so much interesting information week after week?     

Let me give you an example. In a post last week on one of his sites, David provided links to articles about: 1) a bigoted cop harassing a national fast-food chain; 2) a former Hooter’s waitress who now battles her “sordid” past as a member of Congress; 3) the story of three restaurant employees who held down one of their co-workers and branded a swastika on him; and 4) a story about two restaurant customers so high on coke that they were arrested for engaging in sex acts at their table (“Sex at table 19 . . . their food must be taking a long time to come out!”)     

These are only four of the eleven stories David linked us to in that one post.     

I can click on any of the Hospitality Formula sites, and read for hours     

I came across another of my first choices for blogs by accident — I was searching for a bartender’s line I once heard on an Academy Awards show. They ran a short clip of an old bartender saying, “I’ve been a bartender all my life,” but they didn‘t identify the movie.     

Behind the Stick showed up on a Google hit when I was looking for this line. It seems the blog’s author, Scribbler50, also remembered the line and had quoted it in one of his posts — but like me he was unsure where it came from.     

I eventually found out that the line is from an old Western movie called My Darling Clementine, delivered by a bartender named Mac.     

Mac the bartender

“Mac,” a character played by Henry Fonda says, “Have you ever been in love?”     

“No,” Mac replies, “I’ve been a bartender all my life.”     

(This photo and the info come from Caftan Woman — I still have to get a copy of My Darling Clementine and check it out myself.)     

Meanwhile, I went back to read more of Behind the Stick. Scribbler50 seemed like a kindred spirit.     

This is a great blog — Scribbler’s posts are honest, thoughtful, well-written and clearly drawn from experience. He has articles on every aspect of this business, from a classic bar prank played on a slave-driving owner to the question of how much can a customer’s tip really buy?  His latest post is about an elderly couple at his bar who got up to awkwardly dance, and the entire place fell under their romantic spell. Perfect for Valentine’s Day.     

But one of his posts in particular has to be my personal favorite. In June 2009, Scribbler wrote a post about bev naps (cocktail napkins.)  He even toyed with the possibilty of starting a blog based on them.     

Damn, I thought I had an original idea.     

Anyway, enjoy these sites . . . and see you next week for more Life on a Cocktail Napkin.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 11 Comments


Joe the Bartender (photo from www.life.com)

There’s a lot to love about this job.  Behind the taps on a busy night, the dance floor is packed and everyone is having a blast as the band rocks out on the stage.  Drinks are flying out over the bar and a steady stream of dollar bills heads for your tip jar.  You have to remind yourself that you’re working.

Add to that, I’ve met some of my best friends while working in bars.  Most of my girlfriends, too.

I’ve also come across exactly the right person, at exactly the right time, when working the taps — this business is full of connections.

An example: quite a few years ago, I was living with my girlfriend although I still kept my own place.  We’d taken a vacation on Cape Cod and when we returned we stayed at her apartment for a couple of days, which turned into a couple of weeks, then into months and a year.

We finally decided that it made no sense to pay the rent on two places.  We began planning to move into my Cambridge apartment.

She was twenty-three, I was a few years older, and with the enthusiasm of two kids we started to fix up the place.  That Cambridge apartment had classic wooden floors that were dulled by neglect, so we decided to refinish them before settling in.

I was behind the taps at Christopher’s Restaurant and Bar, talking about our plans with a few of the customers.

“What type of wood is it?” one of them asked.

I had no idea, but described it to him.  “Sounds like pine,” he said.

This isn't a photo of those Cambridge floors, but I swear my floors came out just as good. (Photo from www.filmnorthflorida.com)

As it turned out, he was in construction, specializing in wood floors.

“Test a strip of the floor first,” he told me, “Choose somewhere in the corner or under a chair.”

“Sand it down, then cut the polyurethene 50% with turpentine and apply one coat.”

“If it’s pine, that should give you some great marbling.  If you like the way it looks, do the entire floor with the 50% mix, then finish with a solid coat of the ‘urethene.”

When we finished, those floors were absolutely beautiful.

(Ed note:  My girlfriend and I never finished the move from her apartment to mine.  Living together day to day was fine, but a more permanent commitment scared the both of us.  The last letter I got from her included a picture of the thirty-foot yacht that she was spending the summer on with some rich guy.  That was OK; I still had that Cambridge apartment with the amazing floors.)

The reason I’d hung onto that apartment in the first place was because it was so ridiculously cheap.  It was $235 a month, utilities included.

I’d gotten the apartment years before, through another a bar connection.

I was a part-time bartender at Frank’s Steak House, doing research on a academic project in literature.  I was a college drop-out doing this on my own.

Back then, I shared an apartment with five other people that I’d met through a Boston Phoenix ad.  It wasn’t the best living situation.  Things got so bad squabbling over shared expenses that we each had to buy our own toilet paper.  When I had a guest and she wanted use the bathroom, I had to tell her to take a roll of toilet paper with her.  I kept mine in the top dresser drawer.  There was no toilet paper in the bathroom, but the apartment fit my budget.

Then something came up at the restaurant and owner Bill Ravanis SR. asked if I could work the bar seven nights a week for a short time.  “It will only be for a couple of weeks,” he said.

Eight weeks later, I told Bill I needed to take a couple of days off to find a new place.

“You’re looking for new place?” Bill SR. asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He owned an apartment building in Cambridge and there was an opening.

“I’ll give you a good price,” he told me, “It’s a nice two-room studio.  Just keep on eye on the building for me, and take out the garbage once a week.”

Now I had my own place for less rent than I’d been paying to share living space.  I kept that apartment for fifteen years.

Meanwhile, I continued to work on the academic project.  With no degrees or affiliation with any university, I wasn’t having much luck getting into the better libraries.

Widener Library (Photo from www.collegeapps.about.com)

Harvard’s Widener Library is recognized as having one of the best humanities collections in the world, and I talked them into giving me a free pass for five visits.  I’d make a list of the books I wanted from the early 1900’s, and a work-study Harvard student would search the stacks. But each time I went in, they seemed unable to find what I requested.  I think those work-study students came up with one book in all the five visits.

I was complaining about this one day at The Sunflower Café, which was virtually across the street from the library.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to get into Widener?” one of my good customers said.  His name was Larry Michaels.  He was the general manager of The Wurst House Restaurant, a couple of doors down the street.

“I know the guy who runs Widener,” Larry said.  “He’s a regular at The Wurst House.  I’ll see if he can help.”

Because he was a good customer at The Wurst House, run by Larry Michaels — and Larry was a good customer at The Sunflower Café where I was a bartender — the Director of Widener gave me a year’s pass to go into the library stacks on my own.  Not even the undergraduate students at Harvard could get into those stacks . . . only approved graduate students and professors had direct access.

I would go to Widener late at night, sit at an empty window-side desk of some favored graduate student or professor, and research to my heart’s content.

I did eventually publish two of those academic papers, making me possibly the only college drop-out to become a published scholar in American Literature . . . and I owe it all to that thoughtful director, and the bar connection that introduced me to him.

Working behind the taps is like a gold-mine of connections.  Bars and restaurants are unique in their human interaction.

There’s an unspoken connection between a bartender and his customers.  There’s an instant camaraderie that leaps over the usual distance between people.  Doctors, lawyers, sales people, construction workers, taxi-drivers, clerks and business owners will all sit and talk with the bartender like a friend.  And if you happen to mention something that’s related to their field, they’re quick to offer advice or steer you in the right direction. Customers genuinely like their bartenders.  They’re only too happy to help out.  Who doesn’t want to be the bartender’s friend?

I was behind the taps at The Cantina Italiana, and a woman I was dating was having a lot of break-ins at her apartment building.  She’d been broken into twice, and they even broke into the apartment of the 70-year-old woman living downstairs.  This girl was on the verge of tears as she talked about it at the bar.  She thought it was some local punks.

One of the regulars at the bar offered to help.  He made a phone call to the suspected culprits, and the break-ins abruptly stopped.

I have no idea what he said to those punks, but he was one of those guys in the North End that you really didn’t want to mess with, if you know what I mean.  (This wasn’t him, but for a similar story from The Cantina Italiana, see “Joey Cigars.”)

Every time you turn around it seems that someone at the bar says or does something small or huge that can make your life easier.  At one point half the staff from Johnny D’s had gotten their apartments from Kenny, a real-estate agent who has been a regular at the club for years.  (See an earlier post, “Auntie Rosie”.)  Kenny got them the best deals, and he helped a Johnny D’s ticket-taker and her husband buy the perfect house for a song.

Paul Pierce drives for the hoop (Photo from www.whatisonline.com)

Her husband is a former employee of the Boston Celtics, and he still has season tickets which if he isn’t using them, he hands out to the staff.  Just a few rows back from the parquet court floor, there’s a view of the game that can’t be beat.

The list goes on and on, with these bar connections.

Brian McDonald was a bartender at Elaine’s Restaurant in New York City, when a customer suggested that he write down some of the stories he was telling.  Brian is now a professional writer with five books to his credit, including “Last Call at Elaine’s.”

Scribbler50 is another NYC bartender who entertains his crowd with story after story.  One of his customer came up with the idea that Scribbler should start a blog, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  He even offered to help set up the blog.  The resulting site, Behind the Stick, is one of the best bar blogs out there today.  I think for Scribbler this is just the beginning.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of bar connections.

Behind the taps you meet people who otherwise might not say hello, but who now seem like close friends.  Celebrities, professional athletes, film and TV personalities.  Working behind the bar, I’ve met Larry Bird and Jo Jo White of the Boston Celtics, and Bill “Spaceman” Lee of the Boston Red Sox when he used to hang out with a waitress from The Sunflower Café.  Hall of Fame baseball player Jim Rice acted like just another guy while sitting at the bar waiting for his table at The Cantina Italiana.

Martie Mcguire (Photo from www.chron.com)

I met Brad Park of the Boston Bruins, who became good friends with The Cantina owner Fiore Colella.  I met Martie Mcguire from Dixie Chicks when I was walking downstairs to the offices at Johnny D’s, and she was walking up from the band room.

(When the band room door opened, I had expected to see Dana or Charlie, someone from Johnny D’s booking office, but it was Martie who came out and she took me by surprise.  She was so beautiful. She smiled and said something like “Hi . . . how you all doing?” And I said, “Umm . . . ahh . . . umm.”  She was still teasing me about that at the end of the night.)

I’ve had after-hours drinks with former World Welterweight Champion Tony DeMarco, and several times have gone out on the town with former World Middleweight Champion Marvin Hagler.  I’ve met Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Eddie Vedder from the band Pearl Jam.  (In town for a concert, Eddie stopped into Johnny D’s as a customer and then later partied with us after-hours, playing music at the apartment of one of the waitresses.  That waitress’s husband is local musician Tim Gearan, and Eddie and Tim played a killer version of “Ain’t no Sunshine (when she’s gone)” on acoustic guitars.)

I‘ve met Steven Tyler from the band Aerosmith, Peter Wolf from The J. Geils Band, singer Tom Jones, and so many other celebrities while working behind the bar that I’m sure I’ve forgotten half of them right now.

And while all this was happening, I just joked and laughed with the customers, flirted with the women, tossed out drinks to the music and shoveled money into the tip jar.  This is a job?  This is work?

It’s a great job, and sometimes the connections are priceless.

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THE CHOCOLATE STARFISH (and other bits and pieces)

This blog came about when I started to sift through all the cocktail-napkin notes that I’ve accumulated over the years.  My goal — to transfer the more worthy scribbling to one very large computer file.

That first day, sitting at the kitchen table with handfuls of crumpled napkins spread out before me, I realized it was my life I was looking at.

Like my life, there’s a lot of junk on those notes.  Ramblings with the key words sometimes blotted out by a splash of beer or wine.  The half-thoughts of a young man who had no idea that thirty years of the bar scene was waiting ahead of him.

Most of the notes simply tell what happened while behind the bar, an interesting character or a weird event that just went down.  Some notes are like complete stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Others are just odd bits and pieces.  Here’s three of those . . .


I was behind the taps at The Lark Tavern, in Albany NY.  I was in my third year of bartending and feeling pretty cool.  Maybe I was a little cocky.

A noticeably well-dressed man came one day– perfectly pressed slacks, a white silk shirt with the top buttons open to display a thick gold chain.  He had a large gold watch.  I recognized the watch immediately — it was gaudy, expensive-looking, covering a large portion of his wrist.

The last time he was here, he had fidgeted with that watch constantly.  He would lift his arm and turn the watch slightly on his wrist as though trying to find the perfect fit,  . . . so that the watch felt just right.

He had held it up demonstratively so that everyone in the bar could see it.  He must have studied that watch thirty times in an hour, somehow managing to draw it into every conversation.

Like when I asked if he’d like another scotch.

He lifted his wrist to check.  “Yes,” he said thoughtfully, carefully studying the watch face, “Yes, . . . I think I have time for one more.”

Yea, there was no way I’d ever not recognize this guy, even though it had been a few weeks since I’d last seen him.

It looked like he was here with the same gaudily-dressed blonde.  She seemed bored.

“Nice to see you two again,” I said as they sat down.

They both froze.

They both sat stiff-faced and motionless.  Now the man looked to the side and began fiddling with his watch.

The woman was staring at me with daggers.

“I’ve never been in here before,” she told me frostily.

“You must be mistaking me for his girlfriend,” she said.

The conversation went downhill from there, for both me and this guy.   As it turned out, the blonde he was with this time was his wife.

Live and learn.  Everyone loves a friendly bartender, but you have to be careful before you open your mouth and assume too much familiarity.

Since then I’ve met others in this business who’ve made the same mistake.  Once I was on the receiving end.

I was visiting my friend, Colleen (see an earlier post, A Holiday Thought“).  She wanted to stop at The Pinkerton Tavern in Derry, NH.  She likes their Rum Filet Tips, a huge plate of steak tips that have been marinated in dark rum, brown sugar and molasses.


As we sat at the end of the bar, the bartender laid down a couple of cocktail napkins in front of us.

“Nice to see you folks again,” he said

I’d never been in there before.

Colleen is a striking woman and the bartender clearly remembered her, but whoever was with her the last time was forgotten to him now.

Colleen laughed, and the bartender was completely flustered when she told him this was my first time at The Pinkerton.

The poor guy, I knew exactly how he felt.

I should have laughed and told him, “Don’t worry about it . . . I’ve done the same thing myself!”

But I just said, “It’s OK . . . no big deal.”

I didn’t want to go into my years as a bartender.  Besides, let him think he’s the only person who ever made this mistake and he’ll never make it again.


(Photo from www.bbc.co.uk)

I was behind the taps at Johnny D‘s on a busy night.  At the end of the bar, a group of young kids in their early twenties, ten or fifteen guys and gals were laughing and talking amongst themselves.

I had the impression they were from out of town.  Maybe Western MA, or north of Boston, or Cape Cod.  They were a good bunch of kids — friendly, polite, good tippers — but it didn’t seem like they’d spent much time in nightclubs.  Johnny D’s is laid-back and funky, but they were all a little wide-eyed, looking around.

I figured they might be here from a small town, driving into Boston to see live music.

One of their group was a cute young girl with curly brown hair.  She was a petite girl with big brown eyes and an irresistible smile.  She took a shine to one of our bartenders, John Bonaccorso.  (See an earlier post, “The Drowning Frog.”)

She spent the entire night trying to hit on him.

We had three bartenders working that night, and we were all slammed as the band rocked on in the background.  John was friendly and courteous, but this girl didn’t get anywhere.

At the end of the night, one of her male friends walked up and stood beside her at the bar — she’d been in the same spot for hours, trying to get John’s attention.

“Hey, Cindy’s been trying to pick you up all night,” the guy told John, as he stood beside the girl. “But she says she’s not having any luck.”

John explained that he had a girlfriend.

“Too bad,” the kid continued, “You don’t know what you’re missing out on.”

“You‘re throwing away a really good time.”

“I’m sure I am,” John smiled politely, “But my girlfriend would kill me.”

Leaned forward beside the girl, the kid didn’t give up easily.  Maybe she had asked him to say something to John.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” the kid said again.

“She’s a cutie, isn’t she?” he went on, “ . . . And she wants to lick your chocolate starfish.”

I just about choked.

John was speechless — unusual for him.  The girl was totally embarrassed, with her head down now, . . . but she didn’t protest.

“That’s what you said . . . didn’t you?” the kid asked, turning to the girl. “You said you would, right?”

The girl looked up at John with a sheepish smile, and nodded “yes.”

I quickly walked to the other end of the bar, looking for someone to serve.  As I left, I heard John say, “I‘m sorry . . . I have a girlfriend.”  He said it with a straight face, although I don’t know how.

All of those kids hung around until closing time.  The girl had turned around now to talk with her friends, but she never moved from that spot.  If we hadn’t cleared everyone out at 1:15 A.M., I think she might still be standing there.


Working behind the bar at Johnny D’s, we get a lot of requests for directions.  People who live in the Greater Boston area simply hop on the Red Line train to Davis Square.  But people coming here from out of town are always calling for directions.

We have a printed sheet, probably copied from MapQuest, that will tell them step by step how to find us.  We have directions from the Mass Turnpike, from Route 93, from New Hampshire or Maine.  From North, South, East or West — no matter where they’re coming from we can get them here.

One afternoon behind the bar, I got a phone call.

“How do I get to Johnny D’s?” a young man said.

“Where are you coming from?“ I asked.

I pulled out the sheet, thinking I was about to hook him up with directions.  Some of the detailed directions have been repeated so often that I have them memorized, even though there might be fifteen different streets and turns, exits or stop lights to tell them about.  Sometimes we give them directions while they’re actually driving in their cars.  We talk to them on their cell phones, as though we were in the control tower, trying to bring in a lost plane.

“Where are you now?” I asked.

“I’m in Davis Square,” he told me.

Johnny D’s is in Davis Square.

“Where in the square?” I asked.

“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.

There was a guy at the bank of pay phones outside the T-stop.  His back was turned toward me, and he was hunched over with one of the phones to his ear.  He had one hand covering his other ear so he could hear.

I looked at this scene for a moment through Johnny D’s front windows.

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

He straightened up suddenly.  His back was still to me, and I swear he held the phone away from his ear for a second and looked at it.

“Yes, I’m wearing a red jacket,” he said now, into the phone.

“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 sign that says, Johnny D’s.”

View of Johnny D's from across the street at the Davis Square MBTA stop

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