3d kids jump and laugh in a partyStarting in September 2010, we posted weekly at Life on a Cocktail Napkin for three years–then this past year there were a few missed weeks, and a few more, until lately it’s only been once a month. For a good reason, though. As some of you know I’ve been trying to finish a book . . . and it’s done! Yup, finally. Hurray.

But now it’s the last day of the month to post, and I need a little more time. Coming this Friday is the story of my worst (by far) bartending experience. I was working in a joint called The Mug when a customer walked up, pulled out a gun, cocked the hammer back and reached over the bar to put the barrel of the gun to my forehead.

That’s coming Friday. For now, I thought you might enjoy one of the funniest videos I’ve seen in a while. The guy in this vid has a great sense of humor–his stuff is tight and on point throughout, but it’s delivered casually and the musical element makes it go down easily. So if you want a biting, anti-Justin-Bieber lesson on how simple it is “to create a hit pop song with no talent,” click on the image below. And we’ll see you Friday for a new post.


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drama_facesWhen I first moved to Boston, I worked at The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square and it was a trip. Aside from the expected swarms of students, our crowd included artists and musicians, an occasional Harvard professor, guys just looking for hot chicks, and a collection of regulars who were often strange, but always entertaining–characters such as Disappearing Sam and Howie.

Back then Harvard Square was like a permanent circus, and the Sunflower Café was one of the feature attractions.

Sitting at the bar in The Sunflower one night, I met a Boston playwright. I’d had the night off and was pretty-well buzzed when this attractive woman with long, curly brown hair sat down on the barstool next to me. We started talking. She told me she’d been an actress off and on, but over the last several years had been mostly writing. One of her plays had won a prestigious Boston award.

It was an interesting Harvard Square conversation, perhaps more intellectual than a typical bar chat, but she was also quite foxy with a free-spirited style and daring eyes. So I bought her a drink. We continued talking and after a while I bought her another drink. Then I asked her back to my place.

As I said, I was feeling no pain–we were both in our late twenties, hitting it off really well, and after all this was Harvard Square. I tried to be smooth about it. I told her that I’d been here quite a while and it was probably time for me to head home. “Want to join me?” I asked.

She laughed, throwing her head back. “Let me see,” she said smiling. “We’ve had a nice talk . . . we seem to click . . . so now you think we should go home together and fuck?”

“Don’t you think you’re pushing it a bit?” she asked still smiling.

OK, so she put me in my place. But she’d done it in a playful manner–and I was impressed she’d been so refreshingly direct. “Go home and fuck?” I thought that gave me an opening to come back just as directly.

“Well,” I continued, “why don’t at least you give me your phone number, then?”

“We should go out this week,” I said. “We can have dinner someplace nice, or enjoy a movie at the cinema, have a late drink in the square . . . and then go home and fuck.” For some reason that sounded like a good response at the time.

She laughed again. She took it in good humor, not offended at all. “We’ll have to see about that last part,” she said, scribbling on a cocktail napkin, “but here’s my number.” And she handed me the folded paper.

That was how our relationship began and that’s how it would continue for as long as it lasted. Suzanne had this light-hearted, laughing, direct approach to everything. She dressed more conservatively than the girls I usually dated–even though the same age, she was more of an adult. She was wicked smart, an author and a critic, but once in bed she was unstoppable. There was fantastic contrast between her serious/calm/professional demeanor and what she’d do once naked and getting down to it.

Once I woke up in the middle of the night at her place. I couldn’t fall back to sleep so I just lay beside her, thinking. She stirred awake too, and since I was clearly going over something in my mind, we began talking about a book I’d been reading. After a few minutes she said, “I’m always going to remember you as the man who woke me to talk about Nietzsche.”

For a split second I felt a bit of intellectual pride . . . then I realized she was actually pointing to what I hadn’t woken her up to do. I smartened up and when we were finished, I slept like a baby.

We continued to see each other casually. I might give her a call, or she’d stop at the bar to say hello, and we’d hook up that week but maybe not the next. After quite a few months of this, I was headed back to my apartment one night following many after-hours drinks with the rest of The Sunflower staff. When I got to my building’s front door, I realized I didn’t have my key with me. I’d thrown on a new pair of jeans rushing out to get to work on time, and had forgotten to take it from the old pants.

By now it was 4:00 a.m., and I was a somewhat inebriated bartender locked out of his own apartment. I decided to use the fire escape to go in through my second-story window. I had to stand on top of a garbage can I’d hauled over in order to jump up and grab the last rung of the raised metal bars. I swung there for a minute trying to pull myself up, and then had difficulty working up through the ancient iron grating.

On the grated landing outside my apartment, I remembered that the window was the roll-out type that opened on the side, not one where I could just slide up the bottom pane. I tried to pry it open but the window wouldn’t budge. What was I going to do now? Should I just break the window to get inside? Instead I headed back down the fire escape.

I was hanging by both hands from the bottom rung again, just about to drop to the ground when these sharp flashing lights began blinding me. “Freeze!” some deep male voice boomed, “Don’t move!”

One of my neighbors must have heard someone trying to break in and called the police.

Once I hit the ground, the two cops were all over me, each with one hand on their now holstered guns. It was a simple enough explanation once I showed them my driver’s license with this same address listed below my name.

“Sorry to cause any trouble,” I told them, “I think I’ll stay at a friend’s house tonight.”

When I got to Suzanne’s apartment, it took quite a while for her to answer the buzzer. She was in her bathrobe, hair all rumpled, only half-awake after being disturbed at this hour. She put one hand to her head as she listened to my explanation. “Well,” she said sleepily after a minute, “I guess you can crash here tonight.”

“But you’ll have to sleep on the couch,” she said. Then she glanced toward her closed bedroom door. Damn, that’s when it hit me. What a dope I was. I’d never stop to consider she might have company.

Copy of Harvard Square Clock

The antique clock in Harvard Square watches everything.

Then the bedroom door opened and someone was stepping out into the living room with us . . . it was a twenty-year-old blond woman. Bathrobe tied loosely at her waist, she was squinting around the room with rudely-awakened eyes, her hair flattened on one side. She looked first at Suzanne, then at me.

I felt like such a jerk. The next morning when they got up I pretended to still be asleep, rolled over facing into the couch’s back. I stayed that way until they were in the kitchen fixing breakfast, and I was still lying with my back toward the living room as I heard them leave and lock the door.

Suzanne returned to her apartment during a break from the theater where she worked. She wanted to talk.

“You got me in a little trouble last night,” she said. “Things are getting serious with this woman . . . and I really hadn’t told her anything about you.”

“She called me a ‘humiliated heterosexual,’” Suzanne laughed. “I told her we were just friends, but I don’t think she bought it.”

“Anyway,” Suzanne continued, “I think we’d better cool it, at least for the time being. She and I are becoming more involved now.”

So after that, Suzanne and I were just friends. At first we’d get together for dinner or drinks every week or so, then it became once a month, and after a while over the years I just lost touch with her. But I still remember leaving her apartment that afternoon, after having disturbed her in the middle of the night. I remember walking down toward The Sunflower Café, thinking, “Yeah, Harvard Square can sure be a trip.”

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Old Administration building at SUNY Cortland (Cortland State, NY)

I showed a lot of promise as a college freshman. With the exception of a “B-” in a mandatory swimming course, I had straight “A’s.” My grade-point average was 3.95 out of a possible 4.0 . . . I finishing second in a school-wide speaking contest, wrestled on SUNY Cortland’s freshman team, and was nominated as one of the college’s outstanding freshman.

So how is it that with all this promise–I ended up changing my major three times, dropping out of school twice, and accumulating some 128 certified credit hours, without ever graduating?

Looking back, I have to blame my freshman roommate, Kyle Richenock.

OK, maybe some small, small responsibly might be my own, but mostly it was Kyle’s fault.

I remember when I first stepped into the room we would share at our freshman dorm, Hendrick’s Hall. Kyle had already moved in and he was lying with his feet on his bed, his hands behind his head, watching me. He was sizing up his new roommate.

I knew I wasn’t a typical freshman. I had worked for a year after high school graduation. I met a girl and fell in love the summer after high school; she was my first real girlfriend, and it was my first sex.

I fell head over heels for her. When we went together to the New York State Fair, which is held in Syracuse NY, we spent most of our time in the model home displays, looking at living room arrangements and talking about the day we’d settle down and raise a family.

So went I finally did go to college, my motivation was different than all these stoned-out dudes. I remember an all-dorm meeting with the Senior Resident, and he was asking if anyone had any questions. A guy in the back shouted out, “Hey, since we can’t have girls in our rooms, where does one go to get laid?”

See what I mean? That thought had never crossed my mind. The only thing I was worried about was how to make it to the weekends, when I could drive back to Syracuse and see my girl.

In the dorm room that first day, Kyle was still watching me as I began to unpack my stuff. The first thing I did was take out the 8” x 10” framed photo of my girlfriend; I set it on top of the dresser. Then I took out her high school tassel and draped it over one corner of the picture. My high school tassel was draped over the other corner.

Copy of figurineI took out a few knickknacks and figurines that my girlfriend had given me–a little plastic football player with a black eye, two little bears cuddling, that type of thing. I put them around the picture.

As I worked, I’d step back now and then to look at the dresser top, and take it all in.

“Oh, Jesus,” Kyle said, his hands still behind his head. “You’ve created a shrine.”

Like I said, I wasn’t a typical college freshman.

I called my girlfriend that night, and in fact I called her every single night from Hendrick’s Hall. And each night after we talked, she’d write me a letter so that every single day that freshman year, I got a letter from her. I mailed one to her every day, too.

The weeks went by, and while all the other freshman males were downtown drinking in the college bars, I stayed in my room and studied. I wanted to graduate and be a good provider. (Now you know the truth about my high grades–I cheated, by actually studying.)

I had talked the college administrators into letting me bring a car on campus, something that most freshman back then couldn’t do. I might have told them that I had a sick grandmother who I had to visit. There was no shame in making sure my girlfriend and I at least had sex on weekends. I drove the thirty minutes back to Syracuse every Friday night, until wrestling season started.

While wrestling I still maintained a focused lifestyle, resisting the efforts of Kyle and his friends to get me downtown, where the bars were. Kyle had a lot of friends. He was a big man on campus. He played football and lacrosse for the Cortland freshman teams; he was a big, smart guy with a great sense of humor.

And he had this ridiculously infectious laugh. When Kyle laughed, everyone within hearing distance laughed along with him. He could be telling you that your mom just got run over by a truck, and if he laughed as he said it, you’d laugh, too.

Kyle like to hit on all the cute coeds. Somehow, even though he was a freshman, he ended up on the grill at an all-school barbeque. Kyle was flipping hamburgers when this stunning coed, Barbara Stilton, walked up. She was Playmate gorgeous, with the body of a gymnast. She had blond, pixie-cut hair, and she wore this incredibly sexy frosted lipstick.

Kyle started to chat her up, leaning forward. He kept smiling and laughing, and holding her attention. Then the sizzling smoke started to rise up between his fingers. He had leaned forward on the grill, with his palms down as he entertained her–and now he yelled and lifted his red palms up–but he was laughing. And of course, everyone laughed with along him.

Copy of cortland footballOne of Kyle’s best buddies was a guy named Dominick DeNapoli. Dominick was a lineman on Cortland’s freshman football team. He was a big Italian kid from a tough section of Binghamton NY, who despite his size was a math major, obsessed with thinking out everything logically. His favorite character on Star Trek was Spock.

One day Dominick was called in to talk with the college administration. (An irritating young freshman on the third floor might have been intimidated, lifted in the air, when he gave Dominick some lip.) Now someone in the Dean’s office was going to straighten Dominick out, in an intellectual, administrative way.

“Where do you see yourself in fours years,“ the college official intoned. “What do you see yourself doing?”

“I’m not sure, Dominick responded, “but whatever I’m doing . . . I want to be boss!”

His words alone don’t really describe his whole answer. As he spoke, Dominic had put his hands on the end of the chair’s arms, and now he pushed his body back into the chair–and the force of it broke something in the chair. The legs of the chair separated and Dominick had to jump up quickly to avoid falling to the floor with the clattering chair parts.

“What the Christ! Dominick shouted, now standing tall and close to the administrator’s desk. “What the Christ!”

The administrator said they could talk another time.

These were the guys who kept trying to get me down to the bars to raise hell with them. They were always having a blast. They had all these friends. Me . . . after months at the college and in the dorm, spending all my spare time studying . . . I hardly knew anyone. “This is my roommate,” Kyle would introduce me, and that’s how I was known. Now and then I’d hear some guy tell another kid, “Oh, that’s Kyle’s roommate.”

As soon as wrestling season ended, I began to weaken. “One beer,” Kyle kept saying. “One freaking beer isn’t going to kill you!”

You know how this goes . . . the first time, it was just one beer. And then it was a couple of beers, and gradually I began to learn what a wonderful new world it was, hanging out in the bars. I didn’t drink in high school; I was only interested in sports. Now this was amazing–the carnival atmosphere of the bars, the camaraderie, the cute coeds. There was a spirit of adventure. Compared with studying in the dorm, this was like being on the high seas.

To make a long story short . . . remember that scene with the dresser top “shrine” on the first day with Kyle as a roommate?  Well, here’s another, contrasting scene that happened after a year of rooming with Kyle. I remember most of the details . . .

Scene from The Tavern

Scene from The Tavern

I would finish my last spring final before Kyle finished his, so I told him I’d meet him at a joint called “The Tavern.” At this popular college bar, they were having an end-of-finals special–a pitcher of beer and a bucket of steamers for some ridiculously cheap price, maybe five dollars. Steamers and pitchers of beer, after a long freshman year. What could be more perfect?

I ordered another round.

I kept drinking and drinking, and by now I was pretty trashed. For some reason, when an old Bob Dylan song began playing on the jukebox, I got up and stood on the booth table. Balancing precariously, I was singing at the top of my lungs along with the jukebox: “Everybody must get stoned!

Now someone else stood up on their booth table too, and then another, until all of us were singing. Feeling that I was being out-escalated as everyone sang along –“Everybody must get stoned!”–for some reason, I decide to drop my pants. They were down by my ankles as we all sang out the lyrics. “Everybody must get stoned!”

I was singing on the table top, gyrating my hips, pants around my ankles.

The bouncer, named Jumbo, came out of nowhere. He picked me up and carried me in the air toward the door . . . and the next thing I knew I was sprawled in the gutter in front of The Tavern.

The Tavern, 139 Main Street, Cortland NY.

The Tavern, 139 Main Street, Cortland NY.

Lying in the gutter, my bare ass was cold, so I inched my pants back up most of the way, with a series of pulling-humping motions. Exhausted now I just lay there, unable to move.

There’s a famous quote from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are gazing at the stars.” Well, I wasn’t on my back looking up. I was face down in the gutter and perfectly content at the moment to stay that way. I listened to the voices of students, the opening of the door as they went into The Tavern.

At one point, I thought I heard a familiar voice, and then that unmistakable laugh, and everyone as always laughing along. They seemed to stop. I heard footsteps gathering not far away.

“Kyle, look at that guy!” I heard one of this group say. ‘Look at that guy in the gutter!”

“Oh Jesus,” I heard Kyle reply. “That’s my roommate.”

And then I heard The Tavern door open, and they went inside.

The next year when Kyle, Dominick, and I got an off-campus apartment, the madness didn’t stop. I ended up changing majors several times, dropping out of school twice, and after the second time–now totally enamored with the bar life–I became a bartender.

Kyle, I know you’re out there. Someday lift a pint for me . . . as you look back on your successful career in sports broadcasting, working as you do for that well-known network. And just remember, Kyle . . . you ruined my life. (Only kidding, of course. Great to talk with you the other day, buddy!)

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THE ENVELOPE (joking around, then serious gangster style)

Copy of tip envelopeLast week I was working my usual Sunday night when one of brunch bartenders walked through the door.

We always have three bartenders for the Sunday brunch and as it slows down–first one is cut, then another–until by the time I come on at night there’s only one bartender working. The remaining guy counts the afternoon’s tips, and then leaves envelopes for the other two who left early.

I figured that’s why this brunch bartender was here–to pick up his tips from the previous shift. “You want your envelope?” I asked as he came up to the bar.

He didn’t say a word, just nodded. I reached into the drawer for his envelope, and handed it to him.

Three customers were sitting at the bar watching, and they all had a strange look on their faces. They were curious, but it was as though they didn’t want to watch too closely . . . because maybe something a little shady was going on. “You’re here for your money?”

The bartender reaching for his envelope was thick-necked, broad-shouldered Irish guy. During the week he’s a probation officer, but I suppose if you watch at lot of movies you might have thought this was some kind of payoff–especially given the history of the neighborhood, which back in the 1970’s and 80’s was gangster hangout for the Irish mob.

“He comes in every week like clockwork,“ I said under my breath to the customers, unable to resist stringing them along.

“He never says a word,” I continued. “I just hand him the envelope and then he walks out.” Meanwhile the probation-officer/bartender was standing there with a smirk on his face, shaking his head because I was feeding them this line.

“It’s better this way,” I explained to the customers. “No one wants any trouble.”

The customers looked at me; they looked at the guy with the envelope. They had to know I was just kidding . . . right? But their eyes were a little wider than normal, and their heads were set back a bit on their necks. They weren’t really sure whether I was serious or not.

I explained the “tips in an envelope” thing as the brunch bartender was leaving–he still hadn’t said a word, just the little smirk because I’d been busting balls. They all got a chuckle out of it.

Anyway, that reminds me of another envelope story . . . and this one wasn’t simply clowning around.

Years earlier I was working in the North End, Boston’s Italian section. We had a group of connected guys who hung out at the bar, but they always treated the place with respect. And they treated me well, once they were comfortable I wasn’t some kind of undercover cop–this was not too long after the Donnie Brasco thing in New York City.

One night one of the wise guys, a friend of Joey Cigars, walked into the restaurant and came up to the bar. “You know Dan Shoes,” the guy said. It was more of a statement than a question.

“He’ll be coming in here later,” the guy continued. “Give him this.” And he pulled out an envelope from inside his coat. He held the envelope toward me.

“Just give it to him,” the guy said.

As I took the envelope I realized it was full of cash. It was at least two or three inches thick, and these guys only dealt with one-hundred-dollar bills.

New Copy of money twoWhen you’ve been tending bar for a while, you have a feel for the size of a wad of money. You know how thick a pack of banded bills feels–like a stack of one hundred banded one-dollar bills. If these were all one-hundred-dollar bills, there was at least $20,000 in that envelope.

“Just give it to him,” the guy said looking right at me. “Any problems with that?”

I didn’t know what to do. “No, no problem,” I said, and the guy walked out.

I started to get paranoid. Why had he handed the money to me? What if some of the money ended up missing? Maybe the guy was supposed to leave Dan Shoes $20,000 but there was only $15,000 in there. Would I be held accountable?

What if Dan Shoes decided to skim off a few thousand for himself, and then later told everyone that’s all that was there?

I put the envelope in the drawer under the cash register. The envelope was only loosely sealed so I pried up one corner. Yup, all one-hundred-dollar bills.

What the fuck! I was nervous as hell. How did I get stuck in this position? There was never a thought in my mind of taking even one of those bills, but I was worried about now being responsible for this envelope. What if someone else knew I was holding the money, and decided to come in and take it before Dan Shoes showed up?

We kept a loaded gun, a .45 magnum revolver in that drawer. Holding it low in the drawer, I now flipped the chamber open and spun it once to assure myself it was still fully loaded.

Endless possibilities ran through my mind for the next half hour, all of them bad. Then Dan Shoes walked in.

“Somebody leave somethin’ for me?” he asked when he came up to the bar. I handed him the envelope, and he walked out without another word.

And that was it–I never heard anything more about it.

But the next time Joey Cigars came into the place, he seemed friendlier than usual, and I wondered if I’d passed some kind of test. More likely, it had just been convenient for them to do it this way, and after all I was the bartender at the place where they hung out . . . so why not?

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Copy of Harvard Square ClockFaceAt first, we thought he was just a little weird, one of the many off-beat characters in Harvard Square. He wasn’t a bad guy; sometimes he was even funny, doing or saying something that made everyone laugh. And when they did laugh, Howie would stand there with that lopsided grin, snorting short little laughs of his own.

This was my first job in the Boston area, at a place called Jake’s. Later the joint would become The Sunflower Café, which in turn would eventually be bought out by Pizzeria Uno, an operation still there today on 22 JFK Street, in the heart of the square.

But back then it was Jake’s, and it was a popular local watering hole with a small pub in the basement, and a full restaurant upstairs at street level. Having just moved to Boston, it felt great to be working in a bar again, and as the new bartender I’m sure I let a lot of things slide–trying to figure out and deal with all these new, sometimes strange people. Howie was only one of them.

Howie could definitely be a pain in the ass. He was one of those guys you had to constantly keep an eye on–where he went, who he was talking with, and especially how other customers were reacting to him.

He wasn’t loud, or rude, not really offensive in any way. He was just weird, and sometimes that could make people uncomfortable. A lot of college students frequented Jake’s, and along with the occasional professor they set the tone for the place–Harvard University was right across the street. The place wasn’t snobby, but definitely upscale and perhaps with an intellectual air you wouldn’t find in downtown Boston bars.

Howie didn’t fit in; he acted goofy, and was goofy-looking. The clothes he had on were definitely a little weird, as though he were intentionally dressing out of style. He’d wear these oversized, tan-colored Bermuda shorts, with the pants legs coming down below his knees. He usually had on a brightly-colored Hawaiian-type shirt, and he kept his sunglasses on even inside the bar.

“Why don’t you take the sunglasses off, Howie,” I said to him one day, after I’d gotten to know him a little better. He just looked at me, leaning forward a bit as if trying to see through the dark lenses. “You should lose the shades, Howie,” I continued, “unless your goal is to make people stare.”

After that when Howie came down the pub steps, he usually would put the sunglasses in his shirt pocket.

Copy of Hawaiian ShirtBut it wasn’t only what he wore. Howie’s behavior was a little weird. He’d kind of lean in toward people when he talked with them, as though he really wanted to connect with them, these complete strangers–apparently not realizing he might actually be making them uncomfortable.

And he’d speak slowly, very carefully, sometimes hanging onto a word or two longer than necessary. Like when he told people his name. He’d hang onto his name as he spoke it, dragging it out. “I’m Hooow-ie,” he’d say. “My name is “Hooow-ie!”

After a few months, we learned that he was a disabled Vietnam veteran. We heard that he was living off monthly checks for unspecified injuries suffered during the war. Whoever told us wasn’t sure of all the details, but we figured it had to involve PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For those of us working the bar, this news had a weird, contradictory effect. On the one hand, any of the staff who had bitched and moaned about Howie now seemed more sympathetic toward him. But at the same time, even those of us who sort of liked Howie were now a little more cautious.

Back then you’d hear stories, true or not, about veterans who had suddenly snapped in a bar–doing something crazy, maybe even violent. “I don’t think you have to worry about Howie,” one of the local cops told me, when hanging out at the bar one night.

“It’s a shame,” I said. “A lot of guys got really fucked-up over there.”

“Hey, he was always a little off, even before Vietnam,” the cop replied. “I’ve known Howie since he was a kid in the streets,  . . . he was never exactly normal. Too shy, too quiet, almost helpless.”

“They never should have drafted him,” the cop said. “They never should have sent a kid like that to war.”

“But I don’t think he’ll ever give you any trouble,” the cop ordered another beer. “He’s OK, just weird, an outsider.”

Soon everyone who worked at Jake’s knew about Howie’s story. A few of the customers did, too–and definitely the management had heard all about it.

Up to this point, they were always telling us to just deal with Howie, that he was a paying customer, and this was our job. But now the managers were the first ones to  question everything he did. Jake’s was owned by a New York City restaurant group, and everything was always corporate down the line. Maybe they were worried about a lawsuit if Howie should lose it some day and go after another customer, or something worse.

Now it was the staff defending Howie. “He never really bothers anyone,” we explained to one of the managers, “and this is Harvard Square. What are we going to do . . . kick out everyone who doesn’t fit the mold? We’ll have no customers.”

Just like before, the bartenders were all keeping an eye on Howie, but now we were watching him because we sort of wanted to take care of him, I guess. We didn’t want him to do anything that would get him kicked out of the place.

For Howie, this bar had become a kind of home. It was hard to see him getting along in any of the other bars in the square. At least the staff here liked him and put up with him.

Most of the customers didn’t seem to mind Howie being there, and if we thought he was making someone uncomfortable, we’d quickly go over. “Howie,” we’d say, “come here for a minute. I want to talk with you.”

We’d  take him to the other end of the bar. “Stay here for a few minutes, Howie,” we’d say. “I think you’re better off down here for a while.”

He’d put a finger to his lips, as though silently saying, “Shhhush.” He’d have that goofy, lopsided grin, and say something like, “I’d better stay down here for a while. I’m better off down here.” As though it had all been his idea, to get him away from the nervous customer.

One night Howie did get into a confrontation with one of the customers–but I have to say it was the other guy who was being a jerk. Howie was actually the reasonable one of the two.

Something had happened, and this wannabe tough guy started mouthing off to Howie. The guy stood up in Howie‘s face. Their voices were raised for a minute, but then Howie just stepped back. He said something about not being interested in a fight, and then he walked away.

When word of this got back to Jake’s management, I guess it was the excuse they’d wanted. Back then, from time to time, we’d have actual brawls in Jake’s–bartenders jumping over the bar to break it up, and doormen carrying guys up the stairs to the front door.

This had only been a few quick, loud words and Howie had been the better man, walking away from it. Afterward he even tried to see what we were thinking about the incident. “How aaarrre you?” he asked with that grin. “How are we  . . . is everything OK here?” And the bartenders were fine with it, but now the management decided that Howie should be permanently barred

We felt bad about the decision–the bartenders and staff, and a good number of customers. For the next couple of days, everyone working behind the bar dreaded the idea that they would be the one to have to tell him. Tell him that he couldn’t come here anymore. I was glad it wasn’t me.

Later we heard that Howie actually tried to make several appointments with the management, to talk it over, to discuss things–but it was a done deal. Howie was out, permanently, they said.

We never saw Howie in Jake’s after he’d been told. We figured he found someplace else to hang out.

Copy of Harvard Square Clock

Harvard Square Public Clock

I ran into him one more time in Harvard Square, late one afternoon on my way to work. I was about to cross the street on the way to Jake’s, when I saw Howie standing by that antique-style, public clock in Harvard Square–right across from the subway station.

Howie was leaned against the pole of the clock, beneath its round face with the roman numerals. He had his sunglasses on, wearing those Bermuda shorts, and a loose, crazily-colored shirt. There was a large gauze bandage wrapped around the bottom of his left leg. The bandage was wrapped entirely around his leg, covering an area from just below his knee down to his ankle.

“How’s it going, Howie,” I asked when I stopped for a second. “What happened to your leg?”

Howie then told me that he’d been drinking at another bar in the square–I won’t mention the name, but back then it was a tough place, certainly rougher than Jake’s.

Howie said that he’d probably had too much to drink, and he must have dozed off, eyes closed, sitting there hunched over at the bar. Someone at the bar must have splashed some lighter fluid on the pair of pants he was wearing, and then they lit a match.

“I woke up,” Howie said, “and my pant’s leg was on fire!”

“I was jumping around, trying to put the flames out,” he said, “and everyone was lauuuughing!

“They were laaughing,” he said, as he stood beneath the old clock. “They were all laaauuughing.”

“Jesus . . . I’m sorry, Howie,” I said. I really didn’t know what to say. I stood there for a second. What was I supposed to say?

“You need anything, Howie?” I asked, “you need a couple of bucks for some beers or anything?”

“Naaaawww,” he said, “I’m OK.”

I still didn’t know what I should do. Nothing was going to make this better. “I wish things had worked out at Jake’s,” I said. “We all liked you, Howie . . . you know that.”

Then the light changed, and I had to get across the street. I was already a couple of minutes late for work. “Got to run, Howie,” I said, “you take care of yourself, OK?”

“You take care of yourself,” I said again, then I turned to leave and that was the last time I saw him.

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