A New York Story

Here’s a New York bartending story that doesn’t fit into the memoir but it’s a funny true-fact story so maybe it will make you laugh. It always does me. This happened before I went to Mexico for the movie and was working at a place called Molly’s in Hell’s Kitchen, a true neighborhood bar.

That night, the bar was crowded. A full moon, still two days away, built a noisy rush of energy. All the tables were full, even after eleven on a weekday when things usually calmed down. The jukebox was cranked up loud. Somebody had gone Chuck Berry crazy, and since only four of his records were available, the same four played over and over. I’d given one of the waitresses quarters to play Billie Holiday but that relief hadn’t come up.

I scooped ice into a class and listened to an order at the same time. Rita understood how to talk under the noise instead of trying to outshout it, so that helped. I nodded before carrying the freshly made drink to the other end of the bar.

“Smile! Things ain’t that bad.”

“Dino, I get paid $350 a day to smile. You want to match that, I’ll smile,” I said.

I picked up his money and went to the cash register. Dino was a local, born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen. He sounded like West Side Story without the music and he drank Jack and Coke. His friends called him Ding-Dong but he hated that old nickname. Probably always had. I took his change back. He never tipped, none of the neighborhood guys tipped. They’d grown up in this bar as a second living room.

“Come on, baby. Smile. Wanna hear a joke?” Dino had lots of jokes, most of them bad. “You hear the one about the Buddhist and the hot dog vendor?”

“Not now, Dino. Rita needs an order.”

The good part about being busy was that I didn’t have to talk much. Things would calm down after midnight when the kitchen closed and the late night regulars wandered in.

I stayed in a work rhythm that didn’t require thinking–ice, shot, soda gun. Simple. No one wanted daiquiris tonight, although Nikki had a table drinking tequila sunrises and Rita was selling margaritas. A tequila night. They’d start on straight shots soon. That would clear them out.

I glanced down the length of the bar. Two glasses empty: the scotch and soda couple sitting next to Dino. I walked down and lifted the glasses. The man nodded.

Dino finished his joke. “Make me one with everything. Get it? One with everything…..”

My glare didn’t stop him. “There. You know who you look like?” he said. “That Lauren Bacall. Remember, she always looked at Bogart under her eyebrows.”

Now there’s a trick, I mused, walking to refill the scotch and sodas–looking at someone under your eyebrows. Sort of like a hidden pocket…oh, I just keep him under my eyebrows.

“You know, you do look like Bacall,” the scotch and soda man said when I set their drinks down. The woman studied my face.

“See? I told you,” Dino said, nodding. He was getting drunk. That meant he’d leave soon.

“Yeah…thanks,” I said to the scotch man, taking his money to the cash register and punching the buttons a little harder than necessary. I’d heard it so many times. “Do you know who you look like” followed me from bar to bar, state to state. “No, who?” I always said, feigning surprise. The answers ranged from Bacall to Julie Christie to Faye Dunaway. Once, from an older man, Deborah Kerr. When I’d first started bartending, I’d been flattered. Now I was thoroughly sick of it. Show biz and bars. They went together. In this town anyway. Most of the people in here were either unemployed actors or singers or dancers or playwrights, including the employees. Dino had started talking to the scotch and soda man; the woman stirred her drink, looking bored. Another woman’s looks were probably not her favorite subject. I returned the change and slid away quickly, back to the ice bin and the waitress orders.

If Duffy could see me now. He’d rescued me off a bar stool and put me behind a bar. That was seven years and four moves ago: Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York. They’d given me a big going away party when I left the Rio Club in Austin. I’d been heading for La La Land, sure the breaks would go my way. “Don’t forget we knew you when,” they’d said.

Billie Holiday’s voice rose over the clatter…God bless the child…she sang. God bless us all, I thought as I glanced along the bar again. A near empty glass was pushed forward. JB and water. I knew the man it belonged to had been watching me but I didn’t want to talk to him. I retrieved his glass, filled it, and set it back down, reached for his money.

“Do you know who you look like?” he said.

“No,” I said, as anger crinkled along the corners of my eyes. I folded my arms on the bar and leveled my gaze at him. “You tell me.”

“You look like a female Clint Eastwood,” the man said.

My sudden shot of laughter surprised us both.

“You win,” I said and slapped his money back on the bar. “I’ll even buy your drink for that one.”

The man seemed taken aback but he nodded his thanks. What did he expect? A denial?

If all of them could be that easy, as smiling, I moved back to the ice bin.

The kitchen closed; the bar began clearing out. The couple next to Dino left, abandoning the woman’s half-full drink. She must have prevailed over Dino’s fascinating conversation. He nodded over his Jack and Coke.

“Dino, go home.”

“Hmmmm.” He finished his drink and stumbled out. The man who had named her Clint Eastwood’s double also slipped out without finishing his drink. He’d left a $5 bill under the edge of his glass.

I glanced at the front door and beside it to the plate glass window. Snow fell as soft as a whisper.

 

 

 

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