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.




A lighthouse from home

Mom at Anneta's0001

While re-reading letters I received in Hawaii as research for the memoir, I came upon one from Mom with a newspaper clipping. She’d spent several days with me at Kalani Honua, the jungle retreat setting where most of the story occurs, and had met a young acrobat, Tom Foolery, who liked listening to her stories. Tom appears briefly in the memoir.

“I cut it out just for you,” she wrote, “so you could maybe enclose it in your daily log or whatever. It’s really neat of the two Toms. Love their assumed names.”

Mom was always clipping out pieces of paper and sending them, not just to me but to almost everyone on her letter list. She wrote a lot of letters after she stopped writing a column for the newspaper. Well, actually, she wrote a lot of letters even while she was writing a column.

Here’s the joy of her letter: after telling me what the family was doing, she ended with. “Janet I did enjoy so much spending time with you and seeing your garden. It’s laid out so neatly and evenly. Surely wish Dad could have seen it. And lots of other things…” Dad had died two years earlier.

That had been her first trip back to Hawaii after he died. They had traveled to Hawaii for more than ten years to spend the worst of the winter months at my sister’s. The trip must have called up many memories.

Memory. I write and read about memory, how the brain works, why it works that way, where memory is stored (mine is mostly stored in letters and journals). And I’m reminded again of how much I am like my mother. Actually, I’m reminded often. Her memory was less than stellar, and less so as she became older. I take heed of that.

But it’s more than memory, or lack of, that mirrors. She was a reader and a writer. My love of both comes through her.

And along with writing, I save newspaper clippings. Some because I want to read again, some with a scrawled note essay title I could/should write (which I often don’t get around to), some about books I want to read. One of her mementos I treasure is a folder of partially completed essays. In her own handwriting.

At Kalani, people gathered around her “like a lighthouse from home” as I wrote. She looked like every dream grandma looks: short, white hair, short body too, at 4’11” although she always added another half-inch because it made her feel taller and no one could see the difference anyway. A grandma who baked cookies and told stories. People loved being around her and easily teased out story after story. She didn’t bake any cookies at Kalani, but whenever she’d pass the open air kitchen and ask for a cup of coffee, the kitchen worker always brought her a cookie with it. She didn’t even have to ask.

At the end of her letter, she added “Tell everyone I said hello.”


My Ordinary Skills

Today’s WordPress prompt asks, “what ordinary skills are you bad at?” An interesting question. I guess we’re all “bad” at something although that’s such a subjective and judgmental word that I’m not sure “bad” is an effective way to describe anything.

So, okay. What ordinary, daily thing am I less than effective in doing? The first thing that comes to mind is remembering what day it is. In other words, I’m not so great at the skill of memory: ask my husband, my children, my friends, my students. If I don’t write it down, I probably won’t remember. And this isn’t an age thing, it’s a pretty much all my life thing.

So I got to thinking about that. Actually, I wonder about memory a lot, write about memory a lot, try to figure out why I remember some things and not other things a lot.

Now here’s the funny thing. My son just called and asked why he couldn’t get on a family website anymore and when he repeated the password, I realize I’d changed it and forgotten. Oh. Good thing I write things down. Especially passwords.

I’ve thought a lot about memory, and one of the things I’ve considered is how much I rely on what I call “messages.” In other words, much of what I rely on are the words that come into my head to tell me what to say. For example, most mornings when I wake, I ask myself, or my mind, “what day is it?” and wait for an answer. I find that odd. Not that it happens, but that I do it at all.  

In some circles that would be called schizophrenia and in others mysticism. I was somewhat startled, reading the book Muses, Madmen, and Prophets to learn that hearing my name called from somewhere outside me (i.e. not in my head) was a signal of schizophrenia. I’ve heard my name called most of my life. What? I ask. Sometimes I get an answer and sometimes the call simply turns me in another direction. I’ve considered those moments spirit’s promptings.

But then it’s also true that many mystics have been medicated out of their minds, so to speak. Seeing signs and wonders is not necessarily a valuable commodity in our world. At least, not since Freud. Carl Jung, on the other hand, was a little wiser and willing to be filled with wonder.

So there you are. A musing on musings. A wondering attached to what do I do least well. But then again, another question arises: perhaps our weaknesses are also our strengths if we recognize and accept them. Perhaps by allowing my hard drive memory, as it were, to remain empty of unnecessary verbage, I’ve allowed it to fill with space dedicated to spirit. I suppose the argument could be made that spirit resides in our hearts not our heads, our solar plexus not our amygdala, but perhaps spirit, in whichever way we follow it, resides wherever it wants to.

Right now it said, find an image of hands knitting. So I did. Hopefully that image means something to you.

Happy New Year! May your journey bring you peace of mind, peace of heart, and a healthy body. What more could you ask?



Weekly Photo Challenge: Refuge

Last week, when the promoters at WordPress asked us for a photo of our refuge, I saved the post, pondered. The window where I sit on the farm looking out at tallgrass? A photo of my husband Cliff? The backyard where I go when words and world need safe action without thinking? A photo, for example, of the pink flamingos who patiently wait for me under the willow, wet or dry, snow or grass? A cave? Only I have no photos of caves.

Instead, I found this photo that I shot as a test photo when I was playing with the camera.

 My Refuge

Now I can understand why someone else might find this less a refuge and more a demand. But for me, this spot is where I am most content. And this isn’t a set-up shot, this is just a shot, just a work space, just the pens and the scissors and the post-its and the monitor – and even the swimming fish – that anchor me. Just off camera to the right are the rows of bookcases that hold my history. I don’t have to remember everything, I just have to remember where it is. And usually, whatever it is I have to remember is in a computer file, a book, or a post-it.

Yesterday I spent most of the day thinking about memory. I’m working on a photo journal of a trip Cliff and I made to Paris in 2009 and I’ve been thinking of the way we, or at least I, process memories. It seems to take me a very long time to process what I remember into where it fits in my puzzle. I suppose one of these days I’m going to have to finish the puzzle, but for now, it just keeps developing. And at base, I expect, memory and the integration of memories into making sense, is my refuge. It even makes Cliff happier when I’m writing!

I also expect that most of us use memories as a refuge – perhaps a refuge from doing what we need to do or a refuge for staying stuck or a refuge to store blame. Or a refuge for feeling safe. My refuge is a puzzle and I keep building it. What’s yours?