A short month at Allen´s and the restaurant experience section of my resume was taking shape. Thinking that was a good thing, I diligently worked to learn the techniques of the business, a La Cobb. The money was great and the experiences I was watching unfold in front of me were unimaginable to people who led a normal, less urban adventurous life.
Just before midnight, on most Friday nights, the neighborhood night cap crowd would filter in with a swagger, stagger, or stumble, depending on where they had spent the previous hours.
A community of its own, the building was home to neighborhood wanderers who spent hours, if not lifetimes in the neighboring gin mills on Second and Third Ave. Everyone, especially Allen´s staff knew who was home or out,
since most of the residents would stop in for a quick pop while waiting for the cab we frequently called for them.
Pacing his intake of scotch in order to alleviate the need of auto pilot capabilities to track his course back to the Bronx community of Riverdale, Kelly would leave by 10:30. Lingering longer could have been tragic. On most nights, Hartley Parker was already assisting him on his East Side Drive home. The earlier he left the better change of his safe arrival to the condominium he cherished overlooking Pelham Bay. The style of his homeward ride would be predictable by his late night pronunciation of "Lock "er up, Johnny".
Cobb seldom came around at night. He would constantly call the restaurant to get nightly reports. How many dinners and dollars were recorded for the evening were his major concerns. He never called after eleven o´clock, unless Mrs. Schmeklemeier, the elderly lady in apartment 2-B called him, at his Tuxedo Park home, 60 miles up the Hudson from Manhattan, informing him she was sick of listening to Sinatra´s New York, New York and ask if he could change the songs on the "music machine".
That was New Yorker style for "turn that Goddamn jukebox down I am trying to sleep". In turn, he would call, immediately following her "Goodnight, Mr. Cobb." and sarcastically convey her message, and his. The following night we would send her dinner, on the house, with a note of apology. Often the juke box would play New York, New York repetitively just to assure everyone our ninety-two year old neighbor was sufficiently being nourished.
By 11:15 the regular, older customers had retired for the evening, (those forty year olds faded fast back then), and the drinkers and party people began to stagger in.
Minutes before midnight on a particular Friday, a stranger walked through the door. The bar was full and compared to the other customers who were frolicking in the approaching holiday spirit, the stranger looked stoic, as though a funeral was next on his agenda. He walked to the far end of the bar, the service station, looked at the jukebox and proceeded to visually pan the room with the authoritative look of an owner, or worse, an investor. One hand remained in the left hand pocket of his tailor made coat sporting narrow lapels, worn over an expensive, Italian knit cashmere sweater. Completely buttoned to the neck, there was little room for flexibility. The other hand chased the toothpick lapping around the upper and lower lips of his mouth resembling the traits of the OTB aficionados eyeing horses running on the screen across the street. One could visualize the toothpick gaining speed along the rim of his big lipped track as C´mon Willy quickened his pace to the finish line.
"What can I get you?" I asked.
"Hi, I´m Gary. Gimme two c-notes out of register and put a slip in". He said without taking his hand out of his pocket, toothpick out of his mouth, or his eyes off of mine.
"Well, Gary, good to meet you. I´m John." I said extending my hand to welcome his. "What did you need again?"
"I need two C-notes out of the register. Two-Hundred Dollars. Just put a slip in." he said without moving his hand as a gesture of reciprocity.
"Well, I´m not familiar with that, da, procedure, you see, so I can´t do that." I said, attempting to throw a bit of Revere into my dialogue.
"Look kid, Cobb knows me. Jus gimme the bills and put the slip in. It´s O.K. He said to come by tonight." Gary asserted.
"Well, Gary, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you and I´m really sorry, but you have to understand I don´t know you and I am in charge with Kelly gone. I can´t do that. I´d lose my job." I explained.
"Kid, please come with me." Gary said, lifting the service flap so I could get out of from behind the bar.
"Not too good, kid" was his comment as he grasped my hand, adding "Let´s go in da kitchen." On the way I asked one of the waitresses, Lah, named after Lah Lah Land, her other coastal residency when her boyfriend could capture a writing gig, to watch the bar. She immediately looked concerned as though she knew Gary and that my trip to the kitchen may not have been a good idea. Gary´s familiarity with the layout of the restaurant led me to believe he could be a partner, a manager, or a past employee, who hadn’t make the cut, as I had.
"So, how´s biz been? He asked.
"It´s been pretty busy." I said not realizing at the time I was giving away company trade secrets.
"Tips good?" he asked.
"Yeah. I´m doing all right. The waiters are happy. We´ve got two guys and two girls working most weekend nights."
"Well, that makes me happy." he said the pace seemed to quicken as we approached the kitchen, walking through the kitchen doors, past the new dishwasher, Minimo, past, Maximo, and ending up at the door to the basement.
Opening it, without hesitation, he motioned for me to look down to the dimly lit cement floor, approximately 19 steps away.
"See deze steps?" he asked pointing to the very steep, corrugated edged metal steps behind the door leading to the cement floor below.
"Yeah, I see them" I said backing up my answer with the assertiveness of three Hartley Parker´s and water.
"Well, jus-sos-ya-no, I´ll be back tomorrow night and when I get in if the two c-notes that Cobb owes me ain´t in my pocket you will be kissin´ these steps with ya face. Tell Cobb I was in. Nice meetin ya".
"Excuse me, sir; aside from the money could I get you anything before you leave?
"Yeah, right." He said as he opened the swinging kitchen doors with a powerful shove sending them backwards, forwards, and back again without any interference.
I had come a long way since those three-card-Monte hooples had robbed me of my pride, confidence and cash. I was nervous, actually shaking, but my newly acquired bartender´s ego and style, which I had been working on since I was robbed, proved to have passed the test that I could handle a New York situation. Instead of being hustled by a guy with a steep metal step style, I held off the bad guys while fatality stared me in the face.
Little did I know this was my first lesson in vendor relations.