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It was two o’clock in the morning one night in early October 1986 when I looked into my tip cup and saw six crumpled dollar bills. There hadn’t been a customer since midnight, and I was seriously wondering if I’d made a mistake taking this job. Then, just as I was thinking that at least I would be going home at a reasonable hour, the front door swung open and in he walked with a cigar the size of a Louisville Slugger in his mouth, his young wife, blond and giggly, trailing behind along with another couple.
“Elaine! I’m starving!” he screamed. He had a voice like a blender on chop.
There was, I’ll admit, a childhood flashback when I saw that it was Ben Gazzara. I remembered the mid-sixties TV show Run for Your Life, where he played a lawyer with two years to live. But at two o’clock in the morning, having spent a good part of my first night behind Elaine’s bar, the famous Elaine’s bar, polishing the same glass over and over, with Elaine sitting for most of the time alone at her big round table, number 4, right in front of the bar, and looking at me not once the whole night, the sight of Ben Gazzara didn’t exactly make me go weak in the knees.
“Sit down, Benny,” Elaine cooed. Her girlish pose, the back of her wrist demurely placed against her side, was somehow sexy, even considering her abundant girth. She swiveled her head in my direction.
“You see?” she said in way that really needed a tongue sticking out. She made me feel as if I’d doubted Gazzara’s arrival all my life.
Meanwhile, in the back, Carlo the waiter was staring off into space. Carlo looks remarkably like Henry Kissinger. He’s Italian, from Lake Como, but has a Cockney lilt to his voice from years of living in London and a stint in the British navy. By his own frequent admission, his life has been a series of near misses and might-have-beens. He is the Italian Willy Loman. After World War II, he worked as a waiter in London’s Savoy hotel, where he waited on Winston Churchill, a fact that he would often, usually apropos of nothing, remind anyone who would listen. “’E had the same thing every night,” he would say with the appropriate Cockney delivery. “Scottish prime ribs of beef, Yorkshire pudding. Napoleon brandy and a Havana cigar for dessert.”
One night in Elaine’s, Carlo was waiting on Jackie Safra and Jean Doumanian, who had ordered a bottle of Petrus, a Bordeaux that, even back in the eighties, went for about four hundred bucks. After the couple left, when Carlo began to bus the table, he discovered there was still a swallow or two in the bottle. He put it under his arm and headed around the corner to the waiters’ station.
Never one to miss an opportunity for a practical joke, Brian, who worked alongside me when I first started at Elaine’s, bolted from behind the bar and peeked around the corner to the waiters’ station, which is opposite the bathrooms and just before the door to the kitchen. As Brian expected, Carlo looked left, then right, then lifted the Petrus bottle to his lips and slugged its contents back like it was Gatorade and he’d just run a 10K. Brian made his way back to the bar and was standing nonchalantly behind it when Carlo came up to drop off a dupe. “Elaine wants what’s left of the Petrus,” Brian said, the line delivered so expertly, so offhandedly, that for a moment it hovered somewhere over the waiter’s head.
Desperation gave way to an emergency plan. “Glass of red,” said Carlo, his voice atremble. Brian poured the wine and again followed. Peeking around the corner, he watched as Carlo rooted through the garbage, flinging those of lesser vintage back into the trash. When he finally found the bottle, he poured the house red into it with a shaky hand, as if he were working with nitroglycerin. Wiping away beads of sweat from his forehead and several strands of spaghetti Bolognese stuck to the bottle, but missing the clump of broccoli rabe that hung from the bottle’s bottom, Carlo put on a brave face and headed to table 4, where he placed the phony Petrus right in front of Elaine.
“What the fuck is that?” she said.
Back at Gazzara’s table, Elaine’s eyes searched for her wayward waiter. “Carlo! Stop jerking off!” Her bellow reverberated through the hollow restaurant.
At the sound of Elaine’s holler, Carlo snapped to, slapping a napkin over his shoulder like a self-flagellating Shiite, and bounded over to the boss.
“Yes, Elaine?” he asked, conspiratorially leaning his head close to her.
“In case you were wondering,” she said, indicating Gazzara with a tilt of her head, “that’s a customer.”
Carlo looked at Gazzara’s table as if it had magically appeared. Gazzara broke the spell by barking at Carlo to bring a bottle of wine. “Chianti,” he said, to which Elaine quickly added, “Reserva,” adding a few bucks to the check with the premium brand. Carlo returned with the bottle, opened it with a motion that was honed and beautiful in its dexterity, and poured Gazzara just a sip to taste. The actor threw it back in a gulp and motioned in a circle with the hand holding the cigar for Carlo to fill the glasses. A ring of thick white cigar smoke drifted to the ceiling.
Elaine sat on the armless chair with her legs spread, each foot planted firmly on the floor. Her dress, black with neon-colored polka dots, draped from her like a parachute. Full and black, her hair was tucked back behind her ears. She wore black-framed glasses. She had one hand propped on her thigh as she leaned into Gazzara’s conversation, as if he was saying something very important.
“Make Benny something to eat,” Elaine said to Carlo, her tone changing one hundred and eighty degrees. She was almost sweet. But then again, she knew that her kitchen was closed and her staff was already headed to the Bronx on the 4 train. Copping the old Honeymooners line, Carlo turned to me and announced, “Chef of the future!” Then he disappeared into the kitchen. In no time, the waiter returned wearing an apron and holding four plates of roasted red peppers, prosciutto, and buffalo mozzarella. Bottles of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar were squeezed under one arm. Gazzara tucked a napkin in his shirt, like Stanley Kowalski. Carlo held a two-foot-long pepper mill over the plate of peppers and cheese. The actor waved a finger back and forth to indicate he didn’t want any. Carlo cracked the peppercorns with a twist of his wrist.
The appetizers soon were followed by steaming plates of spaghetti with tomato and basil, piles of spinach sautéed with garlic and oil, then finally cheesecake and espressos. Carlo had learned his craft the old European way, starting as a pot washer and then working every station in the kitchen before getting a chance on the floor. Back in the day, when Elaine was often a guest on television morning talk shows, she’d bring Carlo along to prepare a dish on the air.
It was well after four in the morning when Carlo collected the empty plates. Gazzara lit up another cigar. A wineglass with an inch of Marie Brizard anisette sat in front of him. The actor’s speech was slurred, his eyes half closed. At the service end of the bar, Elaine added up the check for Benny. I stood behind the bar, not two feet from her and uncomfortable in the silence between us.
In the dining room, Carlo shuffled around pulling the cloths off tables. He used his chin to hold and fold them. He looked like a mother at a backyard clothesline. One of Carlo’s favorite stories was about waiting on Robert Taylor in the Savoy hotel. One night Carlo complimented the movie star on his hat, and Taylor gave it to him as a tip. In those fancy-free times, Carlo would wear the hat out in London’s West End, where it never missed, he often insisted, as a conversation starter with the birds he was chatting up. But Elaine was no profligate Robert Taylor: She was a “saver,” Carlo would say often, the tone of his voice a mixture of reverence and jealousy.
Sometime around five a.m., Gazzara and his party stumbled into the still darkness of Second Avenue. A moment later Elaine followed them out the door escorted to the sidewalk by Carlo. On the street, a yellow taxi waited for Elaine. The same cabbie came every night to drive her home.
Alone then in the restaurant, I sat at table 8, which I knew was Woody Allen’s table. Large and round, the table sits right past the archway that leads to the bathrooms, kitchen, and Siberia, the mirrored back room. From Woody’s vantage, you see most of the restaurant, including the alcove in the back where Elaine and Lucille Ball had often played backgammon for big cash. My pal Brian told me that Elaine routinely cleaned Lucy’s clock. He remembered one night when Lucy’s face was as red as her hair as she stomped out of the restaurant. There is also a clear view of the front tables, the ones opposite the bar. It was at one of these that Rudolf Nureyev sat, his bags piled on a chair next to him, the Ballets Russes’s jet back to Moscow still sitting on the runway, the Soviet officials slowly losing hope of their star’s return. Nureyev toasted his newfound freedom with champagne Elaine sent to his table. From table 8, you can also see the main part of the dining room. At one of those tables, with the Harper’s editor Willie Morris, a youthful Bill Clinton sat the night before he left to study at Oxford. Morris had asked the Rhodes scholar where he would like to spend his one night in New York City. “I want to see Elaine’s,” he’d answered in his Arkansas drawl.
I stood and took one more look at the book jackets on the walls. There were scores of them, and though I knew some of the names—Gay Talese, Terry Southern, Joan Didion, and Phillip Roth—I hadn’t read any of them. The metal gates screeched like a subway train as Carlo pulled them down over the front windows. Carlo was in the doorway now, calling for me to come. But there was something comfortable about the brick-colored Spanish tile floor, the mural on the wall that was never finished, and the book jackets and photos that held my stare.
At the time, I was thirty-two years old and hadn’t had a drink of alcohol for five years. I’d been tending bar for fourteen years and, frankly, most of the fun of the job disappeared when I stopped drinking. By definition, bartending is a closed-end affair, a stopgap or last resort, a profession filled with those who have run away from life or marriage, who want to stay under the IRS’s radar, or who have just never fulfilled a potential. There are exceptions, bartenders who carve out nice livings, play a lot of golf, and die early. But I didn’t want to be one of those. When I walked behind Elaine’s bar for the first time, I was half an actor, taking a couple of classes and performing in plays so far off Broadway you couldn’t get there by subway. I thought I’d just shop some head shots around to the showbiz big shots who frequented Elaine’s and be on my way to stardom. That was my plan.
Copyright © 2008 by Brian McDonald. All rights reserved.