Luncheonette: A Memoir
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Luncheonette: A Memoir

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by Steven Sorrentino

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Steven Sorrentino had moved from West Long Branch, New Jersey, to New York City, with dreams of finding love and Broadway stardom. Venturing out of the closet and feeling free (at last!) from small-town America, Steven found his niche among the quirky and kindred spirits of the city's musical theater hopefuls.

But on Christmas Eve of 1980, just after


Steven Sorrentino had moved from West Long Branch, New Jersey, to New York City, with dreams of finding love and Broadway stardom. Venturing out of the closet and feeling free (at last!) from small-town America, Steven found his niche among the quirky and kindred spirits of the city's musical theater hopefuls.

But on Christmas Eve of 1980, just after Stevenarrived in New Jersey to celebrate the holidays, his father contracted a sudden and rare neurological disorder that left him paralyzed. Stepping up to the plate and back into the closet, Steven returned to West Long Branch to help the family out and to take over Clint's Corner, his father's luncheonette. He soon found himself at the grill flipping porkroll (the unofficial state meat) and serving a counter full of eccentrics including Googie the Gizmo, Half Cup Harold, and Steven's old high-school jock crush, Brent Jamison. And always at his side was the most colorful of them all, Dolores, the crusty head waitress with coke-bottle glasses, a wayward wig, and a particular flair for butchering the English language. From this unusual post, Steven watched as his ailing father refused to accept defeat.

Confined to a wheelchair, yet determined and optimistic, Clint Sorrentino ignored all the medical setbacks and even managed to further his own career in local politics. Yet for Steven, the more his father triumphed over the obstacles, the more his own life seemed to stall.

Guilty, confused, and stuck behind the counter, Steven made a shocking and desperate decision — not knowing that he was about to stumble upon the secret of his father's resilience. Steven had returned home to save his father, but in the end, his father saved him.

An insightful, bitingly hilarious, and poignant debut, Luncheonette is an uplifting reminder of the unexpected lessons life brings and of the inspiration we find in the least likely places.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Aspiring actor Sorrentino's plans of making it big in New York are squelched when his father contracts a debilitating illness that paralyzes him from the chest down. Dutifully taking over dad's role as proprietor of Clint's Corner, a New Jersey shore luncheonette, Sorrentino goes from being a 24-year-old gay performer to a firmly closeted, burger-flipping "Jersey Boy." While his loyalty to his Italian-American family is strong, as time passes and his father begins to recover, Sorrentino finds himself increasingly cemented in his new life, watching his ambitions fade as he struggles with his identity and sexuality in a parochial town where everyone knows everyone else's business. Sorrentino does a nice job portraying the diner's quirky cast of characters (including a Polish waitress who swears like a sailor in several languages and regulars like "Half-Cup Harold"), yet despite these amusements, he eventually becomes so caught between family responsibilities and his own dreams that depression sets in. With the help of therapy and the sale of the restaurant, Sorrentino finally overcomes his inertia and helplessness, regains an identity and a life back in New York, celebrating his father's life (as well as mourning his death, 16 years after his paralysis). The grand resolution seems tacked-on, but the book's core struggle is poignant. Agent, Stuart Krichevsky. (Feb. 1) Forecast: Sorrentino's position as former head of HarperCollins's publicity department should help this otherwise low-profile book get media coverage. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this winsome memoir, likely to be compared to the work of David Sedaris, former HarperCollins publicity executive Sorrentino makes a different kind of imprint on the publishing world. His memoir recounts his accidental "career" as a luncheonette manager and short-order cook. More important, the book pays tribute to the author's beloved father, Clint, luncheonette owner, politician, and music lover. Sorrentino's unlikely adventure begins on Christmas Eve 1980, when he travels home to New Jersey from his thrilling new life as a gay man and struggling performer in New York City. The triumphant holiday visit morphs into a lengthy sojourn when Clint succumbs to paralysis from a rare neurological disease. Ever the loving, dutiful son, Sorrentino remains at home to run the luncheonette for his wheelchair-bound father. As months turn into years, Sorrentino sinks into depression while, remarkably, his father weathers major adversities with nary a complaint. Ultimately, Clint's sterling example inspires Sorrentino to take charge of his own life. This loving, humorous portrait, resplendent with colorful diner characters and witty malapropisms, is highly recommended for all public libraries.-Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., Villanova, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Just when debut memoirist Sorrentino was thrilled with his new life in New York City, his father became paralyzed from the chest down, and the author returned to his conservative little hometown. Sorrentino offers a very tender story, if increasingly fraught, about the Christmas he went to spend with his family in West Long Branch, New Jersey, after which he didn't return to his NYC apartment for four years. That Christmas Eve was back in 1980, when the writer was 24. Whether or not a quarter-century distance has beveled his perspective, his sense of humor, and responsibility seems abiding and indelible. The Sorrentinos were a delightfully functional family, a liberal bunch in a Republican town, who had worked hard, had their ups and downs, but kept an even keel and maintained strong ties to a wide and local network of kin. Steven decides to stay and run the family's luncheonette, a recent purchase of his father's after his investment business went kaput in the downturn of the 1970s. It was a sacrifice, but never a question. Sorrentino had just moved to New York, where he was as happy as he could possibly be pursuing his career in musical theater and his gay love life. (His sexual orientation was apparently always an open secret in the family, though the rest of the town "didn't seem to notice that the Sorrentino boy [then age eight] was having a little too much fun in his mother's sling-backs.") In tones warm, tart, and exasperated, Sorrentino chronicles his days getting to know the business and its regulars, watching as his father's health swung up, then deteriorated, and assuming civic responsibilities while suffering the loss of career and love. These losses blossomed into a very realcrisis, yet in recounting them the author manages to wink at the past rather than stare at it. Describes with a natural ease the vigilance necessary to keep the faith, value life, and live in the present. Regional author tour. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky/Stuart Krichevsky Agency

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Memoir

Chapter One

Mr. Long Black Coat From New York

The only thing I loved more than going home for Christmas was turning around a day or two later and getting back to New York City. It wasn't that I didn't love my liberal little family, or my conservative little hometown down the shore. But moving to the Big City at the age of nineteen had offered greater hope for love and splendor, and artistic success -- everything that had seemed elusive in West Long Branch, New Jersey. And I had a much better shot at getting laid.

All this was especially true on Christmas Eve 1980, two days before my impromptu grand opening at the luncheonette. I stood at the mirror, wrapped in my vintage, hand-me-down black cashmere coat -- scarved just so -- and imagined how it transformed me from Jersey Boy to Nouveau Yorker. Even my thinning hair blossomed with new volume, reproportioning my face as if I'd gotten a nose job -- just one of the benefits of a salon perm. I pivoted in front of the full-length mirror like I was modeling Sasson jeans, sniggering over my shoulder at my own reflection.

Okay, so the transformation was not yet complete. But at least I was having fun trying to become a star. For me, every day in New York City was like Christmas Eve, filled with the anticipation of gifts waiting to be opened and a feast to be consumed. I still loved my visits home, but West Long Branch was more like Christmas Day, when there were no more surprises left -- only the feeling that I'd had too much to eat.

But sometimes, you just have to go home.

One-sixty West Seventy-seventh Street was also home. I could hear the traffic that vroomed and honked up Amsterdam Avenue, and snippets of street conversations from below my ninth-story window. Some called it noise, but I loved it.

As a singer, I heard the city sounds as chords in an orchestration marked vamp till ready, like the strains that once guided me into "If I Were a Rich Man" on the hallowed stage of my high school. A statuette of Tevye the Dairyman, frozen in his deedle, daidle, dum pose, stood on the dresser, a gift from my parents when I played the lead in Fiddler on the Roof. I hoped that my teen glory days were a portent of things to come. But until such day when the stretch limo pulled up to whisk me away to some stage door, I still had to straighten up my own room.

I gathered up the spread of eight-by-ten head shots and the scattered sheet music from my recent frenzy to choose an audition piece for the Grease open call, and packed them away in the middle desk drawer.Then I opened the top one and rummaged through my collection of matchbooks from the Wildwood Bar at Seventy-fifth and Columbus. First names and telephone numbers were scribbled on the inside flaps with little monikers to jog my memory of each prospective soul mate, like great teeth or contortionist. I suppose it was about time I transferred Parris -- or as I had so spiritually described him on his flap: dancer with the thighs -- into my Filofax. I shut the drawer, hiked up my coat, and slid his matchbook into my pants pocket.

Ah, yes. Parris. I'll call him before I get on the train.

I opened the valet on top of the dresser, and there among the string ties, gold chains, a roach clip, and a tuning fork (so I could always find an A-natural) -- was my pick comb. I used it quickly to pull at my (unnaturally) curly hair until it was expanded to full volume like a Jackson.

Finally, I hitched my canvas sack onto my shoulder and picked up the Big Brown Bag from Bloomingdale's and the red one from Macy's where I had stuffed all my family's Christmas presents. Key ring suspended from my finger, bags in hand, Afro picked out to full capacity, black cashmere coat -- scarved just so, I took one last backward glance at myself in the mirror. Satisfied with the big picture, I left the apartment and scurried down Seventy-seventh Street to Columbus Avenue. I must admit that I relished my role as twenty-threeyear-old artiste as I scooped the tails of the long black coat into the Yellow Cab after me and directed the driver to Penn Station.

"I'm going home for Christmas!"

I think Dad was secretly delighted that I wanted a career in musical theater. After all, he was the one who had fostered my love of the arts -- especially music. But like everything else, we never talked about it directly. Fortunately, we had a twenty-seven-inch Magnavox as a go-between. For years, we shared a sofa and gabbed through every episode of The Dean Martin Show and all the Perry Como specials. It was like having my own personal tour guide through the golden age of television variety shows.

"Hear that?" he said one Saturday night as we watched Jackie Gleason introduce the Sammy Spear Orchestra.

"Hear what?" I was puzzled, the musical piece had barely begun.

"It's 'Skylark' -- Gene Krupa's big hit in 1941," he announced proudly. "Anita O'Day could really sing this one!"

I knew he wasn't finished.

"And of course Krupa was on the drums and Roy Eldredge played trumpet. I think Musky Ruffo was on alto sax. Yeah, Musky Ruffo."

Musky Ruffo?! Dad was in his glory in those moments.

And when he wasn't wowing me with his encyclopedic knowledge of everything big band, I loved listening to him sing.

Every day, during his morning shave, he'd perform his velvet-voiced repertoire of forties standards straight off the airwaves of the Make Believe Ballroom or the Milkman's Matinee...

A Memoir
. Copyright © by Steven Sorrentino. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Steven Sorrentino has worked in public relations since 1987. His professional experiences range from corporate vice president to short order cook. Luncheonette is his first book. He lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
February 15, 1957
Place of Birth:
Long Branch, New Jersey
B.A. in English/Journalism, Baruch College, 1986

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Luncheonette 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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Sorrentino has a good ear for dialogue as he describes the same cast of characters who patronize his diner daily. Plus, he captures the emotional side very well in describing his father's debilitating illnesses and his own frustrations, beginning in 1980 (as a 23-year-old), as a gay man who moves back to NJ from NYC.