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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...Luncheonette
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 arrived 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.
Questions for Discussion
About the author
Steven Sorrentino has worked in public relations since 1987 where he began as a publicist for Harper & Row, staying with that company during several transformations and becoming Vice President and Executive Director of Publicity at HarperCollins Publishers. He directed campaigns for numerous #1 "New York Times" bestsellers as Bryan Burrough and John Helyar's Barbarians at the Gate; Oliver North's Under Fire; Newt Gingrich's To Renew America; and Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Years and Path to Power. He managed the original publicity campaign for John Gray's phenomenally successful Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Sorrentino has worked with a wide array of controversial and political figures; film, television, and sports stars; modern-day spiritualists and literary authors. These include the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Wayne Gretzky, Marianne Williamson, Bob Colacello, Jay Leno, Cybill Shepherd, Valerie Harper, Eric Bogosian, Gary Hart, Christopher Darden, Donald Spoto, Leon Uris, Dan Quayle, Bobbie Ann Mason, Armistead Maupin, Thomas Moore, and others. One of the highlights of his career in PR was creating a campaign for one particular Hollywood memoir and then taking it on the road with its author: the legendary Ginger Rogers.
In his capacity as spokesperson for authors, the publishing house, and occasionally the industry, Sorrentino has been interviewed on "Entertainment Tonight", "Nightline", "CNBC", "Fox News Channel", and "MSNBC".
In 2001, Sorrentino ended his fourteen-year career at HarperCollins to write a memoir about his experiences as a young man taking over the family business when his father suddenly became ill. Luncheonette will be published in February 2005.
Steven Sorrentino lives in New York City.
Posted March 5, 2007
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2011
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Posted December 16, 2011
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Posted April 27, 2011
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