but, after college, careerwise, i was truly stuck. I was a liberal arts major with no particular work skills, and was clueless about what to do with my life.
i sang in high school in the choir and theater department. early on, music was my life. by the time i was 12 or so, i knew that standing in a group of people, all singing, making a joyful noise, was, for me, the happiest place on earth. i breezed through high school, and lived for choir. my senior year i was the president. when it came time to apply for college admission, i applied to 3 schools, just to be sure some school, somewhere, would take me, but there was only rutgers college for me. (it was an all male school at the time, and me, an emerging gay boy, applied. another story for another night, i promise.) oh, it was a good school and all that, but it happened to have the finest men’s glee club in the country. no bullshit. better than princeton, westminster, university of indiana at bloomington, the yale whiffenpoofs, all of them. and i just had to sing with them or die. (wow, that sounded like a judy garland moment…….you know, the one where mickey rooney is in the aunt’s barn rehearsing for the summer show and judy really wants in?.....but so does deanna durbin, who’s actually a much better singer? but judy was relentless and a way better dancer so she eventually prevails and steals the show?........was that too gay?) so, anyway, i applied to rutgers, got accepted, moved to new brunswick, nj, settled into the dorm, and auditioned. (it was really a half-baked plan, looking back. i mean, if they’d rejected me, i’d have been in a college for no freakin’ reason on earth). but relax, they took me in. and with world concert tours every summer, carnegie hall gigs every 6 weeks, when visiting orchestras would come to new york and need a good choir to sing the beethoven 9th, or brahm’s requiem, and the soloists would gather, placido domingo, beverly sills, and the like, i was in my glory. It was so glamorous, so important to be in new york city, performing for all the world. it was certainly a long way from the mean streets of jersey city to the stage of carnegie hall, or the various stages across european capitals. (actually, you could take a bus from the mean streets of jersey city to carnegie hall, but i’m using a little hyperbole, so just bear with me.)
so i’m tempted to count that as my first career, the singing, but of course, i didn’t make a living, so i won’t. i grabbed a clerical job in nyc after graduate school and knew in 4 months that corporate life wasn’t for me. too rigid. too structured. and we musical souls feel differently about those kinds of things than others, i believe. so shortly after that, i did a stint in the family business, driving a truck, filling vending machines (along with my heretofore unnamed sister, riding shotgun. yes, the family had a business, with my brother as the boss, my father his partner, and the 2 worker bees, sis and me. the best part of those several years was the time i spent on the truck with my sister. just the two of us. we’d always been fairly close (except of course, you know, it goes in and out through adolescence), but this became something very special. clearly among the closest relationships i’d ever had to that point and we bonded. it’s thirty five years later and we still have that bond, thank the universe for that. not everybody gets to have a sibling as good as mine. (she was the first person outside the gay world to whom i came out. and it was classic………yeah, i know…….she said…….i was gay since I was like 5 years old, and it took me 20 years to say it. to finally get up the nerve, and be sure in my heart that she’s still love me, and I got………………..yeah, i know….how funny is that?) and on the truck we were good. we’d arrive at a location and a candy machine would be jammed and broken. i’d proceed to fill it and service it, and she’d sit down on the floor, indian style, and take the entire coin mechanism apart, find the trouble, fix it, reassemble the pieces and put the machine back in service. (looking back she probably could have been on the indy 500 circuit, keeping those engines moving). she had, and still has, i might add, a real knack for all things mechanical. it’s a gift. i don’t have it. but i sing. (hey, just as important, in certain circles, ok?).
through college i had a best friend and mentor. he was, to this day, the most brilliant mind i have ever encountered. he was a few years older than i. (remember the a.d.h.d. skipping through school thing?), and as a result he had a job during junior and senior years in a restaurant, tending bar. (while by day he studied wittgenstein, kant, descartes and noam chomsky. hey, i warned you he was bright). i was so jealous that he knew how to be a bartender and that he made extra money, but alas, i was simply too young. jersey liquor laws were tough. i did however, in senior year, after getting my first car, deliver chicken from a take-out joint. chicken lickin’ i think it was called. ( a chicken delight knockoff). not much money, but the tips from delivering fried chicken and fries and onion rings to a lot of stoned college students added up. not to mention most deliveries included a hit on the bong for the road, or a toke on the joint as I handed the stoners their food. what a life! and of course, all the greasy food a 19 year old could consume. i even got to take home leftovers if we cooked too much on shift and the orders stopped. very helpful position for a starving college student. i was pretty popular with the roommates, as well. ( to this day, i still wonder why i wasn't a pimply face kid after eating all that greasy fried food. well, one thing to thank mom for anyway, some decent genes. aw, it was probably dad's genes. never know.)
so after a few years on the truck with sis, i grew weary. (the business was in the basement of my parent’s house, so that meant seeing mom every day, which if you read a former blog, you know was not an easy thing.) my aforementioned best friend, home on vacation from teaching philosophy in univ of north carolina, one summer, had a godfather with a famous tavern in the city, called, believe it or not, bill’s gay nineties, (it was a straight bar and restaurant but sometimes the universe just conspires, don’t ya think?) and one day, godfather needed a bartender. i begged my friend to teach me, and he finally did. private lessons for 2 days from my very own “master”. i was a young padawan, and he was my yoda. on the 3rd day, he took me to his godfather’s saloon, planted me in a corner of the kitchen for the lunch shift, behind the service bar, and proceeded to stand with me, (all the while sipping johnny walker red) and guide me through the preparation of a myriad of cocktails on my first day. well, not to sound too bold, but i must say, with his teaching and guidance, and my natural skills and brains, to use a very old, but very worthy cliché`, a star was born. i stayed the summer, working a couple of days a week, and lo, my 2nd career was born. shortly thereafter, my brother had a friend who managed a huge disco in new jersey, called the soap factory, because it was indeed a bar converted from just such an establishment. the place was huge. there were 2 bartenders for each of 8 bars, and the basement, in what used to be the boiler room, and was still called that, had a huge bar with only one setup for one bartender. i talked the friend into trying me out, he did, and i worked one of the 2 man spots upstairs. it was a disco, and so it was mostly a young crowd and there were some funny moments to be sure. for instance…..a heavy set very young girl with way too much black eyeliner, trying desperately to look older than she was, approached me......
her: i’d like a vodka and orange juice and a screwdriver.
me: that’s 2 screwdrivers.
her: no, no, only 1 screwdriver and 1 vodka with orange juice.
me: but hon, you don’t understand, that’s 2 screwdrivers.
her: oh no, you”re wrong. i’m not drinking screwdrivers, but my girlfriend is.
me: i’m so sorry. 1 screwdriver and 1 vodka with orange juice, coming right up.
i am not making this up. anyway, after a while, when bobby (the friend) saw how good i was and how mechanically fast i was (truth be told, there were some drugs involved…..let’s just call them “performance enhancing”,) he gave me the boiler room to myself, and that’s where i honed my craft and got great. (not bragging. truthfully, it was a very busy bar, but if you were coordinated, and got a rhythm going you could be great. and i was.) from there, i became a kind of hot commodity. i had friends in various places, and whenever a bartender was out sick, or needed a vacation, or had an emergency, they’d call and i’d just jump behind a bar and fill in for a time. kind of like a "guest star". the most important of which, i guess in retrospect, was a fairly famous restaurant on the east side called el parador. it was a mexican restaurant, very high class. woody allen, robert redford, mia farow, anna moffo, and lots of others would show up, and nobody made a fuss. very low key. the catch was, the relief bartender, who only worked saturday nights, cut his hand and was out for 6 weeks, so they needed a guy for 6 consecutive saturday nights, and i was the guy. the pay was huge because of the circumstances, and the owner was perhaps the nicest man for whom i’ve ever worked. (started out dirt poor in mexico, came to america, worked his way up through the kitchens of new york and eventually opened his own place. never forgot his humble beginnings so he was amazingly kind to his staff. he fed us great meals, told us stories of his childhood, as we prepped for a crazy saturday night, and then he’d put on his tuxedo, greet people at the door, and was simply elegant and amazing. i learned more about the restaurant business in those six days than in many years elsewhere.)
another highlight was doubles, a private club, downstairs beneath the pavement of manhattan, under the sherry netherland hotel. it was, perhaps, the swankiest club in new york, at the time . when the rich and famous came to town and wanted to be conspicuous, they stayed at the world famous plaza hotel. when they wanted their privacy and pampering, they came to the sherry netherland, across 5th avenue from the plaza. diagonal corner hotels with dueling elegance. i waited on kings and princesses, and movie stars, and politicos and never moved a face muscle. no expression whatsoever. (i tell ya, botox could have come in handy, but it wasn't invented yet!!!) jackie o, frank sinatra, the governor of new york, her serene highness princess ezra jah of iran and her father the shah, opera singers. i tell you it was a who's who down there. it was hideously expensive and nobody ever flashed any money or credit cards or anything. a private club with all private accounts. these people didn't bother with tawdry details like money changing hands. i'm thinking they just got a bill at the end of the month and their bookkeeper paid it. quite an experience. but alas, as elegant and fabulous as it was, the maitre d' was a greedy pig and he was the only one making big money, so i didn't stay long.
so after jumping around, guest starring in various venues, i decided that indeed, bartending was to be my profession, despite all my degrees in music and all my education. i loved it. it’s actually show business in a way. a bartender, if he’s good at it, is on stage his entire shift, entertaining as well as mixing, ensuring that people are having a good time, and that their needs are met. and as in college, i just loved being on stage. (and sometimes you got laid as well. some people just have a thing for a bartender. especially after a couple of drinks....
so having decided that, i took a job off 14th st on 6th avenue, full time, as head bartender, in a cozy restaurant called the san francisco plum. and i stayed awhile and prospered. my stint there would ultimately lead me to my next career, but more about that later.
this restaurant was in the photography district of manhattan. (bet most of you didn’t know there was one, but there was.) and the place was frequented by neighborhood types who did photography for a living, and of course their models. it made for some colorful times.
as bartender you also do service to the dining room. (remember my first gig in the kitchen?) and we had some waiters and waitresses of questionable ability. I had a waitress named jeryl, a sweet young thing who was trying her hand in the city…………a daddy’s little girl from somewhere but she was gonna make it on her own, a virtual mary tyler moore………. (ok, everyone, sing the jingle, you're gonna make it after all).
jeryl: i need a vodka on the rocks and a whiskey sour.
me: ( i pour a clear liquid into a short glass with ice, and then proceed to mix whiskey, sour mix, ice, shake it, strain it, garnish with an orange slice and a cherry, and it’s all foamy and fizzy) and i put the drinks up. Here ya go hon.
jeryl: which one is the whiskey sour?
we had a saying. many are called, few are chosen. but we did have fun together.
during my tenure there, i got very friendly with a photographer and his 2 hot female models, and we’d party after my shift, deep into the night, in his loft around the corner. the girls would prance around naked for the camera, and of course i barely looked up from the photographer, who for me, was the hot one. time passed, and i was fascinated with the art of what he did, and i began to study that too. it led, as i said, eventually, to my 3rd career, photography, but not until after I met the craziest loon I’ve ever known……
to be continued……………….