Monday, 10 May 2010

The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me by, Shawn M. Cohen

I called the secretary of The Encores, who dealt with all the scheduling, the next morning. Her name was Beatrice, and she was a very nice woman, 40 something, who seemed somewhat out of place in a swinging nightclub. Her demeanor was quite straight, polite, and sweet. I asked her again if there were any openings, and I would work when someone was off sick or needed a night off , even at the last minute. She took into account what I said and said she would see what she could do. That was it. It was a waiting game now. Meanwhile, I went back to work on the day shift as usual. I walked into the dark Encore in Shadyside with my head held high. I didn't care now if the whole world knew I was working there. Maybe I was in defiance for all the bullshit that was going on around me. I was clearly in a place where, unbeknown to me, my parents had frequented. I can't say that I never knew them to go out, obviously, they did, and many times during our childhood. If not together, then separately, and that was evident to all us kids. The nights I wondered if either of them would ever come back was another story. But somehow they did, either in anger, or in my mother's case, drunk. My memories of picking her up off the bathroom floor at 3 in the morning, are too many to mention. It was her anger at my father, she would later tell me when she had slept it off. "Sure, OK, Ma." was all a young teenager could say. I was sure that she would somehow wreck the car and we'd never see her again. But when I woke up to her jamming the parking brake so loud I could hear it out my closed bedroom window at 4 am, then I was relieved. She wasn't a drunk, no, just out with her gay actor friends till the wee hours of the morning, after their play had closed, or when she had enough of my father's tirades.
Here I was now, walking into a place that was beginning to show me things I wasn't sure I wanted to know and today's surprise would really take the cake!
I set up the lunch tables as usual, Gilbert sorting out the bar for the fast and furious lunch trade, me in my Yesterday's News suit, another one, with a silk blouse with a big, black satin tie and puffy long sleeves. It was almost the end of June and finally getting warmer but the air conditioning always made it very cold in there. The hostess was seating people and my tables were filling up. I was working with two other waitresses and we were all running in our heels soon enough. While I was at the service bar, getting drinks for my tables, I didn't see a set of new customers come in. I delivered the drinks to one table and took out my order pad and approached the table filling out the table number and my name on it, so the chef, Al, would know it was me. Automatically, as I was writing, I said to my new customers, "Welcome to the Encore. Can I take your order?" As my eyes left my pad and looked down at the customers seated in the booth, I had another shock. There was Henry, an old friend of Glen's! He was sitting with a rather meager looking girl who was clearly his girlfriend. How embarrassing! My cheeks must have blushed blood red. "Hi, Henry! " was all I could say. He was just as shocked. I could read the sentence in his mind before he even spoke..."What are you, a nice Jewish girl from Stanton Heights doing in a place like this??? What happened to you and Glen, weren't you living together in L.A, that's what we heard back here? Isn't your father rich, waitressing is a low life occupation, close to prostitution, what the hell are you doing here? Remember when you and Glen were broken up for a while and we had a kiss and make out session at one of the parties we all went to in High School???!!!"
But he didn't say anything like that. He was so gorgeous then, all the girls from Peabody, all my close friends had a crush on him, too. Glen's friends, like him, were 2 years older and so he thought as he met my girlfriends, they'd like some of his good looking Jewish guys from Allderdice. Henry was one of them, along with many a motorcycling crew Glen road with, bringing his friends to my friends. It made High School interesting, to say the least! As I stood there feeling like I was in "The Twilight Zone", Henry spoke. "Shawn, wow, nice to see you again. Let me introduce you to my girlfriend, her name is Sherry." They were seated together on the same side. "Hello, Sherry, nice to meet you." I heard come out of my mouth. And then Henry offered me this. "You know I am studying Law, you know my mother is a Judge, right?" I shook my head, "yes", "and well, Sherry and I had our problems, you see....I hit her. " I stood frozen, listening, thinking to myself, "what???what did you say, you HIT her???" But I said nothing. He continued, as if I was now his therapist..."Yes, well, that was terrible, and her and I went through some counselling, and it is all OK now. " Sherry hugged his arm, holding it tight, and smiled at me as if she had won a prize. In High School, yeah, she would of but now...? "Oh, wow, so all is OK now?" was all I could figure out to say. "Yes, Shawn, and how about you and Glen?" I had my own shame there, needless to say, but I wasn't about to spill my beans, especially to him and at work. "Well, we lived together in L.A for a while but we went our separate ways. I lived with Reva out there and went to college there for two years. Just home for a short time now, and hope to get back there." I lied through my teeth. He really didn't need to know how Glen hurt me, cheated on me, made me sick with him accidentally infecting me with hepatitis because he didn't wash his hands properly after working in his part time job in the Vet's hospital. He was a lab assistant working with blood, and obviously blood that was dirty. No, I wasn't about to tell him all that...woman beater!
I told him it was nice to see him (shocking and embarrassing and who would have guessed, he was so gorgeous, yet the schmuck beat up his girlfriend!) My other tables were waiting, so I suggested I take their order. Henry asked for a Manhattan, and his girlfriend ,a glass of white wine. I brought the drinks, they had a few rounds, then had lunch. I really couldn't wait for them to leave. I felt exposed. I had to get on night shift. Maybe my Dad's Siding buddies, what I like to call the Jewish Mafia will show up too and really make my day! But as the hours went by, they didn't. Henry asked for the check, it was $35.00. I wondered what kind of tip he would leave me? It didn't bare thinking about. How many adventures we had together, in High School, me with my girlfriends and those Allderdice boys. How he turned out, who would have guessed? And even sadder, how Glen and I turned out. He left with a big smile and a big thanks, and how nice it was to see me again. His meek little woman still clinging to his arm as they went out the door. Miss Mouse roars with Power on the Mighty Man's arm, even if he belts her once in awhile! I cleared their table, picking up the huge sum of a $5.00 tip Henry left me. Well, at least the therapy session and the memories were worth something! As I turned around, I caught a glimpse of Art walking through the door. We had been so busy, I didn't realize the time. It was 4:30pm and Art was in early. It had been nearly 3 weeks since I started in the Encore in Shadyside, and I hadn't seen Art since I first started. I was wiping off my table when he come in. He went over to Gilbert, the bartender, and asked for a cigar. "Coming up, Boss!" said Gilbert, kidding with him. The next waitress came in to cover for me, and it was Terry. I was done with my shift. Art went upstairs, I took off my waitress apron, and got my purse. I told Terry what I did, calling the secretary, she said there was nothing available but she would keep it in mind. " I gave Terry the outstanding tabs and she wished me a good evening. I had to use the bathroom and it was upstairs, so I took my bag, and went up there. Art was sitting at a table in there alone, enjoying the quiet before anyone else came in, smoking his big stogey cigar.
"Hey, Shawn, How are you, Champ!? Sit down, now and talk to me." he invited me into the booth, with a big, warm smile on his face and his big, boxer hand offering me the seat.
"Hi Art." I said as I slid into the booth , sitting opposite him. His cigar smoke swirled in the air.
"So, Shawn, tell me, do you like working here at The Encore?" His tanned face was clean shaven and I could smell his cologne. It was nice, not over done like some men. His three piece suit clean and pressed for the night's work to come, his crisp, white shirt and big tie, matching his suit and well presented. His eyes and smile seemed eager to hear positive news and I wanted to say, " yes", he was, after all, my Boss. But he must have seen the momentary look on my face of despair, because he immediately sat up and said, "Come on, you can tell me the truth. Someone mistreating you? Something you're not happy about? I want to know, so tell me." He touched my hand on the table for a second. He had opened the door, and I walked through it, grateful I could now be honest.
"Art, I know you don't know me, but I am not really a waitress, you know. I am a college student who because my father took all the money and ran off with his secretary, I had to come back from L.A. where I was living, going to college and look after my mother, who is devastated, and my younger brother. I am working to pay the bills at home now. That is why I am here. It is not a career move for me." Art's mouth was agape. "Really, Kid, that's too bad. You mean he left your mother with nothing!" He was shocked, too. I said, "Yes, and if you want to know the whole truth, my father has loads of money, he didn't have to do that. You know what it is like for me, to see my mother with Food Stamps?" The tears came into my eyes, and really I couldn't help myself. "And here is the best part, when I was working last week, day shift, there were my Dad's cronies, all his friends, sitting at the bar, and they recognized me. One of them, the Jewish Mafia, I call them, all siding guys like my dad, pulled me aside, and asked, to my utter embarrassment, what the hell I was doing waitressing in this place when my father had money! They went on to say that they knew my father and my mother, and therefore, made it out like I was some sort of low life to be working here!" I could see Art getting agitated, his nostrils flared, and he pushed his thick, black, curly hair out of his eyes, leaned in towards me, listening with intent. "Yeah, go on, what did you say to those Bastards??!" he wanted to know, so I told him. "I told them I was here to work, make money to help my mother and my younger brother, who is still in High School, and pay the bills, which my father ran out on! And that seemed to put them in their place, but Art. I don't ever want to see them again. Please, can you put me on night shift? I know they probably won't come in here at night, and the money is better, too, which now you know, I really need."
Art, was like a race horse held at the gate. I could see him thinking, feeling everything I said, then digesting it. "Shawn, why didn't you tell me this from the beginning?" he asked in concern for me. "Because it was no one's business, I just wanted to work like anyone else." I told him the truth.
His eyes stared into mine. He looked at me in a way that made me want to hide my face. He was looking deeply into my eyes, my face, surmising it, searching it, as if he was exploring it. I was sure he was going to think badly of me now, maybe even fire me because I told him I wasn't here for a career move. Maybe I shouldn't have shared my problems to him. But instead, with great tenderness in his voice, he said this, "Listen, Shawn, no on is gonna treat you like a chump here! You are doing a good thing for your mother and brother, and I, for one ,am gonna make sure you get all the work you can handle, make some real money, not that chump change you get on lunches! You leave it with me, and I tell you right now..." he paused, took a puff of his cigar, and spoke assuring me, "from now on you are working nights with me!" My face lit up! "Thanks Art, thank you so much!" I was relieved. The night crew came upstairs to prepare for the dinner crowd. The waitresses and the bartender. It was time for me to go. Art and I got up together to let the girls set up the tables. He walked downstairs with me, asking me if I needed a cab to get home. "No, I have my mother's car." I told him. Outside on the pavement, in the 5pm sunlight, he said this to me. "If you need anything, you come to me, Shawn, you here me? I never want you to feel that you are in a bad position. If someone bothers you, harasses you, like some of the assholes we get in here can, or says something off color to you, you tell me, you hear me and I'll sort them out!" He was using his cigar to point to himself, as he said this. I knew he meant this, and I found myself feeling safe. "Now, when you go home, Beatrice has your number, I am gonna call her and tomorrow night, you work with me. Forget that lunch shift, that's over for you now. I'll see you tomorrow night, OK, Kid?" I couldn't believe it, I was so happy. "Yes, great! OK, Art, and thanks again, see you then." I was smiling. Someone had heard me, listened and helped me, someone who I never expected. I felt moved by Art's compassion. I drove home, stopped to pick up my dry cleaning at the local shopping center, and bought some groceries for the house but all the while thinking about how nice he was to me.
The next morning was my appointment with the therapist my mother was forcing me to go to. It was in East Liberty, near our favorite Chinese restaurant where all my Jewish friends and their families went to. Many a night, when my Dad was home and he took us out for Chinese, we would see all our friends and their families having dinner there. It was the place for Chinese food. Now, as I was pulling the car in the parking lot, I couldn't believe how long ago that seemed. It was in the late 1960's and early 70's, but it seemed a life time ago. I had a fight with my mother when I left, too, arguing I was now on night shift, starting this night, and did not want to go. She told me that she made the appointment and I must go. End of story.
I walked into his office, "Dr. Ralph Rivers", it said on the door. There was no secretary, only him waiting in a leather chair that faced another leather chair. There were some degrees on the white walls, and that was it. He stood up and introduced himself, shaking my hand. He asked me to sit down and I did. I was furious but I said nothing. "This is your space to share with me anything you would like to talk about, anything at all." he began. I said nothing. He waited and waited. I said nothing. I had on jeans and a t-shirt, with gym shoes. All of a sudden I felt like I was back in High School being scrutinized by a teacher. He waited again, then offered this, "Maybe you would like to know something about me?" I didn't but said, "OK". He told me he was an Episcopalian Minister who was a counsellor, and he was married and had 4 children. He left the Ministry to work with clients privately. I was curious so I asked, "How is a Priest married?" I had no idea what an Episcopalian Minister was about, and he smiled and said, "No, we are not Catholics, we can marry." "Oh?" I said. The hour went by and I said nothing. I did not want to talk to him. I wanted to be anywhere else but there. My older brother should be here, my sister could be here, but me? Not too mention Henry the woman beater! What a Joke! The time ticked away and finally he said, "OK, well, our time is up." I got up to leave and he asked me if I would like to make another appointment. "No, my mother made me come here, and I am not coming offense but this is not for me." He just looked at me, "Oh, OK, then." and I walked out the door. I got into my mother's car and banged on the steering wheel with my hands screaming obscenities. What the fuck was going on? I really hated my mother for that. It was humiliating! I went home and handed her the car keys and said, "I am NOT going back there again, so don't even think about it!" I ran upstairs and slammed my bedroom door. I turned on my stereo to WDVE, soft rock, to calm down. How many times had I done this in High School? The music always took away the pain. The words always filled me with far away dreams, as they infiltrated my anger, calming the myriad of injustices around me. I started to paint my nails for tonight's shift at the Encore. My mother stayed downstairs in the kitchen, just letting me be.
The words that Art said to me came back in my head..."If anyone bothers you, if anyone gives you a hard time, if anyone says anything off color to you, you come to me and I will sort them out!" He was so nice to me and I was looking forward to seeing him tonight.

The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me. Copyright 2010. These are excepts from a book I am currently writing of the same name. All events are true but some names have been changed to protect people's privacy.