Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me by, Shawn M. Cohen

I walked into the Encore in Shadyside with a renewed feeling of hope. It was the end of June, I was ready for something better to happen. I was greeted by Gilbert who asked me why I wasn't at work for the lunch shift. "I'm now working nights, Gilbert." "Ok, Shawn, just glad you didn't leave, you hang in there, and I am sure it will all work out." Gilbert was a nice older gentleman, Jewish as well, with a family at home. He was like a rock to the other younger bartenders and waitresses working under him. A master bartender with a heart of gold. His shift would soon be over and the night time crew would be in. I was in at 4:30pm as Beatrice, the secretary had asked me. She called me and told me my new schedule at the Encore I. I would work 3 nights downstairs for the evening shift, 2 would be 4:30pm to start and one night I would come in at 7pm, after the cocktail hour. Then for 2 other nights I would work upstairs serving dinner, and that shift was 5pm to 11pm, with last call for food at 10pm but on the Saturday it would stay open to 11pm, and the upstairs restaurant closed by 12 midnight but the downstairs bar was always opened until 2:00am. So, I had a shorter shift when I was working serving food upstairs. It all seemed great to me. I knew it was better financially, and that was the reason to continue working there. I put my purse away, as tonight I was on the downstairs, serving cocktails and our live Jazz was by Harold Betters and his Quartet. He was a staple to the Encore and the people loved his band. I got my waitress tray, filled it with fresh cocktail napkins and clean ashtrays and took over from Fran who was leaving now. "The guy on table 3 is a cheap bastard, never tips,so don't worry about saving me a tip!" Fran said as she untied her black apron, grabbed her bag and raced to the door. "See ya, Gilbert!" she waved her hand and was off before Gilbert could reply, "yeah, see ya Fran!" I was the only waitress on for an hour, or two. I lit a cigarette and kept it by the service bar, which we all did. Gilbert made me a Diet Coke and I sipped it waiting for a customer to come in. I made fresh coffee, put away the lunch time salt and pepper shakers and made sure all my tables were ready for the cocktail hour. Gilbert was restocking the bar for the night time bartenders as a few of the daytime regulars slowly sipped their beers, watching the end of a baseball game on the TV. The TV was small and hung up by the far right of the bar, as you came in the door. Apparently, the Pirates were losing this game. I heard the announcer scream, "It's all over for the Pittsburgh Pirates today!" and the regulars that lingered to the end, slapped down some money and left. Gilbert cleaned his bar as usual, and rang the big cow bell behind it every time he got a tip. It made me laugh. "You gotta celebrate it, Shawn, when it comes in!" Gilbert leaned over the bar and whispered to me. He turned off the TV, put the music on from the radio which was an FM station with no adds. In walked the night time bartender, John, then right behind him Art. I looked at my watch and sure enough, it was 5:00pm, on the dot. There were no customers on my tables yet, and I stood by the waitress service area, wiping down the waitress trays for the other waitresses who would be in. Art slammed down his keys, a huge array of keys on a big key chain and handed them to Gilbert. "How ya doing, Gilbert? Give me a cigar." Art didn't look my way, he was watching Gilbert. "Here ya go, Boss." Gilbert handed him the box and let him choose. "Where's my night time waitress, Gilbert?" I smiled at Art, as I was watching him. "She's over there, Art, it's Shawn." Art stood there, lighting his cigar with a massive flame from his flick lighter, puffing on it to get it lit. Once he had it lit, he walked over to me. "I didn't let you down, now, did I?" he said with a big smile on his face. "Gilbert, give me a coke, will ya?" he turned to ask Gilbert. "No, Art, and I am very happy, thank you again." He turned back and looked at me, offering. "Tonight, if we are busy, you are gonna make some real money!" he said in his normal voice, then he changed his voice to a lower, deeper register and said, "I'm not here to hurt you, I'm here to help you!" This made me laugh. It was true that he could look threatening because he was so big, and with that reputation that always seems to precede him, but he had conquered that with a sort of "catch phrase", and that was it. He seemed to like me laughing at him, because he giggled himself. A couple came in and asked for a table, the hostess sat them at mine. They were all mine until Terry came in. "Now, go get 'em Tiger!" Art shooed me away towards them with his hands. "Ok, Here I go!" I went over and as charming as I could be, I welcomed them to the Encore, suggesting that it was indeed Happy Hour, and the drinks were 2 for the price of 1. "We'll have two Vodka Martini's please." said my customers. I asked, as a good waitress should, "Straight up or on the Rocks?" "Straight up for both, please." replied the male with an eager smile. "Olive or Twist?" I said while writing the order on my pad, which read, in bar shorthand," 2 VODMART ^, O" "Olives, please, and some nuts, too." "Thank you, Sir, very well, I shall be right back with your cocktails." And I put the slip down on the service bar for John to make. Gilbert was done, wished me ,"Good Luck", and as he left, crawling under the service bar to get out. Terry came sauntering in. "Hey, look who it is??! You finally got here!" she came over with a big grin on her face. Terry had long straight light brown hair, like me, only she wore hers down and I had mine pulled back in a pony tail. "Yep! I made it, at last!" I told her as I was putting the cocktail sticks in the olives, and then placed them in the 2 Martinis. "Be right back." She cracked a few jokes to John the bartender as she put on her waitress apron, and got her tray together. I delivered my customer's drinks and came back over. Art had disappeared, "probably upstairs having his dinner before the crowd comes in", Terry explained when I asked. Terry and I worked really well together. The night got busy and we were cracking jokes at the service bar, talking about our lives when we could and basically watching each other's back. When John or Daniel, the other bartender who came in at 7:00pm needed anything like appetizers or some more ice, we could relay it to the kitchen or the bus boys. Art sat at the bar, reading the newspaper with one eye peeled for any nonsense or problem. By 9:00pm when Harold's band came and had set up on stage for their first set, the place was packed. Now Art, like the rest of us were running on our toes. I heard him yell at a bus boy for not clearing a table fast enough. But he was always cracking jokes with the customers. Lenny Litman came in. Lenny was a writer for the Pittsburgh Press and their entertainment section. Art had mentioned this earlier and seemed nervous about it. But when Mr. Litman came in, Art made sure he had a free drink at the bar. He was an older gentleman. I remembered the name because my mother also knew him, I had guessed by the plays she had acted in and he must have written the reviews for. His name was more then familiar as a writer for a newspaper. "Lenny, how you doing?" I heard Art approach him with a big hand out to shake. I was serving a table nearby, and when I was done, Art signalled for me to come over to him and Mr. Litman. I walked over holding my empty tray smiling. "Lenny, this is our new girl here, Shawn, Shawn Cohen, the Irish Jew, this is Mr. Litman, please see to it he has anything he wants, ok? On the House!" Art was smiling and had put his arm around me when he said it. "Hello, nice to me you, Mr. Litman." I said, and turned to Art and said, "Yes, Art. I got it, whatever he wants, on the house." Art whispered right in front of Lenny, "Got to keep the press sweet!" and chuckled as he walked away. Mr. Litman looked at me and said, "Aren't you Peg Cohen's daughter?" I was shocked. How did he know? I just shook my head, "yes." "Oh, geez, I know your mother and your aunt for years! They worked at my Copa Club downtown, in the 50's before she married your father! I've seen many of her plays, wrote about them, too. She is a fine actress, please tell her I said,' Hello'." And with that, I just said, "Yes, Mr. Litman, I will." The red was hitting my cheeks again. That is where I had heard his name before. "Is there anything you would like from the kitchen, a nice appetizer?" I braved asking him. "No, sweetheart, just the drink is fine, thanks." He took out a $5.00 bill and handed it to me. "I won't be here long, just wanted to see the band for a moment so I won't need anything else, but take this anyway, and how is your mother?" I took his very generous tip and mustered a huge thank you and said, "Oh, she is just fine, I will tell her I saw you, and you said, Hello." "Good Girl, thanks." he replied and then turned to his left to watch the band. Art had gone off to do what managers do, see to the customers, help the staff who need it or just schmooze with the customers. He was always doing something like the rest of us. I went on to my tables and served them, thinking how weird that some of these people here know my parents. Terry asked me if I wanted to get a drink after work tonight. I was rushed off my feet and knew I had to get my mother's car home in one piece so told her I would definitely take up her offer another night. More local celebrities came in. Stood at the bar was a friend of Art's. I was busy with my tables and again, Art called me over. "Honey, I would like you to meet the one and only Billy Conn, he is a Heavyweight Boxer, like me...but I'm better!" Art was kidding with his friend. I had never heard of him but there he was, a tall man like Art. "Hello, young lady, nice to meet you." said Mr. Conn. Art had his arm around his neck and was pretending to hit him in the midriff, which Billy just stood there as if he was non plussed. The bartender came over and Art said, "Give Billy a whiskey on me, the good stuff now, top shelf!" Billy smiled at his old friend, "Thanks, Art." is all he said. "Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Conn." and I raced off to take care of my tables. I met Terry at the service bar and asked her who he was. "That's Art's old buddy, he was more famous than Art as a boxer, he made a title." I just said, "oh..." not knowing what that meant. "He comes in every once in a while." Terry continued as she dressed her drinks with fruit and straws." Harold told me a story once about him, and it goes like this, "Harold said, between sets one night, as he stood next to him at the bar, 'Hey Mr. Conn, was Art really as good as a boxer as they say he was?' and Mr. Conn just turned around slowly and answered,'You don't see me making any trouble in here, now do ya?!" I laughed and so did Terry. I got it, two boxing buddies. The night moved on. Art was always watching our backs, making sure we got our tips, knew when a new customer sat down, the night went by fast and furious and when it was last call, I had to admit, I was tired. It was nearly 2:30 am when the last person left. I was seated at the bar, taking a load off my feet, counting my tips. A whopping $75.00! Terry had cashed out and so had the bartender. Art was behind the bar, taking off the register. I was counting my tips out by putting a percentage to the bus boys (10%)and the bartender(15%) in their envelopes. Terry said her good-byes and said it was great working with me, and I agreed, we had fun. The register was done and Art counted up all the money. I went upstairs to use the ladies room before I was going to leave. I came down, purse in hand and said my good-byes to the bartender who was the only one there. I walked outside to the dark night. A big, black car pulled up right in front of the Encore and me. For a moment I was scared, then I saw it was Art! He opened the window and said, "How are you getting home, Shawn?" I was a bit startled but then said, "I have my mother's car tonight." He asked me where it was parked." Oh, it's just around the corner, in the parking lot." The outside light of the Encore had just gone out. All that was on was the street lights. "Get in and I'll drive you there." Art motioned with his hand. "No, its ok, it is only around the corner." I replied politely. Art looked away for a second and then said, "Listen, do you know where the bank is at the corner of Walnut Street, you know the Equibank?" "Yes..I do." I wondered why he asked me, surely he must know. "Well, I have to go there now and make a deposit, and it is late at night, and I am a bit scared, will you drive there with me?" His big brown eyes looked at me forlornly. I laughed and said, "How could YOU be scared to drive down there by yourself??!" He laughed back and said, "Em mes! I am!" (em mes was Yiddish for, "it's true" and I laughed at him, to my knowledge he wasn't Jewish, and he knew that Yiddish word.) He put on this act as if he was frightened. I did not know what this was about, but I gave in. He opened my door and I sat next to him. He put on the radio to a well timed Frank Sinatra song. He turned the radio up slightly and asked me, "Do you like Frank Sinatra?" I didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable and say the truth, that it was what my parent's listened to, so I said, "Yes." The song was "You Go to My Head". Art slowly drove up the empty street, and when we arrived at the bank, he said, "wait here." and I listened to Frank sing, "You go to my head and linger there like a haunting refrain, and I find you spinning round in my brain, " Art made the deposit, in the night box, with the Encore's takings for the night. He jumped back into the car and put the gear in reverse and backed out of the bank's driveway. "You can never be too sure, robbers out late at night!" I was sure he must be kidding, but just in case, I said, "oh, ok, true." The music and Frank continued, "The thrill of the thought that you might give a thought to my plea, casts a spell over me, Still I say to myself, get a hold of yourself, can't you see it never can be." Art drove behind the buildings into the Shadyside parking lot where my mother's Pontiac was sitting waiting for me. He didn't say anything else, just the music was on, and as he parked next to her car, the lyrics came in again, "You go to my head with a smile that makes my temperature rise, Like a summer with a thousand Julys, You intoxicate my soul with your eyes. Though I am certain that this crazy heart of mine hasn't a ghost of a chance in this crazy romance..." I thanked Art for the ride to my car. "You are welcome, " he looked at me, smiled right into my eyes, looked right into them and then said, "You did good tonight, Shawn, now get home safe, I will wait till your car is moving, ok? See you tomorrow night." as the last words of the song came back into my ears as I got out of his big black Chevy Impala..." You go to my go to my head." True to his word he watched me as I started the car, and then I waved him "bye". When I left the parking lot I was still trying to figure out what that was just all about. Is Art so caring about his waitresses that he makes sure they all get home ok? It must be that, I reckoned, then turned on my own radio, finally listening to my own music. My favorite singer was on, Boz Scaggs, from his new album, "Silk Degrees" with his new song, "What Can I Say?" I was singing along to it all the way home.
(See Video above..."What Can I Say?" By Boz Scaggs.)

The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me, by Shawn M. Cohen. Copyright 2010. These are excerpts from my non-fiction memoirs of a book by the same name I am currently writing. All events are true only some names have been changed to protect people's privacy.