Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Night to Remember

It wasn't the first killing I witnessed and it wouldn't be the last but it was the most random. Of course nothings ever as random as you might think. During the Mid-Nineties I worked a bar in the Times Square area while the neighborhood morphed from red light district to Walt Disney World. Actually it was a bar in a French bistro whose windows looked out on to Forty-Third just off Broadway, on New Years Eve you could see the ball drop. Business lunch, office hang-out bar and theater crowd. The building was probably seventy-five or a hundred years old and at one time was called Rossoff's part of the Rossoff's Hotel and famous for being the largest Kosher Catering Hall in New York City. Then Rossoff's became a welfare hotel and the restaurant became Cafe 43 where the bartender and two patrons were killed by an out of control truck that ploughed through the place in 75'. Some said it was haunted but I never saw any evidence of that. Well, I worked there part time for a number of years back when "The Deuce" was still very much the red light district and Rossoff's was still a welfare hotel. Then Rudolph Giuliani and Walt Disney came to Times Square, the welfare recipients were kicked out and the hotel was sold to a Slovakian who re-did the place in Moroccan chic and christened it; "The Casablanca". Henry was his name and he desperately wanted to take over Le Max and call it "Rick's Cafe" but VeraChai, the Thai, French trained chef and owner wanted no part of it and soon a rivalry bordering on hatred formed.
Well, one overcast and chilly day in early December they came; two mid-thirtyish African American guys sporting business suits and briefcases, they sat at the bar, drank espresso and after a little while asked to speak with the owner. It was late in the day after the lunch rush and well before dinner so VeraChai, as was his habit, was sitting at the big round table in the back betting on dice with some of the cooks and waiters. I told him about the guys at the bar and being grouchy by nature he frowned, but dropped the dice and followed me. He sat with the guys for about a half hour and when they left he called me away from where I was chatting up a regular.
"Those guys," he said, "they want to throw a party this Friday, ten till four AM, cash bar, DJ. You can work?"
I thought for a minute, it was my girlfriend's birthday but I also needed the money and I liked VeraChai and could tell he thought he needed me, "What kind of party?"
"Disco party, they say older people, city workers."
I weighed it all up and made a bad decision, "Sure."
I broke it to my girlfriend like I had no choice and she was pissed but eventually let me off the hook. Then a few days later one of the guys who'd met with Chai dropped by and left off a stack of fliers and I knew I was in trouble, it was going to be Hard Core Hip Hop in Times Square, the theme of the party; A Night to Remember. I'm not sure how it is now, but back then hard core Hip Hop events got violent and that was practically guaranteed. I'd worked them before and they could be scary even with veterans who knew what they were doing and had the proper security, but this, this was going to be me and Chai and a few French Bistro cooks and waiters. "Oh well," I thought, "In for a penny in for a pound." And anyway, I was already committed.
The fateful night rolled round and I worked dinner, the usual crush at six as people arrived for pre-theater then the frantic rush to get everyone cashed out in time for their eight o'clock curtain calls but after that it was different. Normally we'd wind down at this point tending to the occasional customer and preparing for the post theater rush, but tonight we had a different agenda. Tonight we removed all the tables, covered the front windows in black construction paper and dug in to the bar like the marines at Khe San. The promoters arrived with one security guard and a tough looking DJ around nine-thirty and their crowd began to shuffle in around eleven-thirty. Thuggish, rough looking people with poor manners who didn't tip. Much. I tried to keep a neutral expression and roll with it even after some of them began calling me names like steroid king and muscle head (I've always been a weight lifter). It was a rough night but fairly uneventful and when I looked up and noticed it was three thirty in the morning I thought I'd made it through to the other side.
That's when I heard and saw the commotion at the coat check across from the bar. Two men struggling and a woman yelling. The security guy with the help of a couple of other guys pushed one man towards the back of the restaurant while the other man grabbed his coat and headed for the door with the woman and a couple of other guys. The woman paused by the entrance and stared into the back, the music, by some coincidence chose to stop at the same moment, and she shrilled out in a loud voice like fate to one and all;
"You, Motherfucker, in your JC Penny fucking suit! You betta get yourself some new shoes cause you going down!" Then she stormed out the door, the men trailing after.
Someone had the good sense to crank up the lights and now that the DJ had stopped I threw a Frank Sinatra CD into the player and the people started to leave. Henry's minion, the nasty Bulgarian bellhop stepped through the door that connected us to the hotel, "What the fuck are you assholes up to here tonight anyway?" He demanded.
  "A piss in a windstorm," I said then suddenly there was a series of loud pops which I recognized as the sound of small arms fire and through the half fallen construction paper on the front window I could see the flashing in the dark of the muzzle fire and all became pandemonium with people stampeding toward the back of the restaurant to escape the gun play. There was the sound of shattering glass on my right, I jerked my head in that direction and the bellboy was face first on the floor, dark red blood pooling around his head.  Then everything got quiet and Chai was running toward the front door with a bucket of water, I guessed to wash away the blood but I pulled him back and shook my head. I stuck my head out the front door and three men were lying, bleeding on the pavement as New York's finest converged on the scene from every possible direction. A Night to Remember.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Haunting

Back in 05' I was working for this company based out of Ft. Lauderdale Fl and they had a contract with the city and several private investors to operate a restaurant, cabaret and catering facility in an historical landmark called The River House. It was one of the oldest buildings in Ft. Lauderdale, which is to say; one of the oldest structures in South Florida. The River House was actually two houses built around the end of the Nineteenth Century by the Philmont Bryant's, a wealthy pioneering family who worked with Henry Flagler to push the railroad through, down to Key West. Now when I say the River House was two houses, it was actually two separate houses built by old man Bryant for his two sons (His own was just down the road and is now a museum) to live in with their families, which they did. The last family member to live in the house was Babara Estelle who passed away sometime in the 1970's where upon the property was taken over by the Chart House, a restaurant company which built a kitchen section in the middle to join the two houses. The result? A charming and beautiful though cranky restaurant on two floors with a covered terrace wrapped around each, boasting views of the extensive patios and gardens leading down to the New River and the Intercoastel.
I had worked for the company for about a year when I was offered the General Manager's spot at this magical location. Problem was haunted.
It was sometime during my first week in the place that Sal one of my waiters, came up to me during service to let me know; "J.R., table 101 wants to see you."
"Why? What's up?" I asked because its always better to know going in.
"I'm not too sure, I don't think its anything bad." Was Sal's response.
Now table 101, was a corner table on the second floor terrace over looking the river on one side and overlooked by a window from one of the inner dining rooms (Barbara Estelle's Room) on the other. Table 71 inside Barbara Estelle's Room was right up against the window and had a view of table 101 which could prove awkward, but wasn't usually an issue because aside from banquets or pharmeceutical parties we rarely used the room at all. Anyway I approached table 101 and from a distance saw about what you'd expect on a Wednesday night at an expensive restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale near where they keep the yachts. That is a tan, well dressed silver fox who kept fit and had a long legged honey about twenty years his junior seated across from him, holding hands in the candle light.
I strode right up to the table and thrust out a firm hand, he stood politely and shook with me. "My name's J.R.," I said, "I'm the manager, I was told you wanted to see me?" I spread my hands out before myself indicating my openness to oblige.
The Silver Fox put an arm confidentially around my shoulders as if we needed to create a circle of privacy, "I don't like to complain, J.R.," he explained, "it's just that we're out trying to enjoy an anniversary dinner," he spread a hand to indicate the table and the woman seated there, I took note of the vintage bottle of Chateau Haute Brion (about $250) and the goose neck decanter. "Thing is," he continued, "I just can't, not with her staring at us."
I looked over, he was pointing through the window into Barbara Estelle's room, he was pointing at table 71, table 71 was empty, in fact the entire room was empty. "Well..." I said a little doubtfully, "there's no one there now, I'll certainly look into...." I broke off because he was staring hard at me, I waited.
"You don't see her?" His voice was tense, "she's staring at us right now!"
Now the man didn't look crazy, but I was certainly beginning to entertain the thought that he might be. "Of course," I said (The customer is always right), "I'll speak with her directly, in the meantime I have a lovely table just on the other side, perhaps we can relocate you?"
This seemed to mollify him and we resolved the situation, or so it seemed. Later, toward the end of the evening I was at the Maitre D' stand checking the reservations for the following night and wishing the guests good bye when the Silver Fox and his bride came down the stairs on their way out. I called out an eager good night and he waved a distant hand and was almost out the door when he stopped to look at a picture on the wall. Now I've told you that the place was an historical landmark and the walls were covered with pictures of old Florida as well as portraits of the Philoment Bryant family and it was at one of these that he was staring. He waved me over and I could see him white beneath his tan, the picture was of a young woman from the Nineteen Twenties, a flapper, the plaque underneath read "Barbara Estelle".
"That's her," he said in a soft voice.
I felt a chill creep up my spine, "She's been dead since 1975." I heard myself say.
The man nodded and left.
It was about two AM that night when the dishwashers knocked on the door of the office where I was reviewing P&L's to tell me they were leaving. I wished them a good night, locked them out and returned to my spread sheets, I was alone. It was very quiet with only the whistling of a high wind outside and the creaking of the old Florida Pine boards from which the house was built to break the silence, and then I began to hear the faint buzz of inaudible conversation coming from below the office. There shouldn't have been anyone there but me so I picked up a flashlight and left the office to investigate but the closer I got to where I thought the noise had come from the fainter the sound became till when I got there all was quiet. I shook myself and decided it must have been my imagination, residual nerves from the "Barbara Estelle incident" I started back upstairs to retrieve my briefcase and call it a night and that's when the music started, loud, swing style music and I'm pretty sure, Billy Holiday vocals. But the music should have been turned off. Once in the office I opened the door to the music control panel and it was all dark, not only was it off, but it didn't seem to even have electricity on. I decided to leave, picked up my briefcase and the music stopped. I descended the steps in silence. At the back door in the kitchen I set the alarm and opened the door to the parking lot as a big gust of wind rushed at me and seemed to hurl me out, slamming the door behind me.
The next day I related all this to the chef, who had worked there for a number of years and he didn't seem at all surprised claiming that many people experienced unusual events there before and particularly susceptible were new managers.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Stayed Too Long at the Table 2

It didn't take very long for me to figure out that, Vinny, the guy who owned Pasta Brokers was a criminal and it wasn't very long after that I discovered he was an organized criminal, but it wasn't until the hit on Eddie Leno made the front page of the New York Post and all the Gambino royalty showed up on the six o'clock news entering and exiting the Racuglia Funeral Parlor in Queens that I began to realize that I knew a lot of the guys from work. Now a thinking man might have decided at that point that it was time to look for another job but I guess I wasn't a thinking man and well, I needed the money and hey, the money was good and the scene was exciting. It was the same year Goodfellows came out in the theater and I could take a date into a mobbed up restaurant and sign for the bill. Back then in the early Nineties there were no cell phones and personal computers were a novelty, so as the day bartender for Vinny I was also kind of like a personal secretary and manager, co-ordinating deliveries and business for the restaurant, vetting his phone calls, maintaining his phone book, keeping mental notes on information he needed which no one could write down and in the process I became pretty good buddies with Frankie the Chef who was Vinny's best friend from childhood and who, with my help ran the restaurant.
During the day we were pretty slow and we did a little business at night so there came a point in time when it was decided we needed to boost sales and this boost came in the form of a Piano player with a jazz trio. The guys name was Mike Cerruti and he was a music legend in New York mob circles. He played all the jazz standards, show tunes and Frank Sinatra covers that the silk suit guys loved and he drew in the Bonnano's Gambinos, Luccheses, Genoveses and Columbos in droves, packing the place and raining down the cash. I made a ton off these guys too as no one, bar none, in my entire experience of life, tips better.
Now sometimes in life you gotta be careful of success because it can attract unwanted attention and that's what happened to Vinny, because his boss, a Capo named Ronnie became really interested in the doings at Pasta Brokers when the music started. It became a show place for his crew and Vinny got put under a lot of pressure, almost like a GM getting ready for a Corporate visit. So it was like the end of the world the day the health department shut us down. I understand why they did it, I really do, the back of the house was filthy, the basement flooded whenever it rained and hey, it was Manhattan, there were rats and mice and roaches and absolutely nobody there knew anything about food safety. So they shut us down. They came on a Monday at 10 AM and by 11 AM they were slapping the sticker notices over the windows and doors and telling us we had fifteen days to prepare for a re-inspection. Well the inspector left and Frankie and I sat down at a table near the bar with a pot of demitasse and a bottle of Sambuca to smoke cigarettes and bitch.
Vinny came through the door at noon, he swept up to us at the table like a roaring storm surge, his face mottled red, smoke seeming to puff from his ears like a cartoon character.
"What the fuck?" He roared, "What the Fuck?!!" He pulled a chair violently up alongside the table where we sat and said in a coiled, controlled, steely tone, "Ronnie is gonna cut my balls off." Then he broke off, making a point to stare me, then Frankie in the eye, each in turn, "Then," he said, "I am gonna cut your balls off!"
I scrambled in my mind, I wanted to keep my balls between my legs, "Hey," I said, "Ronnie only comes here at night, right?"
Vinny looked at me like I'd just pissed on his leg, "So?" he grunted.
"So, the Health Inspectors only work till five."
Frankie started smiling then Vinny, then we all had a shot of Sambuca and that's how we pulled the wool over every one's eyes for two weeks. Every day at five o'clock we posted menus over the health department closing signs and opened for business. Every morning at close we pulled them back down and every day we worked on our health department punch list till we were allowed to officially re-open 15 days later and that's how we deceived the five New York Families and the Health Department of the City of New York.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

There's a hair in my salad!

The angry, red faced woman looks frantically around the dining room from her perch on table 61, like a blond bird trapped to its ass in quick sand. I notice because I'm in charge and that's part of what I do, I notice things. My body tenses because I know that I'm about to be subjected to a little of this nasty woman's outrage, I'm just not yet sure why. One of my waiters, a pleasant young guy named Cory is leaning sheepishly over the table a look of apologetic sadness written across his face. "I want to see a manager, RIGHT NOW!" The woman demands in a shrill voice.
I paste a professional smile onto my face and amble reluctantly over, "Is everything okay?" I ask hopefully.
"No, everything is not okay." She states unequivocally and looks across at her husband. I spare him a cautious glance to see if he is friend or foe and am rewarded with a hairy eyeball.
"Oh?" I say.
"Look at this!"
I look down at the $3.99 side Caesar salad in front of her, and there hanging over a lettuce leaf next to her fork is a long strand of blond hair. I take it all in and look back at her, she has a full head of long blond hair. I close my eyes and think about the cooks in my kitchen the guys who made her salad, they're all African Americans with short Afros. The only other guy who would have touched her plate was a Mexican food runner with a shaved head.
My reverie is interrupted by the shrill voice again, "What are you going to do about this?"
It's her hair, I know it is. "I'm so sorry," I hear myself say, "I'll get you a fresh salad and take it off the bill."
"Is that it?" She demands.
"You ought to pick up the whole check, that's disgusting." Her husband chimes in.
I want to say to him that he should know, that he sleeps next to it every night and wakes up next to it every morning, but I'm no longer who I once was. Now I'm afraid they'll complain to corporate so I say; "How about I buy you guys a couple of beers?"
The wife nods, letting me know its not perfect but she'll take it.
How did I get here? What have I done?