Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me by, Shawn M. Cohen

What a difference a Day makes,
Twenty four little hours,
Yesterday was blue, Dear,
Today there is you, Dear,
What a difference a Day makes,
And the difference is you.

I talked to the waitress at the Encore II that I had made friends with named Lisa. Lisa was a tall woman, with shoulder length, thick black hair and heavy blue glitter eyeshadow, age 42. She had seen it, done it and bought the t-shirt and then some. I liked her adroit expressions and funny one liners, especially about men. She asked me to come out to a "dive bar" but fun place with her on our mutual day off. I thought it couldn't be worse than staring at the uncut grass on our front lawn, out my bedroom window, so I went with her.
We drove past this shop called, "Yesterday's News" which looked interesting, and I asked Lisa about it. "Oh, they have some really funky second hand clothes in there. You should check it out." I liked the look of it, and even though it was closed, I made a mental note to get back there soon. In Los Angeles, at The Swap Meet, Reva and I saw many places that were selling second hand clothes and they were not rags but beautiful. And the cut, the material was always better than the nylon/rayon passing for cotton these days.
We pulled into this dive bar about 10:30 pm, and it was just getting started. We sat at the bar, and I was hoping beyond all hope I wouldn't get carded. After all, I was still just 20. But Lisa was clearly older and this made me think the bartender would assume I was too.
A friendly face with a great smile greeted us as he slid the cocktail napkins on the bar in front of us. "Good evening, Ladies, what can I get for you?" Even in that dark place you could clearly see his sparkling blue eyes. "I'll have a Tangeray Martini, straight up, with a twist." Lisa said matter of fact, as if she had said it a thousand times before. The bartender smiled as if she had said the magic words and then looked at me. What would I drink? Having had to drink in the discos in L.A. to look more grown up and being absolutely ignorant of alcohol, I used to drink a "Grasshopper". Which was now, I realized, inane. Only people who knew nothing of alcohol drank those "baby" drinks. I needed to show I knew something, so I opted for a "Rose wine." It was the only thing I thought I could drink and not feel ill by.
The bartender whipped up her Tangeray Martini with the hands of an expert. And out of his ice well, where I now knew the wines were chilled, he poured me a generous glass of Rose. Relieved I didn't get carded, I paid for the first round. I drank away with Lisa, laughing at all the stories she told me about the Encore, and even more bizarre, her life. She was old enough to be my Aunt, and maybe because I was always so close to my Aunt, I just enjoyed her company. She had another Martini and before you know it, the bartender came over and poured us two more. I was definitely getting drunk but Lisa was so funny, I enjoyed it all. The bartender was good looking enough but under the influence of Rose wine, he was looking mighty fine!
"Lisa, what is that bartender's name, do you know?"
"Oh, yeah, his name is Bobby. Bobby Delray. Cute, huh?"
"Oh, yeah, you noticed, too?" I was slurring my words and giggling.
"Hell yes! Honey, I'm 42, not dead!" I was laughing so loud, the bartender came over.
"Ladies, everything alright?" He cleared our ashtrays of the mountain of cigarette butts and wiped up the wet glass rings on the bar. "Oh, yeah, we're just fine..." I leared at him.
The juke box was playing over and over again, "Bobby's Girl", ("I want to be Bobby's Girl, I want to be Bobby's Girl....") and that, with the Rose, made me dive in where Angels never go. I opened my big Rose drenched mouth and started flirting like a Jezebel!
You know you are in trouble when the bartender actually carries you out to the car. The sheer fact that he could lift me, to be honest, was most impressive! Lisa and I hightailed it out of there laughing our asses off about how cute he was and how much I was flirting and embarrassing the poor guy. One thing Lisa asked him before my actions got out of line was if he knew "The Encore". Bobby had smiled and said, "Sure, I know the Encore and I know Art Swiden, too. Sometimes Art stops here for a drink on his way home. He lives out here, you know." Well, I didn't know, I didn't care, here was that name again and just when I was trying to be a solid member of the "Bobby's Girl Fan Club". I hadn't met him yet but he was the topic on everyone's lips, it seemed.

I somehow made it home and spent the rest of the night, what was left of it at 4 am, in the bathroom hung over the toilet. NEVER Will I EVER drink Rose wine again, NEVER! Luckily for me I had no work the next day, so I slept in. I had made some good tips that past week and I couldn't get that shop out of my mind. I woke up at about 3pm, and although my head hurt, the coffee was enough to get me going. "Ma, can I use the car? I want to go check out this place I saw. I need it for about 2 hours."
My mother was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper, probably looking for a job. "Yeah, ok, Shawn, but I have to pick your brother up from Karate by 7:00 tonight, so be home before then."
I showered and got out of there as fast as I could. Something was calling me to that shop and I drove through the Fort Pitt tunnels to get to Route 51 and that old house which was this shop. I felt excited, and with a mere $100.00 in my pocket which could have gone 500 other ways, I knew this was temptation's dream. I wasn't wrong either. As soon as I opened the door, I saw beautiful 1940's suits, 1950's coats, hats and gloves, purses and scarves, all distinct, unique like nothing I ever saw before, except in a Bogey and Bacall film. I tried on suit after suit. The woman who owned it explained to me that the gabardine, the stitching, the cashmere and so on were all de rigour of the time. I also saw a beautiful baby blue and red Japanese Kimono with wide sleeves, which she suggested could be used as a bathrobe. I found the clothes more me, fit me like a glove, too. "Women were built like women in those days. None of those skinny minnies then. A voluptuous size 14 or 16 was just what Dorthy L'Amour and Marilyn Monroe were! And the men were crazy about them!" She knew her clothes and the stories behind them but she didn't have to sell me, I was hooked, lined and sinkered. I bought as many 1940's suits as I could find. Some with pencil skirts with a slit in the front, some with a slit in the back, or side. Other suits had a pleaded skirt to the knee. I even bought a pair of jodhpurs, not knowing what on Earth I would do with them, but I had a pair of long black leather boots, and the thought of them with a black, shoulder padded jacket with ribbon pipping set my heart aflame. At last, I was in my element, and it showed as each piece I found fit me like a glove! I also took some beautiful leather gloves to match a great spring swing coat I found, grey in color. In the end, I spent the whole $100.00 and I felt I had made a great purchase with a lot of clothes in top beautiful styles, colors and conditions. The electric bill would have to wait!
Lisa and I were going to try and go out again, this time somewhere else so I could not shame myself again with embarrassment. (Actually she was laughing the whole time but reality set in the next day and "never again will I go there," I said to her.) But I agreed to meet her after work, for an after hours club she knew about. So, the next day when I got dressed to go to work at the Encore, I decided to wear one of my new suits, which was a grey suit with black ribbon piping around the collar and the sleeves of the shoulder padded jacket. The skirt was also grey and pleaded to the knee. The jacket tailored in at the waist. I wore this and packed my Encore uniform of a white shirt and black trousers in a bigger hand bag with my make-up as well, separate from my purse. I took a cab to work that got me downtown just in time to change and get on the floor, but as I came in the Hostess stopped me and said, "Bobby Davis wants to see you in the back." I wondered what he wanted? He was always nice to me, we had a little routine of reading our Horoscopes together when he had the paper. Maybe he found something funny he wanted to show me in his newspaper. I walked the length of the Encore as the waitresses were coming in to start their 5:00 shift. I saw Bobby at the end table in the back, reading the paper, as usual.
"Hi Bobby, did you want to see me?"
"Listen Kid," he started, pensively. "You got to go up to Shadyside, Art needs a waitress there."
Now that was a bit of a shock. I had just met him the night before where he talked like Clark Gable into my right ear. But I was happy where I was and I knew the routine here now and I told Bobby that.
"No, no, you don't understand, Honey, I've got a cab waiting outside for you. You've got to go! Art said so, and that is that. " Bobby got up and started walking to the door. I followed him protesting. "No Bobby, I don't want to go. I don't want to work there in Shadyside, I heard it is very rough there, and you said you would watch out for me here. You know my Aunt. Can't you send someone else??"
"No" Bobby was huffing and puffing as his big body navigated the dark restaurant towards the door.
"But they say Art is crazy, I don't want to work up there with him." I don't even know why I said that. He seemed charming and lovely, but I was being thrown out of my comfort zone, and Lisa wasn't even in yet. I was still in my grey 1940's suit to go out with her with after work. How could I do that when I was up in Shadyside at the Encore there.
"Look, you are the last man on the totem pole to be hired. I can't send anyone else. If you don't go then ..." he took a breath and looked at me , "it's your job!"
That was it. I just looked at him. I felt like I hadn't somehow passed the test and he was dumping me in Shadyside. What did he mean Art needed me? And why me? But I needed the money and the job, so I nodded my head in utter frustrated compliance.
The yellow taxi drove me back towards where I had come from. Shadyside was actually closer to where I lived. The whole way I felt like crying. Why did they not want me Downtown? I thought I was doing a good job. And what would it be like working there? I had a long history with Shadyside. I thought how my first job was there with my friend Rae-Gayle and her mother. When we were 16, we had a Saturday job stuffing envelopes and licking stamps at a club called, "The Gaslight". Rae-Gayle and I laughed and drank coffee and talked about boys, like any 16 year olds. I had my first bank account there in Shadyside, too and it was Rae-Gayle's mother who showed me how to open one. I hung out here in high school with Glen and my friends in the halcyon hippie days of the early 1970's. It was only June, 1976, and a cold one at that. But oh, what will happen to me now, working again in Shadyside, but this time at the notorious Encore I? I got out of the cab, and straightened my skirt. I pulled open the big heavy door, to see nothing but black, just like the Encore Downtown. It took me a minute to adjust my eyes, when a tall man came towards me. It was Art, and he had a big smile on his face. "Hi, Shawn, welcome to the Encore. Come here, and sit down, how about some coffee?" He signaled to the waitress to get me a coffee. I realized I was sitting next to a gentleman. The waitress brought me my coffee. I said ,"Thanks" and wondered what now? Art was busy smiling at me. He kept looking at my face, which only grew redder with every stare of his. He asked me if I knew the owner of the Encores, and I said no. "Shawn Cohen, this is Mr. Will Shiner, he signs our paychecks, he is the big boss." I smiled cordially and said, "Hello., nice to meet you." He was a pipe smoking gentleman and seemed sedate, quietly checking the room. I was beginning to wonder when I was going to start work and Art was puffing on his huge cigar talking up a storm to me. I was listening but inside trying to figure out what I was going to be doing. I decided to brave it and ask. "Uhm, Art, should I start working now? I am here to work, right? So, I would like to start now, if that's ok with you.." Art laughed, and took a puff on his long cigar.
"Relax, Kid, when it's time, I'll let you know. Believe me! Meanwhile, have a cigarette if you want and enjoy the ride." I took out my cigarettes, he must have known I was dieing for one, and reached across the table to light it for me with a huge flame on his pocket lighter. He lit each one of mine after that, too. Art was enjoying himself telling me all about Gilbert the downstairs daytime bartender, and I began thinking to myself, "Oh my God, what is this?? I have been here for two hours.... what the hell am I doing here??? "

"The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me" by, Shawn M. Cohen. Copyright 2010. This is a true story , created from the non-fiction book I am currently writing but some names have been changed to protect people's privacy.