Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Pittsburgh Phantom and Me , by Shawn M. Cohen

I am just a poor boy,
Though my story's seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance,
For a pocket full of promises,
All lies and jests.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.

When I left my home and my family,
I was no more than a boy,
In the company of strangers,
In the quiet of the railway station, running scared.
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters,
Where the ragged people go.
Looking for the places only they would know.

Asking only workman's wages,
I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers,
Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue.
I do declare, there were times that I was so lonesome,
I took some comfort there.

Laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was gone
Going home,
Where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me,
Bleeding me, going home.

In the clearing stands a Boxer,
and a fighter by his trade,
And he carries the reminders,
Of every glove that laid him down,
Or cut him till he cried out,
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving",
But the fighter still remains.

The Boxer, by Paul Simon. Sung by Simon and Garfunkel

It was around midnight that Art came back into the Encore. Harold was blowing his trombone, and the people were loving it. I had four tables, and was busy serving them in the crowded bar, so I didn't notice him come in.
"How ya doing, Champ?" he came up from behind me, asking me in my ear. The music was loud but I heard his deep voice. I quickly turned around, careful to balance the tray full of drinks I had in my right hand, raised up high, above the crowd.
"Good, I think." I hoped he thought so, too. The bartender was 2 deep at the bar, and for a week day night, this joint was hopping!
"OK, Kid, go get 'em!" Art reassured me. I smiled and went out into the crowd, my waitress tray raised high above their heads, filled with 2 Vodka Martinis, 2 Pina Coladas, 1 Bacardi and Coke, and 2 Jack Daniels on the rocks, still wearing my 1940's grey suit, black tights and high heels. In this Encore, I was told, we didn't wear uniforms, we could wear what we wanted as long as it looked smart. I liked that idea so, I put my packed uniform for the Encore II behind the bar, with my handbag, for safe keeping, like all the waitresses did.
Art stood silently by the service bar and watched. He smoked his big cigar, signalled with a quick raising of his head to the bartender who automatically brought him a Coke a Cola, and just observed. I felt his eyes on me from the back of my head. I wasn't sure if he was watching me because he wanted to see how I was doing on the small but packed floor of this Encore, or if he was just watching over me, in case something happened. People had been known to be knifed here, and fights had also been known to break out. These were the times of racial integration. And many an African American patron would come in to hear the smooth sounds of the Jazz musicians, often African American themselves, just like Harold Betters who was being enjoyed by the listening crowd but even in 1976, racism still existed. It could also be the booze as well, people getting too drunk, causing trouble. Art, I was told, was a hell of a "bouncer" as well as the manager. He seemed to have one eye cocked, looking to see where trouble or a potential fight might break out. I was told all this by the night time bartender, named John. It seemed where ever I went in these two Encores, everyone talked about Art. And not always nicely.They talked about how Art could fly over the bar in a seconds notice, if he saw trouble. He would take the guy with his big hands by the back of his shirt and throw him out the front door on to the pavement, screaming obscenities! That he was "punch drunk" from too many prizefights, "crazy", "over reacted to things", "violent"! For myself, I couldn't see that at all. Art was a big man, about 6'1" tall and must have weighed over 220 lbs! How could he fly over this tall bar, "like a gazelle"?! They must be exaggerating. I figured it was best for me to just keep my mouth shut, and do my job, as best as I could. If I spilled a tray full of drinks in this crowd, and this was so much smaller than the Encore II, I would definitely be spilling it on customers, and I didn't want that! Gossip about our Boss , Art Swiden, the ex heavyweight boxer, was just that I figured, and I ignored it.

The night slipped into the wee hours. Art was upstairs, as the restaurant part of the Encore closed around midnight and he was up there, cashing out the register with the upstairs bartender. All the waitresses for the restaurant had gone home, but not before introducing themselves to me. Terry and Joni, and another Terry were the three on board. They all seemed nice, and much younger in their 20's and 30' s, then the ones who worked downtown. I felt like I could relate to them, and was looking forward to working with them.
As the bartender issued, "Last Call for drinks", Harold Betters announced from the stage, "Thanks, Ladies and Gentlemen you've been a great audience tonight and now we would like to play for you our last song for the evening, here at The Encore, "What a Wonderful World". And as he started blowing the notes into his slide trombone, I saw Art walk back into the room. He gave the money bag to the bartender, stopped for a second and watched Harold play. His eyes seemed a bit misty eyed, smiling to himself. I got the feeling, as I was serving my last orders to my customers, that he liked that song.
When it was all done, the money collected for all the tabs, and my envelopes of tips given out to the bartender and the busboy, I was glad the night was over. Art approached me and said,
"How'd you do tonight, Shawn, make any money?" I jangled my waitress apron, where I had stuffed the dollar bills and the change.
"I haven't counted it yet, but seems to be pretty good." I said happily.
"Good, now when we get really busy, you play your cards right, you'll make a lot more then that!" Art said with a wink.
"Gee, I thought we were pretty busy, you mean it can get busier than this?" I inquired.
Art just laughed, "Honey, you ain't seen nothing yet! Now, go home, get a good night's sleep, and call the secretary in the morning. I think you're gonna work day shift for a bit, and maybe a mix of some nights. She knows all the schedules, so call her in the morning. You did good, Kid! How you getting home? Need a cab?" I nodded my head, "Yes." He then motioned to John, and in a one fell swoop, John brought over the phone, and Art called me a cab. He asked for the cab in one of his funny voices. "Hello! I need a cab, RIGHT NOW, at the Encore, 5505 Walnut St., Shadyside, OK?." I laughed because it was James Cagney again.
Within seconds, the cab came and Art walked me out to the cab, making sure, since it was 2:30 am, that I was in it safely. " See ya, Shawn." I said my good byes and thanks and off I went into the night, $35.00 worth of tips in my wallet. I gently tossed my heels off, due to my throbbing aching feet, and watched the still, dark night out of the backseat of the cab, as he drove back to my home in Stanton Heights.
The next day I called the secretary who said I was put on the day time shift, from 10:30 am to 4:30pm, starting tomorrow. She would try to get me on nights, but didn't have any available right now. I was disappointed. Night time is a longer shift and better money. However, I knew two of my best friends would be home from Penn State University, and that was what I was looking forward to. Anne would be out, too, for the summer. The Penn State crew were due home today, so I just waited for their phone calls. They were Judi, who was my oldest childhood friend, from 4th grade on and Robbie (short for Roberta), who I had also known since grade school but we met at the Jewish Community Center at the bottom of Stanton Avenue. She was from Highland Park as was Rae-Gayle, Reva, and Anne. The East End girls from Highland Park all went to a different grade school but we all attended Peabody High School in East Liberty. Robbie called me first.
"Hey, Shawnny, I am home, at last! How are you?"
We talked for an hour catching up, then I convinced her to come and see that great second hand clothing shop,"Yesterday's News"with me, knowing she would love it. So we did. We spent the day talking and laughing, and trying on all manor of clothes out there. I was tired from the shift at The Encore the night before but nothing cheered me up faster then seeing my old best friend. I was like another kid in their family, as in Judi's,too. Robbie and I were really close. She loved all the clothes, spending most of her time in blue jean over- alls and t-shirts at Penn State, so she welcomed the change into more feminine suits. She bought a fabulous 1940's red suit, with a pencil skirt, and her olive skin tone and her black hair and brown eyes just shone in it. She and I had similar figures, so as she put it, "These clothes fit me like a glove!" Yep, I knew the feeling. She, like me, bought loads. "I'm going to need a job now, after this!" she said smiling. I told her all about my job at The Encore and suggested she apply there. "Not sure that is where I want to work. We'll see, I need to take some time, just being home, before I see what's out there." I understood what she meant. She was always the rational one between us. I liked to think she had good common sense. When I wasn't sure about something, I knew I could ask Robbie, and she would see it right, offer solutions that made sense. I loved her for that. Now, I had hope. I had my friends home from college, at long last, a job, although it was hard work, it was possible to make some money from it. Robbie and I were going to go out and paint the town. June was finally looking up, even though my mother was still pestering me to go to this therapist. We argued over this a couple of times, but now I was feeling so much better. Who needs a therapist when you have your best friends?!

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