There are some things you just shouldn’t joke around about. Death, as a generalized concept, can be funny, true. But you don’t, for example, look at the old guy who sits night after night at the end of the bar, gray and bitter, mumbling to himself how this one is an “asshole” and that one is “an even bigger asshole” and take bets on when he’s going to die. It’s downright cynical, for one thing. And it’s bad mojo.
I knew this then, which is why I didn’t put any money into the pool, though I admit to having laughed right along with the others when they did. But betting on death—that was taking a laugh just a little too far—even here, where nothing, and I mean nothing, is sacred.
There’s George. He started it.
But let’s rewind the clock a year or two.
George is singing That’s Amore in his Cheese Suit. I was going to say, “big Cheese Suit,” but that might summon the image of a man singing while dressed up like someone important. Instead, the image (and I apologize in advance) is that of a 49- year old beer-bellied, hairy-chested, skinny-legged man wearing a gold lame’ bathing suit bottom and a giant wedge of Swiss cheese draped over his body like a Mexican poncho. A paper Mache’ cheese wheel is balanced on top of his head and held in place by a thick chin strap. He’s bathed in sweat, wears sneakers with no socks and stands in front of a black baby grand piano, a cordless mike in one hand, the other hand conducting the audience in a drunken sing-a-long.
This is the image I want you to see.
I’ll give you a moment.
Okay. Good. Come with me.
Here is what he is singing:
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore’
When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine
Why, you may want to ask, is the idiot dressed up like a giant piece of cheese? There is no mention of “cheese” in the song, and this is a reputable joint, with red velvet curtains on the window, $10 drinks and a line outside the door to get in. If you ask the fellow from Des Moines sitting next to you, he’ll slap you on the back and tell you. He’s here twice a year with the misses. He never misses a George night when he’s in town.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet, buddy!” he’ll say. “Wait till he takes it all off to sing On the Street Where You Live. Shit, I’ve seen him run outside with the mike and hail a cab while he’s singing. Yes, sir, This guys’ a real pip.”
But don’t ask that guy.
If you do, you’ll spend the next part of the story wondering about the word “pip” which, according to the Free Online Dictionary you will Google on your smart phone, means one of three things: 1. The small seed of a fruit; 2. A small shape or symbol; or 3. A disease of poultry or other birds causing thick mucus in the throat and white scale on the tongue. Bewildered, you will then turn to the Online Slang Dictionary, which will tell you that “pip” is slang for “peeing in pants.”
So please don’t ask the guy from Iowa.
Ask Albert—the old wheezy guy at the end of the bar, the one stooped over his Daily News beside the waiter station.
“He’s an asshole,” Albert will tell you, adding, “Leave me alone.”
I see you’re still confused.
Perhaps if you have a drink…
You’re in luck! George is about to explain. See? He has finished his song and is speaking to the audience—that’s you—the adoring, drunken audience, his people.
He’s dabbing his sweaty forehead with a bev-nap from Table #1. (He’ll hand it back to them after, but they don’t know this yet.)
You may be asking yourselves why I am dressed as a giant piece of cheese (Hear the applause? They love him.) You see, the song is about love, which can be very, very cheesy (Oh, the crowd is with him tonight!) and pizza, which has cheese on top (more laughter and a few good-natured groans). It also mentions the moon, which has often been compared to a wheel of cheese (He’s so funny, right?), and pasta fazzul, which, in case you don’t speak Italian, is pasta with beans, and sometimes cheese, on top. Pasta with beans can also cause you to have gas, and this is smelly, like some fine cheeses (Listen to the applause and hysterical laughter, table-banging, shouts of approval! Look at the dollar bills flying through the air. George is on fire tonight! Wait, look. He’s pulling a rubber chicken out of his black bag. You’ll love this part!)
“Where the Hell are we?” you ask?…
But how could you not know by now. You must have spent at least an hour in line out there to get in. And in the rain, no less. Huddled there beneath the umbrella of a helpful tourist for an hour, and nobody prepared you for this place?
Let’s look around.
You see why it took so long to get in. The room is long, but it’s very narrow. There’s a formal bar on the left with a small open seating area just beyond the wait station. To the right, a black vinyl banquette stretches all the way from the entrance to the stage. The mirrored wall behind it gives the illusion of space, but it’s really quite small. And the tiny black tables and cabaret chairs in front of the banquette keep things accessible for the waiters, and friendly. The emphasis here, as you can see, is on neighborliness. No one is a stranger here at Mama’s.
The focus of the room, of course, is the small stage at the front of the banquette, but in order to see it, you will have to turn your head at a 90 degree angle. A small price to pay for such quality entertainment—with no cover charge, I might add.
Let’s look closer.
The first table-Table #1—is the one closest to the piano, right in front of the entertainment. It’s the best seat in the house, technically-speaking, and so the bar has strict rules for those fortunate enough to be seated here. They are posted in a plastic menu holder right there on top of the table. Here are the rules:
- Everyone at Table #1 must smoke continuously. If you must take a break between cigarettes, be sure to do it in between singers. The singers here require a veil of smoke in front of their faces at all times.
- You are required to talk and laugh loudly during all ballads. If the rest of the room can hear the singer above your drunken voices, then you will be asked to move to a table in the back. This move will occur during a quiet song.
- You must be drunk when seated and continue to drinking heavily throughout your tenancy at Table # 1. Before your glass is empty, you must loudly call out to your waiter or bartender to “Fill ‘er up!” If your waiter or bartender is singing a heartfelt ballad on the little stage one foot in front of your face, you should call out the phrase above, then stick your empty glass in their free hand—the one not holding the microphone. You must accomplish this, of course, without actually stepping on the little stage because if you do, your singing waiter or bartender gets to say to you, “Are you in show business?” (When asked this question, your answer is “no.” Please stick to your lines to make the night go smoothly.) When you answer, “no,” your waiter will hand you back the empty glass and say, into the microphone, “then get off the fucking stage.” (You will be the “star” of the room for one glorious moment before you throw up in front of the piano and the delighted crowd.)
Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve finished your drink. Let’s get you another. Right away. Here, follow me.
See the two women in their thirties—the ones dressed in black, hustling mixed drinks and ringing up checks as fast as Albert can say, “Turn the blender off, asshole!” (Don’t worry. They’re used to him and don’t take it personally.)
They are both attractive, wouldn’t you say? Okay, maybe just a tad on the heavy side and very close to being almost past their prime, but still, attractive. One has teased black hair, an ample cleavage and wears too much eye-liner. You like the way her gray eyes dance, and the red lipstick smile never leaves her face. You would never get the feeling she hates you.
The other one apparently keeps her sanity by staying in a zone all night. She doesn’t hear you when you call out your order, but she’s efficient when you telepathically will her to your corner of the bar. She’ll remember your order and refill your glass for free if you hang out for a while. Unlike the other, buxom, one, she reads nods and hand-signals and doesn’t bother to attempt conversation across the noise. You may or may not remember what she looks like later, when you stumble into your cab for wherever it is you’re staying, pleasantly sloshed and relieved to be out of the gayety. What you’ll remember is that she kept you in alcohol without requiring too much.
Oh yeah—and it was either her or the other one—one of the two had a really amazing singing voice. Why the Hell would anybody with a voice like that want to be a bartender, you think.
You share this thought with Albert, who is chain smoking Camels and reading his Daily News with his back to the singers all night. He answers predictably.
Anyway, that’s the bar. It’s crowded. There are three rows of people lined up behind each seat, waiting to order, so let’s go back to the floor. We might find a table somewhere if we’re quick.
We’ll slip past George. George we’ve seen.
Which night is this? Because if it’s Tuesday, we can sit in Elaine’s section. She’s the one with the cute Baby Snooks voice wearing the silly hats. From the Bronx, writes little ditties and sits on top of the piano swinging her legs when she sings. You’ll like her. Everybody does. Been here forever. (She’s not in on the bet, by the way, so she’s likely to be here for all eternity.)
Me? No, you’re right. I wasn’t in on it, either. I escaped the old fashioned way. I got married.
If it’s Friday or Saturday…and judging by the crowd, I believe it must be the weekend, so it’s Mark you’ll want to meet. He’s the tall, handsome dude over there, the one with a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip, tallying up checks and re-stacking the bev-naps.
Cute, huh? He works out. He’s actually older than any of us, but you’d never know it to look at him. He’s got a full head of hair he slicks back every hour or so with a plastic comb he keeps in his back pocket. He’s nice, but pissy with the tourist—no tolerance for idiots. He’s got a T-Bird convertible with fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. Nice guy. Gay, of course. Anyway, it’s his turn to sing soon, so don’t sit in his section if you’re thirsty. Doomed, by the way. Aids. Had it for 20 years, but didn’t get sick until after that stupid bet.
Oh, look! George is singing Those Were the Days. I love this song.
Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two…
We can stand over here by Andrew, the kid with the tambourine. He’s the greatest, really. Been hanging out at Mama’s since he was…what? Sixteen, maybe? I dunno. The thing is he’s sort of our mascot. He’s a good luck charm—always smiling, bringing his own tambourine, singing harmonies all night.
Yeah, nothing legal about it. But look around. We’re non-conformist here. He’s a great kid. He stands there on the other side of the wait station, never expects a seat, goes through about a pack of cigarettes in a night. And he plays. I mean, he can really play the piano. Once the owner found out he could play, he started popping him in to cover the breaks, even threw him a sub night or two, which really pissed off Vanessa.
Oh, God. Vanessa. Well, there she is—the dour-looking tranny in the dark clothing. She kind of liked Andrew until the whole break and sub thing started. That was her gig. She plays jazz—you’ll see later. But the singers can’t stand working with her cause she improvises too much, makes it all about her, you know?
She has a daughter searching for her somewhere in Rhode Island, looking for her dad, Ralph. Had no idea. By the time the daughter finds out about her, Vanessa will be dead. (Asthma)
George has whipped the crowd into a frenzy. They’re raising their glasses in the air, swaying and singing along. He really knows how to work a room. He can’t add up a check, but nobody cares. He passes out freebies all night long and exchanges phone numbers with the tourists. They love him.
Now Jay is singing. He’s not a bad singer for a pianist. Likes to surprise the crowd with whimsical numbers like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Occasionally puts on a pirate hat and speaks pirate into the mike all night, just for fun.
Makes them do it, too.
People love talking like pirates.
Sadly, he was in on the bet, too. Dropped dead before a gig in Mikonos. No warning. Just riding his motor scooter one minute, dead the next.
Oh, dear. I forgot to warn you about Leona, but here she comes, marching up to the piano like a 300 pound sausage in a 40 pound bag. Honestly, I don’t know how she manages to sing in that spandex getup. She’s at least 80 years old, but she dresses like a teenage hooker. Her platinum wig is never on straight, and I swear to God she spit her dentures out of her mouth one night in the middle of howling Kansas City, Here I Come.
No, really. I’m serious. Gummed the rest of the song and then damned if she didn’t bend her fat ass over and pick up those filthy dentures and pop them right back into her mouth! The people at Table #1 were dying. I mean, she’s like a St. Bernard with the saliva, and they were covered in it. Served them right, though. Anybody at that table deserves what they get.
Why couldn’t Leona have been in on the bet? She’s meaner than a hornet and uglier than a dirty foot.
Don’t let her scare you away. Andrew will play later. A musical genius, that kid. Smart as a whip, and funny, too. Got kicked out of school, but he could care less. Not his destiny. He’ll be Barnum and Baileys youngest ever keyboard player by the time he’s 20. That’s how good this kid is. Goes on tour with the fucking circus—his dream job! Lives in a boxcar next car down from the Chinese contortionists. Happy as a clam. That’s where they’ll find him, two weeks before his 21st birthday, when he doesn’t show up for the matinee in Philly. Diabetic shock. Broke the hearts of those of us who were left. Even the clowns stopped smiling.
Ironic. He won that bet.
Oh. It must be getting late. There goes Albert.
Night, Albert. See you soon.
Well, I’m sure he didn’t mean us. He was talking about Leona and the tourists.
Anyway, this is the moment we were waiting for. Here comes George with his clever remarks about Albert, and watch how their eyes light up at the thought. They’re all laughing and laying odds on how much longer he’ll make it, how many weeks or months it’ll be before the old geezer drops. Hysterical at the thought of his epitaph, carved in stone for all eternity.