Sometimes I'm self-conscious
about my status as an underachiever
so I try to suck as much as possible out of my experience behind bars. It is humbling to have to wear a little plastic name tag after seventeen years of schooling and my situation in the tavern occasionally requires me to utter the dreaded mantra of liberal arts
"Would you like fries with that?"
It seems that just when I'm ready to throw in the bar rag and search for greener pastures I'm visited with an experience that reminds me of the positive side of my trade and am given a small jolt of enthusiasm to remain behind the bar. I worked a private party in St. Paul not long ago that I would have paid to attend.
The party was given to honor a man who is arguably the greatest Minnesotan ever, Harold Stassen, in recognition of his 90th birthday. If Mr. Stassen's name is less than a household word, it wasn't for lack of trying on his part. His reputation lately revolves around his ten unsuccessful bids for the White House and his extraordinarily bad toupee but he is a truly great historical figure. He has since expired but was at the time the last living signatory of the United Nations Charter, one of its primary architects and most ardent supporters.
Harold, at the age of thirty-one, had been the youngest person ever elected Governor in United States history and he hadn't rested on his laurels for a minute since then. During World War II he joined the Navy and was given the position of Chief of Staff under Bull Halsey in the Pacific and stood on the deck of a warship in Tokyo Bay to help preside over the surrender of the Japanese. He was a great advocate of world peace through world government and the crowd who showed up to toast his ninetieth birthday was impressive indeed. The Chairman and two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in attendance, as was The Admiral of the Navy and most of the Congressional Delegation from Minnesota. Nearly every name on the guest list appeared somewhere in the history books or on the front page of the New York Times.
The party was like a trip to Disney World for a student of politics or history. Although I may be a minimum wage slug, I've lived long enough to shoot the breeze with the Secretary-General of the United Nations and to sell a scotch and water to a four-star general. Harold was a life-long Republican but I had to go to his birthday party to meet my favorite Democrat, Eugene McCarthy. It turns out that Eugene and I have a favorite human in common and it was surreal chatting with Senator McCarthy about Abraham Lincoln and getting paid for the privilege.
That little scene alone was worth the tuition at bartender college.
Billy has worked at the chow mein noodle factory since high school so he hasn't had occasion to meet many famous people. George Hamilton
spilt a drink on him once, next to a craps table at Caesar's Palace
but that's about the extent of it. Billy was down a couple of grand at the time and was having a little bit of a mood so he just about kicked the pretty boy's ass right then and there. He is decidedly unimpressed by celebrity.
We were standing in line at the clubhouse to pay our greens fees one time and I gave him an elbow to the rib cage when I noticed a luminary standing right there in front of us.
"Hey, Wilbur, that's Sam Shepard!"
I had the good sense to whisper but Billy was half-asleep and responded loud enough to be heard on the practice green.
"That's very exciting. Who the hell is Sam Shepard?"
The famous playwright and actor turned around and gave us half a smile but he was understandably reluctant to pal around with us much after that. Ironically enough it was Billy who started Jaime and me off on a pissing contest over brushes with greatness that day. Our fourth didn't show up, so we had plenty of time to chat between shots while the Shepard foursome played in front of us.
Lord knows I hate to gossip and I'd thank you not to tell anybody I said this but as a golfer Sam makes a pretty good playwright.
I was responsible for one of Billy's rare celebrity encounters
and it happened to be with one of the few people on Earth who would move him to awe. I had a bartending gig at the 91st U.S. Open
at Hazeltine and managed to hook him up with Jack Nicklaus
to get his hat signed as a souvenir. Jaime is a fanatical golfer as well and was duly impressed when Billy began boasting for me.
"Jonny's met Jack Nicklaus."
"You got it, man. Me and Jack are tight."
"What was the first thing you said to him?"
"I think I said something like, 'Hey, you're Jack Nicklaus!'"
"He probably gets a lot of that."
Jaime and I both worked in the hotel and restaurant business forever so it never occurred to me to bring up my encounters with famous people. I presumed correctly that he would have one to match each one of mine and that he would be equally jaded over the thrill of the events. We both agreed that being a widely recognized human would be a real drag after the novelty wore off, everybody wants something from them or expects them to perform on command. Each room that they enter becomes a feeding frenzy and they are the bloody piece of meat in the shark tank. If somebody ever gives you the choice between fame and fortune, I'd recommend going for the fortune.
"So I'm in the clubhouse with Jack and I say to him, 'Hey Jack, you're a living legend and all so when you stand over a three foot putt do you say to yourself: I'm Jack Nicklaus, I'm the best golfer who has ever taken breath?'"
"Yeah, so what did he say?"
"You know I'm not sure, I wasn't really listening. I was trying to think of something else to ask him while I had him there in front of me."
Billy acted as a scoring judge
when Jaime and I started trading names, rating our responses with a derisive sneer or nodding with a half-smile when he found the celebrity encounter mildly impressive. He was apparently immune to popular culture and proved as difficult to thrill as the Russian judge
at the Olympics
. The great majority of our experiences received little more than a rolling of his eyes.
"I sold Jean-Luc Ponty a cognac."
"Oh yeah, Patti Smith kissed my forehead at a club."
"Anita Baker hollered at me for stepping on her fur coat."
"That's nothing, Joe Strummer dripped sweat on me in Cleveland."
None of the names seemed to ring a bell with Billy so Jaime raised the stakes a little.
"I stood on stage fifteen feet away from Billy Joel's piano stool at a concert."
Billy nodded his limited approval for the first time and started walking closer to Jaime down the fairway.
"Oh yeah, I gave my cab to Ian Hunter and his bass player gave me a backstage pass."
To my horror Billy had never heard of Ian Hunter so I think I lost a point or two. Jaime picked up on my weakness and went in for the kill.
"I danced with Tony Bennett."
"You're a damned liar. He's lying, Billy, he never danced with Tony Bennett."
"Did so, he was pretty buzzed and we didn't dance the whole song but he took me for a little spin, baby."
Damn! We were only on the third hole and it looked like Jaime was going to bury me. Billy was patting him on the back and asking about Tony Bennett's cologne so I knew I had to pull out the big guns.
"I rode in a limousine with Papa John."
Bill and Jaime harmonized in a sarcastic snort.
"The pizza guy?"
"No, man, Papa John from the Mamas and the Papas. I rode with him in the limo to a sound check and shot the shit with him for most of the day."
I remembered too late that Jaime worked at the same hotel and met him as well.
"That's nothing, everybody knows John Phillips. I brought room service up to his ex-wife, Michelle and all she had on was a bathrobe and a smile. Yeah, baby!"
Jaime was crushing me with the likes of Robert De Niro
and Michael Jordan
and I was hitting the bottom of the barrel with Tippi Hedren
and The Little Rascals
. He even managed to top my Jack Nicklaus story with the hilarious recounting of a drunken spectacle involving Chi Chi Rodriguez
and Fuzzy Zoeller
. I dredged up Tony Curtis
and he hit me between the eyes with the double header of a romantic dinner he served to Prince
and Kim Bassinger
. The little bastard called my Sam Donaldson
and raised me a Buster Poindexter
When I told him I had given Charlie Sheen an aspirin he bragged about giving Joan Jett a back rub and when I got hard up and boasted about Hugh Downs he nailed me to the wall with Barbara Walters. Politicians are the last refuge to which a braggart will cling but I was getting desperate. I gave them the run down of the guest list at Harold Stassen's birthday party and neither one of them recognized a single name.
"Well, how about Wendell Anderson? I tripped Wendell Anderson once."
Bill and Jaime both gave me a withering look, then shrugged in unison.
"You know, Wendell Anderson, the former Governor of Minnesota who was a rising star 'til he got drummed out of politics for appointing himself to Walter Mondale's Senate seat. He was on the cover of Time Magazine for chrissake. You must have heard of him."
Billy already picked a winner in our little contest but decided to humor me a little.
"So how did you trip Wendell Anderson?"
"I recognized him walking through the hotel lobby but I wasn't sure where I knew him from. I asked him if he wasn't "The Professor" from Gilligan's Island and he got a little pissed off. He gave me a real dirty look and started walking at twice the clip. He told me over his shoulder that he was a former United States Senator and that's when he hit the raised flagstone in front of the fireplace and fell flat on his ass."
Jaime won the gold but Billy gave me points for style.
"Heh, heh, you're a name dropper all right."