Tag Archive for 'maude’s'


Summer 1973…It was a bad time to be a bartender.

The economy was in recession. Unemployment had risen from 5% to 9% in a year and a half. The prime rate was 10.2%. Inflation was at 7.4%.

Real Estate was in the toilet. You could buy a three-story brownstone in the 80′s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for $60,000, but they wanted 20% down and nobody had 60 cents worth of collateral.

You moved warily through the city like a mouse rushing from one hole to another. The subways were a no-go after 10 p.m. Mugging was a simple speedy transaction by which money was transferred in exchange for safety. But the hard core pros complicated it by slashing you on the arm or even the face to keep you from pursuing, so you had to run or yell for help or even fight back and that’s how people got killed.

The murder rate was up to 11.5 per 100,000. Blacks were eight times as likely to be murdered as whites. The police shot 54 people to death that year.

We had stopped fighting in Vietnam, but Nixon was still bombing Cambodia. The Senate ignored Kissinger’s heartfelt pleas and blocked funding for the attacks.

Oh yeah, and the whole country was mesmerized by the Watergate Hearings. Watching in astonishment as White House Counsel John Dean ratted out Nixon, saying they had discussed the break-in 35 times.

So now we knew that our President, who had won by a landslide in ’72, was a burglar, a blackmailer and a drunk.

But my big problem was glassware.

I was working at a place called “Maude’s” in the Summit Hotel on 51st. and Lexington. “A commercial caravansary,” W.C. Fields would have called it. A no-frills flop for the professional traveler. The guys with the dog-eared address books and smudged invoice pads…Suits getting shiny in the seat.

The Gay ’90′s red-light bordello theme played well with this crowd. They liked the all- you-can-eat buffets, the sullen waitresses in low-cut leotards, spangles and tights. But they didn’t like the drinks.

In line with the Art Nouveau knockoffs, the Tiffany lamps and the plush booths management had given us their version of period glassware. The rocks glasses were what were once known as “double old fashioned,” designed for a voluminous drink with whiskey, mulled sugar, and soda.They were as big and hefty as cut glass vases. if you threw them against a wall the building would crumble. I could empty a ten ounce bottle of soda into them with room to spare. No way I could make the “house pour” an ounce and a half shot look respectable in a glass that big.

Inverted shot glasses stood on a towel on the bar. We had to pour a shot into the glass right in front of the customer so he would know what he was getting, then pour it into the glass where it hardly covered the bottom. Piling the glass with ice just made the drink disappear altogether.

The waitresses complained bitterly. I was killing their tips. They thought I was short-pouring them to make up for my own larceny. Any hopes of a romantic interlude were dashed.

I actually felt for the customers. They would belly up, bright-eyed and expectant. But even veteran tipplers could be thrown by faulty glassware. If a drink didn’t sparkle or look generous their moods would quickly sour. It was the same volume of alcohol they got everywhere else, but it looked like a squirt in the big glass and they took it as a personal affront.

The cocktail glasses were 8 ounce “double martinis” with thick braided stems. They had a line bisecting the bowl at the four ounce mark. It was the high water mark for cocktails—we surpassed it on pain of dismissal. All the cocktails looked incomplete as if the bartender hadn’t made them properly, when in fact much skill had been employed toeing the line.

The customers would squint pointedly at their glasses while I stood there with a hapless smile, all hopes of a gratuity cruelly dashed.

It was killing the business. Hotel guests were going down the block to Kenny’s Steak Pub where the bartenders free-poured into conventional glassware, making the same ounce and a half look like the Johnstown Flood.

I complained to the the General Manager, a Cornell Hotel Management grad, but he was besotted with the design scheme.

“If we put in standard glassware it’ll ruin the look,” he said.

The bartenders were dying, too. Sure, we were the High Priests of the Sacred Fount, dispensing good cheer, sage advice and the occasional condign chastisement. But we made less money than a plumber’s apprentice.

Shift pay was $30 a night. The union deducted dues for a pension which vested after ten years, (effectively meaning never for an itinerant bartender) and health insurance which gave you the right to spend the whole day in a clinic while screeching children and croaking oldsters were triaged ahead of you.

The servers who we called “the floor” made more money than we did. So did the cooks who we called “the help.” Only the porters made less. But they had the hereditary right to plunder lost wallets and loose change on the floor. Once in a while you’d hear a shriek of glee as a porter reaped a bonanza from a dropped purse.

The bartenders huddled. There were four of us, each with a pressing need for money. I had to make my alimony. Danny had to pay his bookie. Freddie’s daughter was at Iona College. Jack was a cross-dresser and his hosiery bills were enormous. We couldn’t complain to the union, couldn’t go on strike.

The glassware issue had risen from my pocket to my psyche. I was going through life with my head down. Cashiers were short changing me. I was saying “excuse me,” and “sorry” more than I ever had in my life.

I dreamt I was in my high school locker room. The other guys on the basketball team were pointing at me and laughing. I looked down and saw that my penis had shrunk to a nub.

That night the place was dead. I stepped behind the bar, ready for another $20 shift, if I was lucky.

“Hey pal, can we get a cocktail?”

I looked up. “Irish” Jerry Quarry, the “Bellflower Bomber,”who had fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship, was at the end of the bar with his brother Mike, another ranked boxer and two knockaround pals. Big smiles, twenties up on the bar, getting a head start on the evening.

Jameson on the rocks, VO and Coke and two vodka tonics.

Was I going to short pour these guys?

No way. Let ‘em fire me.

Their eyes sparkled as I filled their glasses to the brim.

“Can I get a whiskey sour?”

I knew that clucking voice from commercials. Standing in the middle of the bar was Frank Perdue, of Perdue Farms, the largest chicken producer in the country. With his pointy head, beak nose and bobbing Adam’s Apple he looked like the world’s largest chicken.

I reversed the recipe. Three ounces of booze to an ounce and a half of lemon juice.

“How ya doin’?”

Two substantial black guys flashing gold from wrist to tooth, slid in. They were members of B.B. King’s Blues Band, I had seen them in the lobby the night before.

“Beefeater and Coke…Wild Turkey with a splash of Seven Up…Just a splash…”

“Just a splash, sir, don’t worry.”

They had never highballs like these, even when they made them for themselves.

The waitresses came up with their table orders. Their eyes widened as I made them huge drinks.

“Is that okay?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Make money my children.”

I hadn’t heard laughter at the bar in months. Everybody was all smiles. I was making people happy.

“Can we get another round?”

“You bet.”

Pretty soon the King sidemen recognized Jerry Quarry.

“Hey champ…”

Perdue looked up from his second sour and squawked:

“Jerry Quarry. I thought that was you…”

Now they were all clustered together, laughing and telling war stories.

“It’s my turn…”

“No, this one’s on me.”

Jerry Quarry leaned over the bar.

“Hey, is it against the rules to buy the bartender a drink?”

“It is strictly verboten,”I said in a burlesque German accent, while pouring myself a triple Hennessy to general hilarity.

At closing I had two hundred bucks in my pocket.

Quarry and Perdue were off to Toots Shor’s. The sidemen were tottering to a gig.

Olga, the Norwegian waitress followed me out into the street.

“You think you can get away with this?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” I said. “I’m sick and tired of those stupid glasses.”

“Well, I did really well tonight thanks to you,” she said.

“Your legs helped….”

“So I’m going to buy you a drink now. “Okay?”

“Absolutely not.”

She laughed and took my arm. She pressed against me as we crossed the street.

Oh yeah…I was a man again.




It was 1973. The Playboy Clubs were packing them in and it wasn’t for the Surf’n'Turf. Half-naked women serving highballs were all the rage. We called it “Chicken Smarmygiana” in the trade.

I was working at a place called “Maude’s” in the Summit Hotel on 51st. and Lexington. It was done up as a Gay Nineties, brothel. The eponymous Maude was a buxom store window dummy dressed as a madame with an electric eye that squawked “C’MON IN BOYS!” whenever a customer entered. The bartenders wore pleated shirts, red bow-ties and were issued one black garter, which management insisted they wear on their right sleeve. The waitresses squeezed into decollete spangled leotards and mesh stockings and teetered on spiked heels as they carried heavy drink trays. Hiring was democratic. Some girls made the costumes work. Others had you running for a raincoat.

I was the new man, so I had to open and work lunch. This meant getting up at nine-thirty, which for me was the crack of dawn. After I had stifled the staticky blast of the alarm, slid that fifty pound cement block off my chest and coughed up a cup of ashtray soup, the day started to get better. I had perfected the art of sticking my head under the shower without getting my shirt wet, which for me was the equivalent of a triple axel landing in a split. Most of my neighbors slept later than me so I could swipe the NY Times from a new door every morning. The 104 bus was a block away and I always got a seat. Now if I didn’t sleep past my stop and end up at the UN I would have it made.

Hotel security stood by the main entrance making sure all employees stayed out of the lobby. I was caught in a stream of chamber maids, cooks, clerks and janitors heading for the time clock.

Not a drop had been poured in that bar for twelve hours, plus it had been swabbed down with ammonia, but it still stank of cigarettes and stale beer. No problem. I made myself a French Kiss (cognac, kahlua, white mint and half and half.) In no time a warm feeling of well-being spread through me. Once in a while I’d find a dead mouse under the duck boards and twirl it by the tail to freak out the waitresses. I was suffering from what later became known as George W. Bush Syndrome–I thought I was just brimming with wit and charm. Nobody agreed, but I didn’t notice.

There was Marcy, a chunky Brooklyn brunette, who was always on the floor looking for a lost contact lens. “Hey, Marcy from Canarsie,” I ‘d say.

She’d look up sourly. “Hey, Dickhead from Schmuckville.”

Inga was tall, and Nordic with haunted Garbo eyes. “Inga, the Swedish Nightingale,” I called her.

“I’m Norwegian,” she said.

I wracked my brain. “Okay…Inga, the Broad from the Fjords…”

To this day I break into a cold sweat remembering her baleful look.

Monique was from Harlem. One afternoon after a few French Kisses I grabbed her hand. “Weird goddess, dusky as the night.”

She pulled away. “What’d you call me?”

“Dusky as the night,” I said. “It’s from a famous poem by Baudelaire.”

She slid a cocktail napkin across the bar. “Write that down…There better be a Baudelaire or my boyfriend’s gonna come down here and beat your ass.”

You could understand their sour moods. Lunch was an all-you-could-eat-serve-yourself buffet bar, $6.85, drinks and dessert extra. The specialite de la maison, Maude’s Famous Chicken Salad, dominated the table in a huge, gleaming silver tureen. It was the creation of Bob, the big, black gay chef, and was made with chicken chunks, Miracle Whip and Heinz Hamburger relish, studded with dried cranberries, apples, raisins and walnuts. People pushed and shoved to get to it and then piled it onto their plates out of spite. The waitresses only served drinks and coffees. As much as they wriggled and jiggled and giggled they still couldn’t get decent tips.

It was a union job, local 6, Hotel Workers. All that meant to me was a dues checkoff out of my check. I wasn’t planning to be around for the pension.

After I had been there a month, Red Eisenberg, the local’s Business Agent came to visit. If thugs hadn’t existed he would have had to invent them. He had a Cro Magnon head and walked like his species had only recently become erect. It was early February, but he was wearing a knit golf shirt and gray slacks. He rested his massive, freckled forearms on the bar

“What part of Brooklyn you from?” he asked.

How did he know I was from Brooklyn? “All over,” I said. “We moved a lot.”

“Why? Your father in the rackets?” He handed me a form. “Your health plan. Don’t get sick…”

On his way out he warned me: “Don’t make too much money. They’re watching you.”

I had been hired by Personnel and forced on Mr. Carney, the Food and Beverage Manager. He was from Oklahoma, a little guy with a blond comb over and wispy mustache. I heard him saying “when I was in the military” to Marcy one night and found out he had been a manager of the Officer’s Club at the Pensacola Naval base. I could imagine him hating the foreigners, the degenerates and the draft-dodgers he had under his command.

The kitchen help was mostly foreign, Hispanic, and Asian, who spoke halting English. Carney forced them to work extra shifts for straight time. He docked them for sick days. He didn’t provide locker space. The employee washroom was a disaster.

“He’s violating the contract ten times a day,” I said to Bob, the only American in the kitchen.

“If they’re too dumb to take care of themselves that’s their lookout,” he said.

The waitresses were constantly harassed. Somebody had drilled a hole in the wall of their dressing room. Customers pawed them and followed them after their shifts. Security wouldn’t help them, saying what did they expect if they walked around like whores.

I was ashamed of my own crude overtures. Of thinking that these ladies were fair game because of the costumes their exploitative employers made them wear.

“This place needs a shop steward,” I told Marcy. “Somebody to confront management. The union’s not doing enough.”

“The union’s protecting our jobs,” she said. “You’d have to blow the place up to get fired.”

But a week later I came to work to find a knot of anxious workers at the bar.

“Carney fired Mei,” Gus, the Dominican garde manger told me.

Mei was the Chinese dishwasher, the only one in a kitchen that turned out hundreds of covers and cocktails every day. I knew him as a a pair of splotched pants and stick-like arms behind three racks of washed glasses.

“You’re not a dishwasher, you’re a pearl diver,” I had told him once. After that he laughed whenever he came to the bar.

“No pearls today,” he would say.

Sometimes I would slip him a short beer. He would open his wallet and show me his daughter, who was playing cello in the Juilliard Youth Orchestra.

Why had Mei been fired?

“He was eating the chicken salad,” Gus said.

Every morning Bob would sculpt a mountain of chicken salad in the tureen and cover it with saran wrap with a big sign: “DO NOT EAT.” But when he returned to put it out he noticed the saran wrap disturbed and a huge gash cut into his mountain.

After Bob secretly complained, Mr. Carney had security install a hidden camera in the kitchen. They had caught Mei walking by lifting the saran wrap and jamming a handful of chicken salad into his mouth.

“So he was fired for eating chicken salad?” I said.

“For insubordination,” Marcy said.

“But did he even know about that rule?”

“The sign was clearly displayed,” she said.

“But does he even speak English?”

Carney came glaring to the door and everybody scattered.

I started cutting lemons, indignation boiling within me. Mei was the hardest worker in the place. You couldn’t see him behind that cloud of steam in the kitchen. He never missed a day.

They had all come to the bar to tell me. They were expecting me to do something, I could sense it.

And why not? I was the same kid who had taken the bus to Washington in 1963 to cheer Martin Luther King. Who had walked picket lines and demonstrated for all kinds of causes. Who had protested the Vietnam War even after I was drafted.

In a second I had an idea. It was 10:30. Lunch started at 11. We didn’t have much time. I called the waitresses together and went into the kitchen.

“Are we gonna let the bosses get away with this?” I shouted.

Everybody stopped slicing and dicing.

” Let’s show solidarity with Mei.”

“How?” Gus asked.

“Let’s each take a bite out of their precious chicken salad. Right on their sneaky hidden camera. They can’t fire us all…”

Bob jumped at me on a panic, his cap quivering. “The man don’t want you to eat his motherfucking chicken salad, what’s the big deal?”

There were a few grumblers, but Gus quieted them in a torrent of eloquent Spanish.

“Form a line,” I shouted.

The waitresses looked at me with new respect.

“Okay,” I said, going to the head of the line. “Look right in the camera…”

I marched up, grabbed a handful of chicken salad and crammed into my mouth.

Everyone followed me, laughing, hugging and hi fiving, At the end, a few scraps of chicken salad were smeared in the bottom of the tureen.

“And we’ll do this every day until Mei is reinstated,” I shouted into the camera.

Everybody cheered as they went out to work.

Bob was busily cubing chickens. “Now I gotta make a whole new batch…”

Lunch was especially busy that day. But I could sense an elation and camaraderie in the air. I remembered what an old anarchist had told me:

“Collective action is the source of all human happiness.”

At two-thirty when the crowds thinned I saw Carney talking to Red Eisenberg at the door. Eisenberg came to the bar.

“Step outside with me for a second,” he said.

It was one of those all-weather winter days where the sun shines warm in one spot while the wind screeches in another, invisible snow flakes crinkle your face and cold shadows fall across the street.

A man in a dark overcoat was leaning against a gray Coupe De Ville parked in front of the hotel. He had a Florida tan and a mountain of coiffed white hair that reminded me for a second of Maud’s Famous Chicken Salad.

“This is Mr. Prinza, President of the union,” Eisenberg said.

“Who do you think you are, John L. Lewis, famous labor leader?” Prinza asked mildly. He lit a cigar with a gold Dunhill. “What part of Brooklyn do you come from anyway, the Russian neighborhood?”

“Just trying to save a man’s job,” I said.

“You incited an unauthorized work stopage,” Prinza said.

“This could cause them to tear up the contract and move to renegotiate,” Eisenberg said.

“Insubordination is grounds for dismissal in every labor agreement,” Prinza said.

“This guy hardly speaks English,” I said. “He should at least get another chance.”

Eisenberg shook his head. “He’s illegal. Working on somebody else’s Social Security card. He’s lucky they don’t throw his ass in jail.”

“He was stupid to break the rules,” Prinza said. “When you’re on the run you obey the speed limit.”

“There’s a lotta other people in that kitchen and busboys, who are illegal and supporting kids,” Eisenberg said. “You wanna open a can of worms they’ll all lose their jobs.”

I hadn’t thought of that. “It’s my fault,” I said. ” I started this. They should just fire me.”

Prinza flicked a big white ash off his cigar. “Don’t fall on your grenade, soldier. Nobody’s gonna get fired.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just wanted to help this man…”

“Sometimes you gotta sacrifice the one for the many,” Prinza said.

In the silence I felt a strange sort of sympathy coming from both men.

“You payin’ alimony, kid?” Prinza asked.

It was as if he knew everything about me.

“You can get a good loan from our Credit Union,” Eisenberg said.

“Smoke cigars?” Prinza asked.

I shook my head, but he handed me a cigar anyway. ‘I’ll bet you’ve got an uncle who loves a good cigar…”

He even knew that.

“Go back to work, kid,” Prinza said. “And don’t feel so bad you won a major victory…

“Management says from now on you guys can eat all the chicken salad you want.”