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Jewish World Review
Oct. 10, 2008
/ 11 Tishrei 5769
Growing Up, Part II
Crosby's Bar-B-Que & Pizza, my Uncle Donald's Hollywood restaurant, was where I really came of age in the late sixties. Working there as a teenager I learned more than just the restaurant business - I learned about life.
Everyone bussed tables, from my uncle on down - there was absolutely no pecking order for that, or for anything that needed doing when the restaurant got busy. Everyone pitched in. The idea, as quaint as it may sound today, was that the customer was always right and must be kept satisfied and happy at all times. That was the way my uncle ran his place and everyone loved him.
As a fifteen year old everything seemed so different to me. The smells, the environment, and especially the people I came into contact with were excitingly new and exotic. Eventually I got to know the gang of regulars who hung out at my uncle's place. Most of the group was somewhat shady - characters that would be totally at home in a Damon Runyon story. People like "Shorty" (sometimes called Charlie) who knew my uncle and father for many years.
Shorty was a fragile-looking little old man who walked with a cane and lived in a rented room in an old boarding house just down the street from the restaurant. He'd walk down everyday, usually in the evenings. Sometimes Shorty was sober, sometimes not. You could tell his condition a block away - not by the way he walked, but how his hat sat on his head. My dad pointed this out to me and it was a fact. If Shorty's fedora was cocked back on his head, he was drunk - if he wore it straight on, he was sober. Never failed - it was more accurate than a breathalyzer. And I swear he actually walked BETTER when he was drunk!
Shorty smoked cigarettes, as many of us did in those more tolerant days of the sixties, but he was the first person I ever saw who suffered from acute emphysema. He really struggled with breathing and yet continued to sit at his little table at the front of the restaurant and smoke. It was quite distressing to say the least. His coughing was repulsive and …well, let's just say you wouldn't want to be sitting at a table having a meal with Shorty nearby.
I never learned Shorty's story - it seemed to me that my father knew Shorty from the old days, the days before me and possibly before my mother. How my dad came to know him and what sort of business they were involved in I never found out. I think Shorty might have been a bookie or something. He lived all alone in that one room on the second floor of the old boarding house down the street. I don't know if he ever was married or had any children.
He drank at night and then hung out at the restaurant, sitting at his table kibitzing with everybody. I liked him; he laughed easily and was quite a gentleman when sober. But when he was blitzed, his temper came out and his use of four-letter words became extraordinary. But even then, he was funny. My dad got the biggest kick out of him and I know he loved my dad. I just wish I knew the full story on my father and Shorty.
Another regular was a tall thin guy with one leg named Chuck. I don't know the name of his other leg. That's an old joke - sorry, I couldn't resist. Seriously, he had just one leg and just like old Shorty, Chuck like to drink and you could always tell from a block away when he was drunk. Chuck didn't have a hat, but he did have a prosthetic leg. If he was sober he had his fake leg on and wore glasses - when drunk, no prosthetic, no glasses, and he'd be on crutches. Chuck could get verbally nasty when he was bombed, and unlike Shorty there was nothing humorous about it.
Some other restaurant regulars included "Blackie," an Italian small-time crook who liked to get dressed up and wear strong cologne before coming down to hang around the restaurant all night. Blackie enjoyed looking flashy. He sat at a little table at the front near the register, getting up every now and then to pace back and forth nervously. As he paced his hands moved constantly - hiking up his pants, pulling up his shirt collar, smoothing down his hair - always seeming to be in his own little world. He talked under his breath mostly, but every now and then he would give out with an odd noise, it was one word. The word was "like" but he said it loud and dragged it out - "LI-I-I-K-K-E!!" And it was uttered for no apparent reason, bursting forth in an almost spasmodic exhalation. It would just come out all of a sudden.
Another crook that hung around was called "Jimmy the Weasel" - I'm not kidding and that was the only name anyone ever called him. After restaurant hours (the place closed at 3: AM) this guy would bring in a variety of merchandise - stuff that "fell off the truck" as they say. Clothing, watches, all kinds of things, but mostly I remember the clothes - usually men's shirts and pants. The garments would be laid out nice and neat, by size and colors, on one of the large booth tables at the back of the restaurant for all to browse at and maybe purchase at a "discount price." Yes, Uncle Donald went along with this.
There were plenty of cops who hung around too, although they were never around when the heisted merchandise was on display in the back booth… I don't think.
To be continued…
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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