By Tony Tedeschi
‘My five thousand dollar chairs,’ my father used to say,
but never with bitterness.
He’d taken his best shot, and he’d recognized it as such.
Imagine my surprise that New Year’s Eve when my father stepped up to the mike to sing. He opened with his favorite, “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You,” accompanying himself with two swizzle sticks beating against the mike stem, and even doing that imitation of a trombone break I have always found so weak, so silly.
He did three more numbers: “Slow Boat To China,” “Dark Town Strutters Ball” (including the Italian stanzas that Lou Monte had made popular), then he finished up with “Sleepy Time Gal.” And even then, they didn’t want him to leave, but he was getting tired, you could see. He was drained, and it was time to go. Everyone could see that, even my father.
Actually, my father, Nicholas Roman, Sr., had always been a crowd-pleaser. He enjoyed the limelight and, as a young man, had a visceral yearning to be a celebrity or at least some kind of big shot, which, as was the case for many sons of immigrants at that time, meant making it on something less than a high school education. My father opted to become a bartender; there was a bit of theater to that and there were always women there to watch you work.
His first job was, right after World War II, at the Metropole Café, smack in the center of Times Square, where he learned the art of mixing drinks from Big Otto Klaus, a German with shoulders the width of one of Hitler’s Panzers. Otto was a likeable German when not a lot of people liked Germans, and he mixed drinks during an age when there were truly wonderful mixed drinks, with wonderful names – brandy Alexander, sloe gin fizz, Rob Roy, angel’s teat – in a night club that featured jazz greats like Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarten, Harry James and Artie Shaw, before it became a topless bar in the ‘60s.
After his internship at the Metropole, my father went back home to Queens, tending bar at the Boulevard, the Queens Terrace, and the Merry-Go-Round (one of those rotating bars). Then, after about ten years of that, he put it all on the line and bought a failing restaurant and bar under the railroad trellis off Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. “Bought” was a euphemism. He borrowed from everyone, including most heavily from family, because family did that for you, and my father, they knew, knew his trade very well.
He called the place the Shuffle Inn (my father always had a thing for word play, no matter how corny). My mother cooked and she was a terrific cook (what daughter of an Italian immigrant mother wasn’t?), but my father wanted his place to be known as a nightclub; the restaurant was just so that people wouldn’t go home early or come in too late. He didn’t have the money to buy the top acts, so he showcased new talent, and he was good at picking performers on their way up. He had a good ear for music and he had a wonderful sense of humor, so he knew what he liked in a comic, as well, and if he thought a guy was funny, his clientele invariably agreed.
The most successful performer who got his start at the Shuffle Inn was Danny Torreone, a liquid-voiced Italian crooner who was a friend of my father’s brother, my Uncle Carl. My father gave Danny his first paying job: thirty-five dollars a week. Irrespective of the money, the exposure got the guy’s career going, despite the fact that my father ended up firing him. “You’re no good and no one will want you,” my father told him. (I’d always thought there was a touch of humor in the line, during the many times I’d heard my father tell the story over the years; it being an obvious negative inversion of the title of my father’s favorite song.)
Firing Danny Torreone was not the misjudgment it appeared to be. “The guy made his name on records,” my father would tell you. “He still can’t work a room.”
He’d fired Danny for refusing to sing “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You,” to a post-midnight New Year’s crowd so besotted they wouldn’t have recognized the song. And Danny’d been offered more than his weekly salary to sing it. When he’d refused to take their big tip, a table of thirteen drunks, who were spending money like water, got up and left. The crowd thinned after that – just after the ringing-in of the New Year, with a lot more booze to be sold. That less-than-productive New Year’s Eve was symptomatic of the general downturn the club was experiencing, in its inexorable slide toward bankruptcy, after a good run that made its ultimate fate even sadder.
The Shuffle Inn continued to grow, flourished really, for about five years, to the point where it drove its nearest neighborhood competitor out of business. Then, instead of business turning up dramatically, it began to decline. It was a glitch in the business cycle. The nightclub scene had lost its oomph and my father didn’t have the capitalization to ride out the slack period. He didn’t file for bankruptcy protection; you didn’t screw your family out of the money they’d lent you by hiding behind some escape hatch in the legal canon. He just closed the place one day and went back to work for other people to begin paying off his ten thousand dollar debt – an enormous sum for a working man in the 1950s; hell, a brand new Ford cost less than a thousand dollars.
Years later, all that was left of his investment were two wooden folding chairs, painted over many times to reflect the changing colors of basement decor. “My five thousand dollar chairs,” my father used to say, but never with bitterness. He’d taken his best shot and he’d recognized it as such.
Part of my father’s problem had been alcoholism. He was a small man with a thin build, but he was tough as nails and he had a high tolerance for booze. He never got hangovers. What he got was the predictable running battle with my mother. And since they were together all day and night at the Shuffle Inn, it became more and more difficult for him to hide his alcoholism. So he got her out of the business. He told her she wasn’t spending enough time with my younger sister, Louise, and me; that since the business was doing well, he was hiring a cook. But my mother was no dummy. She knew what was going on here. She waited up for him most nights. The fight went on for years after the Shuffle Inn had folded, and finally she told him, it was her or the booze. She didn’t really mean it; she was too crazy about him. But he chucked it, kicked the booze. Either he didn’t want to risk losing her, or he realized it was killing him – or both.
For me, the most important decisions you make in life are the partners you choose to travel with. My father made his best decision when he chose my mother. His worst was Joe Sorrentino, his partner in the Shuffle Inn. Joe, however, was not my father’s choice. To open his club, my father needed five thousand dollars above what the family could muster, so he applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration and was turned down. He tried raising it from other friendly sources but could not; they’d lent all they could. So, when it looked like the place was slipping through his fingers, he went to those “other people” who lent money to Italian-Americans. Their price, along with the usual exorbitant interest rate, was their man as a full partner. My father said yes. What choice did he have?
Now, Joe Sorrentino was what you would have expected. He had few, if any, redeeming qualities. He cheated on his wife, openly, at the bar, with just about any unaccompanied woman who wandered in, even some whose dates were merely visiting the men’s room. He was a hot head, a hot head who carried a gun, which he drew once on a patron with whom he’d gotten into a heated argument. I remember watching, from under a table, while my father settled him down. Encounters like these, with women and men, were costing the Shuffle Inn business, adding to my father’s growing sense of frustration – desperation really – and not helping his alcoholism.
On the night my father fired Danny Torreone, the crowd was less than he had hoped for. It was not a good sign to have a lighter-than-expected crowd on New Year’s Eve. But they were a good crowd, the regulars, my father’s biggest spenders. Maybe, he thought, he could make up in trade what he lacked in attendance. Joe was at one end of the bar, holding forth with a couple of women, wives of regulars who were off bullshitting in the nightclub side of the club. My father was behind the bar really humping it. No one could mix drinks faster than him at this point in his career. Besides, his heart rejoiced to the repeated rings of the cash register.
“That asshole Danny won’t do ‘You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You,’” Paulie Ponti, one of my father’s heavier-spending regulars, said.
“I know,” my father answered. “It’s one of the numbers he’s still working on. He won’t do anything until he’s got it down perfect. He’s practicing to be a goddamn recording star. I just brought him in off the street, and he’s already practicing to be a recording star.”
“There are no talent scouts in the audience, Nick,” Paulie said.
“I know that. Don’t you think I know that? To him, it doesn’t matter who’s there or isn’t there. He won’t do anything until he’s got it perfect. I guess you’ve got to admire him for that.”
“I don’t, Nick. Stella’s sinking like a stone. She gets that way when she’s been drinking for some time. The song’s her favorite. It will lift her up. Get him to say it’s dedicated to her. You know how to do it. You ask him. I got a fifty, if he’ll do it.”
“Shit, that’s more than he makes in a week.”
“That’s fifty more than he’s worth, Nick.”
Paulie handed my father the fifty. “Ask him. Show him this. Go ahead, ask him.”
My father walked over to Danny who was taking a break over a virgin cola at a table opposite the end of the bar where Joe Sorrentino was sitting. Joe got up to take a spin through the tables in front of the bandstand, to troll for any loose women he might have overlooked.
“No way,” Danny said to my father . “I told that guy I don’t know it.”
“Everybody knows that song, Danny.”
“I haven’t practiced it.”
“These guys are plastered. They wouldn’t know if you sang ‘Vesti la Giubba.’”
“Danny, the guy’s offering you fifty bucks.” My father practically pushed the bill into Danny’s face.
Danny gave my father his what-do-you-want-from-me look.
“I’m going to lose them if you don’t do requests,” my father countered. “And that means the register stops ringing and pretty soon all of us are out of work. Do you want that, Danny? Is that what you want?”
“I got my dignity,” Danny replied.
“Stick your dignity up your ass! You don’t need dignity with a bunch of drunks. They just want to spend their money and go on with the party. In the morning, they won’t remember a goddamn note you missed. But they will remember that you wouldn’t sing for them.”
“I got my dignity,” Danny repeated. He rose from his chair and walked off toward the men’s room.
Joe Sorrentino came back into the bar. “The natives are getting restless,” he said. “They’re about to do the shuffle out.” He loved mocking my father with take-offs on the club’s name.
“Danny, the asshole, won’t sing,” my father said.
Joe heaved a great sigh, as if this whole thing had somehow been a great strain on him. He went behind the bar and poured himself another scotch. My father watched him. Bastard never has the answers to anything, he thought.
My father went back into the nightclub to talk to Paulie Ponti and his party. “Look,” he said, holding out Paulie’s fifty in front of him, “Danny insists he doesn’t know the song and he doesn’t want to embarrass himself.”
Paulie stared at the bill a moment, then, “everyone knows that song,” he said.
My father just stood there for a few moments searching for something to say. “I’ll get him in here to do another set,” he said weakly.
“What, those same six songs he’s been singing all night – all month? Sorry, that’s what’s depressing Stella.”
“He sings beautiful, Paulie. Sit down. I’ll send over a bottle of champagne – on the house. Enjoy yourselves. Let’s get the year off to a great start.”
Paulie took back the fifty my father still held in his right hand. “We’re leaving,” he said. “Have a happy, Nick . . . for old time’s sake.”
My father didn’t like the finality in that. “It’s just after midnight,” he said. “Don’t start to empty the place on me.”
Paulie shrugged, then turned toward his table, where his wife and other guests could see by his face that it was time to go. They started gathering their things. Then they heard the mike click on and when they looked up, my father had started to sing. He had a small, tinny voice, and no range, but he gave it his best. My father always gave it his best. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you. You’re nobody ‘til somebody cares. You may be king, you may possess the world and its gold, but gold won’t buy you happiness when you’re growing old.” Then he did the trombone break, while accompanying himself with the swizzle sticks against the mike stem.
I was seven years old, in and out of sleep at the table my father had set aside for our family, my sister sleeping across three chairs, my mother just shaking her head. I’m fifty-seven, but that night still remains the saddest of my life. Even sadder than the night my father died.
At my father’s wake, just about everyone who offered me his or her condolences said, “your father was my friend.” And they all said it with tears in their eyes. Real tears, not phony, funeral-parlor tears. “Your father was my friend.” Chisel that on my tombstone, hah, Danny Torreone, Joe Sorrentino, Paulie Ponti. You bastards. You just didn’t get it. You never did. You never will. Me, I get it. Chisel that on my tombstone. You bastards.