We were driving home from the Mall yesterday, listening to the local “Classic Rock” channel on the radio which, given my age, is a euphemism for the “Oldies” station. “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring, circa 1982, comes on; and I was reminded of Howard and Randy.
Randy was an old restaurant warhorse, like myself, with whom I worked at the now-defunct St. George Restaurant in St. Helena. He was a server. I was Sous-Chef. We were both dedicated to upholding the long-standing dynamic of Kitchen vs. Dining Room; and, as required by tradition, we hated each other’s guts. The St. George, I can now admit, was no one’s ideal of a fine-dining Mecca; but I was in my first role as an official, fairly competent if somewhat slightly insecure, Sous. And as such I felt I had to wage war daily with what Chef Masa at Auberge had referred to as “The Evil Spirits”: Waiters.
Randy was fearlessly gay; I was a somewhat fearful, small-town breeder. Randy was a very intelligent, very well-read and well-spoken guy who could gut you like a fish with his comments. He was, in the parlance, a bitch. He took serious delight in baiting me with stuff like coming into the kitchen and, as he was grabbing the bottles of A-1 and Heinz 57 at the service station, says something like “The guy on Table 32 REALLY likes his steak. Ha-ha-ha-ha….”
We were at each others throats constantly; at work, anyway. After service, the whole crew hung out together, laughed, drank, and did whatever chemical compounds came our way; and the next day, just like the Sheepdog and the Coyote in the old Warner Brother’s cartoons, Randy and I would punch the clock and be back at it.
Randy also worked part-time bartending at the local Industry Bar in St. Helena, Pancho y Panchita’s Mexican Restaurant. Pancho’s, as it was known, was an intolerably bad Mexican restaurant by day; by night it was an equally intolerable Dive Bar. But, as it had one of the precious few hard-liquor licenses in St. Helena, it was the place. And it had the bonus of an owner who could provide us with the aforementioned chemical compounds. These were generally purchased and ingested in the kitchen at Pancho’s, as the cooks had gone home hours earlier. If you’d ever eaten the food there you would readily agree this was the best possible use for the facility. The food was something to definitely avoid; the employees sent out for pizza rather than eat there for free.
But, it was the after-work hangout for the kitchen, dining room, and management staff of every UpValley restaurant. If the tourists we all waited on and cooked for nightly asked about where to go for a drink after dinner, it was a Cardinal Sin for us restaurant folk to tell them about Pancho’s (or The Corner Bar in Rutherford). Those places were ours alone, and were not to be shared with anyone who wasn’t one of us.
At Pancho’s, it was the bartender’s (Randy’s) prerogative as to the musical selections that were to be played on the World’s Most Powerful Stereo System; and Randy had a massive music collection he would bring in. And so it came to be that, in 1982 along with stuff from U-2, INXS, and Talking Heads, “Twilight Zone” was one of the most-played songs there. It was that song that was playing one night when a patron, a non-local, non-restaurant guy who had somehow managed to find his way to Pancho’s, told Randy to “Turn that shit down…”
Randy, of course, responded as only he could. “Sure,” he says and, laughing quietly to himself, sashays out from behind the bar, over to the closet where the sound system lived. Looking back over his shoulder directly at the interloper, cranks the grapefruit-sized volume knob on the amp a quarter turn to the right. The volume was debilitating, and we loved it. It was the best in late-night entertainment to watch Randy be Randy. Whenever I hear that song, I will always think of Randy working the bar, wearing his perfectly ironed satin bowling shirt, and his chrome “Steel Schnapps” hardhat, flipping the tourists the musical bird.
Randy’s running partner for years, was Howard. Howard was the Maitre’D at the St. George in those days, and remains a local legend. A gravelly-voiced queen from Georgia, at the door he had no equal. He could charm the pants off even the touchiest and most demanding of guests. In the days before Open Table’s data-based “Cheat Sheet”, Howard could remember everyone even if he hadn’t seen them in years. With the volume of his daily weed regimen, he quite understandably might not remember everyone’s names every time; but he would remember something about them from the last time. Something like, “How’s that cute little dawg of yours…” or “Still drivin’ that big Jew Canoe, bay-buh?” Or he would simply drawl out a “Hi BUH-ddy!” or a “Hey BAY-beh!” and then fake it until the name came to him. Anyone who came through that door was made to feel like they had just found a long-lost friend’s party. The guy smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and would do just about any drug put in front of him, and we all loved working with him.
Howard had such thick, sincere, grizzled Southern Charm, that he could say anything to anyone, and they would think it was a compliment. One night there was a party of four who had been waiting about a half-hour to be seated for their reservation. Howard approached them at the bar, told them their table would be ready in just a few more minutes. An indignant woman in the group said “Well, I should hope so. I can walk into any restaurant on Manhattan and get seated instantly…”
Howard responds with, “Well it must be because you’re such a bitch…” and bursts into an uproarious, gravelly laugh, and the rest of the group joined in. He was apparently on target with that one. The bitchy woman, looking slightly confused, chuckled nervously.
When they are finally seated at their table, Howard approaches with a bottle of a cheap Italian white to placate them. He presents it and says, more than a little sarcastically,
“We’d like you to have this for your extraordinary patience.”
The bitchy woman looks at Howard, then looks at the bottle, and replies, “What’s this? Is it any good?”
Howard tells her, “Bay-buh, it’s FREE!” and walks off. The Stuff of Legends.
Howard ate a New York steak every night he worked when I was at The St. George. One night, he’s cutting into his steak, standing as he always did at the service station in the kitchen, all the better to leer at the young boys on the crew. Randy is standing there with him, mooching some, and an innocent, young, male busser asks them,
“Can I have a bite of that?”
Howard’s checking the kid out from behind, looking him up and down; and Randy says,
“Play your cards right and you can have the whole thing…”
Or when the cocktail waitress that worked on Friday and Saturday nights would be standing in the kitchen waiting for appetizers, wearing whatever short, slutty dress she had selected for the evening, Randy reaches into the salad station, grabs an anchovy filét, and drops it between her feet; and Howard says, “Oh, bay-buh, look what just fell outta your poonie…”
The both of them are gone now, Howard passing away long after anyone who ever knew him thought he would, and Randy passing from a sudden illness a few years earlier. They’re in “The Twilight Zone” now, probably smoking doobs, drinking Coors, and cranking the tunes way too loud for the tourists. Fellas, this one’s for you…