Category Archives: Tales From The Nosh Bar

Uncle Ray

6 March 1984

An old grizzled drunk from a television western stumbles out of the tube and staggers smack into the middle of a milieu of vagrants one might encounter in a Bukowski novel. It’s Uncle Ray, rolling into the courtyard with a shopping cart stuffed with clothing and other items of unspeakable origin.

“Uncle Ray, is it true you’re an undercover agent with the CIA,” I say.

Ask me to guess Ray’s age and I’d say he was born sometime between the beginning of the William Taft presidency and the year they started putting toy surprises in Cracker Jack boxes. I figure he’s something north of seventy, with an extra decade or two of hard living in his back pocket.

“I’ll never tell,” Ray says, but that’s a lie. Sometimes you can’t stop Ray from telling.

Uncle Ray claims to have served in both the second world war and the Korean conflict and some say he’s a war hero. Others regard him as a sage, a holy fool, a royal pain-in-the-ass, and a mad saint. Most agree he’s a person squarely in the back row.

“If you’re looking for Hershel, he’s not here.” Ray’s face lights up when I mention the name.

Hershel is Uncle Ray’s guardian angel and Ray is drawn to him like a homing pigeon. Whenever Ray staggers into the courtyard, from sickness instead of drunkenness, Hershel is there to escort him to White Bird Clinic to get treatment. If saints exist, they are mere samaritans compared to Hershel Bloom.

“Nah, I’m not looking for Hershel,” says Ray. “Is Lenny here?”

I raise my eyebrow. Lenny hates Ray with a passion usually reserved for drunken frat boys and Ronald Reagan. Ask anyone that was around the day Lenny Nathan shook his finger with rage at Uncle Ray and yelled, “You stay away from my place or I’ll kill ya!” The old derelict is definitely not looking for Lenny.

“Not yet,” I say. “But, he’s on his way soon.” Ray grunts with satisfaction.

2.

Someone calls my name. It’s Sally, announcing my lunch from the kitchen of Lenny’s Nosh Bar.

“Gotta go, Ray,” I say.

As I get up to leave, Uncle Ray is looking forlorn and gazing mournfully across the courtyard at Poppi’s Greek Taverna. I suddenly realize exactly who he is looking for and the reason he’s in the courtyard. He’s here for his chicken and chocolate fix from Poppi, who feeds him on the regular from the back door of the restaurant. Provided he’s sober. If Ray shows up in the courtyard drunk, she gives him a cup of hot black coffee and tells him to go away and come back when he’s lucid.

Inside, I ask Sally what time Lenny is arriving.

“Anytime now,” she says. “Are you worried he might read Uncle Ray the riot act?”

“Well, yeah, but Lenny told me to stop in later today,” I say. I tell Sally I saw Lenny at the store earlier in the day as he was unloading his basket at the register and I saw the ingredients he was buying and made the logical deduction. I tell her how the conversation went down.

Me: ”Making brownies?”

Lenny: “Yeah.”

Me: “. . .”

Lenny: “Marijuana brownies.”

Me: “Yeah, I figured as much.”

“So you’re here for an off-the-menu item,” she says. I give her a big grin and nod my head. She whistles and says, “Brave man.”

“Not really,” I say. “Are they super strong?”

“Oh yes,” she says. “Lenny gave me a pot brownie the first night I worked the counter. I was on probationary status and I have never been so stoned in my life.”

“Trial by reefer,” I say. She laughs.

“The next day he called and, before he could say anything, I apologized all over myself and asked how badly I’d done. The whole shift was a blur.”

“How badly did you do?”

“I dunno,” she says. “Lenny just chuckled and said ‘yeah, that was pretty good shit’ and officially gave me the job.”

3.

I notice Uncle Ray through the window, standing a respectful distance from Lenny’s. He’s lighting a cigarette, which is gripped tightly between straw-colored fingers, and his hand is trembling.

“I think Ray is waiting for Poppi to show up and open the restaurant,” I say, as I head over to the booth next to the jukebox.

“Someone should probably tell Ray that it’s Tuesday,” Sally says.

“I’m sure he knows it’s Tuesday,” I say. “I sure do, because it’s ninety-nine cents for hot fudge sundaes all day at Puckler’s today, and it’s going to be a mob scene tonight. I’m heading over after I eat.”

“I’m not talking about your ice cream parlor orgy across the street,” she says. “Tuesday is also the only day of the week Poppi’s is closed. Ray is waiting for Godot.”

She’s right, I completely forgot about the significance of Tuesday. Beyond my own selfish connection to the day. So, I set my sandwich on the table and head for the door to break the bad news. Dan Schmid is already on the job, standing in the doorway of the restaurant. Dan is around because he works as the cleaner at Poppi’s every Tuesday, an eight-hour job that requires him to thoroughly clean everything in the place, from kitchen surfaces and appliances to all the curtains covering the windows.

“It’s Tuesday, Uncle Ray,” Dan says. “Sorry, amigo, the joint is closed today.”

Dinner plans thwarted, Ray seems ready to launch into one of his cantankerous rants against a cruel world that has conspired against him since the end of the second world war.

“There’s nobody around to cook up some chicken for you,” Dan says. “But, I can get you some hot chocolate.” Ray grunts and seems mollified. Dan goes back inside the restaurant to fetch Ray’s hot cocoa. I turn to Sally.

“How did you know,” I say.

“It’s not the first time Ray has shown up for chicken and chocolate on the wrong day,” she says.

Dancing With The Chicken Slacks

It’s a cold autumn afternoon and the unrelenting rain that’s been falling for days has me wallowing in a pit of melancholy. I override my nesting instinct and trudge over to Lenny’s to warm up with a bowl of matzoh ball soup. I might catch a flick at the Bijou later but the need for sustenence in the form of comfort food is foremost in my mind.

Bob is sitting in a booth when I arrive, sipping coffee and reading a book of poetry by Ezra Pound. Scott and Gary are in the next booth with Curt. Bob looks up at me and nods. I say hello to Molly at the counter, she gives me soup, and I take the seat across from my mentor.

On the jukebox, Sam Cooke is singing about a place, somewhere up in New York way, where the people are so gay, twisting the night away. I laugh, my mood beginning to shift, as I recall aloud a moment the other night when I was hanging out with Joe and we heard the same song; which inspired a lively debate on the questionable fashion of wearing chicken slacks.

“Sam is giving us a delightful example of semantic noise” Bob says when the moment comes back almost a minute into the song. “Like when Hendrix sings, ‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy. We know we’ve misheard the lyric but something in our mind convinces us that we’re hearing the truth.”

“We want to believe Sam is singing about dancing in chicken slacks,” I say. “It’s funnier and more absurd.”

“Especially, after he’s just sung about a man in evening clothes,” Gary says.

“It makes sense,” Curt says.

“It’s sensible,” Scott adds.

And then we start merging instances of semantic noise with Freudian slips (when you say one thing but you mean your mother) and the alchemical mixture of soup and witty banter has chased away the dark wet clouds overhead.

We completely fall apart when Sly & The Family Stone plays next.

Bonus Content:

The image I used for this piece is a still from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin’ with two swing dancers from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. The group was formed in the 1920s by Herbert “Whitey” White and disbanded in 1942 after its male members were drafted into World War II.

The incomparable Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart are the featured musicians, with Slim on guitar and vocals and Slam on standup bass.



The Rupert Pupkin Quartet Rides Again

I’m remembering a time at Lenny’s Nosh Bar when Madjym hosted a Sunday night jazz show with his band, The Rupert Pupkin Quartet (Minus One, Plus Some). The name of the band was a mischievous homage to Robert DeNiro’s character in Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy.

And fortunately, my memory is assisted by Erich Boekelheide’s recording of the scene with a video camera—making it possible for me to accurately write about the people there and break it down as a back-up of my time traveler’s recollection.

Watching this video brings it all back.

There’s Louie Ledbetter on stand-up bass, Eric Moore on harmonica, and Brooks Brown on saxophone—guys I’ve known since high school. Madjym Wyant, of course, is the emcee and lead singer, as usual. Man, that cat could scat like a pro.

The last three guys in the group are Jerry Glisan on guitar, Glen Bonney on trombone, and Dennis Caffey on drums. I don’t remember Jerry and Glen very well but I remember chats with Dennis. His sister, Charlotte, was the guitarist in The Go-Gos and We Got The Beat and Can’t Stop The World were in the jukebox.

I get a tribal kinship rush whenever the lens of the camera sweeps across the room and I see all these people from my youth—some of whom I still see occasionally, others I’ve not seen for decades, and some I will never see again because they are gone forever.

Oh, what a joy it is to see Jamie Hosler again, rocking that massive Afro he once had. Jean Costello, looking pensive as usual in a close up. Paul Golden laughing. Scott Taylor and Sulwyn Sparks hunched over in a booth. Lawrence Cain. Joe Brooks. Hershel Bloom.

And seeing myself briefly—as a broadly smiling blur clapping after Hershel’s performance of his spoken word song, Loose Change—damn…just like it was yesterday.

And, Lenny Nathan himself—looking a bit spaced out as he checks out the crowd…

***

Postscript:

This is a 336 word one-page piece and will connect to a series of pieces about Lenny’s Nosh Bar—some of which I’ve already written and others I’m still tinkering with. I may expand on this one, but probably not. It seems complete to me, especially after watching the video. ~RLR