Bill Withers died.
Sad news among the onslaught of tragic, devastating, mindbogglingly awful news that deluges us daily. Upon hearing of Withers’ passing, however, I had to smile. (Not because he died, obviously, but because of the memory he invokes.)
Grammy award winning singer-songwriter Bill Withers makes me smile because - duh - his music is glorious. I mean, the man wrote Ain’t No Sunshine, Use Me, and Just The Two Of Us!
(Yes, he also penned Lean On Me, but I’m apparently one of perhaps three folkx in existence who don’t ADORE that song. It’s fine, but it doesn’t move me.)
The Withers tune that does move me is Lovely Day. One, because it’s friggin’ fantastic and, two, it sparked the impromptu, highly unlikely, real-life Musical Moment at Ballard’s Clam House.
Many moons ago, when I lived in NYC and was trying to Be An Actor, I worked a series of soul sucking , Nearly Impossible To Juggle And Audition survival jobs. At one point, I got a tip from a fellow actor that a hotel bar in the East Village was looking for a cocktail waitress and it was “easy money.”
Sweet! I applied, I got the gig, and I discovered on my first (and only) night cock-tailing that “easy money” is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.
While I have the ability to tolerate many unpleasant things, turns out boorish, sexist, overly-self confident investment bankers wasn’t one of them; so much so that I abandoned my tables after an hour. I wanted, however, to finish my shift and get paid, so I sequestered myself to the far end of the bar and leaned against a pole for the rest of the night. Whenever a loathsome Wolf of Wall Street Wannabe approached me for drinks, I'd tell 'em to order at the bar. (Why no one complained is beyond me.)
The next day, I popped into HR to turn in my cutesy little apron and quit properly, explaining the job wasn’t for me.
“Oh, Ok. But we’d hate to lose you. Wanna waitress in the hotel restaurant instead?”
“Sure, why not?”
Unfortunately, the restaurant, Ballard’s Clam House, was on the skids – thanks to a coke addicted night manager, a largely absent GM (embroiled in an embezzlement scandal), and a lousy location. We were never more than half full and the money sucked.
Also, I was a shitty waitress.
Ironically, if I were to wait tables today (and with the current pandemic decimating my business, who knows?!), I’d be pretty good - I’m quick on my feet, a good multi-tasker - but mostly because I’ve got zero fucks to give. Back then, however, I was so scared of screwing up, I inevitably did.
(I eventually got the hang of waiting tables at a different restaurant in a different city – adopting an attitude of “Relax. You’ll get your food when you get it, ain’t none of us curing cancer here.” But at Ballard’s Failing East Village Clam House, I was a nervous wreck.)
And so, after a few weeks, I popped into HR to turn in my server’s apron and quit properly, explaining the job wasn’t for me.
“Oh, Ok. But we’d hate to lose you. Wanna be Manager for the breakfast shift instead?”
“Sure, why not?”
Later, when that didn’t work out (mostly because I had to be there at 5:30 AM and I am NOT a morning person) I popped into HR to turn in my Manager’s badge and quit properly, explaining the job wasn’t for me, and they offered me a front desk position. Apparently, this was Hotel California; I could never leave. If I hadn’t moved to Los Angeles, I’d probably be CEO by now.
Managing the breakfast shift meant assisting a staff of four – two waiters, one busser, one chef – and basically ensuring nothing caught on fire. The fare consisted of a desultory breakfast buffet and a limited made to order menu.
We had two waiters: Christian, from Austria, and Mohammad, from Oman. Christian (early 20s, gorgeous) was a gentle soul and absolute whiz with the temperamental espresso machine. Mohammad (30s, surly) was pissed to be “taking orders” from a lowly Woman and hated me on sight. (I’m sure it didn’t help that said Woman was 22, looked 12, and had no managerial experience whatsoever.)
Our busser, Raji, built like a fire hydrant; of indeterminate age – he could have been 30; could have been 50, was from Bangladesh. Raji had a sunny but shy disposition, unlike our cantankerous former Army Sgt. turned chef, Ralph, a Danny Glover look a like with a penchant for Southern Comfort, unfiltered cigarettes, and Off Track Betting.
Except for a radio playing Golden Oldies, our daily, pre-dawn routine was fairly quiet, the silence broken occasionally by Ralph’s regaling us with (literal) war stories or Mohammad hissing curses (at me) under his breath.
But one morning, the station played Lovely Day and we were all instantly sucked into an episode of High School Musical. In this alternative, happy Universe, we sang in unison, dancing as we attacked our side work. Singing loudest was Ralph, who drummed on a chafing dish with a pair of big, wooden spoons. The ever suave Christian swept me up in his arms, waltzing us over to the drinks station. Raji bounced in rhythm, slightly shaking his ass as he wiped down the tables. Even Mohammad succumbed to the alchemy of Withers' song, accepting a stack of plates from my infidel hands with grace (as opposed to his usual yanking them from my grasp) and spinning away in a graceful pirouette. We harmonized, we soloed, we laughed, we danced – it was joyful. It was surreal. It was transcendent.
Alas, when the song ended, the spell did as well. By some unspoken rule, we snapped back into our day to day as if nothing had happened. Something, however, had happened, and though brief and ephemeral, the memory of this strange interlude never ceases to make me smile.
And in these days of pestilence, Doublespeak, corruption and terror, a smile is a rare commodity indeed.