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by Paco Underhill 1981

It was Rita the bartender who told me at the tail end of a heart to heart on garlic sandwiches and cigars. If you've got a run down bar and restaurant on the edge of urban nowhere, the news of a new tenant in the under-populated office building across the street is a small piece of manna from heaven. I'd spent too many lunch hours sitting at the bar munching my tuna fish and watching the cook and the waitress chain smoke cigarettes and read romance novels. The noon hours needed a kick in the pants.

Rita was a California girl, with a mane of brown curls, a ready smile and the arithmetic of a third grader. A personal stake in making sure the cash register tallied out taught her more in two weeks about adding and subtracting than twelve years of Los Angeles public education. I'd hired her on a rainy afternoon after watching her handle Irving Adler, our 82 year old curmudgeon. Irving was an institution who'd been slopping up brandy at the same stool since 1923. Rita had walked in for a beer or to get out of the rain, and three-quarters blind Irving had no trouble seeing she was female and propositioned her on the spot. Irving at 98 pounds, of which 98% was residual Hennessey, was no threat. Rita beamed and with the ease of an experienced gerontologist, not only had him telling stories I'd never heard before, but got him to spring for a beer. The last lady I'd had working the day shift couldn't cope with the dregs of humanity passed on to us by the former owners. She was also so inept at stealing that even I could spot it.

Rita had charm, was even newer than I to the ginmill trade. She was offered the job and started working sixty seconds later. The customers taught her how to mix the drinks, and making change was her on-the-job training. Toots Shor might not have approved but it worked out just fine until the garlic sandwiches and cigars.

Garlic is a wonderful spice. The benefits have been lauded from Bram Stokes to Adele Davis. I like garlic bread and garlic baked with chicken. I used to eat it toasted on little grills at Korean drinking houses in Seoul. Nonetheless in any form of intimate contact, it takes two garlic eaters to click.

Rita had gone for garlic with a vengeance because of a wonderful film that had passed through town called "Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers", directed and produced by Les Blank. Rita had talked the cook into making her toasted garlic on whole wheat sandwiches for lunch. Rita's antidote for the after taste was a Cuban cigar. She had found a box of smuggled Havanas behind the bar that previous owners of our dive had traded for drinks with a Canadian trucker. Time and a gradual change in clientele had made that box and a bottle of Rock and Rye the truly slow movers on the back shelf.

The first time it happened I was as amused as everyone else to see Rita in her lime green tank top and electric blue pedal pushers puffing away. She was not Gertude Stein, but looked more like a refugee from a pajama party destined to spend an hour or two clutching the toilet bowl. Her stomach fortified with the garlic sandwiches made no such protest however. The novelty became an everyday habit.

Finally, I had to step in. I pointed out that we were in business together. She sold my drinks and made tips. Anything that helped sell drinks within reason was good business. Anything that drove customers out hurt both of us. While the vision of an attractive young lady chewing on a stogy might add to her tips occasionally, as a standard routine it was not a great idea. Rita got the message.

Despite our garlic sandwich confrontation, Rita had settled into the job with her own brand of logic. When the air-conditioning broke down she'd tend bar in a one piece bathing suit. Our male patrons were appreciative of the view, and Rita's lack of self-consciousness made it seem the most practical and simple of solutions to the heat.

She had a wonderful collection of '50's rhinestone sunglasses which were modeled with great aplomb both by Rita and the line up of retired longshoremen, taxi drivers and warehouse men that made up much of our daytime bar trade.  She also found a pink high heel shoe large enough to hold the phone .

She claimed it made it easier to grab without looking, and that it fit comfortably into her shoulder, freeing both hands as she made Kamikaze gimlets.

Rita lived on the Lower East Side, sharing an apartment with Victor, a very distinguished looking gay black man studying to be a dancer. At her suggestion, we'd hired him to bus tables and wash dishes. The trouble started in Rita's apartment on the Lower East Side when in the course of a weekend she and Victor swapped boy friends. God knows the circumstances or how long the exchange had been in the making. In the cramped tenement rooms of that part of town, you get as intimate with your neighbors as you can with a Siamese twin.

It had not been an amiable trade, and the drama of the weekend spilled over into Monday afternoon. It began as muttered words on betrayal, slippery seduction, and unnatural penetration. It quickly degenerated into a cross fire of dirty dishes from one direction and dirty glasses from the other. Caught in the middle was the table of ladies from across the street. As the accuracy diminished it was clear the two of them were venting more than their frustration with each other. It was bedlam. The feminist art ladies from across the street switched their afternoon club house to the Greek diner down the street.

Rita and her roommate made peace, but made a point of not working the same hours. Victor quit about two months after the end of the club house to become a window dresser. I gathered too that he and Rita were no longer sharing an apartment. The swapped boy friends didn't last long, and after a while Rita finally picked a favorite from her fans on the afternoon shift. She approached romance with exuberance of a large puppy. Kurt, a dispatcher for a taxi company, was round-faced with a mop of black hair, dark eyes and the recipient of her affections. He was met every time he opened the bar room door with her flying body and loud wet kisses. She nicknamed him Baby, and most of us forgot his real name.

Baby was a hollow leg drinker. A fifth of vodka would do no more than put a spot of color in his cheek. Thank god he was a taxi dispatcher rather than a driver. He took his role as the darling of the daytime queen with good grace, not taking advantage of his position to become a free loader as often happens with the girl and boy friends of people who work in bars. The crew from the taxi company also became a group of regulars, and Baby policed their language and manners with an iron fist.

Through this period Rita begun to grow out of her California flakiness. Some of the change I attribute to the other members of our staff. Between the poets washing dishes and the classically trained actors and actresses waiting tables, we had enough doctorates and masters degrees on the floor to open a liberal arts college. One of the dish washers gave two weeks notice and said he'd been named to the American Academy in Rome. Another bartender quit after having accepted a screen writer's job in L.A. She specialized in horror movies, and at this writing has a couple major screen credits under her belt. While I was barely making a living, I was proud and touched by the extended family of characters dependent on the gin mill for their rent money. For Rita the atmosphere was conducive to change. One sleepy afternoon I walked in to find her sprawled out on her elbows across the empty bar with a dictionary and Plato's Dialogues. She'd taken to wearing her bushy hair in a pony tail on the left side of her head.

Rita switched over to working nights and picked a up a part time job painting door frames on Wall Street with a contracting firm. She'd come to work with a delicate spattering of paint across her face.

Rita's quitting was traumatic. Baby left the bar one evening with one of his buddies, neither of them feeling any pain. Outside the bar they found a man sitting on the hood of their car reading a newspaper. Baby in good jocular humor asked the man to remove himself, and a fight broke out. Windows were broken and Rita called the cops. I walked in minutes after to find Rita in tears. Loyalty towards the bar and concern for our windows had made her bring the police down on her Baby. I took over and finished her shift as she chased after her boyfriend.

I didn't see her again for some months. The trauma of having abdicated her throne obviously took time to work out. At last meeting she was working in fashion, looking wonderful, but I detected under her perfume the faint smell of garlic.


James Brown House 
326 Spring Street  NYC 10013  212-219-8026

Last Modified: August 12, 2006