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Authors: John Lahr

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The Autograph Hound

BOOK: The Autograph Hound
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The Autograph Hound

A Novel

John Lahr

To Mike Magzis


John Hancock



With love and gratitude


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Why do they come and see me? I don't know what they want to know.


Chapter One

LOOK AT GARCIA. For a man in his position, he's got no style. A Stetson should be tilted and squared like Lash LaRue, not stuck up in a Hoot Gibson hump with a crease down the middle. The handles of his six-shooters are pointed forwards. In a gun battle he'd be slaughtered. The maître d' before him—Levy—he was no fancy pants. One gun (handle pointing backwards), chaps, no phony rodeo necktie with a silver holder. Everybody liked working for him. He used to let me off early before the Broadway shows broke. If there was a special premiere, he'd fix it so I could make up the hours. He was the best maître d' The Homestead ever had. Nobody talks about him now.

Garcia gets so uppity. Two nights ago, one of the waiters decided to add a little color to his uniform. He put on an Apache scabbard. Customers noticed it. It helped with tips. But Garcia made him take it off.

Busboys don't wear uniforms, just The Homestead brand—the Flying H—on their white jackets. I could've been a waiter. I know I'm not strong, but I'm strong enough. I know my eyes are bad, but I've got a great memory for detail. Waiting table's too much responsibility. When it gets hot, my glasses start to fog up and my head buzzes. I slip into the bathroom next to the time clock and sit on the toilet until it goes away. If I was a waiter, I'd have to keep working. There's no letup. You walk into the kitchen at rush hour and Zambrozzi's there in his white hat, his chest hairs like clumps of broccoli creeping over his T-shirt, screaming his dago skull off, banging the bell.
Fai presto! Fai presto! Pane! Insalata!
There's so much to do, and so little time to do it.

Zambrozzi is to restaurants what Vince Lombardi is to football. He's what the New York
calls a “taskmaster.” The Homestead has been in the
Guide to Dining for three years running, and last month, the restaurant was rereviewed by
The New York Times
. Zambrozzi, Garcia, and the Boss were mentioned. I have the clipping in my wallet. The
liked the antipasto, but felt the zabaglione lacked “e-c-l-a-t.”

The good busboy does his job so quietly that no one knows he's around. Of course, everyone would like to be mentioned in the
, but they're only interested in the results, not the behind-the-scenes activity that gets the food to the table. I could've told them a lot about The Homestead. I keep a scrapbook. But he didn't sit at my station (number 4). Water, bread, butter, plates—once in a while a trip to the front of the house to get cigarettes from Louise, the hat-check girl. Busing's not as glamorous as being a waiter, but it has its advantages. You're out on the floor. You see people. You make their acquaintance.

I work hard. The restaurant is known for its service. I guess that's me. I want people to come here. I remember the old days when we were serving only steak and lobster with two kinds of vegetables. That was eight years ago. Now The Homestead seats two hundred. There's a bar and paintings of the Wild West and drink holders in the shape of the beaded saddle standing by the cash register. The saddle belonged to Buffalo Bill. He's about the only person who doesn't come in here. Every night there's somebody new, somebody you've read about in
Sports Illustrated
or somewhere.

You can always tell a celebrity. They stand apart. They're friendly without being snooty. They chew their food but don't make noise. Sometimes I just walk right up and say, “Are you famous?” I'm not wrong very often. I've been collecting autographs since I was ten—one quarter of a century. The celebrities are generous. They smile and answer my questions and sign my book. I don't take up their time. They've earned their privacy. Only the smalltimers are wise guys and don't look at you when you ask a question. But with these types, I don't listen either. I let them sign my pad (you never know who's going to be valuable in a few years) and then walk away.

Of course, I know many of the faces right off the bat. Rosalind Russell, Stella Stevens, Zero Mostel, Ralph Nader, Anthony Franciosa, Teddy Kennedy. I only let them sign in ball-point. The celebrities write with such energy. Even when the letters are scribbled together, their signature is so …
. For instance, Zero signs his name in big, round swirls like his face and Teddy Kennedy is so busy that he draws a straight line with a few bumps along the way for the
. Myself, I don't write too well. But in my business you don't have much writing to do—union cards, health policies, that sort of thing. I write to my mother almost ten times a year now. I feel sorry for her since they took the sainthood away from Christopher and Philomena—her two favorites. She wrote and said the Church found no evidence they existed. I wrote back: “From now on, don't believe anything you haven't seen.” That's difficult for her. She's blind in one eye, and how many celebrities come to an old-age home in Asbury Park? She keeps pestering me about who I've seen. Every
. is the same: “Good contacts are good business.” When I was just starting in New York, she wouldn't give my signatures the time of day. “Nobodies,” she'd say when I'd show her my Carmine Basilio or my George “Shotgun” Shuba of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “These are nobodies! In my day, we had real stars—big, big people. Valentino, Paul Whiteman, Bill ‘Bo-jangles' Robinson, Bobby Breen.” Sometimes I write her in the styles of my friends. Last month, I tried Namath's hand—the butterfly
, the oversized
. It wasn't bad. But I don't have the power in my fingers that Joe has.

The Homestead's good for autographs. It's better lighted than Trader Vic's, and where “21” also gets a late night crowd, there are five headwaiters hovering around. At The Homestead there's only Garcia to worry about. That's enough. But Garcia's usually at the front of the house chatting up the reserved tables, keeping single women out, taking the tips that pay for his '56 Thunderbird with bucket seats and handcarved wooden steering wheel. He can't keep his eyes on the busboys. The waiters are supposed to report any funny stuff, but they hate him, too. So, at the back of the restaurant, I have freedom many others don't. Sometimes when other busboys have a famous person at their station, we pull a Cain and Abel—football talk for switching assignments—so I can get the autograph. That's why my collection has grown so fast and why some people, like Louis Sypher at the Waldorf, don't do so well. My collection must be worth $20,000, but I'm not in it for the money. The Waldorf crowd is all Italian singers—Sergio Franchi, Julius La Rosa, Eydie Gorme, Liza Minnelli. They're hot now, but wait a few years. Louis gets $20 a book. With him, it's slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am. He doesn't follow his people. He doesn't really care. That's what makes great athletes or great anything—care.

Nobody wants to just give away his autograph. You've got to feel the mood. You've got to red-dog into a conversation when the star's relaxed and when you're confident you can handle the situation. You've got to read a lot. You don't go up to Willie Mays and start talking b.o.—box office, in show-biz lingo. You talk to Mays about himself. The first year in the minors with Trenton when he hit .353, or how he likes living in Hillsborough, California, next door to the publisher of the
San Francisco Chronicle
. I buy all the magazines and trade papers. Mom says I shouldn't pay $40 a month for such things. But how else can I keep up? Most people read
The New York Times
for its obituaries. But once a famous person is dead, he's of no use to me.
Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Sports Illustrated, Baseball News
give me the facts and figures that never get into the
. Take Jackie Kennedy. I've seen her walking along Madison Avenue with John-John. I've also seen her with unidentified older men. The
' stories always invade her privacy. I wouldn't think of doing what they do. How that woman has suffered! But the
only talks about her when she's been embarrassed by some snooper or has lost her jewelry (they're still looking for the $12,000 diamond stolen from her Fifth Avenue apartment). There's so much to the woman—all those cooks and servants and children and famous-people parties. Why doesn't the
report that! They treat her like Garcia treats me. When I saw her on the street, I couldn't take my eyes away. Her hair had that lovely two-tone quality—gold and bronze like a Chevy Impala. Her eyes were hidden by sunglasses. Nobody knew her but me. She stopped to look at an art gallery. She lifted her glasses on the top of her head like in
. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Macready. He works Park and Madison during the day and hangs out around Sardi's at night. I've heard his pitch a hundred times. “Excuse me, ma'am, could you spare some change? I got separated from my platoon.” Now Jackie's the kind of woman who gets things free. If I were a cabdriver, it'd be my honor to give her a lift. She doesn't need to carry money—everybody knows her. But Macready's bad. You don't panhandle the ex-First Lady, somebody who knows politics, whose husband (may he rest in peace) was separated from his platoon himself and swam nine miles dragging a wounded buddy on his back. I saw Macready and walked up to him to block the way. I asked him for a cigarette. Under his breath, he says: “Fuck off, Walsh.”

My voice got loud: “Do you have the time?”

“Fuck off, creep. That's Kennedy's old lady.”

I saw Jackie notice Macready. She turned and walked inside the gallery. Just before she opened the door, I saw her look back and smile at me. I walked away fast. (Macready's much bigger than me.) I'd protected Jackie from another intruder. If she comes to the restaurant, I'll get her autograph. I'm sure she'll be nice. I'm sure she'll remember.

“Stop yapping, Walsh. Table thirty-two's a mess!”

Garcia reminds me of Edward G. Robinson.

“You want I call the Boss, Walsh?”

“I'm going. I'm going.”

The kitchen's steaming. My neck gets prickly. The noise is too much—plates dropping, silverware crashing in the bins, hot air hissing up from the vats. I scald my hand. I've got a right to stand somewhere and let it cool. Garcia has it easy. He doesn't have to go into the kitchen if he doesn't want. He doesn't have to scrape plates or haul garbage. He stands by the telephone talking in his best English. The celebrities call him by his first name, Enrique. He whispers to them, he does them little favors and brings them the red phone for special calls. I don't have that chance. More butter, more rolls, water, a napkin. That's all I'm allowed to do. It's not much in their eyes, but the work's ten times harder than the maître d's. I told that to Garcia after our last fight. He said I couldn't carry my autograph pad in my hip pocket. He said Boss's orders. Now I hide it in the freezer, and when somebody comes in I sneak it out.

Garcia makes me feel like I'm in enemy territory.

It's been a slow night. Louise told me that George Segal stopped by for a drink at the bar.

My hand still hurts. My legs ache. The waiters pile as many plates as they want on a busboy's tray. I'm no Chaplin. Fall down with a tray of plates and it's not so easy to get up. These swinging doors are murder. Zambrozzi's laughing. The first time I've seen him smile all night.

BOOK: The Autograph Hound
3.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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