September 28, 2014
This week I met:
An entire world in a little 75-year-old tavern. Academy Tavern on Larchmere every Wednesday night is the coolest, hippest, least hopping place in town. George plays a superb piano, harking back to early 20th century jazz and ragtime. His top hand flies while his bottom plunks out a dependably steady bass line, throwing in inflections as it sees fit.
I pause in my leisure as an old graying spunky lady gets up to sing with a voice that screams of youth not quite aged the same as her body. She smiles around the sparsely populated room and the room smiles back.
George takes a break and a lady in her 60s (looking young next to the previous singer) takes the piano and a big black bass belts out Gershwin’s “Summertime” with no rasp, just fullness and love and memories.
George takes over after another song by the duo and croons “Misty” with his fingers as the patrons quietly close their eyes and nod their heads and sing to those lingering people in their thoughts, back home, passed on, lost touch with. He fades away like he entered and a silence settles over the bar. The applause is staggered, individuals joining in as they finish their memories and swallow the last of their drinks.
I take a bathroom break as an old phone cuts through the background noise with its unrestrained clattering. The bathroom is tiny but pristine and a sign over the stall reads “Stand closer! It’s shorter than you think.”
I come out to a middle aged Italian man with sunken eyes and a pointed hair line sitting backwards on a chair next to the piano, his legs straddling the backrest, singing “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (but more reminiscent of The Ink Spots cover over Duke’s) in a soft, throaty voice heavy with the damage of cigar smoke, croaking out a life story that I’m dying to hear. The old fragile man sitting next to the piano (who I later learn is the husband of Mrs. Spunky Old Lady Singer) chimes in with a “harum” to fill the pause in chords, and keeps at it through the chorus to the delighted expectation of everyone in the bar as he stares at the wall in front of him, out to the pastures of his childhood. I bet he tore it up on the dance floor to this song. I bet he could still dance with the heart he used to.
The younger waitress calls the older waitress “Momma,” the phone clatters again and I love these intersecting eras. They all live on.
“Don’t say you don’t like France, say you don’t like Paris,” says the man at the bar in red pants and a matching red kerchief around his neck, thick with a Parisian accent, making drunken friends with the bartender.
A Lebanese couple celebrating their 35th anniversary sit on the back patio, surrounded by their family and the thin trickling of waterfall fountain. Sinatra’s confidant voice croons out through the hidden garden speakers. Most people, I assume, go to a nice fancy restaurant for important occasions like their 35th anniversary. These people came here, to this tiny, unassuming tavern in the middle of Shaker Square.
I want to take a picture of this whole place, a picture that could capture all the waves of life and history humming throughout; the sense of community can only be experienced, never transmuted, and I feel privileged to take part in it for one night. I hope I do a decent job of portraying this to you, hope you come here (or somewhere) and meet the Georges and Mommas and Academy Taverns.
A resident of the old houses beyond the border of this oasis heavy-handedly throws his garbage bag of beer and liquor (hey, maybe Coke) bottles in the trash, disrupting my reverie and reminding me that the world is still turning, people are still living and working and trying their best outside of this reprieve. But for a moment, just one (maybe another, I tell the waitress), people join together to forget while living in memories; making new memories; finding their place amongst all this mess after 35 years in a tavern celebrating it’s 75th anniversary, 75 years of giving people a break, a moment (maybe one more, I tell the bartender) from their lives to live.
Louis Armstrong croons “What a Wonderful World” and I realize the patio’s now empty save the wait staff and me and Louis. I think about leaving, then the Lebanese men walk out with big ole cigars and take seats around the waterfall fountain. Soft Arabic chatter floats my way as they fight to light each other’s smokes and puff in silence for a moment once it’s all figured out. Louis ends so I walk back inside and take a seat at the bar. There’s still a half dozen people in the place, George has left, the conversations are low.
I don’t know how it began but suddenly I’m in the midst of conversation with Cooper (surname), the “Summertime” singer. The man’s played at Nighttown, worked in the music business for 45 years or so, coming out with a CD of jazzy Lou Reed covers in April. He’s a carpenter by day and is wearing big blue overalls to prove the point. His kids are in the broadcasting business. His daughter, he says, is worth a million bucks, owns 95.5 and 107.9 and other black and gospel stations, but I take it with a grain of salt after he says his son “doesn’t call him for money anymore, so he’s probably making six figures.” He said you have to find a niche, took to my “Oh, the People You’ll Meet” column. All I can think about is how the hell I’m going to put this guy into words, and how I’m never going to do him justice. His voice rang out with a kindness as deep as the pitch (he studied opera, gets drinks with several members of the Cleveland Orchestra on a regular basis), agrees it’s a pretty crazy world but his eyes are squints of light and says you find your way after enough meandering. I say it’s no fun without the meandering, without getting lost and crashing through the woods to find the next burbling stream or spacious grassland. He relishes his whiskey neat as he talks, gives life advise, disagrees with my generalization of Cleveland’s failed steel industry, citing the “mom and pop” steel industry that doesn’t employ thousands, but 30 or 40 or so, 30 or 40 lives. He’s been coming here a long time, he says, and sometimes he’s the only person in the bar. He hugs the Momma waitress on her way out, awkwardly, given his stature, and strikes up a conversation with the newcomer to his left. His life isn’t glamorous, more so than some, but nothing worthy of a novel. I want to write that novel.
A girl with hair like a beehive, piled on top in dreads of dirty brown. We were listening to a funky brass band at the Ingenuity Fest, surrounded by glass blowers and Tesla fanatics and little chic stands selling their odds and ends. She wanted nothing more than to dance with someone, and I was with my friends and too far in my shell so said no. I wish I had given her a dance, at least one. I’m not very good, but I do like to dance, and man was she antsy. She went ahead and broke it down on her own, her hair tumbling off her head and hissing like Medusa’s cranial friends; some jive ass shy kid wasn’t going to ruin her fun.
A cashier at Antonio’s Pizzeria who was sick and about to cry because their shop just won an award in the local paper and had more traffic now than they knew what to do with. All the orders were 20+ minutes late. She had been getting yelled at for two straight hours by people arriving expecting their pizzas to be ready. I told the cashier as I was paying to keep her chin up, that not everyone was grumpy and hey, at least it means business is booming. She smiled then jumped to stop a couple little kids from trying to get into the kitchen.
A little old lady waited patiently for her two mediums, two larges, three calzones and buffalo wings. The cashier was going to carry them to her car for her but I said no, I got this; you have your hands full. The old lady promised to pay it forward.
I met a young mother, heavy set, living in the only development in Broadview Heights under the poverty line, who was cussing out the cashier and asked to speak to the manager. Her apartment complex is a two-minute walk away. I told her “what’re you gonna do?” and smiled lightly. I guess she has other stresses on her hand.
I talked to a guy outside who had been waiting for 45 minutes. He said he always came early to take in the sights and sounds and smells. He was quite at peace.
I went back inside to get my pizza and the young mother with other stresses was picking up hers. She had a pleasant conversation with the cashier who said, “I know you come here a lot, I’m really sorry.”
“Oh don’t worry about it, these things happen.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your pizza.”
“Thanks, hope your night gets better.”
I collected my pizzas. She said, “Thank you for everything, seriously, it means a lot.”
The pizza was kind of cold, but what’re you gonna do?