I entertained at Starr Boggs restaurant in Westhampton, singing and playing like Bobby Short or Michael Feinstein. From time to time I’ll post anecdotes from this period.
Ria ran the beauty shop in Westhampton Beach, which was funny, really, because -though exceedingly sweet- she was also exceedingly plain, with a top-knot of greying hair above her warm smile. Her friend, Mary, had some clerical job in the town, and they were inseparable. Both of them were in their late sixties and overweight, but while Mary would distribute her bulk along the bar, resting both elbows on Billy’s pocked and polished mahogany, Ria would swivel her stool towards me at the piano and hum along with the tunes: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart. They were members of my coterie, my fan club, and part of my appeal lay in the fact that I would let Ria sing; her big number was Sorrento. Mary would listen, eyes half closed, smiling, as Ria’s quavery tones filled the space around the bar. Ria would get a big hand, it was impossible not to respond to her sweetness, and Jim, the well-known newscaster, always made it a point to compliment her: “That was great, Ria,” he’d tell her, “you just get better and better.” And then one day, Mary had a stroke. She was hospitalized, it was touch and go, then, finally, they brought her home. We didn’t see her for eleven weeks. Ria would still appear, but subdued now. No more Sorrento. How’s Mary? we’d ask her. “She has her good days and her bad days,” Ria would tell us with a sigh. Finally, one Friday, Mary re-appeared, using a cane. Had to be helped onto her stool. At the end of the evening, we noticed something strange: Mary had left Billy a fifty-dollar bill. On a twelve dollar check. And the following week we heard that Mary had tipped the A&P delivery boy another fifty for bringing her order. She’d called LVIS, the local charity, and had them come and pick up most of her extensive library. Wow, I thought, what’s going on with Mary? And then it struck me: she’s realized her mortality; she doesn’t think she has long to live, so she’s divesting herself of…everything. Including her savings. Now the capper to this fascinating trope happened the following night. As Mary made her slow and painful exit, she paused by the piano, and put a fifty in my brandy-snifter tip jar. Ria, behind her, reached into my jar, extracted the fifty, and dropped in a five. “She really can’t afford that,” Ria said to me as she trudged out behind Mary. I guessed I understood, and yet…….the only other time something like that happened was when a guy dropped in a ten…and made change by extracting a five. What a business!