A story about one of the most memorable celebrities I have ever met – Joan Rivers.
In the late 1970s, I was working at a “fern bar”; the hot new thing, known for featuring lots of greenery and Boston ferns in macrame hangers, fake antiques, and a clientele wearing mostly polyester clothes. I had only been bartending there for three months, but had quickly learned the basics of the Hollywood crowd, slinging suggestively named drinks like “sex on the beach” and the “screaming orgasm”.
I was the owners’ go-to guy, willing to jump in and do anything necessary to help out. Building shelves, fixing plumbing, cleaning restrooms, and even waxing his car. Then one warm Sunday evening, he sent me over to fill in at a large gay club called Studio One Backlot in West Hollywood. Joan Rivers was doing her monthly show, and they needed someone who could crank out drinks.
Joan loved to work the audience, and, out of what appeared to be hundreds of regulars, she spotted me, standing in the corner on a break.
“Well,” she said. “Aren’t you a pretty boy with your Chuck Norris hair.”
I’d had a few drinks and threw it right back at her. “At least it’s my own!”
“Well!” she huffed in a way that only Joan could. “You think I borrowed this wig this morning? I’ve owned it for two weeks!” She looked me up and down. “I bet it takes a team to get you squeezed into those pants every night. I see you are Jewish.” The crowd laughed and I knew she was looking for the kill. “And what is it you do for a living?”
I stammered, flustered. “I’m a man’s… um, I work for this guy and do whatever he needs me to do.” Her eyes glistened and a grin spread across her face. She turned to the crowd. “A man’s man? Don’t try to put a pretty face on it. You’re a prostitute! They’ll let anyone in here!”
Three shades red, I frantically tried to regain control. “No, no! I’m not… I just help him out. You know, fix things, bartend, plumbing, polish his…” She cut me off with a knowing look at the audience who roared. “Plumbing, ha! Oh, I bet you polish a few things for him!”
“It’s not that way… I’m just here to bartend,” I said in a small voice. “Filling in.” Joan picked up her drink. “Well, you aren’t doing your job. I’m empty. Fill this!”
Ears crimson, eyes focused on the floor, I stumbled back behind the bar. “What is she drinking?” I asked the manager. He was pissed in more ways than one. “Just make her whatever and get the hell out.” I thought for a moment and poured: Southern Comfort. Sloe Gin. Vodka. Orange juice. Shaken. A float of Galliano. A few moments later I brought it over and tapped her on the shoulder in the middle of her set. She turned and glared at me.
“What the hell is this – orange juice?”
With my best grin, I said, “It’s my specialty. A slow comfortable screw against the wall. I wanted to give it to you personally”. The crowd roared, but she didn’t miss a beat.
“Oh honey”, she said, pinching my cheek. “Is that a promise or a threat? It would be the best 15 seconds of your life, sweetheart. I’d take you home, but my husband Edgar isn’t into that, and besides, by the time I found a crowbar big enough to get you out of those tight pants, it would be time for your nappy”. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and so did the bar manager, who, by this time was worried Joan wouldn’t come back.
I returned to my previous bar job, slinging drinks and washing cars. A month passed before I got a frantic call from the Backlot manager. “Where the hell are you?” he said. “Joan won’t go on unless you are bartending for her.”
20 minutes later I ran up the long flight of stairs and into the Backlot. Joan was waiting in the side room. She looked me up and down with an eye roll. “About time! Still haven’t gotten those pants off, I see.”
“And lose your handprints?” I said. “Never!”
Joan laughed. “Get me a damn drink. Something trampy!” She turned to the door and paused for a moment. “Once more, unto the breach” she shouted over her shoulder and walked out to the stage.
I’d had some very regrettable interactions with various celebrities I met in that bartending job, but Joan was terrific. She took care of me, I took care of her, and I loved her. Simple as that.
Unto the breach, dear friend. Unto the breach.
[Before I get letters, I know, this isn’t food and drink related, but it’s my blog, I’ve been losing lots of friends lately, and sometimes, I want to write about them]