The O'Rourke Library

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Meet the Wife                                                   Dennis O'Rourke

    They were a fun group—two couples in their late thirties and a solo guy about the same age. I sat with them on my breaks, and I drank some pints with them. We laughed a great deal. As they were leaving at the end of the evening, the solo guy, very drunk, pulled me aside and said, “You were great, man, just great. I’m going to bring my wife in tomorrow night to hear you.”
     This was at Liam’s Irish Tavern.
     Good as his word, there he was the next night at the same table, but he seemed to be alone. As I unpacked my guitar, he silently beckoned to me, indicating he had ordered us a drink and I should come over. So over I went, and sat down across from him. On the table between us sat a little covered bowl, an old piece of china. It had scotch tape over the top, holding the lid in place. The waitress set down two shots of whiskey, looked at the bowl, and cocked an eyebrow at me before she left.
     He said, “I told you I was gonna bring my wife to hear you. Her name is Marjorie.” I lifted my glass and said, “To Marjorie.” He clinked his with mine, and we drank. I got up and played a set. He watched and listened, his hands cuddled around the bowl. When I took a break, I went to the bar and ordered two whiskeys, but he was gone by the time I got to the table.
     The waitress came up beside me. She said, “Was that what I think it was?”
     “Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty sure it was.”

Ships that Pass                                           Harry O'Donoghue

  I’ve been performing in an Irish Pub called Tommy Condon’s a few times a year for the last fifteen years. It’s only a three-night gig, and because it’s so close to home, I drive to and fro each night. Takes the guts of two hours each way, but that’s no biggie for me. About forty-two miles north of Savannah, I turn off Interstate 95 onto SC Route 17, into the South Carolina low country, across the Combahee and Ashepoo rivers, and through the marsh and wetlands that fringe the Atlantic Ocean.
     I generally leave my house late in the afternoon, so I have the pleasure of driving at what I consider the most beautiful time of the day—that brief period before twilight when the sun has almost set and burns with a fiery, otherworldly glow. Its last, golden rays hug the marsh and give the land a burnt orange color, a vivid contrast to the pink-blue sky that surrenders itself to each emerging star. No small wonder that older civilizations worshipped the sun.
     This drive became special to me for another reason. About two miles from a little intersection known as Garden’s Corner, there was a small caravan, or as they say in America, mobile home, to my left, sitting fifty yards or so off the road. What caught my eye one day was a little old black lady out in front with a garden hoe, busily tending to her small patch of land. Dunno why the scene struck a chord in me, it just did. It was the mid-eighties when I first noticed her. And from that moment on, whenever I made that journey, I looked for her.
     She was always doing one thing or another in the front garden. Like the mobile home, it was a bit raggedy, but I was touched by her vigilance and tenderness towards it. I suppose it’s the Irish in me. I see that same determination in my mother. I like to think I can see it in myself.
     So one day, I gave a toot on the horn as I drove by. She looked up, smiled happily, and waved. I waved back. The pattern was set. From that moment on, whenever I made that trip, I would look for her, and honk and wave, and she’d smile and wave back. This went on for years. I thought of it as two spirits on separate paths, passing each other now and then, acknowledging each other with a wave. I looked forward to seeing her.
     Then one day, she wasn’t there. “Musta missed her,” I thought. But she wasn’t there the next time, either, or the next. The garden was overgrown, and weeds snaked up the side of the mobile home. There were no lights. It looked deserted.
     I never saw her again, but I still smile and wave when I pass by, as I did last week. I’m sure she’s moved on to the next journey, and maybe there are friends and family who have forgotten her. But I hope she knows there is an Irishman still out here who will never forget.
     God bless you, dear, wherever you are.

Glass Eyes and Golf Tees                               Seamus Kennedy

   Except for its acoustics, which really suck, Mullaney’s Harp & Fiddle in the Strip District in Pittsburgh is a fine and friendly pub with an efficient staff and an appreciative group of hard-core regulars who enjoy the music and entertainment of folks like myself, Tom O’Carroll, Brendan’s Voyage, Guaranteed Irish, Eugene Byrne, and a few big names they bring in for the occasional concert.
     The Guinness pours well, and for people of the County Cork persuasion, there’s Murphy’s Stout. Resident Corkonian and bartender Declan makes sure that flows smoothly. Barman and manager Dave, a Pittsburgher by birth, keeps the IC and IC Light on hand and cold for the locals, and Rita from Derry, the Mother of all Waitresses, makes sure choice delicacies prepared by Matthew in the kitchen make it promptly to the customers who ordered them.
     The cover charge is nominal, and performers usually play to a full house on the weekend. Reservations are a must at the Harp, or if you prefer, you can stand with the crowd at the bar.
It’s pretty easy to work a full room. The crowd is there to hear the music and be entertained.      They’re in a good mood because it’s the weekend and they’ve put aside their cares and woes. Generally speaking, they’re meeting us more than halfway in the goodtime department. Songs, jokes, witty and not-so-witty repartee, instrumentals—the Friday and Saturday crowds eat them up. Performers really enjoy working these audiences.
     The tough ones are the slower nights—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. There can be as few as a dozen people in the room; they might be happy hour holdovers, a few weary businessmen, or folks who have stopped in for a cocktail or two on the way to a hockey game. Their focus is not going to be the stage entertainment. We have to try a little harder to get their attention and hold it in order to keep some in the pub for a few more drinks. (It is a business, after all.)
     If it’s slow, the performers have to do something to keep themselves amused, as well. Trying out new songs or jokes, stringing old jokes together to come up with a little comedy routine, practicing a reel or a jig on the guitar—anything to avoid the appearance of ennui.
     My own technique is to talk to the folks, to get a patter going on just about anything that comes into my head—the weather, politics, current events, insults. Just get them interested.
Well, it’s a quiet Wednesday night in the Harp, but I do have a group of about two dozen young folks sitting at two tables in front of the stage. When I say young, I mean in their early twenties—a few of them are probably students at Duquesne University. They’re ingesting delicious intoxicants and talking animatedly among themselves—not overly loud or obnoxious the way a group like this can sometimes be. I notice that one young man is blind. This lad, I think, will provide the perfect vehicle for me to gain their attention, entertain them, and ultimately win their approval and affection.
     So I start telling blind jokes:
     "Why do blind people never take up skydiving? It frightens the shit out of their dogs."
     "How can a blind skydiver tell when he’s about to hit the ground? The leash goes slack."
A couple of them laugh, and gradually the others stop talking and begin to listen.
     "A blind man and his dog go into a department store. As soon as he gets through the door, he picks the dog up by the leash and starts swinging him round over his head. The manager comes over and says, ‘May I help you, sir?’ The blind guy says, ‘No, I’m just looking around!’”
     They’re really laughing now. Especially the blind kid. So I sing a few songs, funny ones like “The Scotsman” and “Side by Side.” I’ve got them. Time for an audience participation song or two. “Finnegan’s Wake.” If someone keeps clapping on the chorus after everyone else has stopped, he has to buy a round of drinks for the rest of his group. This one works. Then “The Moonshiner,” a little ¾-time song where they clap once on the table and twice, pattycake, with a partner sitting across from them. The clapping gets more intricate as the song progresses.
     The blind guy is gamely keeping up with the rest and having a ball. The set is over. I go to the bar, get a pint, and head to their table to say hello. They ask me to sit down and join them, which I’m happy to do. I introduce myself to the blind guy—his name is Michael—and I ask if he minds the jokes.
     "Not at all," he says, "In fact, I’ll give you a couple for your routine. Did you hear about the blind man who wore his fingers to the bone trying to read a cheese grater?
     "A blind man and his dog are waiting to cross the street. The dog lifts his leg and pees all over the guy’s feet. The blind man reaches into his pocket, takes out a dog biscuit, and gives it to the dog. A stranger comes over and says, ‘That’s the most charitable thing I’ve ever seen. That dog deliberately peed on you, and here you are giving it a dog-biscuit.’ The blind guy says, ‘It’s not charity. I’m just trying to find his head so I can kick him in the ass!’”
     Two beauties. I file them away for future use. We swap a pair of glass eye jokes, and Michael mentions that he has two glass eyes. I ask if he can take them out, which he proceeds to do, grossing out everybody at the table but me. I’m enthralled. He dips one of them in his pint and pops it in his mouth, and the girls at the table squeal in disgust. "Ewwwwwww! That’s yucky! And gross! Eeeewwww!"
     This guy is brilliant!
     Break over, time to get back on stage. A couple of songs, a couple of jokes, a couple of instrumentals, and I decide to do “The Unicorn,” a song in which I teach the audience to mime the various animals named.

“Green alligators, long-necked geese,
Humpty-backed camels, and chimpanzees,
Cats and rats and elephants,
As sure as you’re born,
The loveliest of them all was the unicorn.”

     I show them how to act out the animals, arms outstretched in front of the chest, moving up and down like an alligator’s jaws; both hands up in the air, bent at right angles at the wrist, like a goose’s neck and head, and so forth.
I see Michael asking one of the others, "What’s Seamus doing?" because I’m demonstrating the motions, not describing them. So one of the girls takes his hands, and starts guiding him in the movements. He’s into it.
     Then I get silly.
     I’d been playing golf that afternoon with Dave and Declan, so I have a couple of golf tees in my pocket. I decide to stick one of them up my nose. (I didn’t say this was a class act.) I’ve done this on quite a few occasions, sometimes with a five-inch nail. It’s a simple geek show trick that anyone with a nostril and a sinus can do, for heaven’s sake. You simply tilt your head back, insert the nail into your nostril and gently push it all the way back into your sinus. It’s not going anywhere near your brain, so you don’t have to worry about that. But it’s a great little attention-getter that can liven up the dullest dinner-party or soirée and cause a heave or two, even in the strongest stomach, especially if you pull your nostril over the nail head so that it can’t be seen. Then you look at someone and say, "If I sneeze now, you’re dead!"
     Anyway, I slowly shove the golf tee into my nostril, gradually, until only the head is visible. The girls are squealing again and pretending to cover their eyes; the guys are laughing, and poor old Michael is saying, "What’s he doing? What’s he doing?"
     I realize that this is distinctly unfair, and he deserves to be an equal participant in this showbiz extravaganza. So I call out, "Michael, I’ve a proposition for you. Come on up here on stage with me, and if you’ll take out your glass eyes for the audience, I’ll let you push the golf tee up my nose with your very own finger!"
     Well, this is obviously an offer that no red-blooded, All-American blind guy can refuse. He stands up immediately, pushes his chair back, and allows one of the young ladies at the table to give him her arm and lead him to the stage to tumultuous applause and encouragement. "Go, Michael!"
     I help him up, and he stands beside me, facing the audience. I insert the golf tee into my nostril about three-eighths of an inch or so and take his hand. He extends his index finger, and I place it on the head of the tee. The crowd is screaming hysterically.
     “Now push gently."
     And he does so, a little at a time, until all three and a half inches of the tee are in. His friends are doubled over. Then I pull the nostril down over it, and I let him run his finger over the little bump to assure him that it is, in fact, all the way in. Michael is giggling.
     "Okay," I say. "Your turn."
     He tilts his head slightly, rolls his eyelids back, and removes the
glass eyes. The crowd is close to wetting themselves now. I believe there may have been a few involuntary squirts from the owners of bladders who were afraid to go to the bathroom in case they missed any part of this once-in-a-lifetime magic show. He holds the glass eyes up and displays them triumphantly, like a gladiator holding aloft a pair of heads severed from the shoulders of slightly less-skilled opponents. As in the Coliseum, the crowd roars its approval.
     Then he drops one.
     "Oh, shit!" he says as it hits the stage and bounces onto the floor and under a table. Pandemonium! His friends all rush forward, and hunker down in a search and rescue mission. It’s nothing so small as a contact lens, so I know it’s not going to take long to find. While they’re occupied with the hunt, I turn to find Michael on his hands and knees, feeling around the stage.
"Michael," says I, “what the hell are you doing?"
     "I’m looking for my goddamned eye."
     A few moments later, the eye is recovered and returned to its rightful owner, who’s relieved to have both headlights functioning again. Order is restored, Michael rejoins his pals at the table, and folk start breathing normally. This has been the highlight of the evening, I’m sure of that; nothing is going to top it, so I do a song to wind things up, and I bid the audience adieu, reminding them to tip their bartenders and waitresses.
     And then, as I usually do last thing before I leave the stage, I say, “Please drive safely. I’d like to see all of you again.”
     And Michael stands up and hollers, "I will!"

Remembering Johnny Cunningham              Robbie O'Connell

 The great Scottish fiddler, Johnny Cunningham, was well known for his sense of humor. He always had a joke to tell, but it was his playfulness on stage that I enjoyed most. Johnny began his career with the seminal Scots band Silly Wizard, but over the years, he played in several other groups. In the 1980s, he toured with Relativity, which included his brother, Phil, and Triona and Michail O’Domhnall from Ireland.
     I saw them at the Somerville Theatre in Massachusetts one night. About fifteen minutes into the show, Johnny made a little speech. They had just come back from a tour in California, and he wanted to tell us about the latest craze out there—hugging. He readily acknowledged that, at first, he hadn’t liked it, but gradually he had gotten used to it. Now that they were back in the East, he had begun to miss it. He claimed it was very therapeutic and urged us all to try it. Then he announced that he was going to come down and hug everyone in the front row. The audience grew uneasy. People wondered if he had flipped his lid, particularly as the other band members looked embarrassed. But down he came, sauntering along the front row, hugging everyone as he went. Some people were laughing; others were confused. What was the point of all this? When the hugging was over, he climbed back onstage and to the great relief of the audience, the band launched into a set of reels.
     About twenty minutes later, Phil asked Johnny to play the new tune they had rehearsed. Johnny protested a bit, saying he hadn’t really gotten it down yet, but Phil persisted, and Johnny finally agreed, on the condition that he could read the chart, which he had brought with him. Then he began to empty his pockets onto a chair beside him, searching, so we thought, for the sheet music. One by one, he pulled out several watches and wallets, pieces of jewelry, and packs of cigarettes. Slowly the audience began to titter. It looked like he had picked the pockets of all the people he had hugged. It took a few seconds to sink in, but we all realized that we had been set up. He had brought the stuff with him. It took about five minutes for the laughter to stop and the show to continue.
     Another night, Johnny and I were splitting a bill at the Cape Cod Theatre in Dennis, Massachusetts. Six nights a week during the summer, the theatre presented a play, so we performed on what is called the actors’ “dark night.” When we arrived at the theatre, we discovered that the set for the current play, a combination kitchen and living room, had to be left on the stage. I could see the glint in Johnny’s eyes as he looked around at the props. During our sound-check in the afternoon, he poked around the set trying to find some way to incorporate it into the show. A big refrigerator stood on one side of the stage, and Johnny honed in on it. He opened the large lower door and peered inside. It did not inspire him. He then tried the smaller freezer door on the top. Realizing that the fridge was not plugged in, he removed his fiddle from its case and placed it in the freezer. I had no idea what he had in mind. We went in search of a bite to eat and a few drinks before the show. It was a hot, muggy night, and the theatre was full when we got back. Johnny was the first on stage to open the show.
     “Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big Cape Cod welcome to Johnny Cunningham.”
Johnny walked out with a big smile and greeted the audience. He turned to where he expected to find his fiddle, or so he pretended. His face registered the shock of seeing nothing there. He searched around the stage in a panic, looking behind the couch, under chairs, lifting cushions. Then he crossed the stage to the fridge. He opened the lower door wide, as if he was certain the instrument was there. Miming a great look of disappointment, he closed it again. The audience was bewildered. He grabbed the handle of the freezer door, and with a look of wide-eyed expectation, he turned towards the audience. Slowly he pulled back the freezer door to reveal his fiddle, and with a flourish, removed it. He walked up to the microphone, paused a moment, and said, “Ah!      You can’t beat a cool fiddle on a hot night.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand for the rest of the night.

One Thanksgiving With The Wife                     Frank Emerson

     You know, my wife doesn't generally accompany me on the road. There are a couple of reasons for this. She has a job as the Director of Historical Resources in our town. As such, she is sort of the head honcho at the museums here and oversees the myriad programs that these institutions conduct. She's really good at it, too. I'm proud of her. But she puts in a lot of hours. Second, when she’s able to string a few days off together, she doesn't much fancy spending them on the road with me, where she’ll have to sit in a smoke-filled bar night after night.
     Oh, don't get me wrong. She likes seeing and hearing me perform, all right, but not for nights on end. This especially comes home to her at the end of any given evening. My show is over, and she follows me into the bar where I’m being garrulous—having a couple of drinks and getting real intelligent and clever and bulletproof, and I start oozing good will. What a charmer. Well, instead of sitting there listening to all this, I think she'd rather have root canal work done. So it stands to reason that by way of these two factors, she doesn't come along often.
     On those occasions when she does come with me, we've found that things work better if we try to make it somewhat special. Over the years, she has met some of my friends and enjoys most of them better than she does me—which is okay, since I enjoy most of them better than me, too. So there's solid ground right there. However, for 'peace in our time,' when she's with me, we try to do things in a bit of a different manner than my road trips are usually taken. This is a wise thing.
So anyway, at one time, Tommy Makem owned a pub in New York, and a nice one at that. They had a house soundman who was knowledgeable about the music and rode the board as you played. This ensured a good mix and sound quality. This was, and remains, a rare treat in Irish pubs. His place was in a good location, as well. I think it was W. 57th, off Lexington. (Anyway it was a street with a directional number off a street with a town's name.) I worked it a few times. One year, I was booked over Thanksgiving, with Thanksgiving itself off. It just so happened that my wife had a few days off at the same time. We figured that here was a chance for one of those spousal trip things.
     We drove to Washington, DC, left the car at her sister's house, and took the train to New York. This strategy enabled us to avoid the hassles that certainly would have come about both inside and outside the car had we driven into Manhattan. We could both relax. A win-win situation.
We couldn't afford a first-class hotel, but we wanted something within striking distance of the pub. So we ended up in what I guess you'd call a second-class hotel. I'm not being obtuse. I mean it weren't a fleabag, but it sure weren't the Ritz. It was handy, though, somewhere around 42nd or 43rd or 44th Street—I forget. Near Times Square. And (and this is a big ‘and’) it was safe enough to satisfy my wife. Now my wife always checks the closets and under the bed for bad guys, and that's just in our own house. So since she gave it the thumbs up, you can be sure that the place was okay.
     The gig at Makem's was going just fine, and she was enjoying being there, hearing me, meeting a few folks, and I was on pretty good behavior. Now comes Thanksgiving Day, and we're on our own in the Big Apple.
     We wake up that morning, and after a small breakfast, venture out. Just over on 34th Street, the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is getting under way. We decide to take it in. I'll tell you, it's pretty impressive. Lots of participants, lots of talent, lots of people. The spirit of the season abounds, and there is a genuine warm feeling all around; good thing, too, because the temperature would make Smokey the Bear start a fire. By God, it was cold. We stand it as long as we can.
We decide to walk back toward the hotel while giving some thought to where we’re going to eat our Thanksgiving Dinner. Don't we pass right by the Algonquin. We stop. The Algonquin! The Round Table! The Rose Room! Dorothy Parker! Robert Benchley! Leave us go in—definitely!
We could get in all right, to the bar only, and that was all she wrote. The restaurant is booked solid for months. Hell, we probably couldn't have afforded it anyway. So we have a beer at the bar and peek into where we supposed the Round Table would be. It was all just fine, but a wave of sadness came over us when we realized that, of course, all of those fascinating people were long dead. Well, at least we'd walked and stood where they'd walked and stood. And I guess that was all right.
     We resume our search for someplace to eat. We find a little pub, The Pig and—something—that was serving a Thanksgiving dinner. Good food, nothing fancy, and we get served by very pleasant folks. We talk about the city and our plans for the afternoon.
Some month or two before, we had bought tickets for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. It was their Christmas show, a matinee—not something I would normally attend if it were just me. Nothing against it, I just wouldn't do it on my own. But this was different. This was a spousal thing. So we went. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it. They were all terrific.
We leave the show feeling pretty good about things in general, and most importantly, about each other. Heading back toward the hotel, we round a corner in the theater district, and boom, there is the famous Sardi's. We figure, let’s go in and hobnob with the Broadway-ites.
No problem getting in. No problem getting to the upstairs bar. I guess they’re between rushes, and it is a holiday, after all. We walk around and gawk at all the caricatures of Broadway stars all over the walls.
     We plunk down on a couple of stools at the end of the bar, still rubbernecking. Just a few other folks in conversation down at the other end. The bartender comes right over, introduces himself as Jack, and asks what we'd like. What I'd like is my face on one of the walls, but what I do is order drinks for my wife and myself, since I figure that's what he meant. He brings our drinks and starts a conversation with us. He’s very friendly and seems interested in what we're doing in town. He tells us he lives in Red Hook and that he's originally from Dalmatia. I can't top that, so I tell him about us and that I'm performing at Makem's this week, and why doesn't he come by and have one on me. He says he just might do that and that the next round is on him. We tell him thanks and that when he's ready, we'll have the same again.
     He excuses himself and goes to fix our drinks and talk with someone down the other end. We're figuring, jeez, these New Yorkers are okay by us. We're still ogling and pointing at the drawings on the walls. Jack comes back with the drinks just as a stocky, baldish, well dressed gent with a gimpy leg comes and stands next to us and calls out, "Jack, my usual, please." So Jack brings him the usual cocktail.
     This fellow starts up a conversation with us, just like that. Says he doesn't get too many Irish musicians in the place. Asks how we like New York and so forth. I figure he's the manager, and that Jack has given him the skinny on us. He goes on and says that he's sort of in show business himself, on a part-time basis, that is.
     "Oh?" I say.
     "Oh, yes," says he, "and you've probably seen me in the movies."
     "Oh?" I say again. I figure I'm holding up my end, giving him cues. I'm looking, but I don't know this guy.
     "Yeah. Did you see that Peter O'Toole movie, My Favorite Year?”
     "Sure. Great movie," I say.
     "I was in that," he says.
     I still can't place this guy. He senses this.
     "You know the part where Peter O'Toole steals the police horse in Central Park and gallops away? Well, I was the cop holding the horse."
     "It would have been quite a stretch if you'd told us you were the horse,” I says. The guy laughs. My wife gives me a shot in the ribs.
     "I'm sorry," I say. “I don't mean to be a wiseacre. No offense."
     "Course not," says the guy. He then tells us of a few other films he's been in—Julia, The Fortune Cookie, and so on. Says he's got his SAG card. Just then, he catches sight of someone who's just come up the stairs behind us. He waves and shouts. "Be right with you, Colonel." I turn to look and see a bald-headed fellow in a suit heading toward the next room.
"Jack, give these folks their next round on me." Then to us, "You know the colonel, don't you?"
     "The colonel?" asks my wife.
     "Yeah, Colonel Klink—you know, from Hogan's Heroes. He's involved in a lot of stuff on Broadway right now. Nice guy. Wants to talk with me about something. He can wait a minute." We chat for a couple of more film credits, and he then says, “I gotta go talk to the colonel. Nice meeting you. Enjoy New York, and good luck at Makem's." And off he went.
Jack comes back with our drinks. He's smiling. "He doesn't do that a lot with people he doesn't know. I guess he likes you."
     I ask, "Who is he, Jack? The manager?"
     "No, not the manager. That's the man. That's Vincent Sardi."
     How about that? Vincent Sardi—Junior, that is. Son of the original owner. Grew up in the business. From Queens. Enlisted in the US Marine Corps in World War II and left a leg in the Pacific. He rubs shoulders every day with a lot of famous, would-be famous, and past famous and powerful people. Everybody in the theater trade wants to catch his ear. And here he's a regular Joe. He's taken the time to make a couple of out-of-towners feel welcome. Good guy.
I suppose this whole thing doesn't have a lot to do with the music business, but it does point to the fact that had my wife not come along with me, none of what happened that day would have happened. I wouldn't have seen the Macy's parade, wouldn't have seen the Rockettes, wouldn't have gone in to the Algonquin, probably wouldn't have eaten much to speak of, and definitely wouldn't have met a Word War II hero/Broadway fixture. (I am quite certain that my wife was the real reason he stopped by in the first place. She is easy on the eyes, after all.)
     What I probably would have done was go to some old bar and watch endless football games, drink drinks I probably didn't really want, and root for teams I didn't know with people I didn't know who were in the same position as myself (sort of hunched over a drink and an ashtray, listing first to starboard then to port), with nowhere else to go.
     So maybe she's a good luck charm for me. I'd like to reciprocate one day. She certainly gets me to broaden my horizons when my natural predilections tend to narrow them.