Joseph Sciuto
Author, Political Pundit, Historian

Writing Snapshots


A CURIOUS VIEW: A VALENTINE GIFT
FOR MY UNCLE TONY

Forty–six years ago, on a mild, sunny Valentine's Day in the Bronx, my Uncle Tony died. 

And I cried and cried.

He was a bigger-than-life character, and he looked like a movie star. His hands were unusually large...like the hands of a prizefighter...and when he gripped the quart-size bottle of Rheingold beer that he had with his dinner every night, his hands covered the entire bottle.

He loved to fish and swim, and he especially liked company. He walked with a noticeable limp...a polio victim when he was just a child. He always lived with his parents (my grandparents), and his youngest sister, Rena (my aunt).

My Uncle Tony worked as a doorman at the ritzy ‘Sutton Place’ in midtown Manhattan. Occasionally, he would tell me about a famous movie star or ballplayer he had met, and how unimpressed he usually was...something I would learn first-hand years later.

He adored his mother and, as she would reprimand him from the makeshift living room where she was watching television, he always would reply, “I would never give the child any beer, Mom.”

Of course, he was lying and would give me a sip of beer, then stick a piece of garlic in my mouth from the nearby tomato sauce.

He would whisper to me, “Your grandma is the greatest woman in the world, and the only thing I ask of God is to let me die before she does.”  Then, he would touch the large crucifix around his neck and kiss it softly.

Uncle Tony preached to me about the virtue of being a strong man. How a real man would never hit a woman…only a coward would do such a thing. He hated cowards, and he used to tell me over and over that the worst thing a man could be is a coward.

He told me wonderful stories about the old Bronx when he was growing up... how he would hit long homeruns in the park where they played, and then he would have my Uncle Sonny run the bases for him.

My parents, my brothers and I lived directly above my grandparents in an old apartment building. I was always down in my grandparent’s place, and I used to sit with my Uncle Tony every night when he got home from work, which was usually around eight o’clock.

My grandma always had dinner waiting for him. He was off on Mondays and Sundays, and those were the really great days because I could spend more time with him.

He promised me that he would teach me how to fish and swim like a champion. “I was just a year away” as he used to put it.

On a Monday afternoon as I rushed home from school to have lunch, my Uncle Tony had a massive stroke.

Three days later on St. Valentine’s Day, he passed away.

Today, whenever I visit the Bronx, I always go to the cemetery to visit my uncle’s grave.  The tears still come as I look down at his name, engraved on the tombstone directly below the name of my grandmother.

And I always think of an old saying from the Bible, “In death, they were not parted.”




A CURIOUS VIEW: TABLE 39/
THE WEST HOLLYWOOD
PALM RESTAURANT


Once upon a time, in a world that at times seems as distant to me as the ancient city of Babylon, there stood a restaurant called “The West Hollywood Palm.”

It was on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills in the county of Los Angeles.

Before it went through drastic transformations after the death of its General Manager, it was famous for its great food, outstanding service (despite what jealous critics might write), its clientele, and its décor.

“It was like a high class speakeasy,” as one of our loyal customers, Herb Lazarus, once described the place to me.

It was rumored that more Hollywood deals were signed in The Palm Restaurant than any of the major studios in town.

It was not only the Hollywood elite that frequented the restaurant, but gangsters, high-class prostitutes, politicians, military contractors, famous ballplayers and the Archbishop of Los Angeles…

…and Lucifer…on many occasions… disguised brilliantly as some of the most respected people in the world.

The front four tables, #1, 2, 39, and 40, were usually reserved for our most loyal customers.

At lunchtime, that usually meant big Hollywood players like Richard Zanuck, Mike Ovitz, Tom Mankiewicz, Alan Horn, and less-famous but equally-important players like Van and Rose who owned an insurance company that insured many of the major films in production.

At night, those four tables were reserved for a more diverse clientele like well-known gangsters, gamblers, famous actors and actresses, and comedians who were friends of the restaurant since its beginning in New York City.

One of those comedians was the late Don Rickles, who usually came in with his wife, Barbara.

The last time I had the pleasure to serve Mr. Rickles was over ten years ago on a busy Saturday night on table 39.

Like always, he was amazingly polite, remembered my name throughout dinner, and looked at his wife as though he was falling in love with her for the first time.

He occasionally reverted to the comedian that the world outside knew, and when my friend Tommy asked him if he was going to attend Frank Sinatra’s 75th Birthday celebration.

Rickles responded, “And what, hear the man sing ‘My Way’ for the millionth time. Enough, already! Enough!”

Then, he took Tommy by the hand and invited Tommy and his wife to his Las Vegas Show. Tommy accepted, and as Tommy sat in the audience, Mr. Rickles pointed him out to the audience, then went on to insult him in the way only Don Rickles could do. |

Tommy was flattered.

Mr. Rickles left me a forty per cent tip that night, shook my hand, and as he was making his way to the front door, he noticed a waiter, Johnny, who happened to be quite short.

The funnyman went into a tirade about Johnny’s height and everyone at the bar started laughing hysterically. He hugged Johnny, looked around, and asked the bar customers, “And what are you clowns laughing at?” The “clowns” laughed harder.

Mr. Rickles took his wife’s hand and walked outside. I was outside talking to another customer as Mr. Rickles and his wife waited for the valet.

A young, aspiring comedian approached Mr. Rickles and asked him several questions.

He listened as one might listen to the President of the United States, answered the young comedian’s questions, touched his cheek gently, then took his hand and held it between both his hands.

“You’re going to be great kid. Just don’t ever give up,” Rickles assured the young man.

Don Rickles was a great comedian. Off stage, he was as good a man as I have ever met at the famous Palm Restaurant.

Once again, he is in the company of the Rat Pack, suffering through countless renditions of ‘My Way’ by Mr. Sinatra…and loving every moment of it.

Don Rickles was nicknamed ‘Mr. Warmth’ for his onstage put-downs.

But in the world that really matters, he really was an exceptionally warm, generous, compassionate and loving man who the rising ‘stars’ of today would be smart to emulate.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Warmth.


A CURIOUS VIEW: LINDA, AN ANGEL FROM THE WEST HOLLYWOOD PALM

In the more than two decades that I worked at the West Hollywood Palm Restaurant, I saw millions of people come and go through the front door.

The vast majority were customers, many of whom became lifelong friends and with whom I have kept in contact to this very day.

The rest were employees with whom I worked over twenty years.

Together, we witnessed our original dreams vaporize like the early morning haze that hangs over southern California until the sun erases all traces of its gloom.

Of all the millions of people, celebrities and tourists, the famous and the infamous, Angelenos, New York "transplants," and those from the far-flung corners of the planet with whom I came in contact, many made lasting impressions...some for the better and some for the worse.

In 1994, John Burns, a longtime waiter at the restaurant before becoming a real estate mogul, recommended a young lady to our General Manager who was looking to hire our first hostess ever.

She was hired shortly after she interviewed. Her name was Linda, and if you were to put her in a picture with twenty other people, she might very well be the last person you notice.

She was about 5’4’’ and her legs were as skinny as those of a chicken. She had light reddish hair that came down to her shoulders, which she parted on the side. Her teeth were small and very crooked, but her face was quite appealing, and she had a slim but beautiful shape.

She was the type of girl you were certain that if you introduced her to your parents, they would immediately approve and start making wedding preparations.

Linda was a “hugger,” and she had a delightful and sunny disposition. It was no surprise that so many customers and employees fell in love with her.

She had a troubled past with drugs and alcohol, but by the time she started working at The Palm, she had been sober and clean for a couple of years. She quickly moved up from hostess to the accountant position (taking the place of our wonderful and charming Jenevieve who went on to bigger and better things).

Like Jenevieve, Linda never went to our General Manager with a problem concerning a waiter, busboy, kitchen crew, or bartender. If she could solve the problem with a discreet one-on-one, that is the way she always went.

In a strange way, I don’t think many of us deserved the kindness and compassion of Jenevieve and Linda. They were a godsend!

At Christmas time, Linda gave every employee at the Palm a Christmas card with a short note and two one-dollar bills. It was her way of telling us how much she appreciated all of us.

She was making less money than all the other employees at the restaurant, except for the janitor and dishwasher.

I have never spent the money, and the cards are among my most cherished.

In the summer of 1995, the restaurant shut down for a week and had some much needed renovation done to it.

Linda supervised the renovation, and during that week, she started going out with the contractor who was from Boston. It was like a fairy tale and after a little while they got married and moved to Boston.

Before moving, we threw her a surprise going away party in which every employee and many customers showed up. She cried and hugged everyone.

I kept in touch with her and every month or so, we exchanged letters. She was so happy and her happiness was like a beautiful drug to me.

Life caught up with both of us, and a long time went by without any communication. Then one day, an assistant manager told me she had talked to Linda who was working at the Boston Palm, and Linda said to tell me "hi."

The manager said she sounded drunk and high at eleven in the morning. A couple of days later we got word that she was fired.

It’s no secret, that addicts have relapses, and I was sure she would bounce back. She had a loving husband who refused to give up on her.

A few months later she had been diagnosed with an inoperative brain tumor that had been eating away at her motor skills for well over a year.

She had been neither drunk nor high. She was dying.

Linda died two days after we found out the news about the tumor, and the morning haze over Los Angeles never burned away that day.

And her kindness and generosity, like Jenevieve’s, was never replaced.


A CURIOUS VIEW: ROBERT OSBORNE,
A MAN OF FILM

Occasionally, a TV personality will enter your household, such as Rod Serling, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Charles Osgood or Charlie Rose, and become a permanent guest for many years.

They usually possess an "everyman’ personality." Despite their position in life, they seem to know their audiences in a way that a family member knows his brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.

It is that special person whom we welcome into our households for a short time, five days a week, over a long time, who becomes part of our extended family.

But when they stop showing up, it is like losing an essential part of yourself.

Robert Osborne, who passed away yesterday, was just that person.

Mr. Osborne was the host of Turner Classic Movies for twenty-three years. His insights into old movie classics, like "All About Eve" and "The Maltese Falcon" were like a history lesson that all Americans would benefit from knowing and viewing.

He helped in the preservation of many old classics that otherwise would have degenerated in uncared for vaults...forever lost…a crime against culture and art that no civilization can afford.

Osborne's tidbits about legendary actresses like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland were priceless and never mean-spirited.

Robert Osborne celebrated the genius of filmmakers who did not rely on expensive salaries or special effects, opting instead for superb storytelling, directing, and acting.

He recorded the history of movies and, like an archeologist, he and the staff at TCM preserved and enlightened a new generation of filmmakers,  while rekindling the hopes and dreams and memories of older viewers whose first memories were of movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Clark Cable, James Cagney, Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, and Myrna Loy.

Thank you, Mr. Osborne. You are a guest whom I will miss greatly.


A CURIOUS VIEW: W. HIGH STREET, MOUNT STERLING, KY

Sometimes, the final chapter is written before any of the major players enter.

Other times, the final chapter is written when all the pieces in the triangle meet at a ninety-degree angle and collapse onto each other.

A few days ago, the final chapter ended as the triangle collapsed on itself.

Back in 1988, I was lucky if I could find the state of Kentucky on the map. It was a place where they raised horses on beautiful manicured farms, and the place where President Abraham Lincoln was born.

Then, I met my wife and that all changed. In the winter of '88, on the day after Christmas, I flew into Lexington, Kentucky, for the first time, and unbeknown to me at the time was how much of an important role the state and its citizens would come to play in my life from then on.

My mother-in-law lived in a large white house with a backyard as big as a football field. The house was old, built in 1908, but it was probably the first house I had been in since my childhood.

It reminded me of my grandmother’s house back in the Bronx.

The whistle of steam through old radiator pipes met the winter chill. The floorboards creaked with history and the ghosts of deceased loved ones.

The lights that occasionally flickered and the sounds of a loud alarm clock were constant reminders that neither time nor place were ever meant to stand still.

At night, my wife, mother-in-law, and I usually gathered in the study after dinner and watched an old movie on TV… at least until an onslaught of visitors arrived.

On the first full night that I was there, Jack and Helen and their children and grandchildren and even more children came over. They were all amazingly gregarious and friendly, and never for a moment did I not feel like I belonged.

Jack immediately would become what I considered a very close friend. He was an outspoken critic of everything and would, without hesitation, give you the last dollar in his pocket if you asked.

He was exceptionally funny in a way that only a person who is not trying to be funny, can be the funniest person in the group.

In that way, he was like my mother-in-law, Lou. If she tried to be funny it never would have worked, but some of the lines that came out of her mouth, uncensored, left me in stitches. Until this day, I still laugh at many of her southern sayings and remarks.

The only clash was one of accents... my NYC and Lou's north Alabama. Throughout the day and night, she would ask her daughter, “What did he say?” I, in turn, would ask my wife, “What did she say?”

At the end of the night, after my wife went to sleep, we would talk about family, friends, religion, hardships and joys, and neither of us had a difficult time understanding the other.

Jack and Lou passed away a number of years ago, but I never have stopped feeling the love and kindness and generosity they showered upon me.

A couple of days ago Jack’s wife, Helen, passed away. That was the final piece of the triangle.

Helen, like Jack, was loving, kind, and beautifully compassionate. She and Jack always would harass and pester each other, but never once did anyone doubt their unbinding love for each other.

Lou often played the referee, at which she was quite good.

From the moment that Jack passed, Helen always would say how much she missed Jack, and how she couldn’t wait to reunite with him and Lou again.

A couple of days ago that reunion took place, and all the pieces of the triangle collapsed, and all the loved ones they left behind are now left with the difficult task of building their own triangles that will outlast the grave and all of time.




A CURIOUS VIEW:
THOUGHTS OF FUTURE PAST

Over the years, while passing through many cemeteries throughout the United States, attending way too many memorials, and simply mourning the deaths of people whom I have greatly admired, I have gone back in time to two quotes by two wonderful and distinguished writers.

Rod Serling, the creator and writer of “The Twilight Zone” and real life war hero, greatly cherished friendships. In part, because of the horrific events he witnessed during World War II in the Pacific theater where he carried the lifeless bodies, and near-lifeless bodies of friends across battlefields.

He received many of medals and on his tombstone, it simply reads, “I left behind friends.”

Many people have misinterpreted the quote to mean his dead friends from the war, but in reality, he was talking about his friends who were still alive when he passed away.

I often think to myself that just before I die, I hope I say the same thing.

It is a ringing endorsement of the type of person Serling was, and the type of person I wish I could live up to.

The other quote is from Hemingway and it reads, “The only thing a person takes with him/her when they die is what they left behind.”

To an artist, it might be his/her work. To a soldier, it might be his/her heroism or comradeship. To a ballplayer, perhaps it is highlight reels.

Or to a mother or father, it might mean the greatest honor of all...being a great parent and raising productive, compassionate, and loving children.

This is the quote I have used most, and as Father Time catches up with me, I seem to be using it more and more as friends and family and people whom I truly have admired seem to be dying at a rapid pace.

A couple of days ago, I was writing a piece about an abused woman, and in the piece, I just happened to mention Mary Tyler Moore.

The abused character, a female in her late twenties, nonchalantly remarks that all she wanted to do was grow up to be like Mary Richards in the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Independent and strong-willed and funny to boot.

Yesterday, upon learning of Ms. Moore’s death I felt a real pang inside, like millions and millions of other fans.

I grew up watching reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with my grandmother, and even though I was just a little boy, I am certain that my first real crush was on Laura Petrie.

A few years later, in the early seventies, I used to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” with my parents and used to think that maybe someday I could marry a woman like Mary Richards.

Mary Tyler Moore was many things to many people.

She was a woman who could make a profound statement using comedy, like Chaplin and Woody Allen. She could rally a fire inside one without using vulgar and cruel comments, but by making one laugh.

Mary Tyler Moore leaves behind many memories that will live on forever from the world of TV, movies, and the theater.

And, most importantly, as the tributes come pouring in, she leaves behind many friends.

REST IN PEACE, Mary Tyler Moore.

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