Wednesday, June 13, 2012


“You can see me tonight with an illegal smile.
It don’t cost very much but it lasts a long while.
Will you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone?
No, I’m just trying to have me some fun”
Illegal Smile, John Prine

About nine months into the Great Northern’s life, business was still booming and the staff had its routine down pat.  There was a bit of a revolving door regarding the staff, but a strong “core” of regulars insured a very enjoyable and eclectic night’s worth of entertainment.  And even with a full load of tables and a song every 10 or 15 minutes, somehow time was allotted for various traditions.  One of these was a “doob in the stein”.  For many years prior to The Great Northern, before it was a singing waiter mecca, this had been the site of Scheidel’s German Restaurant.  Herr Scheidel had a giant beer stein (see picture) that he would take to parades and other events to publicize his place.  After the restaurant changed, the stein, which was on wheels, stayed behind the building, awaiting an eventual permanent move. 

On one particular night, the atmosphere seemed odd, even by Northern standards.  The C’s were restless and full of more liquor than usual.  Marty had performed a particularly spirited “Ribbon of Fat”, and whether or not that had anything to do with it, a couple at one of his tables was extra surly, taking great delight in letting him know how awful the food was.  Marty didn’t suffer fools lightly, grew tired of trying to calm them, and finally let them know that if they didn’t like it, they were most welcome to get up and leave – which they promptly did, amid a flurry of further recriminations.  Redwood got wind of this and pulled Marty aside, but to his credit, only gave him a light warning and sent him on his way with a parting, "Could you please not make a habit of that?"

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the staff were accompanying Jesse in his almost operatic version of Sinatra’s “My Way”.  Jesse was about five feet tall with an odd but somehow endearing demeanor.  His voice was bigger than the room and on this song, he was accompanied by several musicians playing piano, guitar, kazoo (that would be me), fiddle (that would be Nancy, an accomplished and striking player who always dazzled) and flute (that would be Alice, our token flute player; for a small fee, she could also make you a vest sewn entirely out of men’s ties, a vest [and knickers] being a requirement of the waiter’s “uniform”), and anyone else who could spare some time and join in the chorus and Big Ending.  As usual, the song was a huge hit, everyone dispersed, the C’s would be happy for at least a short while, and some of the waiters needed a break.

A doob in the stein was so-called because as you can see from the picture (the actual stein, by the way, is now located in Rancho Cordova at Rudy’s Hideaway), the beer stein out in the parking lot was big enough for a couple of people to stand in unobserved while taking a “smoke” break (Antoinette would liken it, usually right after being out there, to “little gnomes out in the forest”).  I wasn’t generally into that routine, but on this particular night I allowed Gray and Linderoo to lure me out back.  By the time the three of us got there, Nancy and Bors (her partner and a great guitar player), were already in the stein; we convinced them to join us in a Volkswagen so we five waiters could all partake in a more communal fashion.  The car doors were shut, windows rolled up, doobs set in motion, chattering commencing, when all of a sudden, there was a loud knocking on a side window.  This was not good: thru the smoke we could see a police officer.  Where had HE come from?  How could we have missed him?  (How indeed?)  Gray rolled down the window with a “Yes, officer?” and we were commanded to all exit the car and line up in front of him.         

So there we stood in our vests and knickers, reeking of doob, befuddled and busted.  The officer stared at each one of us and told us to extend our arms.  At that point, the only person holding anything was me: I still had my kazoo from the song we had just finished.  When he saw what I was holding, he said, “What is that, a pipe?”  Without thinking, I said, “Of course not, it’s a kazoo!”, and started blowing on it, strangled, screeching sounds from a desperate, frightened mouth.  “Stop that right now!”  I complied and incredibly, miraculously, at that moment around the corner came General Manager John R.  Exactly how he knew what was happening is unknown to me.  The officer informed him that we were caught in the act and consequences would follow.  In what must be some of the most eloquent words I’ve ever heard, John pleaded our case, explaining in very stern terms how he would make sure this never happened again, and more importantly, if the officer took the five of us away, the restaurant’s ability to function that night would be severely crippled, possibly necessitating a closure and the loss of much money and good will.  Not finding a bit of it amusing, the officer turned his back on us and spoke briefly and privately with John.

A few tense minutes later, the officer drove away, John R paraded us back into the building, and the Great Northern stayed open deep into another Saturday night.


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