Paul Newman’s death a few weeks ago made me recall my brief encounter with this screen legend. I was 19, working as a service bartender at Allen’s Clam and Lobster House in Westport, Connecticut. I had told the owner I was 21, and that was good enough for him. Ron owned the place with his brother. As far as I know he may still. Ron worked the front of the house, brother was king of the kitchen. That place had been open for eons when I worked there, serving lobster, steamers, and clams to Westport businessmen, who often accompanied the seafood with two and three-hour Campari lunches. I first tasted Campari that summer, but I couldn’t take its bitterness. I’ve since learned if not to love it, to certainly appreciate a good Negroni when I’m in the mood.
Working at Allen’s became an experimentation in extended family for me. The two brothers ran the place with their wives and children. I worked there with my boyfriend, which made us a part too of this raucous, close-knit family. Every day before service we’d meet in the dining room for a family-style meal. Usually pasta or some sort of fried cutlet with sauce. Anything hearty you could make quickly and serve to a crowd. We’d eat, then go off to smoke, to capture some moments of peace. Those mornings before service were the first and last time I was ever part of a large family. I kind of liked it, the teasing, the camaraderie. I felt I was part of something – that together we would succeed or fail at service, but we would do it together. I’ve never had a job where I felt that way before or since.
I had moved to Westport from Virginia with the boyfriend, my first foray into the real world. We rented a room in a farmhouse 10 miles outside the city in Easton, having traveled with all our belongings plus a parakeet in an old AMC station wagon (another story entirely). We were determined to make it work. Marc had worked at Allen’s as a bartender three summers in a row, and he convinced Ron to give me a job too. I worked lunches, Marc worked dinners. Afterwards we’d pool our tips to pay the rent. We kept expenses low – I would bike each way to work (the car had died), past horse farms and humongous estates, change clothes when I got there, make myself a ginger ale with Rose’s lime, work some, and ride home. If the boyfriend wasn’t feeling well I’d work his shift too – hanging out at the little slip of beach (Allen’s was right on Long Island Sound), before tackling the dinner crowd which were more families and couples. Then the boyfriend would pick me up in his baby blue VW bug (newly purchased and barely running), stuffing the bike in the back. I remember we both had Cannondale bikes which when I think of it now makes me snicker. We could barely pay our rent, but had $1,000 bikes. Sigh. The audacious, foolish notions of the young.
The day of Mr. Newman’s visit was uneventful. I arrived 10 minutes late, as usual, quickly changed into work clothes (white shirt, black pants), and began to prep the bar – my own version of mise en place. This involved making the bloody mary mix, filling wine jugs, cutting fruit, stocking shelves, and hauling ice. The bloodys were my specialty. Old Bay and extra horseradish, that stuff was positively CHUNKY. Filling wine jugs involved opening wine bottles then filling the jugs through a funnel, but I had the hardest time working the bottle opener. It was one of the old-fashioned kinds, just a little corkscrew at the other end of a church key. I crumbled so many corks that summer, but eventually became an expert. When you have 200 businessmen clamoring for a refill, you have to.
After all that I would cut limes, lemons, fill the olive tray, fill the onion tray (for Gibsons), make sure we had backups for the popular stuff like vodka and the dreaded Campari, and haul ice. I hated hauling ice. The bin was heavy, your hands froze, and half the time it would melt then refreeze into a big block. But it had to be done. Woe be to the bartender at Allen’s who didn’t fill up the ice bin before service then was hit so hard with orders he’d have to refill during. It happened to me just once. Just imagine a bunch of waiters, OLD TIME New York waiters who have a lifetime of smoking and taking orders beneath their belts yelling out orders to you and you have no ice. At nineteen that scared me enough to fill the bin to overflowing.
When I prepped that particular day, I was ready. I remember I was cutting lemons when I noticed our hostess was in a tizzy, in the corner whispering excitedly. It was her job to greet and seat customers as well as take reservations. What could she possibly be yammering about? And then I heard it. A little whisper traveling through the restaurant. Waiters were folding napkins, line cooks prepping their stations, the owner’s kid sweeping the floor. “Paul Newman’s coming.” Who? “Paul Newman.” We couldn’t believe it, it must be some sort of prank. He did live in the area. But would he eat………….here? Maybe it was some other Paul Newman. But no, the hostess was assuring us, it was THE Paul Newman. And he was coming to eat lunch. At Allen’s. Today.
His reservation was for 11:30, early. So as the minutes crept by and people pretended like it was just another lunch service, my heart began to race. What would he drink? Gin and tonic? Martini? Manhattan? Shit, hadn’t made one of those in a while, what went in there again? I remember the “VT’s and GT’s” (vodka tonics and gin and tonics) were always so easy to make when the waiters barked the orders, but something like a Rusty Nail or Old Fashioned had you running for the bar book. Here they actually drank those things. Once this customer brought me a list of ingredients for a “Girl Scout Cookie” some kind of minty chocolaty drink that actually had mint chocolate chip ice cream listed among 10 other ingredients. He bypassed the waiters and brought the handwritten list directly to my station. In the middle of service. On a Saturday. What is he kidding? I shook my head, sorry buddy. When I told the head waiter about it later, a gravelly-voice Buddy Holly-glasses wearing old timer who had earned that voice from a lifetime of smoking non-filtered Camels, he shrugged and suggested the guy, “Grow a pair.”
Such were the thoughts racing through my head that morning. What if Paul Newman wanted a drink like the Girl Scout Cookie? Some strange thing I had never heard of? I had only bartended maybe three weeks, tops. What if the drink I made tasted like crap? He was a frikkin’ Hollywood legend! Worse, what if he wanted a GIRLY drink? What then? Even worse, what if I made him something and he sent it BACK?!?!
I realize in the grand scheme of things this particular episode might not warrant such scrutiny, but at the time, you have to understand this was the biggest event that had ever occurred to me. I was 19, newly out of the house. I had never experienced much of life, only lived it vicariously through movies. Mostly Paul Newman movies. I always wanted to be the girl on the bike in “Butch Cassidy” or Eileen Brennan’s character Billie in “The Sting”. Or hell, even Patricia Neal’s character in “Hud”. Anything. After a lifetime of living through movies, I was intent on striking out on my own to succeed or fail on my own terms.
Well, here was real possibility of true failure staring me right in the face. Speaking of staring, how was I not going to? I mean it’s frikkin’ Paul Newman and yeah, he might be 70 or whatever, but he’s still the hottest movie star of all time (did you SEE Cool Hand Luke?) with the bluest eyes on the planet. How to not stare deep into them, even if he’s giving you that withering look that says, “Get a life psycho.” With a period, not an exclamation mark. Because he’s Henry Gondorff.
I kept prepping, my heart racing, waiting for him to arrive. And eventually, he did. He walked through the restaurant with some friend of his to be seated at the far end of the restaurant. They looked at menus. They ordered lunch. They ordered drinks. Meanwhile everyone is walking around going about their business, stealing glances his way pretending they’re just looking at some other old guy with white hair wearing a cardigan sweater, chinos, and Chris Craft tennis shoes that ISN’T Paul Newman. Did I tell you how sexy he looked in that getup? Only the sexiest grandfather that ever walked the earth. And the eyes? They are definitely as blue as they say. Bluer even. He glanced once, a millisecond in my direction as he walked past, and in that millisecond I totally drowned. Whew. The wine glass I was polishing almost fell to the floor and shattered in a million gazillion pieces. Holy crap were they blue.
After they ordered the waiter began to walk in my direction. This was the moment of truth. The HOURS that it took to walk in my direction were in excrutiatingly slow motion. What would it be? Wine? Scotch? Martini? Planter’s Punch? Girl Scout Cookie? The waiter, napkin draped over his arm, finally reached my station. His mouth formed a smile and began to say some words. His voice slowed to a crawl. My heart was pounding. “IIIIIcccccceeeeeeeed teeeaaaaaaaaaaaa.” He reached for a lemon and walked toward the kitchen.
I didn’t make the iced tea. I only handled cocktails and sodas. Water and iced tea were handled by the waiters. I only cut the lemons for the iced tea. That was why he had told me the order, taken a lemon, and walked away.
The realiziation settled on me like a blanket floating to the ground – in slow motion of course. It covered me heavily – and I was crestfallen. Iced tea!?!?!?! What the fuck!?!?!?! No Campari? No Scotch? What kind of man orders iced tea for lunch!?!?!
Paul Newman that’s who. He and his friend both ordered iced tea, clams casino, and they ate lunch, talking about their golf scores for all I know. I polished glasses, made drinks, and continued to steal glances in his direction, if only to look at the back of his head. He sipped his iced tea after squeezing the lemon into it. The lemon I had cut just moments earlier.
He was just a guy after all. And I was just a young girl. At the first job she ever had on her own, out of her parents’ house. Embarking on a life. Cutting lemons.