Lawndale, Philadelphia – Mid 1970’s
When I was a kid I remember hearing my first Bill Cosby record. I don’t remember what it was called. I think it was my friend R.J who brought it over my house. But we may have listened to it on a little record player out in my garage. They were recordings of his stand up routines. When we were kids there were few places to access audio entertainment. The radio was one of the main sources, and any records our parents and older brothers and sisters listened to. That’s how we got our music back then. It was the Sixties and Seventies and resources were limited.
I think I only knew Bill Cosby from an animated show called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids that was on TV on Saturday mornings. It was a cute show about this massive fat kid and his friends. There was always a heartfelt lesson at the end of each show. Bill Cosby even hosted the animated series. I watched it every Saturday around lunchtime.
Bill was a beloved figure in the entertainment industry. A comic who always worked clean and never blue. His stand up routine consisted of these long story pieces that were vivid and absolutely hilarious. We kids loved them. He had so many cool tales about his childhood. Chicken Heart, Ice Cream, and a trilogy about Noah and God. Just fantastic. Fun entertainment fit for everyone’s ears.
Other comics in the industry looked at Bill like he was a deity. A guy that could get up on stage for a solid hour or two and just kill with his delivery and stories. A wholesome man that was loved by millions. He was the first African American entertainer to ever star in a dramatic series in the history of television. A national treasure. America’s dad.
I remember for Christmas I would always get a Bill Cosby record. I remember getting, The Best of Bill Cosby, Wonderfulness, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow, Right? and Why Is There Air? Just to name a few. All brilliant. Loved them all!
But as you get a little older, your tastes change. And this story is not about Bill Cosby.
One day my friend Jimmy Hunsinger came over and he had a George Carlin record. He was also a comedian. We had never heard of him before. I think we were all around the ages of fourteen through sixteen.
I remember Jimmy had a record by George called FM & AM. We popped it on the little green and white record player in the garage and let it roll. We had never heard anything like it. This comic talked like we did. He said a lot of curse words. Back then, most boys that age all spit, smoked cigarettes, giggled at anything remotely sexual, and cursed like sailors.
Carlin’s bits were absolutely stunning. He quickly became my favorite comic. His material was so irreverent and funny, you just lost your mind laughing at his bits. He wasn’t afraid to use the ‘whole language’ as I say.
I quickly absorbed all of his skits and could perform them verbatim. I remember the gang of big kids that hung up the corner would ask me to do his comedy for them. I would stand there and perform Divorce Game like a young George Carlin impersonator.
Because of George I learned that if you’re funny, the kids on the corner won’t beat you up or pick on you anymore. Why kill the lowly jester? He makes us laugh. He entertains us. Let him live another day.
It really worked!
I saw the power of comedy in George Carlin. Not just that he was hilarious and brilliant, but he knew how to use words and his wits to make things that were normal, really funny. He had a gift for seeing the world a bit differently than everyone else and was fearless in his delivery of the truth. Just an incredible, unique mind.
I acquired his record albums, FM & AM, Occupation: Foole, and Class Clown. All brilliant works. Writing this makes me want to go find all of those recordings and listen to them again. I bet I’ll be able to perform those bits right along with George because his words are so ingrained in my mind. (All on YouTube, no doubt)
Let’s jump forward to 1983. Santa Monica, California.
Now I’m twenty-one years old. I’m working at a place down by the beach on Main street called Merlin Mcfly’s. I have a previous post about it. It’s part of the California Dreamin’ series. You can read it here:
I started out working there as a cashier. I’d gotten a job there thanks to my buddy, Frank Roberts. He had worked there until he returned to his home in Belfast, Ireland. When he left I simply took his place. I would work from 4pm until midnight at the front of the kitchen ringing up food sales. I remember it was a big old upright cash register, where you would push big buttons and ring up the sales.
I was making $4 an hour plus tips. When I say “tips” I mean a big jar I set on the counter with a sign on it. I would charm tips out of the customers. They would be split between me and the two cooks I worked with in the kitchen. If we each walked away with an additional five or ten dollars a night we were in good shape. That would buy cigarettes and beer.
But before Frank left the states, he told me about a thing he used to do that he learned from someone who worked there. He called it, The Moves. The moves were performed on a couple of cash food sales a night. Instead of ringing up the sale, you’d punch it in, then clear it, then simply hit the CASH button, and the register would open. This way, that particular sale was never recorded on the internal tape inside the machine. You’d take the customer’s cash, put it in the drawer and give him the appropriate change. At the end of the night when you were upstairs counting your drawer, there would be some ‘extra’ cash in there. Your drawer would be over by maybe twenty dollars. I would take that overage and split it among the two cooks. They never questioned their portion of the tips I gave them. But it was a way to skim a little extra cash out of the company and help out the hard working guys. It sounds bad, but at the time we were earning so little, a few extra bucks a night wouldn’t hurt anybody. We never got greedy, so we’d only take a little each night. This went on for some time.
There was a chef that worked during the day, named Smedley. Her real name was Brenda but for some reason everybody called her Smedley. I never found out why. I do remember she made all the soups. So pound for pound, she was the best chef employed there at the time. Her sister Lisa had recently come out from New York and needed a job. Management approached me and asked if I wanted to become a cook. I came from a world where my mommy made all of my meals for the first 20 years of my life. I couldn’t cook a damn thing. But they told me it was $5 an hour, so I leapt at the opportunity to increase my earning power by a dollar at this fine establishment. Lisa became the new kitchen cashier and ‘the moves’ went away. Too risky.
Lisa became known as ‘Lis’ the Piece’ because she was a provocative and sexually aggressive girl. She fit nicely into our rock n’ roll world. I have fond memories of my time with Lisa. There’ll be a future post about her and it’ll be quite lurid. But let me focus on the story at hand.
In the kitchen, I worked what is called the cold side, as opposed to the hot side of the kitchen. The more experienced cooks always worked the hot side. Which was primarily the grill. Burgers, chicken and steak. The cold side was less glamorous and actually a bit more complicated than the hot side. I was in charge of making all of the salads, sandwiches, anything fried, and other assorted tasks. (French brie in the microwave topped with toasted almond slices!) I remember one night after work I met this girl at a party in Venice. She said I smelled like fried food. I told her I had just come from working in the kitchen at Merlin’s and she laughed and said, “You’re cute and I love chicken strips.”
I think that’s the first, and last time smelling like delicious appetizers ever worked in favor of anyone’s romantic endeavors.
Working in that kitchen actually taught me how to become a proficient cook. It’s a talent I’ve carried with me my entire life. I’m grateful for the experience, but vow to never work in the hospitality industry ever again. It’s brutal work.
The great thing about working in the kitchen was, you could eat whatever you wanted on the menu. The rest of the staff had to eat the employee meal, and if they wanted anything better had to pay extra for it. So being a poor musician in LA, I knew that at least I would get one nutritious hot meal every day. Which is sustaining for a young lad.
I remember we had this really big guy that was a doorman. His name was Mike. Picture a good looking, muscular guy that was easily 6’6″. I think he did gigs as a stunt man. He would come up and usually order the same thing… the Chinese chicken salad. But he would say, “Can you throw a little extra chicken on that?” Of course I would always oblige, because when he came to pick it up he would grab the big wooden bowl, and drop a couple of joints on the shelf. I would stuff them in my pocket and smile. The same would go for certain cocktail waitresses we liked. They’d get a little extra something and bring us a coke spiked with rum. It’s just what we did back then to help each other. Trade and barter. I’m sure as you’re reading this, someone is pulling some sort of a move in a restaurant at this very moment.
One night, I was just working my shift and one of my favorite waitresses, a honey blonde named Colleen, came to me with some news.
“Do you know who’s sitting over in that booth?”
“I can’t really see from here.”
“George Carlin!” she whispered.
My heart began to flutter and I got really nervous and excited. Fame is a strange and unnatural thing. You experience the same dopamine drop meeting your favorite celebrity as you do when you’re about to see someone you’re falling in love with. But you don’t know the celebrity. It’s an odd feeling, but exhilarating nonetheless.
“What did he order, Colleen?”
“He got the Chinese chicken salad.”
Oh my god, he’s my favorite comedian of all time. I love him! Is he finished eating?”
“Yea. They’re just sitting there chatting.”
“Do you think I could go over and meet him?”
“Give it a shot, Chaz.”
Thinking quickly, I grabbed a guest check and a pen and headed over to the booth where my idol was sitting with his wife and another couple. I cautiously approached the table.
“Hello, sir. Excuse me. How did you like your salad?”
“It was great.”
“I made that for you.”
“Well, it was terrific, thank you.”
“Mr. Carlin, I love all of your work. I have all of your albums. I used to perform your bits like Divorce Game and Hal Sleet, The Hippy Dippy Weatherman for the big kids up the corner so they wouldn’t kick my ass. May I have your autograph, sir?”
“Of course! What’s your name?”
“Chaz.” (hands him the guest check and pen.)
He signs it and hands it back to me with a smile.
“Thank you Mr. Carlin. It’s been so nice to meet you.”
“You too, Chaz. Next time make it George.”
And that was it. I walked back to the kitchen clutching the signed guest check like it was the Rosetta Stone. It was a magical moment in my life and I’ll never forget it.
Sometimes when someone tells me an extraordinary story, I always wonder about the validity of the details.
That’s simply not the case here.
That sacred artifact still hangs on my living room wall to this day. I’ll never part with it.
Thank you George Carlin for all of the joy and laughter you’ve brought to me and the world. You’ll never be forgotten.
Take it away, George…
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