Paul McCartney told me never to drop names, but…

Originally posted in Maine Crime Writers, August 20, 2011

Hi. Barb here.

This post gets its title from something Vince Gill said on the NPR radio program, “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”  It’s such a perfect segue that now everyone in my family uses it whenever we are about to…drop a name.

My sister-in-law got me thinking about this topic.  After attending a dinner party with me she said, “You know what you should write about?  A mystery writer who murders everyone who comes up to him and says, ‘You know what you should write about?’”

I’m astonished by the number of people who approach me, a new and relatively unknown author, and say exactly that. I always brace myself a bit, particularly when the question is preceded by the disclaimer that the speaker doesn’t read a) mysteries, b) fiction or c) at all.  But then I remember (here comes the name drop) Truman Capote.

The summer between my junior and senior year in college, I waited on tables at Herb McCarthy’s Bowden Square in Southamption, Long Island.  I’d been eating there since I was a child.  My grandparents and their friends had closed down the place so often Herb was considered a family friend.  Though he hired me as a favor to my grandparents, I was not without waitressing experience.  I’d already spent one summer at a resort in the Poconos (think Dirty Dancing, but all the guests are Irish Catholic) and another at the lunch counter at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia.

Herb McCarthy’s wasn’t one world.  It was multiples.  In the front of house in the evening, diners like Lee Radziwill and the Gabors (mother and sisters) ate Long Island duckling and porterhouse steaks.  On the other side of the swinging kitchen doors, all the employees from head chef to dishwasher were African-American.  Back there, Radziwill was known as “Princess Razzle-Dazzle” and the ribs and hash served as dinner for us help was better than anything ever delivered out front.  Another world consisted of the full-time, professional employees–Herb, his omnipresent second wife, two bartenders, the captain, and Vada, the only waitress who worked days all year round.  The college student waitresses and busboys were the lowest of the low.

In my waitress uniform, summer of 1974

At lunchtime, there was also the world of the bar, where many of Southampton’s year-rounders–lawyers, insurance men, merchants and bankers–gathered every weekday.  Truman Capote ate his lunch there every Monday in a corner booth.  I was his waitress all that summer.  He didn’t much like it.  He and Vada were close.  He’d even bought her new patio furniture when a storm blew hers away.  But she didn’t work Mondays in the summer, so he was stuck with me.

I wasn’t a great waitress, I admit.  I’d been trained not to hurry people through their cocktails, to wait until they’d settled in with their drinks to take their orders.  Once, when Truman lunched with John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace, the cocktails flowed so continuously I couldn’t figure out when to take their order and Capote finally yelled at Herb about my incompetence.  But over the summer, we figured out how to get along.  For years I kept an Amex carbon with his signature on it in my wallet, which I’m quite sure both the restaurant and Amex would have frowned on had they known.

Whenever Capote walked into the bar, the locals would call out “Truman!” in a way a decade later I would associate with Norm entering Cheers. And then it would start,  “You know what you should write about?”  Capote was unfailingly polite and engaged, as if the tall tales from their world were as interesting to him as the gossip from his own.  He was as tiny, high-voiced and effeminate as he appears in the video clips you’ve seen, but the bar patrons treated him as one of their own and he responded with the same courtesy.

So now, decades later, I think of Capote whenever someone approaches me with, “You know what you should write about?”  The ideas I hear are sometimes excellent, though I’ve never used one. But maybe I should. Capote never wrote the stories from Herb’s bar. He never completed another novel, publishing only portions of the unfinished Answered Prayers.

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