A CHRISTMAS STORY: “Hey Greek, you got that old Chevy outside?”
by Dino Pavlou
It was one night back in the mid-70s, around Christmas time, and as always Jimmy Weston’s supper club in New York City was crowded. Customers were enjoying the music of Tommy Furtado’s band and Tommy himself singing Christmas carols. We had the place decorated for the holidays and the snowy weather outside added to the festive spirit of the season.
Before midnight, Frank Sinatra walked in with his best friend and trusted companion, Jilly Rizzo. This wasn’t a surprise: it was expected, because when Sinatra was in town he would always stop by for a night cap before calling it a night. After warm greetings and a hug, I escorted Sinatra and Jilly to Sinatra’s favorite table, number seventeen. It was a round corner table near my desk, where I could keep an eye on things, and we always kept it reserved for Sinatra while he was in town.
Later. after a few drinks, Sinatra decided to have pizza at his favorite joint. “Hey Greek, you got that old Chevy outside?” he asked me.
“Yes, it’s outside,” I said.
He stood up, peeled off a couple hundred dollar bills from his wad, and gave it to the waiter. “Greek, you just got yourself drafted,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I asked our captain George Pappas to take charge while I was gone and the three of us walked outside, where Sinatra’s limo was waiting. He told his driver to wait there and we got into my Chevy. It was bitter-cold, snowing heavily, and everything was covered with snow—although driving is not a problem on the streets of New York City: the snow melts fast from the steam coming out the subway grates.
“Where we going?” I asked.
“Uptown,” Jilly said.
We drove uptown on Park Avenue until we reached Harlem, and made a beeline for First Avenue between 117th and 118th Streets, to Patsy’s Pizzeria. It was then I realized that it wasn’t a good idea to arrive there in a limo in the wee hours. I parked in front of the place and went in with Sinatra and Jilly.
We were greeted by Carmela, the owner, and a one-hundred percent amazing Italian woman. When she saw Frank, she rushed to him with open arms.
“Frankie, sweetheart, it’s good to see you!”
She threw her arms around him and gave him a big hug–but when she pulled away Sinatra’s overcoat was now white with flour from her apron. Embarrassed, Carmela started talking fast in Italian-as though cursing herself-while trying to brush off Sinatra’s coat.
Don’t worry about that darling,” Sinatra said. “Just make us your delicious pizza.”
Carmela rushed away–and soon came back with a hot pie. As we started to eat, Sinatra looked out of the window and saw two homeless guys staring at us. They looked cold and very hungry. He waved them in and he ordered pizza for them. Soon more guys showed–and soon the place was packed with Sinatra’s impromptu and ravenous guests—and he ordered pizza for all of them.
Meanwhile, Jilly and I finished our slices, but Sinatra had only taken one bite of his: his eyes were tearing up from watching these poor hungry guys gobbling down the hot, steaming slices as fast as they could. That got Jilly’s attention. He tried to make a joke to divert Sinatra’s attention.
“You see Frank,” he said, “you’re not as famous as you think you are. No one even recognized you here.”
“If you were as hungry and cold as they are, you wouldn’t recognize me, either,” Frank said.
We stayed and ate with these poor guys putting away the pizza faster than Carmela could make it and it was a magical night: only Sinatra couldn’t hold back the tears.
So finally Jilly stood up. “It’s time to go now,” he said.
We got up, and Frank pulled out his wad of hundreds and gave it to Carmela: all of it, without counting it. “What the hell, it’s Christmas,” he said. “Keep the pizza coming through Christmas, darling,” he told Carmella. “I’ll send you more money, and keep everything under wraps.” He started towards the door, with me and Jilly following, when the first two guys he had called in now walked over to him.
“Thank you Mr. Sinatra,” they said, “and have a Merry Christmas.”
“Come back here tomorrow,” he said, “and there’ll be more pizza. Stay off the junk and have yourselves a Merry Christmas.”
As we got into the car, the men came out and started shouting. “Thank you, Mr. Sinatra! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”
Afterwards, it was quiet as we drove back to Jimmy Weston’s. Jilly and tried to make conversation, but Sinatra was silent. Only one time he spoke: “Have you guys ever been hungry and cold?”
“I have,” I said.
Many Christmases have come and gone since then. But that Christmas night was special and I was very fortunate to be a part of it.