J.T. and We

       Where the giants of legend crunched bones, terrorized villagers, and spent a suspicious amount of time scampering after spry young bean stalk affiliated boys, the giant in our lives bypassed all of these traditions and wouldn’t consider drinking the blood of an Englishman unless it was the name of a potent new microbrew. I speak, of course, of the mighty John Thomas. A man mountain was he, as well as a smoker, a joker and a mid morning toker; apologies to Steve Miller and his catchy lyrics. This is the story of the mustachioed meathead and how he enriched our lives with the thunder and fury that only the truly large possess.            

       I first had the pleasure of working with JT during the halcyon days of Putnam’s the year it had its grand opening and came on line. On Monday nights I worked with Larry Fein making subs, but on Wednesdays, oh Wednesdays, the sadistic manager Scott Biehn moved me to the busiest area of the joint – The Putnam Grill. With a winsome lass taking orders and appeasing the ravenous student masses, the other student Doug and I were inundated with orders faster than they could be read off. It quickly became apparent that a third was needed if only to help keep up with the fries and the gruesome honey batter fried chicken that ate up the fryer space due to its unfortunate popularity. The solution was JT, a grizzled veteran returning from exile in the bowels of the Ellicott complex Lego-land. An unstoppable behemoth, he quickly took control and established his methods. “They’ll get their food when we’re done cooking it”.

       Brilliant! Here Doug and I had been frantically working to keep the lines down and the customers happy. JT had no such requirement and the pace slowed some. Grumble the spoiled hungry masses did, but JT issued a proclamation that anyone with a problem could be referred directly to him. Astonishingly, not a single patron chose the option of dressing down the surly kitchen juggernaut, a-drip with Kaola Gold grill grease and lightly powdered in MSG. Despite the slightly slower pace, the shift was stressing me out. On one evening I expressed my plans to attack the remaining 8 beers in the 12 pack I had left from the previous weekend. JT looked thoughtful for some time and remarked, “Yeah, if you pop them all at once and maybe drink them down with a straw right away, you might be able to catch a buzz off of that.” I laughed but he looked at me mockingly, embarrassed to be seen with someone of such lightweight material. It wasn’t for another few years that I found how piddling he actually found my tolerance; something I had previous bragged about. In any event, I was soon out of there, feeling my time in food service was done; the beckoning light of Collector’s Inn drawing me in.

       It was about a year later that I came crawling back to FSA (as detailed in FSA Follies), pulling an enthusiastic young Thies in with me. Once we were rid of the abrasive cook Helen, her replacement was found in none other than JT. He had no recollection of me from Putnam’s, all students apparently looking the same to him. As before, he took charge of the grill, allowing Aaron and I to only cook what things he felt beneath him. I remember spending more than my fair share of time making and buttering toast. Any dissent was quelled by a booming “make it happen!” We always did.

       As time went forward, JT began to open up a bit and he lowered himself to converse with us when not inundated with needy students always wanting their goddam eggs. While he was not what one would describe as a deep soul, he was full of interesting stories that he like to occasionally share and it was his choice of wording that made them so enjoyable. Although I’m sure not to her liking, he described his wife as ‘a big German woman’. “Got tired of screwin’ around, so I married me a big German woman” As I understood it, she didn’t give him much of a choice in the matter, although he accepted his fate with some aplomb and sufficient inebriation.

       On many occasions he would wax philosophic about the turns his life had taken. A milestone moment happened in his late teens when a judge graciously gave him the option of going into the Army or go to jail for a year. JT, a South Buffalo rebel, chose the clink over subjecting his magnificent mullet to the Army barber’s shears. Given is impressive stature and girth he had no concerns about Bubba in the shower and a bar of dropped soap; he could have been Bubba if so inclined, and I have always chosen to imagine that he was not. While readily willing to disclose the outcome of his crime, he was for a long time reluctant to reveal the event itself. Had it been anyone else, a humiliating ‘OFFICIAL’ story would have been developed and distributed, but in this case we decided to error on the side of caution and waited patiently for him to be in a good enough mood, or drunk enough to tell us.

       The day finally came when he told the tale, and it was well worth the wait. After eyeing up the joint for months, he decided to have a go at the McDonalds situated right on the corner of his street. A stick up? No, much more crafty – a break in. My assumption was that they generally moved the cash to some secure location before locking up for the night and he readily agreed this was the case and he knew it. His inspiration, however, was the rising cost of beef he noted at the nearby Tops. His theory was that he could abscond with the Mickey D’s supply of frozen patties and sell them at discount prices on the street. I vocally expressed wonder that no one from the neighborhood worked there and might put 2 and 2 together that the burger supply was hoisted and suddenly there he was selling frozen patties out of the trunk of his car half way down the block. He shrugged in disconcern. A plot this interesting must have been a head scratcher for the local PD; perhaps the feds were called in as well to crack it.

       No need for the feds as it turned out, John was the architect of his own downfall. He planned the heist for late one evening. As it so happened, he had an inside man as an accomplice. I imagined him sneaking up with lock picks, a map of the premises, a glass cutter and of course spray paint for the cameras. My imagination, as usual, missed the mark. His friend had provided entry by leaving the drive through window unlocked and able to be pulled open from the outside. Why, I asked, did he not leave the door itself unlocked? He stared for some time, and finally agreed that would have been better. Much better, as it turns out his method of entry was soundly thwarted by his love of the greasy fried beef. While he was able to make it in, found a carton of the burgers and managed to push them out the window, he then proceeded to get himself jammed in between the folding window and the frame. He dangled half way out for some time, staring at the thawing burgers beneath him, until a patrol car happened by and helped him out of the store and into the caged back seat. He tried to plea bargain, but the evidence was just too damning.

       Truth be told, JT liked his beer. Not that I’m trying to innocently segway away from the fascinating tale of his burger induced caged heat, but that part of the story is simply done, and it’s time to move on. Yes beer, probably whiskey too, and well, other things as well. One fine Friday, Aaron and I hitched a ride with JT to Caputi’s pub to meet up with some of the gals at FSA. It was a fine time, with pitchers, darts and a little pool. JT at one point decided he had an errand that absolutely had to be run and asked Aaron and I to come along with. Generally I wouldn’t think of getting into a car with a guy who drank 3 pitchers by himself in less than an hour, but he appeared to even a trained eye to be stone cold sober. We agreed and piled in his 70’s era Caddy, forged from solid Detroit steel. We made the errand, seeing a man about a horse or some other such doing, and were on our way back when the car in front of him suddenly stopped. JT, with his catlike reflexes that belied his size, halted instantly, although the car behind him slammed into us at full speed. We barely felt it.

       We got out to check the damage. JT’s car barely had a scratch, but the Honda behind him had its front end crumpled in right up to the windshield. The girl who had been driving the car was considerably distraught. Although he had to have been well over the legal limit, and assuredly in possession of things that authorities take a very unkind eye to, he instructed us to run up the street and call the cops. Was he really sure that was such a good idea? Even the girl in the crumpled Honda seemed to prefer we didn’t. He insisted, and so we did. JT, one cool cucumber with rich malty breath, calmly explained everything to the cop, with nary a worry in the world. To my amazement, the exchange ended with us going on our merry way back to Caputi’s to finish out the evening, leaving crumpled Honda girl alone to await a tow.

       On another occasion sometime after, I arrived home one Friday afternoon to find JT camped out on the front lawn of the Princeton apartment. He had with him an aluminum lawn chair, a 5 galleon bucket of ice, a case of beer (some of which were buried in the ice), and had apparently declined to venture out that day with a shirt. A tremendous spectacle to come home to. He greeted me with a loud, “Mikey!! I brought beer”. He held one up in demonstration to both myself and any interested neighbors. I had no other plans that day and decided that I would enjoy his boisterous company.

       After a few hours, we had actually managed to run out of beer, even though he had brought a full case and I had only had about 6 of them. This necessitated a walk over to Tops. For those who recall, this was a treacherous route, especially for those already 3 sheets to the wind, as it required making way up the side of a steep embankment and over a railing to the back of the parking lot. I ended up scraped and covered in dirt, but JT was just fine. While I thought a twelve pack would do us, he insisted on a case, partially I think, because he had ponied up for the first one and wanted to keep things even. I could afford only ‘the Beast’ and that is what we schlepped back down.

       JT, no more a shrinking violet then Dan, decided it would be amusing to give a loud shout out to any of my neighbors who might be passing by. I was mortified after a full years worth of painful efforts to avoid getting to know, or even make eye contact with, anyone who lived in the vicinity. My requirement to be able to move about the neighborhood with every expectation of not having to chat with anyone was in serious jeopardy. JT could not be stopped, and I soon gave up trying. Most of his drunken cat calls were ignored, with the exception of a comely ‘older’ (late 30’s) lady who responded by coming over. I was expecting a righteous chewing out given the nature of JT’s taunts, but before she could even open her mouth, he offered her a beer. Incredibly, she accepted and I dragged down a kitchen chair for her to sit in.

       She was a social worker on her way to visit a client under her supervision who lived across the street and had recently been released from prison. Soon he was invited to join us as well, making a statistically improbable foursome given the complete lack of anything in common. As it turned out, JT and the parolee did indeed have something in common, resulting in an errand to be run for which I somehow became volunteered to be JT’s representative while he stayed back presumably to drink the rest of the beer without me. The parolee, the social worker, and myself somehow ended up stopping in to a local bar he liked deep in the east side of Buffalo. I felt keenly aware that my skin tone made me an unwelcome individual in the establishment. My lack of shoes (I somehow ended up on this errand barefoot) was cited as just cause to have me leave. Relieved and tired of the stares, I informed the other two of the situation and that we should head on back.

       I soon found myself alone in the car, camped out in the parking lot in a neighborhood that would have made gonzo wrestler Junk Yard Dog feel uncomfortable. The other two, really having little use for me, declined to leave when I was forced to, in the interest of finishing their drinks and perhaps ordering another round. After some endless period in which I muttered “come oooonnnnn….” hundreds of times, they finally emerged. I had been at the point where I was seriously considering attempting to walk back from the Fruit Belt near Jefferson and Genesee, barefoot and wallet less. While I’m sure that would have been a much more interesting adventure for the reader, I’m not entirely convinced the writer would have been present today to tell the tale. I graciously accepted a ride home from the pair. When we arrived, JT was sitting in his car, and had been about to take off convinced that he had been fully abandoned.

       One of the last times we saw JT was during the fulfillment of a promise he made to us during the grill days at Norton. Each Monday, he would tell Aaron and I how he so enjoyed Saturday mornings as a local pub near him, Cigar’s, offered quarter drafts on Sat morning from 8:00 AM to noon. This apparently had considerable appeal to the wake up and get loaded crowd, of which JT was firmly a part of. Aaron and I were intrigued enough about this phenomenon to consider attending at least once, if for no other reason than to bear witness to the spectacle. Plans were made and broken a dozen times over, but one fateful morning well into the Princeton days, the call came to wake up and get loaded and Aaron and I picked up the phone.

       After getting some half ass directions from JT to his house, Aaron drove us down to South Buffalo where we met up with him and another cohort from the FSA crowd, a diminutive cook known as T-Man. The ‘T’ stood for ‘Tony’ and how he came about his annoying moniker I could never care enough to ask. We rode together in JT’s boat sized Caddy and arrived at Cigar’s precisely at 8, as JT was loath to miss even a moment of the paradise that quarter drafts offered his beer budget. Even at a young age, I had the inkling that the whole notion of this was inherently wrong on some level and managed to hang back to some degree, spending less than 2 bucks. Aaron had brought a few quarters with him and left with a couple. JT slapped down a $20 on the bar to serve as a tab, and I don’t recall him getting any change when we departed the premises 4 hours later.

       The place filled up fairly rapidly that morning, and aside from JT, who could part the Red Sea by his very presence, we had a hell of a time moving around in the sot filled establishment. The majority of the crowd was male, late middle aged, somewhat destitute looking, and unabashedly Irish. Go figure. It was a party of the finest old alkies South Buffalo had to offer, filled with blarney, good cheer, many toasts, a few shots, and a level of pure bullshit that simply overwhelmed the senses. I never knew that the Concord was used in covert bombing runs against escaped Nazi’s in Vietnam, but that very day I met no less than three different pilots of such missions! It was a gathering of unimaginable talent, bravery, innovation and pure raw grit, who through the cruel weavings of fate, would be sleeping it off in their cars or a park bench before making their way home that afternoon. It was well worth the inconvenience, the lost day, and the undoubted headache to come to experience this, but only once.

       We ended the escapade at JT’s where I fell asleep being watched by his children as Aaron spent some time fixing the computer of the big German woman who was likely JT’s wife.  We never saw him much after that, but memory lingers and I imagine him perched on that stool at Cigar’s drinking quarter drafts each weekend to come.

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One Response

  1. JT was not aware of the British definition of him name, but he was quite the contrary to this meaning.

    My most vivid JT memory was working the grill near closing. We both leaned through the opening which separated grill from front, when a comely lass passed by to hear “I bet she could suck the chrome off a bumper.” The girl spun and shot death at me with her eyes. I was just as stunned as she, even more so when I discovered JT was no where to be found.

    JT later introduced a Miss Nude Universe trading card taped to the wall by the mega-toaster. He greeted each shift with “Hello Cindy” and rub it with his finger. Sarah, neice of a manager, did not approve.

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