Rogue of the month: Big Lou
‘What were you doing patting my ass?’ Lou asked Johnson later. ‘I was saying good bye, brother, because I knew we were next.’
When I got held up my second time, I refused to lay down this time. I told the guy I’d get on my knees, but I wanted him to look me in the eye if he was gonna shoot me. The guy was frazzled.
Big Lou: Old-school bartender
By Dell Franklin
I meet Big Lou in the morning at a local bar that serves breakfast, which he likes to eat with a screw driver. “So, how’s it going these days, Lou?”
His big round rosy-cheeked face breaks into a grin and his bald pate gleams. “Fan-tastic!”
Big Lou is upstate New York Italian originally, and of traditional values and courtly, respectful manners. He is also a storyteller, which means, as a bartender at 63, he’s a dinosaur.
Big Lou was into the eleventh year of a 42-year career as bartender in 1976, working the Christmas party for the bar that employed him in Manhattan Beach, California, when three men in masks, toting pistol, rifle and sawed-off shotgun , walked in. The one with the gun ordered Lou not to touch the button that alerted the police, and to lay down on the boards behind the bar. He did. The other two men robbed the partiers with a 65 year old waitress named Marsha got in their faces.
“Shut up or I’ll blow you away,” she was told by one of the gunmen. She shut up. Another back-talker was pistol-whipped until his face was raw meat. To further make their point, one of the robbers shot out the bottles behind the bar, much of the liquor dripping on Lou and his good friend, a burly contractor named Jerry Johnson, who’d been helping him out behind the bar. He patted Lou’s ass with affection.
While the man with the pistol raided the register, another patron managed to crawl to the corner of the bar and push the alarm button. When the gangsters reached the street, the cops were waiting for them, and they were taken in without gunplay.
“What were you doing patting my ass?” Lou asked Johnson later.
“I was saying good bye, brother, because I knew we were next.”
Then Lou laughed. He was staring at his tip jar, which sat beside the register with more than a hundred bucks still in it.
“Nice guys,” Lou says, sipping his driver. Lou likes to tell his stories after a few belts, and he is on a lifetime regimen of having his belts in the morning with breakfast. Nothing has changed in 42 years of tending bar, including his intake, and the only event to interfere with his regimen is Lent, which stops him for a month or so.
“What’s that like, Lou?”
He laughs, a booming laugh.
“Does anything interfere with your regimen?”
“What about your illustrious wardrobe?”
“No change, I’ve been wearing sneakers, shorts and print shirts, or Hawaiians, for 42 years behind the bar. It’s my uniform. I’m a Southern California guy, a beach guy.”
“When’s the last time you were in the ocean?”
“Excuse me?” He laughs.
Lou Mastrangelo looks like he’s never been in the ocean. He is a very big man, with forearms like anvils and hands as big as shovel heads, and when you shake his hand you feel like your own is disappearing and on the verge of being crushed by his polite, half-squeeze. Those hands gripped a football at a Catholic high school in L.A. and tossed it many, many yards. College potential unlimited. But Lou tended bar in his dad’s restaurant and never looked back. His dad taught him the business. How to treat people. Finesse. A little showmanship, and an Italian warmth which springs from the heart and cannot be imitated.
“My dad was a boxer, and he had these hands like mine. One time these big truck drivers were giving him a bad tine. Dad leaned over the bar and looked them in the eye: ‘You’re not gonna be dealin’ with a virgin,’” he told them. They quieted right down.
“You’ve worked cop bars, cocktail lounges, corner pubs, nightclubs, dinner houses, country western bars, and now you’re at the Eagles Club in Morro Bay. Quite a progression. How you like it?”
“Fan-tastic!” No more hassles. Lowkey. Quiet. Do it in my sleep.”
“You worked bars in Manhattan Beach for years. Were there any female bartenders back in the seventies and eighties?”
“None. It was all guys, and all characters. Guys who drank and told stories and jokes and knew sports and kept the stools filled. We were players. We drank in each others’ bars on nights off. We threw money around like water. After closing, we met in the coffee shop and ate together and told stories, and sometimes we visited each other in our bars after hours and closed the places down, and sometimes the owners came in, in the morning, and we were still there and they didn’t say a word, because it was our bar—they just owned it.”
“A different breed of drinker in those days?”
“No foo-foo stuff. Nobody diluted good liquor with sweet stuff. Scotch and water, bourbon water, on the rocks; the ladies drank gin and tonics, vodka tonics, or Bud. No whining about hangovers. Players. You’d see them in the morning, shaky, but fan-tastic! A little coffee, maybe a boilermaker to get things going.”
“Tell me a good story about the cop bar.”
“A lot of LAPD drank in Ercoles. We had a guy, a cop, he was very drunk one night and after closing nobody could find him. It was a freezing cold winter night, and the next morning a woman in the laundromat next door found him sleeping it off in a dryer. She called the Manhattan Beach cops, who came down and had quite a chuckle before sending him home.”
“Tell me, about an outrageous character.”
“Owen Leonard. Skinny Irish guy from Boston, had three personalities. Had a good job at TRW, very bright, all business at work, so I heard. Personality two, one of the funniest, most likeable guys ever after a couple drinks. Personality three, past his limit, somebody you wanted to kill and had to keep other drinkers from killing. One night, to get rid of him, I gave him ten dollars and told him to go have a drink at the Bay Nineties. Ten minutes later he was back with a twenty dollar bill from the Nineties, demanding a drink.”
“Have you ever done anything else beside tend bar these past four decades?”
“I’m a bartender.”
“You drive a seventies Plymouth Barracuda, Why?”
“I’ve never been able to afford a new car in decades.”
“Your shorts are ridiculously out of style. People make fun of them. Those tight things’ve been out of style since around 1972. Why don’t you get some like mine—down to my knees, at least.”
“I don’t charge my regimen. Can I buy you a drink?”
“No. It’s too early. I’m into a regimen, too.”
“How about breakfast?”
“No. Regimen. Sorry.”
When local bartenders see Lou coming, they lick their lips. Like the players of his generation, he laughs hugely and tips hugely. Two drinks, then three, he’s warming up, “I was working on the highway in Manhattan Beach, a gambler’s bar, when I got held up my second time, I refused to lay down this time. I told the guy I’d get on my knees, but I wanted him to look me in the eye if he was gonna shoot me. The guy was frazzled, wild-eyed. One customer sitting along the bar had ten-grand in cash on him, and he’s stuffing it into his socks. The local bookie’s sitting two stools down. He dresses like me, but with shower clogs, so he’s stuffing a few-grand down his crotch. The guy got the register and some wallets and cash. He’d been out of jail a few months and robbed thirty places to feed a $500-a-day drug habit. Cops got him that day. The two guys holding thousands never got robbed.”
“You’ve tended bar in Morro Bay for more than ten years. You were on the beach for twenty years. You started out in L.A., and you were in Tucson, Arizona. What was that like? Fish out of water?”
“Fan-tastic! I liked the people. Country and western. I had the two best bouncers ever, and I’ve had some good ones. A dancing hall. These older couples would come in from all over, miles and miles away, dressed to the tee. Beautiful boots. Shiny belt buckles. Formal. Not a hair out of place. They danced every dance. They loved to dance. They were great dancers. They were the kinds of couples that were dedicated to each other. They drank and had fun and never got out of hand or were ever trouble, perfect bar patrons. Maybe the nicest people I’ve ever come across in the bar business.”
“Overall, what do you think about the drinking crowd?”
“Is part of the reason you’ve tended bar all these years to be close to the sauce? You know, a security blanket?”
“Did you change your uniform at the country bar?”
“Of course not.”
“What did some of those roughneck cowboy types say about your shorties?”
“Like I said, we had great bouncers. Plus, I’m no virgin, and they knew that.”
“How long do you plan to tend bar?”
“As long as I last.” §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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