Greek (Diner) Tragedy

Greek restaurant take-away coffee cup
A New York City icon!

I lived in New York City at a time when every intersection had a Greek diner. I don’t mean diners that sold only Greek food but corner joints run by Greeks. Their sticky, multi-paged, plastic-coated menus offered everything from sushi and spaghetti to souvlaki. And, all of it was on tap 24/7.

I was addicted to their toasted blueberry muffins that were the size of coconuts. A cup of coffee with a “toasted blue” was my snack of choice and, in hard times, my one meal of the day. So, I was saddened on a recent trip back home to discover that most of the Greek joints had gone. Some of the owners had made their money and happily returned to Greece but most had been priced out by the big coffee chains. (Another good reason to hate Starbucks though the brown piss they call coffee is reason enough!)    

Toasted blueberry muffin
Toasted ambrosia!

One blah night in the 1980s, I was sitting at the counter of my favorite Greek diner in the Village, reading the NY Post and cursing George Steinbrenner when I became aware that the man on the stool next to me was acting strangely. He was making little grunts and moving in a herky-jerky manner. I figured he was a junkie who’d missed his shot. So, I signaled to Nicos that I’d take my toasted blue further down the counter. Just then my counter colleague jerked into my arms in a way that forced me to hold him. As we fell backwards off our stools, he went into full spasm and I somehow knew I had an epileptic seizure on my hands. Literally!  

Classic NYC diner counter
Picture us wrestling in the middle of the floor.

I laid him out on the floor and looked up for help but the entire restaurant (customer and staff alike) had gone into catatonic shock. Those at the counter stared down at me like I was an annoying cockroach scurrying about their feet. Those in booths slowly leaned out until they were at a 90-degree angle with the floor and there they remained. Silent. Staring. Slightly inquisitive. Imagine the RCA Victor dog.  

Meanwhile, the epileptic was flopping around on the floor like a tuna that had been hauled on-board a Sheepshead Bay trawler. I knew less than nothing about the care and feeding of epileptics aside from the fact that you should never get your fingers in an epileptic’s mouth lest your fingers be chomped off. But, silly me, as I looked to my fellow diners for help and began to say something to the effect of, “Hey, does anybody wanna give me a fuckin’ hand here?” My fuckin’ hand got into the epileptic’s mouth.

Bloody hand dangling from alligator's mouth.
I had to act and fast!

As you can imagine, this dilemma increased the fervor of my calls for help. But, to no avail. I considered making like a coyote and chewing my hand off to escape the trap. I considered choking the epileptic to death to gain my freedom. I knew what I did next was risky but I was running out of time and about to be running out of fingers. I managed to get my other hand into the poor bastard’s mouth and pry his jaws apart before they snapped shut fracturing several bicuspids. 

Then, out of nowhere, a typically obese ambulance crew waddled in. I’m not sure if they’d been alerted and were waddling in to answer the call of “diner down” or if they were coincidentally waddling in for their moussaka with fries. I returned to the counter and Nicos gave me some ice for my fingers but the prick still charged me for my toasted blue! 

Fast forward maybe two years.

I’m watching an off-Broadway play in which one character delivers a show-stopping speech about the time he was in a Greek diner and a schmuck got his fingers stuck in an epileptic’s mouth. The actor brought the house down with his mime of the booth-sitters leaning out at a 90-degree angle and staring at the schmuck. That would be me. You guessed it. This playwright had been one of the selfish, frozen assholes who made not a move to help the epileptic or, more importantly, your reporter. Worse. This creep who had plagiarized my pain hadn’t given me an audition for his play.

As the quintessential Brooklyn boy, Ralph Kramden would say, “Bang! Zoom!”

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as an eBook and paperback
And as an eBook here

Glasgow Comes To Brooklyn

The Hay Wain by John Constable
It looked swank on a Brooklyn tenement wall, too.

One day in 1958, I’m looking at the tenement across the street when I see a vision – a creature so out of place, so ethereal, so “other” that I have to go out and speak to it. Its name is Andy and it’s from Glasgow, Scotland. I am eight and have a vague idea of where Scotland is but no idea of what Glasgow is like. I imagine something with lots of cozy cottages. The wallpaper in my childhood bedroom has a reproduction of the painting The Hay Wain by Constable in an endlessly repeating pattern all over it. It forms my image of Britain – a land of endlessly repeated cozy cottages beside winding streams. When I first hear of Greenwich Village, I picture the Manhattan skyline with an English village of cozy cottages nestled inside it. As a teenager, when I hear “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” I imagine a narrow winding stream that’s lined by cozy cottages. Weeping willows grow aside the cottages, their branches gently brushing the punts as they pass. (My imagined Mersey was as wrong as my imagined Lake Michigan!)  

The slum tenements of Glasgow, Scotland
Worse than Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

I now know that Glasgow in the 1950s was every bit as rough as Brooklyn – a pair of blue-collar towns with bits of gentility around the edges. Brooklyn’s brownstones even originated in Glasgow. So, it isn’t that Andy had moved into a completely alien environment. But, the Andy I met in 1958 was not a tough kid. And, acting tough doesn’t make you tough. It’s a cover. What do you think tattoos are all about? I wonder if Andy is haunted by the memory of that day in the cemetery as much as I am. Maybe not. Maybe not. But, I am haunted by him as I am haunted by Carrie. 

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
And as an eBook here

Don’t try this at home!

Gay men in a 1970s pre-AIDS leather bar
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up…

One night, Ray and Preacher take me to a notorious gay bar way west in Greenwich Village –The Toilet. (I ain’t makin’ this up – The Toilet!) The dress-style ranges from crotchless black-leather pants to crotchless black-leather pants with metal studs. And, the metal studs are on the penis, not the pants. While who knows what is going on in the back room, we are entertained out front by the floorshow. This consists of an acrobat pulling his upside-down body up a thick iron chain, link by link, with his anal sphincter muscles. Yes, this intrepid aerialist climbs up the chain with his asshole!

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: The smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
And as an eBook here

When AIDS comes to town

Patient with Kaposi's sarcoma of the head and neck.
It was first called the “gay cancer”

Time passed, medicine advanced and we forgot. We forgot what a scourge AIDS was, especially in show business, especially in New York. By the late 1980s, I was the only actor still alive from several casts I’d been in during the 1970s. 

At the height of the AIDS panic, I dated a public health official. She told me plans were in place to quarantine the entire city of New York, if necessary. The authorities foresaw streets piled with corpses collected by robot-controlled plague-carts. “Bring out your dead.” They were that ascared.  

Print of a Black Plague cart
Vision of a dystopian Greenwich Village

I first heard of AIDS in 1979 – the dawn of the epidemic. I had moved to a Brooklyn brownstone. Ray, my gay landlord said, “Have you heard that all the guys in the Village are getting sick? They’re calling it the gay cancer.” I still see Ray sitting there, still see the terror in his eyes, still feel the terror that shot through me. We both knew that what he was describing will kill him and maybe me. We were both ascared.

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: The smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
And as an eBook here