When I was young I don’t recall my parents, both born in 1912, to be Sinatra oriented in any way. They albumed through Perry Como and the like but I believe Frank Sinatra represented an ethnic diversity they were absolutely unable to tolerate having been steeped in the early Twentieth Century xenophobia that was pervasive in east coast mentalities.
It was not until I moved to San Francisco in the seventies and adopted my own personal ethic of tolerance and with it an absolute obsession with all things 40s; vintage clothing, accessories, and two-tone, perforated, wing tips that I discovered Sinatra….my own version of Sinatra. I gravitated to the song stylists of his era; Billie Holiday, Ella, Judy, singers with élan, power, emotion, and most of all…….phrasing, that ineffable ability to emote through a lyric the inner-most emotion of a feeling and convey it into verse and voice.
While the vintage vogue was in full swing in the Bay Area I will admit to a large degree of outsiderdom in what was then the Disco Daze that permeated the twenty-something culture of which I was also a major member. In fact, most of my circle referred to Frank Sinatra with the derisive sobriquet of “Stank” when his songs would appear on the Musak that permeated the public domain of the day.
And then there was Palm Springs.
I moved to the desert on a whim in the eighties, scared of living and afraid of dying in the Decades of Disaster that delineated the AIDS epidemic of the era. In truth I hated it there from Day One but I made my way forward passing through a paroxysm of fear and loathing and somehow secured a series of jobs and even a career that kept me there for years.
Before the career took root though I went back to the one thing that I really knew, and loved, waiting tables. The money was great…then… and I thoroughly enjoyed the social intercourse with the patrons and the proximity of the food, having already been a chef but preferring the luker on the front side of the house to the pseudo-notoriety of the back. I viewed every new table that was seated as a mini opening night at the theatre, one in which I had to asses their moods and desires and leave them asking for more at the end of their meal.
And so we arrive at my intersection with Frank Sinatra.
I had a job at a small but well-worn and well-heeled place on North Indian Avenue called Delmonico’s, a hold out and living homage to the glory days of Palm Springs and the era that had spawned and nurtured the Rat Pack and its entire ilk. Dark, wooden, red leather banquettes, softly glittering chandeliers and sconces….white table clothes…only; we, the wait staff, in tux jackets and white shirts, rumpled though they were in those fading days of the Service industry.
I no longer recall the aging other waiters who populated this tiny domain but I was certainly the youngster of the bunch, bringing an enthusiasm to the task (I needed the money!) and a fresh face that did not reflect the nipped and tucked versions of themselves that confronted all the patrons in their hallway mirrors as they primped and pomaded their perfection for a meal out.
Palm Springs back then operated on a whim. When the luminaries of the loche life got an urge, they simply acted upon it, at once. Delmonico’s was to Sinatra what every great, long-lived, establishment hopes to be; a living embodiment of their customers wonder years, a place they feel at home, can call home, and in Sinatra’s case, acted like it was his home.
He would phone ahead and tell the owner (an old Gumba aficionado of the best sort) that he was coming in for dinner with a party, the number to be determined as the members collected. Whatever the number, Delmonico’s essentially closed for the night, or at least the hours that Sinatra would be in house, to accede to his borderline paranoiac avoidance of crowds and the associated entanglements that they represented. Sinatra was, after all, the first of the public domain, luminous, females screaming in his wake, superstars…ever, and by now, he was very, very, tired of it all and had the money and the juice to insulate himself from the madding crowds. Palm Springs was still a small pond and Frank was by far the biggest fish in it.
At Delmonico’s he had His table, His Waiter, and His Way.
The exact night that I intersected with His World is lost to me now, somewhere in the heady haze of the late eighties. I came in for my shift to be pulled aside and seriously, I mean Seriously, talked to by the owner. Sinatra’s waiter was off (sick? tired? old? drunk?) I don’t remember why but I was up, I was “It”. He had told Frank that he had a “new guy that’ll you’ll love” waiting to take care of him and his party….”guaranteed”.
The rest of the evening is a bit blurry. But the take away was like an impressionistic painting of the golden age of America; the music that massaged the mood, the pasta that piled up in steaming bowls, the bourbon that lubricated the conversation, the laughter that roared ever louder as the clock would down ever later.
He asked my name straight out of the gate, Sinatra wanted to know…and control, everyone in his immediate sphere at all times. He would never again refer to me without using my name, more respectful as time went on and credentials were earned. That first night I stayed, taught but attentive, to the side, ready to pounce if needed and the need was signaled with no more that a raised eyebrow on Sinatra’s forehead and slight jerk towards him indicating that someone’s glass needed a top-up or that the lighter or cigar humidor needed a refill.
The tip was, shall we say, generous? The call from the owner the next day was resume worthy if one could list celebrity high-fives on one’s curriculum vitae. Sinatra always called to personally thank the owner after a meal (and I’m sure rebuke him if the need be) and he had called to say that “the gang had a great time and by the way, the new kid “Rob”, was terrific”.
My fate was now linked, and sealed. I was His Waiter from then on. His dinners were not that often but when they were, they were memorable. Sinatra learned bits and pieces of my history over time as he signaled longer pauses during service to ask questions, introduce me to his friends. He slowly elicited my relationship to food and wine, my love of good bourbon, gently benign personal stuff that felt ultra-personal to me. Moving foreword he never failed to pour me a glass of whatever great wine they were drinking raising his and saying “Salute!”. “Grab a glass for yourself, Rob, you’ll love this brandy!”
Aside from the alcoholic warmth of those moments coursing through me there was another feeling that I never realized until those days were nothing but never fading memories. The Italian word in Familia; family. Sinatra had this uncanny, innate, and well-honed ability to make everyone in his presence, everyone he like that is, feel utterly at ease, at home, and as if they absolutely belonged…right there….in that moment…with him. Astounding.
Over the years I saw Sinatra at other events; I catered at Bob Hope’s home and Sinatra was there, always with an effusive greeting and a warm handshake of recognition and a “Hey Rob! Howya doin’?”. The other waiters were nonplussed even in star obsessed Palm Springs.
In the ensuing years, through various Come Back tours and Vegas appearances the Sinatra’s spent more and more time at their Palm Springs compound. Frank and Barbara Sinatra were huge supporters of many, many charities and were major donor/sponsors of the newly constructed Desert Art Museum. And here we come to my last encounter with Sinatra.
As the steering committee firmed up the details of the opening gala for the Museum, the catering was being put in place for the hundreds of luminaries who would glitter their way out of their Rolls’ and bangle up the red carpet to banquet and bid.
Back at Delmonico’s the owner got a call. It seems that Sinatra, in his quest for atmospheric control at all times, had dictated to the committee who his waiter would be for their ten-top at the gala, me. I did not work for the catering firm that had the contract. But I soon would, even if on a one night only basis. Because of the security concerns even then, and more because Sinatra was Sinatra, I made the obligatory trip to the catering offices, filled out the requisite payroll information, and was officially on staff for the big night.
Sinatra and his party arrived and made their way through the room to the center-front table (big money begets great seating), while the other guests in the room actually stood and applauded! It felt like an awards show. As they settled into their seats his curtain of security guards tightened around the perimeter. From then on, no one was allowed to pierce this spherical layer of bulky energy without a nod from the Man himself who was on constant alert as to who was lurking about the periphery. I was the only one with unfettered access and Sinatra, with a well-practiced casual cool, made the point right away with a “Good to see you Rob!” and the welcoming handshake.
It goes without saying, the tip was more than just generous as was the man I knew. Whatever has been said and speculated about Frank Sinatra, the man I knew was nothing but a really, human, gentleman.