Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA.
You've got to give a little, take a little,
And let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love
It’s Friday night and approaching midnight. Dex our pianist is in fine form. His tip jar is full. I comp him premium single malt Scotch whiskey throughout the night which soothes his throat. The bar is beginning to empty except for my old regular Janxy who is sound asleep on the barstool. I’ll wake him soon and call him a cab. He’s been a regular of Marv’s Bar since my father ran this place.
Friday night is our busiest night of the week because we offer a prime rib dinner for $15.99 including baked potato, mixed steamed vegetables, and a house salad. The prime rib is slow cooked and we serve a healthy portion. It’s a break even item for us but keeps the customers drinking.
In addition to our regulars, I’m seeing new, younger faces that are attracted to what they call “dive bars”. Although we appear to be a relic of the fifties replete with dim lighting, leather booths, and framed photos of dead celebrities who once frequented the bar, we run a “tight ship” with new equipment and accounting systems. Our two cocktail waitresses, Suzie and Lucy are in their fifties but still look sexy in their short skirts, tight blouses, black nylons and stiletto heels. I marvel at how they find the energy to keep up their frantic pace. I remember them babysitting me in between serving drinks.
I glance at the framed photo of my father, Marvin Goodwin, hanging behind the bar and reminding me, “The customer is always right, Mel”. He never wanted me running the bar but was always proud to bring me in to assist him with this or that or simply to sit in a booth after school sipping a “Shirley Temple”. He was proud of my becoming a Certified Public Accountant. I accepted a partnership track position with a “Big Eight” accounting firm but was never too busy to review dad’s books and complete his taxes. My parents were happy to have me live at home while I saved money to buy a house. I converted Dad’s paper ledger and cash register to state of the art accounting software and “point of sale” systems which enabled him to track his income and expenses more accurately. My parents are both deceased but I continue to live in and care for their modest home including their pride and joy, a kidney shaped pool.
When he was discharged from the Army after WWII, dad opened a hot dog stand on this very corner. He soon replaced the stand with a food truck. The San Fernando Valley, “Valley”, was in the midst of a building boom and he fed the tradesmen and contractors building the track homes purchased by returning GI’s. The food truck was a big success and dad bought the corner and built the bar in 1955. He ran it until his death at age 90 over ten years ago. The bar and large parking lot is located on Ventura Boulevard at one of the busiest four way intersections in the Valley and we’ve been offered millions of dollars to sell over the years. I made a promise to my father on his deathbed I would never sell. Dad was the heart and soul of Marv’s Bar and there was nobody to take over management of the bar when he died. Dad was the reason Marv’s thrived and selling Marv’s was unfathomable. Although I became a successful corporate tax advisor, I resigned my CPA position and took over the bar.
The San Fernando Valley is on the north side of the Hollywood Hills. On the south side lie Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It’s often said the Valley is on the “wrong side” of the hills. The Valley is flat, hot in the summer, cold in the winter by Southern California standards, and is lined with long horizontal and vertical boulevards of apartment buildings, shopping centers, car dealerships, and plenty of previously affordable single family homes. It’s not glamorous.
Growing up in the sixties included weekend drives crossing the valley in our family wagon and stopping to eat at kitsch restaurants with car hop service. Sadly, the Valley has become congested and expensive just like most of Los Angeles but remains home to a large population of both white and blue collar residents.
Dex begins playing an old favorite and sings:
Strangers in the night
Wondering in the night…Something in your eyes
Was so inviting
Something in your smile
Was so exciting…
The door to the bar opened and in walks a striking beauty. She is tall, svelte, blond, and wearing a cashmere tan coat. She must be a starlet or a wealthy woman from Beverly Hills. The entire joint watched her slowly enter. She scanned the dimly lit bar and I expected her to walk out. She takes a seat at the bar. Suzie approaches and asks, “May I check your coat, Madame?” The woman politely declines and Suzie tactfully departs. I can’t help but notice her expensive jewelry and her perfume is subtle and elegant. She can’t be older than forty. Welcome to Marv’s Bar, what may I get you? In a hushed voice, she orders, “A dirty martini with Stolichnaya vodka and an extra olive.” She places a one hundred dollar bill on the counter in front of her. I notice a slight Russian sounding accent. I mix the martini just the way my father taught me years ago and carefully pour it into a sparkling clean martini glass I place on a thick red cocktail napkin inscribed with gold lettering “Marv’s Bar”. She takes a sip and says, “Beautifully made”. I’m Mel Goodwin, the owner. I’m pleased to meet you. She extends her delicate hand and introduces herself, “Hello Mel, I’m Franceska.” I haven’t seen you here before. What brings you in this evening, Franceska? “I’m a writer researching “old school bars” for a novel and was told Marv’s was a historic monument.” I can tell you the history of Marv’s if you’re interested, Franceska. “I’m eager to hear all about it, Mel.” It was approaching 1:00 am and the bar was virtually empty so I had time to chat up Franceska. First, I phoned a cab for Janxy. Suzie or Lucy would see him to the taxi. I mixed Franceska a second martini and placed it in front of her. Before taking a sip of the martini, Franceska raises the martini glass and says, “L’Chaim.” She takes an elegant sip leaving faint traces of lipstick on the glass. Franceska impressed me with her beauty and Hebrew salutation, “To life”.
“Melvin, I could see your sign for miles. How did you get such a tall sign?” It's one of the tallest revolving signs in the Valley. Sign permits were more lenient in the fifties and if I took it down, the City of Los Angeles would never allow such a tall sign again. Dad’s idea for the rotating illuminated sign inscribed “Marv’s Bar” was fashioned after the Mars candy bar wrapper. We haven’t remodeled the bar since it was built. It’s one of the few original piano bars from the fifties. The drink menu remains the same but I’ve added new drinks which have become popular over the decades. Most of our customers are regulars who have been coming for years. Many are retirees, some are widowed, and others are just seeking refuge from loneliness or despair. We’re starting to get more “hipsters”.
Dex, the piano player, has been with us for thirty years. He’s a Juilliard trained classical pianist and was a principal pianist with the LA Philharmonic. Dex loves booze as much as the piano and was fired for showing up drunk to a concert. Our customers love the fifties and sixties ballads he performs from memory and for a tip or a drink, he’ll thrill them with his mastery of Chopin.
Can you believe the two cocktail waitresses are in the fifties? Aren’t they beautiful? Their named Suzie and Lucy and been with us for twenty five years each. They're single hard working moms who put their kids through college working here. My father treated all of his employees like family and paid them well.
With Janxy safely on his way home in the cab, the bar was empty except for Lucy and Suzie who were cleaning up, myself, Franceska, and my old friends from high school who were regulars every Friday night and closed the bar with me. They always sat in the large secluded booth in the corner of the bar with a placard marked “Reserved”. It makes them feel like big shots and I’m happy to oblige. Franceska asked, “It’s almost closing time, may I buy you a drink, Melvin?” I never drink on the job but I was enchanted by the attention of this beautiful woman and I poured myself a shot of Crown Royal. I felt the buzz immediately and relaxed. Franceska asked, “What about the three guys sitting in the reserved booth in the corner? Are they VIP’s?” I went to high school with them. They come every Friday for the prime rib and close the bar with me. After I lock up, we’ll talk, play cards, and recount old times. Franceska asked, “Please tell me about each of them.” I poured myself another shot of Crown Royal.
I’ve known each of those guys since grade school. We grew up on the same cul de sac. Each of them came from broken homes. I grew up in a traditional loving family. My mom considered each of those guys “her son’s from another mother”. I wasn't the most popular kid in school and was picked on for being nerdish and Jewish but my friends were always there to scare the bullies away. The tall guy is Randall “Scandal” Rothman. Randall was over six feet tall even in grade school and the handsome guy with movie star good looks in the Armani suit is Jonny Spanno. Jonny always had a “don’t give a damn” crazy look in his eye nobody would challenge.
Although my family was Jewish, my mother enjoyed preparing holiday meals and inviting each of those guys over for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Passover. She remembered each of their birthdays and always baked a birthday cake and planned a party for them. My father never closed the bar on holidays; Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because he felt a responsibility to his customers saying, “Who do they have to spend the holiday with? It’s a Mitzvah for me to provide somewhere for them to go!”
Randall was a standout high school football player. His mom died from cancer when he was in Junior High and was raised as a single child by a workaholic father who was a middle level manager at an automobile plant. Randall kept himself busy learning to play cards and handicapping race horses. He loved to gamble. He continues to place bets with a bookie that frequents the bar. He’s 6’4” tall and weighs over 250 pounds. He was a scholar athlete and won an appointment to West Point to play football. Because he was a star football player, he was exempt from the hazing of first year cadets called “plebes”. He injured his knee in practice and was forced to quit the football team never playing a single game. He was cast into the ranks of the ordinary plebes and no longer afforded the luxuries the football players enjoyed so he resigned from West Point. Randall said he resigned because of his knee injury but I always suspected he was forced to resign because of gambling. Randall graduated from Cal State Northridge with a degree in social science. He became a court reporter. He took an interest in the law and completed law school attending evening classes. Randall accepted cases wherever he could find them including Public Defender work, immigration law, and personal injury cases. During the housing crises, Randall was approached by a group of scammers looking to start a loan modification business and needed an attorney licensed to practice law. Their scheme was to contact homeowners facing foreclosure, take an upfront fee, and promise to secure a loan modification and save the home from foreclosure. The deal they made Randall was to be a passive partner who would be paid one third of the gross revenue for simply lending his law license to the business which would give it credibility. The business thrived for several years but was a sham never completing a single loan modification or preventing a foreclosure. It was closed by the State Attorney General. Randall was disbarred hence the nickname, Randall “Scandal”. He was reading the obituary section of the newspaper one day and saw a wealthy family friend had died. He attended the service and noticed the vulnerability of the grieving family. He hatched an idea that funeral services were opportunities to serve the grieving families with a lawsuit for unpaid wages due bogus housekeepers, caregivers, or gardeners Randall recruited from his many illegal immigration contacts. He knew that it would be difficult for these families to recount who had worked for them, wouldn’t have employment contracts, and didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of fighting a solemn immigrant worker in court. Randall would wait for the conclusion of the funeral service, seek out the surviving spouse, serve the summons, and often settled quickly since the suits were filed in Small Claims Court permitting suits up to $10,000 with quick hearing dates. Some families hired attorneys to fight Randall but would negotiate a settlement on the courthouse steps to avoid the time, hassle, and humiliation of litigation. I think Randall’s physical size also intimidated family members and their attorneys. It was easy money for Randall.
Franceska asked, “Please make me another martini Melvin”. I had difficulty mixing the drink because of the whiskey I drank but placed it neatly in front of her. Franceska said, “Please don’t allow me to drink alone, Melvin”. I poured myself a third shot of Crown Royal and lost my train of thought. Franceska asked, “What about the other two gentlemen, Melvin?”
The portly balding guy is Bennie “Don’t blink because it will be gone” Blinkman. Bennie and I attended Cal State Northridge together and he has a photographic memory. With that gift, he could have become anything in life but Bennie grew up in an abusive family. His father punched a clock as a welder at one of the aerospace plants formerly in the Valley and his mother was a stay at home mom who never wanted a child. Bennie grew up witnessing spousal abuse and personal taunts from both parents including “he wasn't wanted and would never amount to anything”. His parent’s psychological abuse destroyed his self esteem and ambition. He barely graduated from high school and took ten years to graduate from Northridge with a degree in film production. Bennie was an audiophile and we could always count on his sage advice regarding stereo equipment. Bennie found work with several motion picture post production houses but couldn’t tolerate the long hours, working for a boss and quit. He was hired as the sound man on porn films. Bennie loved these gigs because he had a voyeuristic streak and enjoyed flirting with the porn actresses. He was caught peeping into dressing rooms, stealing lingerie, fondling himself, and selling unauthorized nude photos online. Word spread throughout the porn industry and he was “blackballed” never finding work in porn again. He now works the swing shift at the parcel distribution center putting his photographic memory to good use as he sorts packages by zip codes. He’s developed quite a hustle. He is able to recognize the packages coming from high end retailers and drug companies being delivered to expensive neighborhoods he recognizes from the zip codes. Bennie tracks the packages and is able to determine the delivery day and time. He has an authentic parcel delivery uniform he dawns which doesn’t draw attention from the neighbors and wears a disguise. He waits in hiding for the delivery to be made. As the delivery truck leaves, Bennie replaces the parcels with empty boxes and leaves. Bennie sells the items on the internet and the drugs to dealers. Bennie never abandoned his interest in sound work and missed his voyeuristic opportunities on the porn sets. One evening, he heard a couple engaged in loud sex in the apartment building next door. He stood underneath their window and recorded the moans and groans with his cell phone. It really turned him on to hear the sex. He was able to determine the couple’s sexual schedule and return night after night recording the sex. Bennie decided to “up his game” and began using directional microphones and sound editing equipment which improved the sound quality. Bennie found like minded persons in chat rooms who share their recordings and on occasion, he sells a recording to post production houses requiring sound effects.
“Tell me about the handsome one, Jonny.” The good looking guy in the Armani suit and Prada loafers is Jonny Spanno. Jonny was the guy in high school who got all the girls because of his thick mane of greasy styled hair, angular jaw, dimple, and “Mafioso” confidence. Jonny’s mom was beautiful and wanted for the finer things in life. She abandoned her husband and only son for a surgeon she later married after divorcing Jonny’s dad. Jonny was invited to join his mom and the surgeon but he couldn’t forgive his mom for betraying his father and never spoke to her again. Jonny’s father owned a real estate office in the Valley which became very successful. Jonny got his real estate license, general contractor’s license, and went to work for his father. As the business grew, Jonny’s father began buying rental properties, making hard money loans, and Jonny established a thriving property management business. When Jonny’s parents died, he was left the thriving business and dozens of rental properties owned free and clear. During the “easy money” period of 2005 to 2007, Jonny decided to borrow against the debt free property portfolio and go on a purchasing spree buying more property. Jonny believed there was no end in sight to the escalating housing prices, and leveraged each purchase to the hilt. When the bottom fell out of the real estate market in 2008, Jonny’s tenants couldn’t pay the rent, real estate sales were flat so there were no commissions to be made, and Jonny couldn’t service the debt. One by one each of the properties was foreclosed upon. By 2012, Jonny lost everything and closed the Spanno Realty Office. Jonny struggled for years until one hot afternoon in the middle of summer when the wall air conditioner in his studio apartment died. He realized that people needed relief from the heat but many couldn’t afford the cost of central air-conditioning. He came up with the idea of “Quik Koool” offering no down payment, no payments for 90 days, central air-conditioning installation and financing.
Jonny created a list of elderly homeowners with free and clear homes he knew would be on fixed incomes and suffering in the summertime heat. Jonny set up a telephone boiler room business with dozens of scammer’s cold calling elderly homeowners and offering “next day, immediate relief” from the heat. Jonny hired a handsome, retirement age, unemployed actor to visit the elderly homeowners and coerce them to sign the installation and financing agreement. Within twenty four hours of receipt of the contract, Jonny had a crew of “sham factory installers” descend upon the home, open the roof which they covered with a flimsy tarp, cut air ducts throughout the house, open the main electrical panel, disconnect the switches, and leave the panel dangerously exposed. Impatient homeowners demanding completion of the work were given a multitude of clever excuses always with the promise that their job was in “queue” for completion. Within ninety one days, the homeowner received the first installment bill of the financing agreement. If Jonny didn’t receive the payment, he placed a “Mechanic's Lien” on the property frightening the elderly homeowner. Although Jonny was contacted by angry homeowners or their attorneys, Jonny knew his way around the law to stall justice. As the cold winter nights and rains began, the homeowner gladly paid Jonny a “liquidated damages” fee of several thousand dollars to cancel the contract and send his sham “factory trained installers” to patch the holes and return the electrical panel to its original condition. Some homeowners were so old they died before the matter was resolved and Jonny’s Mechanic Lien was paid in full by escrow when the property was sold by the estate. Jonny referred to these as “paid and laid to rest deals.”
“It’s so nice you’ve all remained friends these many years. Aren’t any of you married, Melvin?” I guess that’s what we all share in common, Franceska. We’re unlucky in love. Randall was always self conscious about his height and missed out on the nurturing of a loving mother which made interaction with girls clumsy for him. Poor Bennie was made to feel unattractive and sexually inadequate by his mom but managed to find a date to Prom night who later ditched him. He remains devastated by that night to this day. Jonny doesn’t have a problem meeting women but he has a wicked “love them and leave them” attitude. I believe he enjoys inflicting heartache on women because of his mom’s betrayal. It’s “payback” for Jonny. Franceska asked, “And why hasn’t a successful business man like you found a wife, Melvin?” I was a nerdy overweight kid and even the nerdy Jewish girls found me unattractive. I guess you can say I’m married to this business. “Be patient, Melvin. Each of you will find your dream woman”. “From your mouth to God’s ear”, Franceska. So, what about you? Why all the questions? “I’m writing a novel and gathering research. I appreciate your time. Are those three guys here every Friday?” Yes, they are. May I introduce you? “That’s not necessary, Melvin. Thank you for your hospitality. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Franceska was beautiful and had class. I fell victim to her charms and told her too much about my friends and I betrayed their trust. What the hell I concluded taking a fourth and final shot of whiskey. It’s just bar talk. She left a second $100 bill for a $60 tab along with a business card reading:
Lexi’s Dance Studio
Broadway & Pico
Downtown Los Angeles
Lucy and Suzie finished for the night and it was my custom to walk them to their cars. I waved to my friends indicating I’d be right back to join them. As we left the bar and entered the parking lot, Franceska sped out onto Ventura Boulevard in a Black Mercedes S63 AMG with a customized license plate reading, “CHESKAS”. Lucy spoke up saying, “There’s something about that woman I don’t trust” and Suzie remarked, “You told her a lot of information about your close friends tonight, Melvin. Be careful what you tell strangers”. They were right. I bid the girls goodnight, entered the bar locking the door behind me, turned off the outside signs, and joined my friends at the booth.
Bennie was in the middle of describing his latest audio “score”. “I was turned on to an address in Pacoima and staked it out this week. About midnight, they went at it. What a show! She was howling and I recorded lots of spanking. She calls him daddy and he slaps her harder. The slaps sound so forceful, I wonder if I should call the cops!” The guys laughed. Jonny spoke up and asked me, “So, who was the babe at the bar with you, Mel?” She said she was a writer working on a book about the Valley and was doing research. Randall asked me, “Mel, you seem buzzed which isn’t like you.” Yeah, she bought me a few drinks and I got carried away. Jonny said, “Well, did you get her number schmuck?” Yeah, I did and produced the card which was eagerly passed around. Randall held it to his nose and remarked, “Classy fragrance”. Jonny continued, “What do you suppose Lexi’s is all about?” Bennie replied, “That zip code is 90015 and it’s full of “Taxi Dance joints where you pay to dance with hot babes and maybe cop a feel or more for the right price.” The fragrance on the card really impressed Randall saying, “Guys, we have to check this place out.” Bennie replied, “Let me do some research on my chat rooms and I’ll let you guys know the scoop”. Everyone seemed in agreement so I asked how is business? Bennie spoke first, “I stole a delivery of Oxy and fenced it for $500 and a Chanel handbag I sold online for $250. Not a bad week”. Jonny spoke next, “I added another five callers to the boiler room and the weather forecast for the remainder of the summer spells HOT. Let’s hope for a rainy cold winter and business will be great!” How about you Randall? “It’s been a slow week for wealthy funerals but I’ve added another Mexican gardener and a very convincing Mexican grandmother caregiver to the cast. They’re right out of “The Grapes of Wrath” and the settlements will be quick”. I suggested we play some Blackjack and reached behind the planter retrieving our deck of cards. I dealt each of my buddies a hand. We played into the wee hours of the morning but each of us was thinking about “Lexi’s Dance Studio”.
Early Saturday night I received a call from Bennie requesting that I reserve the booth for midnight. He said Randall and Jonny would also join him. The guys filed into the bar right on time. Suzie and Lucy were surprised to see them in on a Saturday night and were happy to take their drink orders. My friends enjoyed flirting with the gals and were big tippers. I walked Suzie and Lucy to their cars around one thirty and was able to join my friends in the booth. Benny was excited exclaiming, “I found out on the chat room that Lexi’s is a Taxi Dance joint with beautiful Russian women who offer sexual favors for the right price. The chat room rated it five stars. Let’s check it out!” Jonny was first to say, “I’m in!” Randall said, “Count me in, too!” Bennie went on to say, “The chat room said Monday and Tuesday’s were slow so the stable of women is large. Let’s do it Monday night guys!” Everybody agreed except me and told the guys, I’m stuck here tending bar. Why don’t you check it out and let me know what you find out?
Jonny drove a 1980 Cadillac Coup Deville which comfortably seated three guys including Randall who required leg room. They drove around the corner of Pico and Broadway several times and couldn’t find Lexi’s. They pulled into a large parking lot on the corner and were approached by a menacing parking valet with a heavy Russian accent. Jonny asked, “We’re looking for Lexi’s. Can you tell us where it is?” The valet pointed to a staircase running up the side of an old building to the second floor and said, “Ten dollars to park!” Jonny paid him and parked the car. They ascended the metal staircase which crawled up the side and around to the back of the old building with a rear doorway dimly lit, and marked with a small sign reading, “Lexi’s”. They opened the door which slammed behind them. They found themselves in a foyer facing another door marked “Ring doorbell for service”. A video camera was attached to the ceiling. Randall said, “I don’t like this guys, let’s take off!” Bennie chimed in, “It’s just security to keep the riff raff out. Ring the doorbell!” Randall pushed the doorbell which buzzed opening the door, and they entered a dimly lit dance hall with loud pulsating Techno Rock music, laser lights, and the smell of booze and cheap perfume. It was an old dance hall from the USO days of World War II and was lined with sofas, tables, and beautiful young women in scantily clad dresses serving drinks and dancing with their guests. Bennie pointed to the busy dance floor remarking, “Check out the guy with his hands all over the girl. We’ve died and went to heaven!” The patrons were an assortment of old men, Middle Eastern immigrants, and nerds willing to pay for the attention of a beautiful woman. Jonny remarked, “Let’s get some of this action”. A waitress approached the table and asked in a Russian accent, “Welcome to Lexi’s. We offer mixed drinks, beers, and bottle service.” Jonny was eager to impress the beautiful waitress and ordered, “A bottle of Dom for the table, beautiful. What is your name?” The waitress replied, “Olga. Would you like to compliment the Dom with caviar?” Randall tapped Jonny’s leg not wanting to splurge but Jonny said, “Of course. We’ll have Beluga”. The waitress whispered, “Beluga is banned in the US because it’s on the “Endangered Species” list but we carry it anyways for our special guests. Your order will be right up”. Randall was still uncomfortable and glanced about the dance hall looking for an “escape exit”. Jonny said, “Relax Randall. Take a few hits of the Dom and you’ll feel fine.” Randall noticed a dimly lit window with curtains in a mezzanine office above the dance floor. The drapes parted and he caught a glimpse of a woman’s silhouette staring right at him before the drapes quickly closed. The waitress returned with the Dom and caviar but she was followed by three twenty-something beautiful blonds in tight dresses revealing athletic physiques which seemed out of place in a Taxi dance joint. They approached the couch in military formation. One of the girls carried the Dom draped in a white cloth, the second girl carried a tin of Beluga Caviar on a gold Wedgwood china serving plate, and third beauty gracefully carried a Reed and Barton silver tray with six gleaming champagne glasses.
The waitress leading the procession said, “Please follow me, gentlemen, to our VIP booth”. Jonny remarked, “She likes me, we’re VIP’s tonight!” Bennie was observant and whispered, “Six glasses guys. We’re in for an interesting evening.” The booth was in a dark, private corner of the dance hall with a table card reading, “Reserved” and the table was covered with a starched, white linen tablecloth including a dim lamp. Each of the guys slid into the booth and the waitress began setting the champagne glasses and caviar. The waitress remarked, “Please allow me to introduce you to your hostesses for the evening. As each girl was introduced, she curtsied. Your hostesses are Veronika, Valentina, and Viktoriya. Would you care for them to join you?” Bennie and Jonny said in unison, “By all means”. The guys slid out of the booth and were paired with one of the hostesses. The six slid behind the booth. The waitress poured champagne into each of the six glasses and said, “Please enjoy your evening. Ring the buzzer near the lamp should you require service.” The hostesses each took a slice of small toast, carefully spread the caviar, and fed their client. They coupled arms with my buddies while each sipped champagne. It was a tight fit in the booth and it felt good to be wedged in tightly with the beauties. The fragrance of their expensive French perfume combined with the pulsating music, laser lights, and champagne intoxication eliminated any unpleasant silence or awkward conversation.
The hostess’s accents were Russian and although each struggled with English, they had a refinement you wouldn’t expect from a Taxi dancer. They were sophisticated as if they experienced the elegant side of life in Russia. Jonny was already on his third glass of champagne and pushed the buzzer exclaiming, “Time for another bottle and time to dance!” Jonny was paired with Valentina. They slid out of the booth onto the dance floor. Bennie spoke up, “What about the fee for the dance?” Viktoriya was his hostess and replied, “No fee for VIP customers”. Bennie and Randall were led by the hand onto the dance floor. Each of the guys danced but were clumsy amateurs. Each of the hostesses took command of their dance partner and guided them through each step to the beat of the music. It didn’t take long for the guys to keep time to the beat but the girls were trained dancers. Their dance moves highlighted their athletically toned legs, thighs, and glut muscles developed through years of ballet training. Each had a perfect breast augmentation. The girls enjoyed breaking off from their partner momentarily and completing a pirouette. The hostesses guided my buddies through the Waltz, Tango, Rumba and Swing dancing. As Randall was dancing with Veronika, he glanced up at the mezzanine office and spied the silhouette of the mysterious woman staring down upon them. The rock band, “The Police” recording played,
Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I'll be watching you
The six drank, danced, and became friends. Randall was curious and asked, “What brought you to the US?” Veronika replied, “We were students at a dance academy back home which trained dancers for the Bolshoi Ballet” It suddenly made sense to Randall. The expert dancing ability and athletic physiques were those of trained ballet dancers. Jonny and Bennie were intent on exploring the curves of their hostess. Randall wanted to know again asking, “What brought you to the US?” Valentina replied, “The school very competitive. We didn’t make selection and very bad for us.” Randall asked, “Why was it so bad?” Viktoriya replied, “We were taken from our homes to attend the dance school. When we kicked out, Russian mafia wants to make us sex slaves”. This caught Bennie’s attention and he asked, “How did you get out of Russia and make it to the States?” Viktoriya answered, “Franceska was our instructor. She older and wiser and like our sister. She dating Russian government official and got us student Visas to US.”. Jonny was beginning to sober up and was curious asking, “Is this your only job?” Valentina answered, “No. We work for Franceska who owns “Caring Co-eds House Cleaning and Care Givers”. We help old people in their homes. Franceska also has 900 number phone sex line and we talk to lonely men for money”. Randall got right to the point, “Where is Franceska?” Veronika raised her head nodding towards the mezzanine office.
You might think that the hostesses were just being nice to my friends to make big tips at the end of the evening but a genuine bond was created. Each of my friends knew misfortune and hard times. They could relate to each of the hostesses plights and admired their ambition and ability to make a fresh start for themselves but the conversation was largely one sided as if each of the hostesses already knew much about their client already. Randall found Veronika to be very nurturing, attentive, and mothering which he had lost when his mom died. Valentina intentionally ignored Jonny’s smooth “moves” which had worked for him so many times in the past. She played “hard to get” while slowly wheeling him in like a fish on a line. She held his hand tightly throughout the night conveying to Jonny that he found a woman who wouldn’t betray him like his mother. Viktoriya provided Bennie just what he craved. She wasn’t wearing a bra or panties and gave him “sneak peeks” throughout the evening. Most of all, she built up his self esteem remarking how intelligent and engaging he was. She held him close to her giving Bennie the impression she would never “ditch” him.
It was pushing two in the morning and no bars serve alcohol in California after two. My buddies were tired but had the night of their life. Each of the hostesses laid their heads on the shoulders of my buddies who held them close. The waitress from earlier in the evening approached the table and tactfully said, “We’re closing for the evening, Gentleman”. Jonny reached for his wallet and asked, “What’s the tab?” The waitress replied, “Your tab was comped by management, Sir. We hope to see you again”. The six had bonded and nobody wanted to leave. There was an awkward silence broken by Bennie when he asked Viktoriya, “When can I see you again?” Viktoriya answered, “We meet for dinner at “Cheska's Tea Room” in Fairfax district on Friday at Nine” Bennie quickly replied, “You have a date!” Before Randall and Jonny could ask for a second date, Veronika suggested, “Let’s make it a triple date!” Valentina added, “We introduce you to good Russian food and drink. You like it”. Randall and Jonny beamed with joy. Viktoriya proudly remarked, “Bennie will show you how smart he is. Each of us girls write our phone number on napkin and give to Bennie. Each of the girls complied and handed Bennie the napkin with their name and phone number on it. Within seconds, Bennie tore up the napkins and repeated each of the girls phone numbers correctly back to the girls who applauded. Victoriya hugged Bennie, kissed him on the lips, and said, “I have smartest man!” Bennie never felt so loved and appreciated in his life. Goodnight kisses were exchanged. As my friends left the dance hall to descend the stairs to the parking lot, the lights of the dance hall were extinguished. Randall turned to see the dimly lit mezzanine office light now shining brightly.
I was surprised to see my buddies on a Wednesday night. They came in around midnight beaming like kids on Christmas morning. It was a slow night and I had an opportunity to join them at their booth while Suzie and Lucy minded the bar. Bennie spoke first, “You should have come, Mel. Viktoriya is fantastic. I think I’m in love” Jonny and Randall sat with brimming smiles. So, Lexi’s was a real find? Jonny spoke, “Mel, it’s not a find, it’s heaven. Even skeptical Randall scored”. Randall smiled and shook his head in agreement. Bennie remarked, “Maybe we can fix you up?” I was happy for my friends but the specter of blind dates with taxi dancers wasn’t my cup of tea. Randall said, “Listen Mel we won’t see you Friday night. We have a triple date.” I could tell from my friend’s expressions that meeting the girls was like prom night on “steroids”.
For the first Friday in over ten years, my buddies weren’t sitting in their booth waiting for me to close and join them. I was happy for my buddies but missed them. I wondered if our friendship would ever be the same with women now in my friend’s lives. It was about 1:45 am and I made one final walk through the bar making certain everything was in order for Sunday. I walked toward the light switch to turn off the lights and in walks the classy woman from the previous week. What was her name? She was wearing a full length white mink stole. “Am I too late to get a drink, Mel?” I thought about telling her “yes” but glanced over at the photo of my dad who would never turn down a sale. Sure, I replied. You’re the woman, who was in the other night, aren’t you? “Melvin, I’m hurt. You’ve forgotten my name haven’t you?” I’m sorry. I meet a lot of people and have never been good with names. “I’m Franceska”. Oh, yes, the writer. May I make you a Dirty martini? “Not tonight. I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay, Mel”. Franceska’s demeanor turned serious as if something was on her mind. “Mel, I apologize for misleading you the other night. I’m not a writer”. I was tired and the last thing I needed was a sob story albeit from a beautiful woman. “I drove by your bar last week with worry on my mind and needed a drink. You seemed like an honest man, a good Jewish man with virtue. I need accounting and tax advice, Mel.” I was immediately taken back to my youth when all the pretty girls would hit me up for help on their homework but wouldn’t return my calls when I phoned for a date. Listen Franceska, this town is full of expert accounting and tax professionals you can consult. Franceska began crying. “Melvin, I don’t need just any accountant, I need a man whom I can trust who understands sophisticated accounting and tax matters.” Listen Franceska, leave me your email address and I’ll send you a name or two in the morning but I have to close. Franceska rose from the barstool, gulped down her Chardonnay, and removed her full length mink stole which fell to the floor revealing a beautiful, athletic, well proportioned nude body. “Is this what it will take for you to help me?” Tears were streaming down her face and her eye liner was running down her cheeks. The sight of this sophisticated beautiful woman standing nude in my bar pleading for help was pitiful. I glanced at dad’s photo and knew he would help her if in my shoes. I immediately ran around the bar, picked up the mink, and draped it around her and walked her to my buddy’s private booth. I’ll make a pot of coffee and you can tell me what’s on your mind. When I returned with the coffee, Franceska told me she was a dance instructor and fled Russian with three students she considers sisters. Life was difficult but the four stuck together working as maids, caregivers, waitresses, and when money was tight, “escorts”. Over the course of a decade, Franceska opened “Lexi’s Dance Studio”, “Cheska’s Tea Room”, a thriving 900 phone sex number, and “Caring Co-eds House Cleaning and Care Givers”.
I was impressed but Franceska wasn’t the first “rags to riches” story I heard. Franceska, if you need bookkeeping or tax assistance, let me find you somebody. Franceska held my hand and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Melvin, these are cash businesses and I haven’t reported all of the income for years. I have cash stuffed into safe deposit boxes all over Los Angeles.” Listen Franceska, it sounds like you need a tax lawyer and the less I know the better. “Melvin, I come to you because you have friends who have the same business street smarts as me.” What do you mean, Franceska? “Your best friends are scammers and you told me their hustles.” Yeah but I don’t get involved in their business, Franceska. “If they were in trouble would you help them, Melvin?” My answer was “yes”. “You missed them tonight didn’t you?” Yeah, it was the first time in a decade they missed a Friday night with me. “They were dining with my three girlfriends at my restaurant, Cheska's. They’re all in love with each other, Melvin!” How can that be I wondered? I’ve known these guys all their lives and we’ve all been unlucky in love so how can they suddenly be in love with beautiful Russian women? Listen Franceska, I know it’s easy for beautiful women to make lonely men fall prey to them and if you’re friends cause them any heartache, and I’ll make you regret it! “Melvin, darling, please believe me. I’ve known my girlfriends since they were pre-teens at dance academy. They are young, sweet, and unsophisticated girls who grew up in large families with too many mouths to feed in Russian countryside. They would be college cheerleaders in the US but they were born in the wrong country. At dance academy, they had nobody to take care of them except me. We love and trust each other like a family. They’ve never known any decent men. When I talk to them and look into their eyes, I see real love for your friends. They look up to your friends as lovers, role models, and father figures. I’m afraid I may lose them to marriage and you will lose your friends!”
Franceska, none of us have been lucky in love. Even handsome Jonny can’t hold onto a girlfriend. This whole thing doesn’t make logical sense to me. “Melvin, my girlfriends fell in love with your friends because they don’t have to hide who they are and what they do for a living. They’re hustlers, scammers, and thieves like just like Randall, Bennie, and Jonny. Can you understand now?” It was actually beginning to make sense to me. So, what do you need from me, Franceska? “We have worked hard for what we have and I don’t want love or the IRS to blow it. Your friends and my girlfriends can have love and financial security. There are similarities to each of our business models which you made clear to me the first night I met you. Randall runs a funeral scam, Jonny runs an air-conditioning rip-off, and Bennie steals expensive delivery parcels but they’re not big thinkers like you and I, Melvin. Your friends are small time thieves but if they combine forces with me, we can create an empire! I’m from Moscow. I was a Bolshoi dancer. I learned business from the very best by dating Soviet party big shots who become billionaire oligarchs. When I was too old to be Bolshoi dancer, I became instructor at dance academy. My girlfriends were my students.” How does it involve me, Franceska? “My “Caring Co-eds Housecleaning and Caregivers” provides my girls the opportunity to steal personal effects and pain killers from client’s homes which Bennie can sell. My elderly clients are wealthy and I can tip Randall off to their social circle funerals, and my Medicare clients are fair game for Jonny’s air conditioning scam. I own a 900 number phone sex service of 100 women taking calls 24/7 throughout the world. Jonny can help me perfect this business and also train them to call air-conditioning prospects nationwide for him. Bennie can promote my 900 number on his chat lines. You and I both sell booze for a living. I’ll bet your take is about five hundred thousand a year at Marv’s but my booze and food sales at Lexi’s and Cheska’s are over a million!” Franceska was right. There were similarities and although I was financially comfortable running a bar, I knew in my gut my friends would end up old and broke. I remembered my mother caring for each of them like sons and if I could create a nest egg for them, it would be a Mitzvah and make my parents proud. I was lost in thought and staring at the framed photograph of my father and pondered the many tax shelters, creative accounting, and offshore banking services I provided my corporate clients. If I could do it for them, why couldn’t I do it for Franceska and help her friends and mine shelter and invest their income? My train of thought was interrupted by Franceska saying, “Melvin, did you hear me? I was asking if you can put your corporate accounting skills to work for all of us and create a legitimate operation which will satisfy the IRS and provide a financial future for everybody.” My mind was racing with thoughts of holding companies, subsidiaries, off shore accounts but mostly a sense of caring for my brothers “from another mother”. All right Franceska, call a meeting for the eight of us in a private location and I’ll put together a plan. Franceska wasted no time saying, “Breakfast at Cheska’s Tea Room eight am tomorrow.” She gracefully slid out from the booth, dipped a napkin into a glass of water, wiped the mascara from her face, hugged me and held me close to her. I felt her beating heart racing with excitement. The last time a woman held me in her loving arms was my mother. She whispered into my ear, “I knew the night I met you fate brought us together. It took courage to give up a lucrative accounting partnership and take over a bar. You share the same loyalty to your friends as I do to my girlfriends. We’ll accomplish great things, together darling.” Franceska placed her lips to mine and gave me a soft, sensuous kiss and introduction to what may lay ahead for me. “L’Chaim, Melvin”. I looked over at the photo of my dad and asked myself if he would have seized the opportunity presented to me and remembered him saying, “Melvin, without taking risks, you’ll never find reward in life.” After all, dad built a hot dog stand into a thriving bar. I owe it to him and myself to give this a shot.