In 1995, maybe ‘96, while I was finishing up my degree at Fordham, I waited tables at the Harley-Davidson Cafe. It was the height of the “theme restaurant” years, and though the food was godawful, it was a wildly popular place for celebrities to hold parties, to see and be seen. One of my most memorable nights there (second only to the one where a very altered Paulie Shore chased me around the restaurant proposing marriage over and over until he tripped, fell on his face, and had to be escorted out by security) was the night I waited on Aretha Franklin. It was a private party held downstairs and out of the limelight, late, because she had just finished a performance around the corner at Carnegie Hall. They were a group of about 18 to 20 people, just she and her band—the queen and her royal court. I was on my own with them, me and Tito the busboy, and I was nervous as all get-out and trying not to show it. When it came time to take their drink order, I was rather shocked that the entire party asked for coffee. Every last one of them. Queen of Soul or no Queen of Soul, I was bummed. A private party usually translated into a big bar tab, and I needed a big bar tab tip to make rent. Tito even threatened to leave me to go to work upstairs so he could make some money for the night. As I walked over to the computer to input the order, one of the musicians from the party approached me.
”Excuse me, Miss?”
“The lady of the hour, Miss Aretha, well, she’s on-the-wagon right now, you see.”
”Ah. I understand.” I nodded. Now the coffee made sense.
”Some of us, well, most of us, would like to have ourselves a little drink.”
”Oh?” I wrinkled my brow.
”I, for one, would like a double Johnny Walker Black on the rocks. “ He paused. “In a coffee cup.”
”Now, if you just wait here, they’ll come up and tell you what they want to drink. In coffee cups. Do you understand?”
One by one they all stepped up to place their actual drink orders.
As the night wore on, and the second and third rounds of coffee-cup cocktail orders came in, I finally found the courage to ask one of the men a question: “Doesn’t she know? I mean, she has to know.” There was much carousing around her.
”Of course she knows,” he answered.
”Then why pretend?”
He lowered his glasses down the brim of his nose to look me, the silly 20-something with the frizzled hair, in the eye. “Respect.”
RIP Aretha Franklin