WELCOME TO THE MERRY MONK

The best Pizza in Long Beach
Featuring Millie and her guitar
This week, 9 pm to 1 am.

The above was a large, lighted sign out by the street in front of the establishment, where I worked. It had a cartoon rendering of a monk in his brown monk outfit with a rope tied around his middle. Both hands led the way into the parking lot in front of the The Merry Monk. The owner was going to post both my first name and my last name, but there were not enough Ms in his box of letters, so I was just “Millie.”

I wondered and I do so to this day if I fall into ruminating mode, if no one in the entire State of California ever met anyone with a southern accent. There is a huge naval base there, and it’s impossible that all the sailors were Yankees. But from the reaction of my folk club audiences in the four places where I worked over a period of two years’ time, you would have thought I was not only southern, but a visitor from South Mars or from the southernmost ring of Saturn or maybe from the south of the moon.

“Don’t sing any more, Darlin.’ Jest sat up thar and talk to us.” There would then be hearty laughter as I blushed and prayed for a hole to open in the floor and swallow me. If it got too loud and raucous, the manager would come onstage and say, “Okay, that’s enough. We paid this little lady a hefty sum to play her guitar and sing, and that’s what she’s gonna do. Ignore them, Millie. Go ahead and sing.”

The hefty sum he paid was the going rate for folk singer newbies anywhere from Los Angeles to San Diego: For a 45 minute set, we collected $5.00 and all the beer we could drink, plus dinner if the place served it.  When I was the only performer, I brought home a total of $20 as payment for four sets. I hated beer (still do) so that made me a slightly less expensive entertainer than the norm. I sang 12 songs per set. They were listed on a cheat sheet taped to the top of my guitar. I sang three sets and then repeated the first set for the fourth set. Most of the time, the clientele had changed, as we almost never had the same people there from 9 pm till midnight.

It was boring at best and downright dangerous at worst. The first place I worked after auditioning and being hired to begin that same evening was noisy and rude. They did the usual about the adorable southern accent. When I complained to the manager, during my first break, he told me if I didn’t like it to quit. The only food the place served was peanuts in the shell. If the audience didn’t approve of the singer, they threw peanut shells at him or her. The guy who came on before me asked the crowd to be careful not to hit his guitar. They took more careful aim then. That’s more careful aim AT the guitar. At the end of his set, he told the manager he was quitting.

“Sure, quit, but you had one more set to do, so I won’t be paying you for it,” the manager told him. “I also won’t be paying you for the set you just finished.” This creep was terrible. I was going to quit as well, but I desperately needed the ten bucks for two sets. It was my intention to see if I could get some work at a place down the street called “The Other Place.” I’d heard they were hiring. I also heard they treated their singers with a little more courtesy.

I had hung out at all kinds of places that hired guitar players. I knew what to expect. Unless it was an actual folk club, nobody listened to the singer. Some were better than others, but I knew not to take it personally when nobody listened to me. I played the guitar poorly, and that’s the best thing I can say about it. My children and I had no place to live. We stayed with Howie, whom I had met in Nashville. Howie and I were sure we were made for each other. Maybe we were. Maybe we’ll never know. But at any rate the story is too long and too sad to tell here. I’ll save it for the book.

Someone beat me to The Other Place, so I had no choice but to go back to work at the peanut-throwing emporium. I went back for a three-set night. “By the way,” said Mean Manager Man. “When a customer buys you a beer, you’re supposed to drink it. It looks bad when the beers are lined up on the edge of the stage.”

That did it. I had as much guff from this mouth-breathing bottom feeder as I felt necessary.

“Well, that’s just too bad,” I said. “You drink it or I’ll pour it out for you. If I drink it, you’ll find your high-class peanut chuckers covered in puke, to put it as genteel as I can. No offense.” Whereupon I switched on the voice mike and welcomed the scruffy crowd, promising them a bawdy good time. I switched on the guitar mike and broke into a too-loud, way-too-fast chorus of “This Land is My Land.” The audience stomped their feet and yelled. They loved it. Being quick learners, they picked up the lyrics and sang along with me. A lot of them got up and danced and a few tried to jump up on the stage with me. Even that was too rowdy for this place. The bartender grabbed them by the back of their collars and dumped them on the floor.

This was not my first professional gig. Howie and I went to New York the previous summer. Howie wanted me to sing in Greenwich Village. He was sure as soon as someone heard me, I would be offered a month-long gig and a recording contract. I knew that wasn’t going to happen. You couldn’t take a walk in the Village without stepping on a guitar player. Everybody wrote their own songs, sang quite nicely, and played the guitar like an angel. The only thing I had going for me was a voice, which I couldn’t even take credit for. I inherited it from my father, or Daddy, as I called him throughout his life.

Daddy taught me to sing and to harmonize on road trips. I hung my head on the back of his seat and sang. If I missed a note, we came to a full stop, and he made me practice until I sang whatever I missed correctly. I could harmonize by thirds when I was 4 years old. Daddy had a beautiful Irish tenor voice. I loved to sing with him.

In New York, Howie dragged me into The Bitter End on Bleeker Street. I was so impressed I could hardly speak. The Bitter End! I couldn’t believe it. I was hired for the night and I sat on the stool my idol, Mary Travers, had sat on to have my all-time favorite singers, Peter, Paul and Mary, photographed for their album cover. I was in heaven. In those days, the folk clubs didn’t serve alcohol. All you could order was Cokes and ice cream. So there were no disgusting drunks to deal with. I sang a song Paul wrote and Mary sang called “No Other Name.” It became my theme song. I must have sung that beautiful song and played my guitar badly to accompany myself thousands of times before it was all over. I also sang, “Come to my Bedside,” which is an ultra sexy song written by another folk singer, Eric Andersen. I had just learned “Gentle on my Mind,” written by my dear friend, John Hartford, who taught me to play it. There were some others, but they are lost somewhere in my memory weeds.

But that was New York, and we’re now in Long Beach, California. Too bad. I would have stayed in Greenwich Village for the rest of my life.

One night a big guy named Jerry came into the place where I was singing. Everyone seemed to know him. He walked up to the stage dodging the peanuts and said he wanted to talk to me at my next break. When it came I sat down at a table with him, and he said Mike, the owner of The Merry Monk had heard about me and wondered if I wanted to sing at the place. Yes, sir, I did. Even the money was better. A big $8 per set. Yowzee! Jerry said I could start the next night, and I told him I would be there. When I finished my next set, I had the wonderful pleasure of telling Mean Manager Man I quit. He was quite surprised and said everyone seemed to like me. If they did you’d never know it. I had peanut shells in my hair to prove it.

So, I came to The Merry Monk. It was a big place. They served pizza and the usual beer and other libations. Jerry was the bartender and the manager. Mike, the owner, wasn’t there all the time. I met him the first night and he said he had heard we had no place to live. He said he was living with his girlfriend, and he had an apartment near The Monk, and I was welcome to it, because everything he owned was at his girlfriend’s.

Life was looking up. I had a better place to work and the girls and I had a genuine furnished apartment to live in. The crowd at The Monk was way more polite. Lots of times they even listened to me. Some of them came to have favorites, which they would request, and I sang them. It played havoc with my scheduled songs, but I didn’t care. Sometimes I alternated sets with a boy and girl duet that were really good. There was also a stoner named Milo, whom I also liked. He did a solo and played the washboard. One night when he was really high, he played his entire set on the washboard. Before he finished, everyone was booing and Mike told him not to do that again.

Things went along swimmingly. The crowds grew and we all had a good time. One night, I noticed everyone was listening to me. The place was packed and the audience was quiet and most appreciative. Sometimes they requested a song, and they sang along with me. During my break, a large group of people at the biggest booth asked me to come sit with them. They were very nice and told me how much they liked my singing. It felt wonderful. About halfway through the second set, Jerry came on stage. He just stood by me till I finished a song. Then he came closer and whispered to me, “Mike wants to see you.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go see him in his office when I finish this set.”

“No,” said Jerry. “He wants to see you now, right now.”

“Before I finish this set,” I asked.

“Yes,” said Jerry. “Right now.”

I was mystified. I told the audience I would be right back, and followed Jerry off the stage.

Mike was seated at his desk.

“What’s going on, Mike,” I asked.

“Millie, you are a wonderful singer, and your audience is very attentive, but do you know why we’re in business,” he said.

“Sure,” I answered. “Same as any business. To make money.”

“Right,” he said, “Do you know how much money we’ve made during your two sets tonight?”

He didn’t give me time to answer.

“None,” he said. “Zero. It’s a great compliment to you, but Millie, you’re bad for business.”

“Do you mean I’m fired, because people are listening to me?”

“Exactly,” he said.

I was thunderstruck and speechless.

“Business has been falling off ever since we hired you and tonight the only money we’ve taken in is during your break. I’m sorry. I know you need the job, so I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m not happy with the pizza cook, so I’m going to fire him and I’ll give you his job.”

“But Mike,” I said, “I don’t know how to make pizzas.”

“Sure you do. It’s easy. I’ll show you, and I’ll also pay you minimum wage. You’ll make more money.

So, he showed me. He was right. It was easy. And I made more money.

My folk-singing career in Long Beach was finished, and my pizza cooking life began. Two months later I left for Los Angeles and did some brief stints at the folk clubs there.

And that, dear reader, is how I was fired at the height of my success. I never held a crowd like the audience at The Merry Monk ever again.

So, I left home a folk singer and came home a pizza cook. Go figure.