Art Carney and a Memorable Dentist Named Ned

Art Carney and a Memorable Dentist Named Ned

By V. A. Caminiti

The Hudson River was the stage for the beautiful beginnings of a sunset, as Metropolis was making its transition to muted evening sounds. A stream of limos and taxis deposited passengers at a large white arbor in the makeshift driveway at the downtown pier.  The dinner-cruise boat quietly hummed at its mooring and a complex blend of aromas filled the air.  Fresh asphalt and flowers; whiffs of salty sea air with intermittent hints of sautéed garlic; and, cigarette smoke floating above the unmistakable odor of sour milk from a recently emptied garbage dumpster.

Orange chimneys oddly billowing steam in early June seemed like angry sentries across the street.  Con Edison trucks and large flexible air ducts were descending in different parts of the pavement like a large yellow snake.  A flotilla of food carts anchored on the West Side Highway while droves of helmeted workers munched on paper wrapped falafels, gyros, shish kebabs or hot-dogs.  On the opposite side of the street, a complement of well-decked partygoers stood on a planked walkway waiting to be ‘piped’ aboard.  I briefly wrestled with the idea of sneaking away, grabbing a gyro and ditching the party, although, I conceded to my commitment to endure an evening of rubber-chicken, senseless banter and evading my friend Bart, who was certain to use me as crutch to counter his agoraphobia.  Bart’s habit of clinging to my arm when one of his spells came upon him, telegraphed an intimacy that I found counter-productive in more than one way.

Earlier in the day, I treated myself to an incredibly over-priced and nearly inedible lunch while out shopping for a replacement bowtie at Barney’s downtown. After an exhaustive and aggravating search failed to turn up the AWOL cravat, I acquiesced to invest in a new one.  Returning uptown on the subway, I was staring at the New York Times crossword puzzle, not a single clue read, daydreaming about writing a scathing restaurant review.

“The Chilean Sea Bass, was not only overpriced, it arrived cold and amateurishly adorned with capers, 4 stalks of white asparagus and some frisee, creating the impression of a cartoon character.  Furthermore, to encrust this dense slab of insipid flesh in macadamia nuts only served to ruin the taste of macadamias and deter me from chewing. The service was atrocious as the struggling actor / struggling-waiter invoked an affected “pardone” every time I spoke causing me to repeat everything twice, thus prolonging my agony.”

Fifty bucks for agita and seventy-five more for a bowtie to replace the one I would find neatly folded in the pocket of my Tuxedo jacket when I dressed a few hours later.

Leaning on a railing and enjoying a petite corona by the big boat, I was wearing my latest Tux, distinct with its sash-waisted double buttons.  Waiters did not wear sash-waisted Armani.  At another such function, about six months earlier and while wearing its predecessor, a timeless basic-black Tuxedo, I was approached by a guest. He presumed I was a working at the function and proceeded to give me a drink order for his group. I politely nodded, pointed over his shoulder, rather then embarrassing him with his friends, and quietly displaced myself to another spot in the room.  Moments later, he accosted me and began to inflect his voice, indignant that I had not acted on his request.

I leaned forward, revealed the ticket to the affair as though it were a secret agent badge pinned inside my jacket and informed him “You would be more successful if you pursued the actual waiter I had pointed to instead of stalking me!”

Considerably harsher words had nearly reached my lips, but calmed by a pinch of snuff, I opted for the quiet and peaceful approach. Albeit, contrary to my genetic predisposition for vendetta.  He peacefully retreated apologetically.

The incident had a delightful resolution. He turned out to be the keynote speaker of the evening and he told the story of our encounter as the closing to his speech on ‘A Positive Mental Attitude.’  In fine oratory, he related the incident in a self-deprecating tone suggesting that I was a most suitable master of a positive attitude, thus elevating me to the status of celebrity for the balance of the evening.   We remained friends until his untimely and final departure in the early 1990’s.

Although my new Tuxedo preempted any requests for cocktails or shrimp puffs to my delight, it did require the jacket remained buttoned all evening, lest it would swing open as a curtain signaling the beginning of puppet show.  Nonetheless, it was a fine trade off, since I detested colorful tuxedo ties, plaid cummerbunds or Geisha silk vests; all of which I presumed were designed specifically to distinguish waiters from guests. Of course, if I were nearly as smart as suggested, I would have kept my old Tuxedo and worn a lapel flower to throw the dogs of the trail.  While waiters do not generally wear expensive Armani, they also do not wear three-dollar boutonnières. I invented the Chris Farley “stupid” affectation and self dope-slap before anyone knew his name.

The doors were about to open, the sky was backlight from behind the Hoboken side of the Hudson River and the Twin Towers were still dominating the New York City skyline at this mid ‘80’s early summer function. The edges glowed gold and pink reflecting the setting sun as we began to move along the short walkway into the seaworthy ballroom.  I stifled a laugh wedged among a small cadre of shuffling octogenarians, imagining myself in a line entering the early-bird special at a senior’s eatery in Boca Raton.  I had more difficulty adjusting to time schedules after visiting my folks in Florida than I did flying back and forth to Hong Kong.

My presence at the function was not particularly important, but I had given my word to escort a prominent New York Matron of the Arts, who happened to be a client and friend as well as one of the event organizers.  She and her husband were very influential Old Money New Yorkers. He was in very poor health over the last few years and when she discovered I would be in town, she pleaded for me to come.  It had become a routine over the years and I never refused, and I had taken to the training naturally.  Her children, adults of the most disturbing snobbish demeanor, were usually present at these functions. Parents themselves, they addressed their Mother with a pathetic child-like intonation of “Mummy!”  The son and daughter team left their spouses at home with the children quite often to attend the affairs, even though all they did was circle the room and collect gossip.  He was a distinguished historian and she was a top-notch fund manager for an old school royalty-only investment firm.  At this party though, they looked like a comedy sketch lampooning Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell of Gilligan’s Island fame, three-hour cruise and all.

My primary assignment for the evening was to be the lovely Matriarch’s personal bodyguard.  Not in the traditional sense of an armed goon, but rather more of personal secretary that upon noticing a predetermined subtle gesture, would rescue her from one group and usher her to another. In so doing, she never appeared rude to people of whom she was actually being rude.  Arms lightly entwined she would pilot me to deposit her and collect her so she would never be seen walking alone and subject to assault by one of the social climbers that had just made tons of money on Wall Street but were feared emotionally unstable enough to jump into the Hudson on a dare.

Seated at her right side during dinner, she whispered the latest reconnaissance and reconnoitering instructions as well an updated a list of names from the guest list.  She relied on my talent to identify and presumably stumble upon them as she worked her charm for the next fundraising effort. The evening’s gesture would be a gentle touching of her earring, our private international distress signal, should she require rescuing.  The evening’s function was a fund-raiser for alcohol and drug abuse awareness.  Many noted reformed drunks and druggies could be seen at the tables, staring at the artful array of wine bottles at each table. My esteemed Matron snorted a laugh and pinched me when I sub-sonically inquired if there was going to be a pool on which celebrity would jump off the wagon by “accidentally” pouring themselves a big glass of Pinot Grigio from the looming bottles.

While glancing at the list I noticed that Art Carney’s name was prominently listed – right after mine. I was elated.  She had not mentioned him as a target but that certainly didn’t preclude me from tracking him down and saying hello.  Finally, someone I would be able to recognize without any assistance or performing extensive intelligence work.  I was thrilled at the prospect of saying hello to the man who portrayed Ed Norton.  I could recite lines that he uttered in episodes of the ‘Honeymooners’ verbatim.  It was not unusual to hear vintage Ed Norton lines invoked as defense, as precedent and as ultimate authority everywhere from our large family picnics to intimate business meetings. For that matter, it wasn’t unusual for an entire generation to instantly recognize one of many funny lines from the legendary TV series.  To this day, I often refer to the seven-layer dip or hors D’oeurves of dubious origin as ‘Kranmars Delicious Mystery Appetizer.’

My charge would be busy for at least the next fifteen minutes as I deposited her with a group from her ‘A’ list.  A circle of philanthropists discussing the room’s targets as though they were the Allied Powers during World War II planning D-Day.  One or two of the women even looked like Eisenhower.  Fortunately, my companion looked more like a very thin Ethel Barrymore with eyes that talked and always a sweet smile. Although, she frequently mumbled under her breath to me; cursing like a sailor, when the social ‘climbers’ broke the rules of engagement.

Finally, I spotted the unmistakable profile of my quary, but as quickly as I had him in my sights, I was jostled out of focus by Bart’s tugging at my arm. He was in a cold sweat, pale as a sheet and soaking my sleeve from his wet hands, clearly mid-anxiety attack.  He was truly unable to speak.  I had already noticed her name on the guest list and knew it was only a matter of time.  Bart’s ex-wife, a popular TV news personality, was attending the affair with her a new beau, a South American film star named Hugo, who was currently dabbling in American film with a degree of success.  Bart was obsessed and had imagined all sorts of potential legal action against his ex, fearing her abandoning his reliable weekly arguments. Envisioning her leaving New York and taking their son and daughter, of which they shared joint custody; running off to Hollywood to be a family with Hugo; although he insisted that Hugo was a homosexual and her involvement with him was to cause him despair.

Bart was seeing a therapist but it was hardly noticeable. On a good day, he looked like Woody Allen on a bad one.  Hugo was a Brazilian Cary Grant.  When Bart was nervous, he spoke in bursts beginning with one breath. He would often run out of air, pushing out the last few words in little more than a gasp.  It was astonishing, often forcing one to look away.  Hugo was animated and engaging.   Bart made more money in six months than Hugo had made in his entire successful career, yet he was shackled with his neuroses.

Bart had been kind to me during a terrible business scandal of which I found myself a prime patsy.  He helped me work a two-year plan to untangle myself from my equity partners, who had actually been very clever crooks and siphoned an enormous amount of money that apparently vanished. He guided me through a successful plan to save my clients and my U.S. business, which without noticing had transformed into a non-profit organization.  I never forgot that he could have assisted in crushing me and personally benefited.  His special deed had created a bond of trust; so, while not my favorite past-time, I was frequently available to assist Bart through the rough spots.

Unfortunately, months after the dinner-cruise, Bart discovered that a fledgling movie production company that I had been saddled, had signed Hugo for a film.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t think much of it or didn’t impose any authority over the actual creative side; or, for that matter, that the film went directly from the Cannes Film Festival to the television Late Late Show, speaking of non-profit.  It was the simple fact that he viewed it as a serious breech of trust.  When he asked me if I purposely concealed the information from him, I didn’t lie, I had indeed concealed it.  He was despondent and angry and never spoke to me again.  He went to the trouble to send me a registered letter documenting the severance of our professional and personal relationships.  It was a mixed bag of emotions of sadness, relief and confusion.  I wouldn’t miss his mental instability, but I would miss the applause that he often supplied when I shared the details of my special projects that were only shared with a handful of people on the planet.  To his credit, he has never spoken an unkind word of me to this day or breached the confidentiality of that agreement.

It only took minutes to settle Bart down.  When I spotted his date, a young aspiring fashion designer, I locked eyes and beamed her towards us.  Bart regained his composure and agreed that it would be a very good idea if he were to introduce her to some of the celebrity guests before they exploded staring at the booze. Bart suddenly realized that he was not without weapons in which to duel his ex-wife in the imaginary battle and he approached the first table of ‘famously rehabilitated’ with a spring in his step and a little more volume than necessary.  This gave me the perfect opportunity to fix my sights back on Mr. Carney.  He was not were I had ‘last scene’ him.  I needed to begin again, but first it was time to check up on more important matters and tend to my duties.   Eyes locked, she spoke telepathically with a slow movement of her head.  It was time to gracefully extract my date from one group and deposit her with another. That done, a quick check on Bart’s progress and I resumed my search for the man who made famous the words: “It can even core a apple.”

The boat was moving along the Hudson River, and even at the slow pace North, the George Washington Bridge behind us, I knew he had to still be aboard but I couldn’t find him anywhere in the room.  Time enough to step outside enjoy a pinch of snuff.  Not a habit enjoyed by many other Americans I knew, I always had a tin of Gawith’s Irish High Toast in my pocket.  A light dusting of my nostrils and in another second standing there before me was Art Carney.  He was shorter than I imagined, and was sporting an elegant pair of rimless spectacles as well as a small and neatly groomed handlebar moustache.  He was also wearing a black-watch plaid bowtie and cummerbund.  Perhaps he had been asked to fetch drinks, at an affair long ago.

With no further adieu, I began talking. By this time, I had met more than my share of the Hollywood glitterati, the flashes-in-the-pan, and the old guard.  I had learned the code of subtlety and the annoyance of discussing the last picture or most recent TV appearance or other conversations that were tantamount to talking shop for people who were out for an evening.  I often ended up at the ‘after party’ for simply talking about the weather or politics and soon it was a habit.

I simply said, “beautiful evening isn’t it”.

He responded, “t’is indeed.”

Then I broke every rule I understood as etiquette and gushed how much I enjoyed his work.  As I was bouncing on my heels as though I were on a hobbyhorse trying to contain myself, he reached out and touched my shoulder.

He asked, “what is your name?”

By now I realized that I had launched into my laudatory oration, devoid of manners – not even a simple introduction.  Then with the grace of lummox, I introduced myself and handed him a business card.

He looked at me very kindly and said “I have some bad news for you.  I’m not Art, I’m his brother Ned.  Art couldn’t make it tonight, he has the flu.  He invited me to come in his place.  I am sorry to disappoint you.  I’m not an actor, I’m a dentist.”

He handed me a card and we stood and chuckled for a long time.  He promised to deliver my good wishes and I would no doubt hear from Art when he shared details of our pleasant conversation.  I did receive a card and a photo at my office, with an additional note from a PR firm inviting me to schedule a call with Art Carney, that he’d be delighted to say hello. Time passed, I forgot and eventually lost the evidence, but the memory is as fresh as that day.

Ned was very intrigued by my use of English nasal snuff and had many questions about it.  It was something that I kept to myself for fear of having to explain it to family and friends. We talked for a while. By the time I returned to my post, my Matron was tugging on her earring as though she were operating a locomotive.  Her wide eyes started smiling in no time as I whisked her away to her next prey.  She said, “What’s happened? You look troubled. Is there something wrong?” I explained that nothing was the matter, but she persisted, so I explained about Ned.  She said to remind her and she would make sure that I was ‘properly’ introduced to Art Carney in the future. She couldn’t, though, remember ever meeting him herself.  It didn’t, seem important any more.  Besides, I had a wonderful conversation with a delightful dentist from Westchester, named Ned.

After what seemed an endless evening of small talk and performing life-guard duty, the boat was nearing its port-of-call.  The Con-Ed trucks were still busy, the cones were still puffing steam, and the yellow snake remained sprawled out over that part of the West Side Highway. However, there were only two or three food carts and the highly lit work area revealed an equal number of helmeted men standing about.  I was starving.  My entire consumption for the evening had been three flutes of sparkling apple juice and an equal number of Peppermint Chiclets.  There was only one thing to do.  John’s Brick Oven Pizza.  And so, the perfect antidote for disgraceful Chilean Sea Bass, imbecile waiter-actors, endless small talk and my slightly foolish feeling.  A feeling of which I’ve grown more comfortable over the years.

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