steve ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*Hearing Pope Francis’ recent admonition against a life of prideful arrogance reminded me of something that happened one summer afternoon 25 years ago when I visited a favorite spot for a late lunch.

Only five or six tables were occupied when I walked in, a little after two in the afternoon. Led by the waitress to a small table against the wall, I immediately noticed the occupants of a booth on the other side of the room.

The two women sharing one bench of the booth and a man across from them all looked to be about my age at the time, in their early 30s. The man’s question to the waiter about show biz monuments the Hollywood sign and the Walk of Fame-—not to mention the map to celebrity’s homes I saw him unfold–suggested they might be tourists with stars in their eyes, so to speak.

And based on the glances coming my way, I’d say one of the booth’s occupants–the cute, curvy lady with the short natural cut–seemed interested in more than just city landmarks. When her next look my way came with a sweet smile, I knew it was on.

We had fun flirting for the better part of an hour, both of us careful not to let the people who accompanied her in on our game.

What I really wanted was conversation—-where are you from and is there a man waiting for you there?—-but I wouldn’t dare go near that booth. It was hard enough for me to approach a woman on her own, let alone when she’s among friends; that kind of immediate peer pressure makes it difficult to make headway. I was thinking I needed something to break the ice, to create a reason for us to converse, when from the back of the restaurant, in a distinctive voice and accent, came: “Mr. Ibory (sic), I saw you on TV!!”

Tala was the restaurant’s evening manager. A kind and cheerful middle-aged woman from the Philippines-—Tagalog, her native tongue, made it difficult for her to pronounce the V in my name—-months earlier she told me that for a time in her native Manila she lived with a black U.S. serviceman who loved R&B and jazz.

It was through her ex, Tala said, that she learned to love all the music and artists he loved-—James Brown, Blue Magic, Miles Davis, Con funk shun, Etta James, Ornette Coleman. When Tala learned that I wrote about music as a profession, anytime I came into the restaurant during her shift, she wanted to talk shop.

Initially, I didn’t mind. I was fascinated that this diminutive, enthusiastic Filipina could know so much about R&B—-one day she actually fixed her mouth to utter Dynamic Superiors-—but at some point it became bothersome. We’d hold up patrons at the cash register because as I paid my check Tala wanted to talk abou the difference between the original Isley Brothers and the Isleys 3+3. I came to avoid the place when I knew Tala was working.

But this time I welcomed Tala’s banter. I could not have paid anyone to give me the set-up this woman was unwittingly about to lay on me. Her timing was better than a funk drummer. And look at how she opened the dialogue—-she’d seen me on TV, no less. I peeked over to see the three in the booth perk up. It’s never been my thing to puff my chest out over my profession, but what the hell-—c’mon girl, BRANG it, baby.

“What show was I on,” I asked Tala, with all the manufactured nonchalance I could muster as she approached my table. “MTV? VH-1?” I glimpsed past Tala to see the booth across the room all eyes and ears. Tell it, Miss Tala, I said to myself. Light me up.

“No—-you were on the local evening news,” she said. “They were doing a report on the lottery—-it was $200 MILLION, I think. The camera showed all the people outside a 7-11 standing in line to buy a ticket…and you were standing in line! I said, ‘There’s Mr. Ibory!!'”

Ever seen a movie where the dramatic event happens in slow motion? If Tala’s innocent words had been a bullet, I’d have seen each syllable—-well, not all of them, just the part about 7-11 and me standing in line—-slowly flying through the air. In one mortifying instant, a cut-rate playa was felled with a single shot to the ego.

The man in the booth sought to turn a guffaw into a cough. The other woman smiled uneasily and cast her eyes onto her plate. And my curvy would-be girlfriend? She actually gasped as she reached for that celebrity map.

“Uh, okay,” I responded to Tala, offering a sheepish half laugh. “Hey, $200 million is $200 million,” I shrugged.

In a minute, it was over. The Booth Three made their exit—in the process stepping over my self-respect, lying limp in the floor—-leaving me with a half eaten BLT and Tala, busy gabbing about the Ohio Players. Graciously, she offered me dessert on the house, but instant karma had already taken care of that, having force-fed me a big ol’ slice of Humble Pie.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]