I should have known something was up when my breakfast check totaled $7.77.
The name Mickey Mantle flashed in my brain long before George Costanza ever hooked up with Steinbrenner, years before Seinfeld's George and Susan argued about naming their first-born baby after Mantle's Yankees jersey number, "Seven."
The Minnesota Twins had just beat the St. Louis Cardinals in a gut-wrenching Game Seven of the World Series.
I was sauntering down Central Park South, the quintessential New Yorker, the free-spirited writer/performer scraping up freelance gigs from temping at the William Morris Agency to singing telegrams way before Carrie Bradshaw ever muttered the words Manolo Blahnik.
I'd just left my temp stint at a law firm (Weil Gotshal); had just appeared on Arsenio Hall for my comic talent, "talking backwards," and finally landed a job in the lush GM ("FAO Schwartz") Building as a Copywriter at Revlon. (I literally rode the elevator and got off at random floors, asking receptionists what company was here and were there any positions open! Ah, the days of no building security).
I'd even dreamt up a new ad campaign, imagining it going international and being flown to Paris for the premiere:
As I walked down 59th Street past the scrumptious Essex House, fantasizing about my luxury suite (the company's reward for my creative genius), I noticed an intriguing storefront construction site.
My New York intuition told me to walk in and introduce myself; it was a premonition that I'd soon need a job, even though I was just starting one that day.
I found myself shaking hands with one of the owners, Mr. Bill Liederman, a charming, effusive, entrepreneurial golden-touch guy with a robust handshake and smile as wide as Oklahoma. He radiated optimism, and told me he would soon be opening Mickey Mantle's restaurant (February 1988 to be exact). His warmth floated me down the length of the park. He told me he'd keep me in mind if any jobs opened up. They were already booking bartenders and wait staff.
Several months of Beauty Care product-naming later, I was laid-off (sweetly told that it was like having a rocket scientist doing a carpenter's job). Really? After picking up the jigsaw pieces of my ego, I marched right back up the block into Mickey Mantle's, my spirits lifting at the first sight of pinstripes.
Bill hired me practically on-the-spot to be a hostess. It was, and still remains, the best job of my life. (And I've had many, from CNN and HBO to NBC and ABC News). I was juggling telephones, coat checking, listening to complaints and, my personal favorite -- seating people. I take extreme pleasure in finding the right table at the right window at the right angle for customers. Call it fanatic, finicky or Fung Shwei -- I call it common courtesy, and I took great pride in making hungry people happy. Finding the perfect table to eat the perfect burger? What 's so difficult?!
The room at 42 Central Park South was always bustling with Yankee fever and Mantle enthusiasts -- New Yorkers, tourists and sports mavens from agents to athletes. The staff had an unusual camaraderie (okay, there were the occasional fighting matches in the kitchen); we would get the 11:30 a.m. perk -- luscious lunch grub of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, hearty stuff.
It always seemed like the crowds poured in, regardless of PR; we hadn't yet had the insanity of "E" Entertainment Network, Last Chance Kitchen, Top Chefs, or the Kardashians. We even had a live WFAN radio broadcast with the amazin' Bill Mazer, which made the fans flock. Build, and they will come.
There were the park strollers, the out-of-town shoppers, the local businessmen (martini lunches were not so strange), girlfriends out for lunch. And then there were the Mantle-o-phile regulars I always looked forward to seeing, like sportscaster Len Berman (I called him "cuz") and comedian Richard Lewis (Larry David's best friend on Curb Your Enthusiasm). As a hands-on hostess, I greeted everyone from secretaries to CEO's... and Bill & Co. oozed -- and encouraged -- personality. I was never intimidated about chatting with the guests... and met a literary agent, the President of VH-1, and a prominent New York Times critic. That, for most of the actor/waiter/bartenders, was a magnificent feeling. Instead of being told to squash your spirit, one could use his or her own style to add warmth and sparkle to a customer's experience.
This was in great contrast to other restaurants with a more hands-off policy. At Mickey Mantle's, hands-on was everything. Having been a hostess at a very posh and trendy Upper East Side eatery, where I literally could not step two-feet back from my hostess spot into the dining room, I couldn't even say hello to one of my bosses, the CEO of Revlon. (When he walked into Mantle's, I greeted him heartily and said, "I used to work for you." "What are you doing now?" he asked. "I'm working here!")
No pretension. All pizzazz. From the Mick memorabilia to the laughter and the burgers. Bill made sure that the customers were always happy -- if they had a problem, it was attended to immediately. If he was down in the office, he encouraged me to call him and he'd come bounding upstairs to solve the mystery, the Sherlock (and the Sphinx) of Central Park South. Carefree, wise and down-to-biz simultaneously, he was a model boss -- and made me feel completely at ease. I worked pretty much the day shift, but when i was called in for some overcrowded nights, I remember the hilarious atmosphere of fur coats flying into the coat check mayhem. How everyone got the coats matched to their numbers that night is still a mystery, but I know that Bill pitched in like an hourly wage worker. His generosity of spirit towards the staff struck me deeply then, and now again, especially in the cutthroat biz of food and finance wars. I asked him once if I could speak to one of his friends, a casting director. Without hesitation, he set up an appointment.
No muss. No fuss -- just a common bond of love for the Mick. And for the restaurant. I once took a phone call from a father booking a birthday party for his teen-age son. When I asked for his name, and he told me Frank Rich, I asked, "the Frank Rich? " He responded, "Well if you think it's the Frank Rich, then it is." That was quite the memorable way to meet a macher from the New York Times.
I even met the Mick, who graciously signed autographs on Mickey Mantle restaurant postcards, for the young and the old, with a chuckle and a handshake.
It truly breaks my heart to see the restaurant close after almost a quarter century. The place bubbled with the optimism of hamburgers and home runs. But what made my heart truly soar was seeing the 10 and 11-year-olds bounce into Mickey Mantle's, just as exuberant as their parents. It amazed me that these young girls and boys were totally enchanted with the Mick, only because their fathers and mothers had filled them with his history and lore. And now, 24 years later, as Mickey Mantle's closes (Bill valiantly tried to keep it going), those kids, now 30-somethings, can pass the Mantle legacy on.
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