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PLAYING JOHNNY CARSON

My grandpa Charlie and I used to play “Johnny Carson.”  We would take turns who would be Johnny and who would be the guest.  I was usually the guest.  More specifically, I was always Charro*, and I would stuff my t-shirt with tennis balls and put my mom’s fancy red-sequined bolero jacket on that she wore only once to my cousins wedding.  

 A tennis racket would serve as my guitar. (Sensing a tennis theme here?  We had a tennis court in my backyard growing up.  I wasn’t very good, but damn do I love an après match spritzer).  My Grandfather would sit at the elevated part of our very ‘80s, very Long Island, grey Formica kitchen island, light a cigarette, pour himself a J&B Scotch and soda with one sugar cube and announce, “Ladies and Gentleman, my next guest is an exciting young lady who is as uninhibited as she is beautiful! Would you please welcome….Charro!” I was ten years old.

*Charro…ok, hmmm, how to explain. You could Google her appearances on “The Love Boat” or maybe just think about a more ethnically offensive version of Sofia Vergara, with a little vintage Goldie Hawn mixed in for good measure. Little known fact: Charro was an incredibly accomplished Flamenco guitar player. True story!

On the odd times I wasn’t Charro or my other favorite character, Liza Minnelli, I was just me, and my Grandpa would say, “Ladies and Gentleman, introducing one of the pickiest eaters, but most adorable foul-mouthed little girl on the planet, My Mary.” Naturally, I was the only guest he stood up from his desk to greet. Before taking a seat, I’d pull the cigarette from his hand and pretend to take a drag.

Let’s take a millennial ADD pause…please Google “who was Jimmy Fallon before Jimmy Fallon?” and then, buy yourself the DVD box set of the Johnny Carson show and watch every episode. While you’re at it, also purchase the “Dean Martin Roasts,” and this chapter (and probably this entire book) will become a lot funnier.  If I’ve totally lost you, please skip to Chapter 10: “Will Instagram Kill The Facebook Star?”

When we weren’t playing Johnny Carson, we were brewing coffee so that we could stay up all night to watch the Jerry Lewis telethon, we were rolling meatballs for the Sunday sauce.  We donned Captain’s hats while we watched the Love Boat dock in our favorite place we loved to say out loud- Puerto Vallarta-and one time, during “Fantasy Island.” he let me dress him up like Tova Borgnine complete with blonde wing, lipstick and a gold lame hat.

Occasionally, of course, I left his side, and in fact, left the house. I’d return and regale him with tales of where I’d been and what I’d seen, especially if it involved a movie. He was always game to play along with whatever and however I wanted to push the envelope of my overactive imagination. When I told him that I just LOVED the movie “ET” and asked how I could make my bicycle fly, sure enough Papa Charlie would find a pulley and some rope in the garage, tie it to two trees, and by the end of the week, you bet your sweet patootie (as we said on the Carson set), my bicycle was “flying.”


The thing is, Papa Charlie and I had this incredibly rich life, with all of these adventures and all of them (at least all the very best ones), took place in two small rooms in my house: the kitchen and the den (on a small pullout sofa in front of the TV).

moments with papa charlie

For their entire lives, my grandparents didn't travel much and lived and worked within the same 15-mile radius from where they were born. They moved into our house at the happiest time of my life (my childhood), but the saddest time for them. Papa was diagnosed with kidney failure and undergoing dialysis, and my grandma (Mary, my namesake) was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, so each day, we watched her slip further and further away from us. And while the larger world was closing itself to them, Papa made sure that my world was just beginning, and it was going to be, as he’d say, "SO BIG." Weekend after weekend, we traveled without ever going anywhere.

One of my favorite Papa Charlie moments, (and trust me there were many), took place during the Cabbage Patch Kids doll craze.  Desperate like every kid in the ‘80’s to adopt my very own yarn haired child, Papa came home from a trip to Brooklyn with a wrapped box.  I tore through the wrapping in sheer excitement for what I though was FINALLY coming my way.  Tears streamed down my face when I quickly realized Papa bought me a knock off.  Taking out the handkerchief from his pocket, he said to me, “All the other kids have Cabbage Patch Kids.  This is a Brussels Sprout.  Now, you’re the only kid with a Brussels Sprout.” 

I still have that doll (that most likely fell off a truck), but Papa’s point was to make me feel special.  I was still the weird girl who hung out with her grandfather too much and pretended to be a coterie of aging television stars from the 70s but I was, in a word, special. I know Papa would be so proud to know I actually made it to the real Puerto Vallarta, that I ate real hand- rolled meatballs in Italy, and that I’m at a place in my career where I can travel on a whim, but here’s the snag: there will never be a happier place to me than those two-rooms, the one with the pullout sofa and the TV-the rooms where he was leaving the world while teaching me to how to enter mine, in the grandest way possible.

On that note I have a strong suspicion that ANOTHER happy place for me could be on the sofa next to Johnny Carson’s, I mean Jimmy Fallon's desk, and thanks to Papa Charlie, I’m TOTALLY prepared.

Papa’s Sweet Scotch & Soda

I was too young to enjoy this fine cocktail with my Grandfather, so he’d place a sugar cube in a glass of club soda for me. After he made his drink, we’d clink glasses and say “Cent’ Anni” (May you live 100 years in Italian.) When I got older, he would place sugar cubes in my red wine, also VERY Italian.

 

Yield: 1 Drink

 

Ingredients

1 part J&B Scotch

1 part club soda

1 sugar cube

 

Method

  1.  Pour scotch and soda over ice in rocks glass and then add one sugar cube, stir till dissolved
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