A Touch of Vermouth

Philip Liebson

Chicago Literary Club

November 11, 2013


                     Henry, a  middle aged stock broker        Chris  Stacey

                     Tim, an elderly raconteur                        Todd Parkhurst  

                      Sam, the waiter                                       Steve Thomas   


Scene: Time, the present. 5 PM of a Summer afternoon. A bar and grill, the Bahia Linda, near San Francisco Bay at the end of the Cable Car line. A hangout for tourists who leave the cable cars. Strangers share tables and talk to each other spinning wonderous tales. A large picture window of cable cars outside at the terminal outside the bar and grill is in stage right. A table with two chairs in in stage front. Henry is sitting at the table with an Irish coffee.


Stage Direction: Henry, an early  middle aged man, dressed in a dark business suit, is sitting on the left looking over a newspaper  (SF Chronicle) and tapping his fingers on the table. He has an Irish coffee in front of him, a specialty of the house. Tim enters on stage right, ambles to the table and slouches down. He is in his mid 70’s but appears quite alert. He is wearing a seersucker suit with a Panama Hat.: Henry has a napkin and a spoon. There is also a place setting where Tim sits down. Cable car bells sound intermittently in background.  Window and entrance are at far right of stage.


Tim peers at Henry, who continues to read his paper.

Tim: Mind if I sit here?

Henry: Not at all. [Smiles]

Henry continues to read his newspaper and drum on the table, Tim peers at Henry and snaps his fingers at the waiter. (Waiter enters left)

Tim: Hi Jerry. I’ll have a gin and vermouth , Beefeater with a touch of  dry vermouth, dry as dust. The usual.

Waiter: OK, Mr. Trent. Nice to see you again after all this time. (Waiter nods and exits left)

Tim continues to stare at Henry. [Henry still drums on the table, occasionally glances at his watch]

Tim: Enjoying your drink?.

Henry: I’m waiting for it to cool off a little.

Tim: Drink it hot. That’s the best! That’s why every tourist who come here wants an Irish coffee!.

Henry: Well, I’m not a tourist. I work down on Montgomery street. I’m waiting for my wife [glances at watch again].

Tim: In a brokerage house no doubt.

[Henry Nods; and looks at his paper again].

Tim: I hope you don’t mind my chattering away. I rarely talk to people.

Henry: Uh-huh. [Slowly puts paper down and starts to drink Irish coffee.]

Tim: Of course, there’s a lot to look at in the Chronicle. They did a great job with the earthquake- ,uh, the 1989 one, I wasn’t around in 1906. Anything interesting in the paper?

Henry: No, nothing much.

Tim: [glances at page Henry was reading]. Well, if it isn’t a murder or some outrageous thing one of our congressmen says, the only thing you can believe is the sports results.[Pause]I used to read newspapers but I stopped a long time ago. You can’t tell the story from the first paragraph any more, it’s all human interest, and the editorial section is on the first page. One paper didn’t know who the president of the US was and that got me started on going off them.

Henry:[sarcastic] Oh, you mean Dewey Defeats Truman? In the Chicago Tribune? That was just a minor error.

Tim: Well, I was thinking of Hughes defeats Wilson, New York Herald, but that’s just as good. I can’t tell a minor from a major error in the papers these days. And don’t get me started on what is presented as “news” on the rad-dio…or television. Just entertainment disguised as news. Who said what or how do you feel about it? No more Floyd Gibbons or Boake Carter. I have a plan: let’s be realistic. For those who want real news they can advertise it as “information”. The other so called news programs could be “feelings of the victims and their families”, “reactions to the news by the experts”, “reactions to the news by the non-informed”, “background sounds and music at news events”, and  “chatting of the co-anchors”. How does that sound?


Henry: I think you’re being too severe. This is what people want, my wife tells me. By the way, who are Gibbons and Carter? Never heard of them.


Tim: Slightly before your time. Anyway…. How’s the Irish coffee? I haven’t had one since 1962, my last one was here, when I was guarding the country during the Cuban missile crisis.


Henry: Drink’s OK.  You, guarding the country?.

Tim: You see, I was a naval officer on a destroyer over on Treasure Island. Actually we were in Seattle for the World’s Fair and President Kennedy was supposed to appear but the newspapers said that he couldn’t come because he had a cold. The next day we took on ammunition and sailed out the Straits of Juan de Fuca- the scuttlebutt was that we were going to the South Pacific  but we ended up at Treasure Island and I got leave, spending a good deal of it at this bar, looking over the Bay watching for enemy ships. Not one Cuban ship came in under the Golden Gate Bridge! After 5 Irish coffees I didn’t even have to look out the window, I could tell…. Never got a medal, though. Meanwhile my friends in San Diego who were on shore duty found themselves on ships steaming around Cuba for two weeks. That’s the truth and I’m not drawing the long bow.

Henry:  How did you get leave during a crisis? I thought that you had to stay on board.

Tim: Well, I was a supply officer and had to check around town to make sure that we were fully equipped.

[Henry looks skeptically at Tim]

[Waiter brings in Tim’s martini.]

Waiter: Here it is Mr. Trent, dry as dust. [Exits]

Tim:  [Holds it up to the light-sips it]- Perfect!-by the way, I thought all stockbrokers drank martinis. You know, there is a drink called the perfect martini, and that’s not just a descriptive adjective. That was two parts gin, one half part dry vermouth- As a matter of fact, San Francisco has a strong claim to the birth of the martini – originally two parts gin, one part sweet vermouth. They say it was brought here by a miner from Martinez during the gold rush in 1850. Lore says that a miner placed a nugget of gold on Jerry’s bar and challenged the bartender to concoct something special. The result was the Martinez, the prototype of the Martini.  The best way to make a martini is to fill the glass with vermouth, pour it out and then add the gin and an olive. A touch of vermouth sticks to the side of the glass. Had my first in ’50 …er.. ’62.

Henry: Where did you get all that information,?

Tim: You can look it up in a book by JC Furnas – Stormy Weather- a Social History of the US. But, I was a waiter at Delmonico’s in New York for several years and the vermouth in the glass part came from a talkie, er movie I saw many years ago, “Auntie Mame” You get a lot of information from movies if you watch and listen carefully.

Henry: I haven’t gone to a movie in five years. They don’t know how to do dialogue any more.

Tim: They used to have great dialogue- rapid. This was before your time but the movie “Front Page” with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Fast one liners throughout the movie.

[Silence for 10-15 seconds. Henry sips his drink and starts to read his paper again.]

Tim: By the way, I’m Tim Trent.

Henry: Henry Strayer, How do you do.[Puts paper  down]

Tim: Strayer? S_T_R_A_Y_E_R?.

{Henry nods}

Tim:  Any relation to Joseph Strayer- head of the History department at Princeton?

Henry: No relation, but I remember him from college although I didn’t take any of his courses.

  My professors were always asking me about that. Helped me with my grades in Economics.[laughs]


Tim: Old Joe Strayer was strict with his post-docs. He used to have them meet in his office and keep the lights out while they were presenting. It got pretty dark around 4 PM in the winter. One of them once had the effrontery to ask Joe why he kept the lights out. “So you dummies wouldn’t look at your notes and had to discuss things from memory”.

Henry: Sounds like a martinet.

[Pause]Tim and Henry continue to drink.

Tim: Listen – I hope you don’t mind me talking like this. I don’t have any relations and I come here a lot to hear people talking. Don’t have much to do now- sometimes I think I’m in another era. Look out there [Both look out the window]. Ghiradelli’s is all dolled up. Used to be owned by a chocolate company. Now it’s in San Leandro and the place outside looks like a set from Disneyland. It’s too prissy if you know what I mean. Everything manicured. The wildness has gone out of this area, much to its detriment. Why can’t they leave some of the wildness in? Even the cable car station looks like a stage set. [Points out the window] Look at it out there. All lined up waiting for 20 minutes to hand $5.00 out so they can have the thrill of riding outside a cable car.

Henry:[Shrugs] I guess that’s what the tourists want. There is some magic in riding up and down the hills and the view coming down this hill is breathtaking.

Tim: Yes- Alcatraz seems suspended in the bay. The cable cars used to be all over this town. The California cable went all the way out to the Presidio. Nobody looked twice at them. Now they charge an arm and a leg to have tourists ride a few miles holding on outside. They could get rid of the seats and it wouldn’t matter. I think one way to get acting experience is to be a cable car motorman. You have to perform. Now Sutros’s is gone- remember the baths down by Cliff House? They had pools for every ten degrees of temperature. The streetcars would take you all the way from downtown out through Land’s End where you had a magnificent view of the Golden Gate – but that was in the 20’s- no bridge then-gone because of a landslide.

Henry: Yes, unless you’ve lived here a long time you don’t appreciate the changes – or depreciate them, I guess. I’ve only been here 10 years.

[Tim finishes his drink]

Tim: You’ve missed a lot. It looks like a nice afternoon.Well, I have to skedaddle. I think I’ll walk along the Embarcadero and take the ferry to Oakland.  It was nice talking to you. Hope you have a pleasant evening.

Henry: Nice talking with you too. [glances at watch again]

Tim: Jerry!

Waiter comes over.  

Tim: [To waiter] Here’s a 20, Jerry. Put it on the tab- For both our drinks and one for his Rib er wife. Don’t pick up any wooden nickels.

Waiter: Thank you Mr. Trent. Have a nice day.

Henry: (to Tim) Thanks, but really not necessary! [Finishes his drink]

Tim: You had to listen to me. That’s your reward. 23-Skidoo! [leaves]

[Waiter standing by table]

Henry: Say, that old fellow was very talkative. And nostalgic. Seems to know a lot about a little and use quaint terms.

Waiter: He comes here often then disappears for months. Sometimes sits at a table alone and reads the World Almanac or picture books. Sometimes talks to people a lot. Someone said he writes plays. Never asked him about it. Funny thing, sometimes he tips me in pre-depression dollar bills. Says they’re mementos. Always wears the same clothes. Hasn’t seemed to change a bit since I started working here 10 years ago. Once he told a customer that he invented the Martini. Always calls me Jerry. I’m Sam. Doesn’t matter to him.

Henry. Certainly did more talking than listening. Say, he said he was taking the ferry to Oakland. Didn’t they close the ferry to there when the Bay Bridge was opened?.

Waiter:  He was probably pulling your leg. Seems to do that with everyone he talks to. Will you have another Irish Coffee?

Henry: [pauses] No - I’ll have a martini-Beefeater - with a touch of vermouth-dry.

Waiter: Dryas dust?

Henry: Dry- as dust!