The Hillside Cafe

My first job out of College was with a small, local paper based in Newtown, Connecticut with an equally small, four person office in Woodbury … the office I started in.  Ended up in the “main office” after a few months… a ramshackle old red building on the main street going through ...the center of Newtown with a history going back a couple hundred years.

At some point, I landed a small, 1st floor, four room apartment in a World War II era, four-apartment building in Waterbury, Connecticut. The landlord lived in the apartment upstairs catty-corner from mine … a wonderful old motherly woman named Mary with a small young dog named “Whitney” - named after her youngest sons’ employer …. Pratt & Whitney.

Whitney spent much of his day in the ¼ acre fenced-in back yard as Mary tended to her garden. During the summer months, I would leave my windows and back door open to let the breeze ramble through my apartment .... allowing Whitney to ramble in and make himself at home whenever he pleased.  It wouldn’t matter what I was doing, or reading, or what company I was keeping at that particular point in time … he’d plop himself in the middle of it and demand attention … and a dog biscuit … and he'd always get both.

And, every Sunday Mary would come down and grab my laundry. A couple hours later it would be back in my living room washed and folded. In the kitchen, I’d find a jar of spaghetti sauce … a Tupperware container with noodles … and a note reminding me to return the containers when I was done.  It wouldn’t matter if I was there or not … she let herself in.  And despite any reservations about having anyone, save my Mom, rummaging through my dirty underwear – I didn’t put up much of a fuss about it -  wouldn’t have done me any good anyway. Mary adamantly refused to let me take my basket around the corner to the local coin laundry …. “you never know WHAT you’ll find in there!!”  Not quite sure what I was supposed to find there - except, maybe, someone else’s dirty clothes.

Looking out of my apartments' back window, across the back yard, I looked into the rear window of another old, ramshackle building known as The Hillside Café on Willow Street.  Waterbury’s own Jazz Club.  At least once a week … generally twice … I would make the 2 minute commute, by foot, through the front of the building. Some of the best Jazz musicians in the Northeast took their place on that stage - sometimes the Club owner would grab his Alto Sax and play with the best of them.  It was a good club, and, except on the worst winter nights, was usually packed. The small bar was in the room next door … you either had to walk outside and use the front door … or walk through the waitress’ door near the stage.  The restroom was behind the stage …. And you had to walk up, onto the stage, and around the band, to get to it. Most people would wait for the band to take a break …. or, if desperate, between songs.

Val, worked for Prudential during the day, selling mutual funds and annuities to whoever walked into her Waterbury office …. and served up beer and chicken wings to the regulars, like myself, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.  She would also “man the door” collecting the $3 cover charge. I was always charged the cover charge, but after a while ... every other beer and the chicken wings never made it to the bill at the end of the night.  She always seemed to know when I was bordering on broke .. because, every now and then, there was never a bill, just a smile and a “see-you-tomorrow”.  On slow nights, she’d sit and we’d chat about the bar, about “things” and life outside of our lives listening to Jazz at the Hillside Café.

It was a good life, but like everything else, there comes a time to move on.  I got a new job, then a condo in Hartford.  A good friend of mine came down for the weekend to help me move - and we spent one last night at the Hillside Café before making the final run to Hartford.  We ended up having a rather intense conversation about our lives and where we were at – and where we wanted to go.  Val sat with us for a bit and the conversation lightened up … chatting and laughing until late ….

And, I remember it was past midnight as we got up to leave.  There were still a few customers soaking up the final hour of music …. Val told me to hold on a minute before I walked out as she tended to a table by the door.  She sat down her tray and wrapped her arms around me as I her.  We stood there for what seemed to be a couple of minutes - I felt a peck on my cheek before she let go.  “Lead a good life, Marc” … smiled, and went back to work.  And we left.

 ….……..

A few years ago, I was living in Maryland,  not sure what I was in the middle of …. but it brought me to a stop.  I thought again of that final moment – very vividly.  I felt the weight of her arms around my shoulders …..  there was the peck on my cheek … and I remember thinking “She remembered” … and then, in the hollow of my chest …. felt loss.

Thanks Val.  I remember too ....