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My uncle plays the Granada piano bar in Hillcrest

2022 Writing Contest Winner: Non-Fiction

He is grinning ear to ear, dazzled, a man in the midst of his dream.
He is grinning ear to ear, dazzled, a man in the midst of his dream.

We didn’t meet often, and when we did, it was always in the dark. From the outset, I could have described the warm baritone voice, the music, and the well-worn jokes, but it was probably a year before I could say what color his hair was, or his eyes. That was the day he showed up — against everyone’s expectations — at my wedding, and I finally saw him in the daylight.

“Gilbert won’t be coming,” my brand-new in-laws had explained, vaguely apologetic.

“He never goes to weddings; he says they make him cry.”

But suddenly there he was, my newly-acquired Uncle Gilbert, vaulting over the patio stair railing and into his Life-of-the-Party routine: hugging and kissing, bellowing jokes, mugging for the photographer. His eyes, I discovered, were pale blue. And a little red. The wedding had made him cry, just as he’d said it would.


Every family has its eccentric element — the renegade relation who charts their own exasperating destiny and so becomes an anomaly, to be puzzled over and spoken of with an affectionate shrug. My husband’s Uncle Gilbert is an anomaly of long standing. He has three brothers, my other acquired uncles, all with lives neatly bordered by suburban lawns and regular office hours. Gilbert has lived in the same downtown walk-up apartment for nearly thirty years. He is what was once known as a “cocktail pianist.” Or, as the rest of the family puts it, mildly mystified, “Gil plays piano in a saloon.”

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For thirty years, Gilbert has descended from his apartment each evening to walk to a nearby job at a neighborhood bar. For the last twelve years, that walk has taken him along 6th Avenue and the green of Balboa Park to a small club called The Granada. The Granada has a trim, tidy brick exterior that seems slightly uncomfortable with the place’s name, stylishly scrawled in pink neon next to the door. Occasionally, my husband Rob and I stand in that pink light and then walk beyond it, into the dark interior, to watch his uncle perform. Inside, the dimness is enhanced more than lifted by a few candle lamps with red shades. A deep laugh unfurls out over the room and we follow it through the stale dark to where Gilbert is holding court. He sits at a piano that’s been built into the bar, which curves around him like an enormous boomerang. A dozen people lean against its padded leather border or perch on stools around it. We pick out two stools and sit, and he breaks off his banter with the others to give us an automatic smile and a “Hi, good to see you.”

Then Rob always says, “Hello, Uncle Gilbert,” raising his voice over the other conversations. And his uncle always peers across the bar and does an elaborate double-take. “For heaven’s sake — Robbie!! I didn’t recognize you two for a minute!” Hands are clasped all around, and Gilbert turns to his audience to announce in mock bewilderment. “This is my nephew and his wife! I didn’t think they hung around places like this…!” The joke has been the same every time we’ve stopped by.

He begins to finger the keyboard, playing softly as he launches into a monologue of polite fictions. “You know, I was just thinking about you folks the other day, and decided I’d give you a call, and then a couple of friends stopped by, and…well, you know how it is.” We agree: yes, we know how it is. Gil asks after all the relatives, laughing, groaning or shaking his head in sympathy as we pass along the family gossip. All the while, his hands are picking out melodies; the music swells up to fill any pauses when we don’t know what to say. And all the while, the rest of the crowd waits.

The regulars at The Granada are pretty proprietary about their favorite musician. They show up, some of them every night, to have their bit of the evening show and to be acknowledged. He has a special word, an inside joke for each of them. There’s a microphone set discreetly to one side on top of the piano, and at some precise point every evening — when the noise and numbers are at a comfortable level, not intimate but not anonymous — someone sidles up to the mic, gives Gilbert a cue he’s already expecting, and begins to sing.

The small man in the dark blue suit sings Verdi, complete with operatic gestures, while two of his friends smile and nod, waiting to applaud. Then a younger, nervous guy with curly dark hair and lots of gold chains takes up the mic and quavers into Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” His beginning is painfully weak, but Gilbert pounds away at the piano and the music buoy the singer up until he remembers the way he rehearsed it in the shower, and finishes on a note of shaky triumph. An immaculately groomed woman of about forty signals from behind her Manhattan and confidently approaches the microphone. At the first notes from the piano, she throws herself into an energetic medley of songs from Sweet Charity. Tunes from Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks are big with The Granada’s regulars. So are life histories, exchanged in familiar asides between the songs and refills.

Besides making the music, Gilbert puts on quite a show himself, dropping one-liners culled from the Late Show and holding forth on everything from the state of the Union to the best way to grill a steak. Showbiz is a favorite topic, free-wheeling commentary that can cover pop stars in rehab, celebrity divorces, TV show plot twists and Hollywood icons going back generations. Telling a well-worn story about Frank Sinatra, he says, “Well, you know how short-tempered he can be…” The regulars nod their heads. Yep. Old Frank always was pretty touchy. Gilbert punctuates the end of his story with a few bars of “My Way” and then bellows “Nurse!” — calling for another round.

I remember I used to worry about those endless refills, until one night I picked up Gilbert’s glass by mistake and discovered it was straight 7-Up. Later, Rob confirmed it; his uncle never drinks alcohol. The boisterous tippling is an act, part of the invitation to relax and join the party around the piano. That night wasn’t the first, or the last, that I watched and wondered who Gilbert really was.

There was another night, when we spent the entire evening watching him minister to his faithful night-blooming flock. They all came craving something and they all went away satisfied. The more inept the performer, the more solemn and smoothly professional Gilbert became, treating whoever was faltering at the mic like they’d just closed at Caesar’s Palace and decided to drop by. The piano-playing was loud, emphatic, with lots of flourishes to lift the singer out of himself and keep him moving through the nervousness into the approval and applause. It was near the end of that evening that Rob spoke up. “Uncle Gilbert, would you play ‘Capriccio Italien’ just once? I’d like Barbara to hear it.” I remember something passing over his face, then softening it with a gently pained expression. For a moment, I thought he was going to refuse, but he looked down at the keys and flexed his hands, and the light, prancing music from Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” began to float up. The few folks still around nodded their heads to the three-quarter lilt for a few bars, then went back to their conversations while Gilbert played — deftly, precisely, so that each note seemed to rise and glint in the air around us, clear and bright.

On the drive home later, I asked Rob, “Didn’t you say your uncle didn’t read music?”

“He doesn’t. Never has.”

Whenever I think of this man, the images in my mind form and revolve in time to that music. I see him blustering and back-slapping at our wedding, with eyes suspiciously red. I think of his solitary walk to The Granada each night, and each night’s string of 7-Up “cocktails.” I think of him at his keyboard, bantering, garlanded by people waiting to perform. There is another image too, from a photograph in an album full of old playbills and clippings with Gilbert’s name underlined in red. The photograph is large and glossy, carefully preserved in a manila envelope. It shows Gil in his thirties, dressed in his best suit and standing by a mirror-smooth swimming pool, next to a stunning woman. She’s impeccably turned out in a skirt and jacket ensemble, a fur stole draped over one arm, her blond hair swept back in a chignon. There’s a caption on the back of the picture that reads, “Me with Faye Emerson (Mrs. Skitch Henderson) at a party in Palm Springs.” I remembered Skitch Henderson was the bandleader for The Tonight Show early on, when Johnny Carson first started keeping everyone up late. But I had to Google Faye Emerson: a minor film star, a popular TV personality, and a bona fide celebrity from San Diego.

The description Gilbert wrote seems self-consciously nonchalant, like the pose: poolside, with a cocktail casually cupped in one hand. But there is nothing nonchalant in his face. He is grinning ear to ear, dazzled, a man in the midst of his dream. I always wonder, thinking of that photograph, how big the dream was, and how long it went on. And I think of the people at The Granada — the shower singers, would-be Pavarottis and might-have-been-musical comedy stars — and of the careful, kindly way the man at the piano treats their dreams. They come in, some of them every night. Some nights, we come in too. And Gilbert plays gently, just for us.

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He is grinning ear to ear, dazzled, a man in the midst of his dream.
He is grinning ear to ear, dazzled, a man in the midst of his dream.

We didn’t meet often, and when we did, it was always in the dark. From the outset, I could have described the warm baritone voice, the music, and the well-worn jokes, but it was probably a year before I could say what color his hair was, or his eyes. That was the day he showed up — against everyone’s expectations — at my wedding, and I finally saw him in the daylight.

“Gilbert won’t be coming,” my brand-new in-laws had explained, vaguely apologetic.

“He never goes to weddings; he says they make him cry.”

But suddenly there he was, my newly-acquired Uncle Gilbert, vaulting over the patio stair railing and into his Life-of-the-Party routine: hugging and kissing, bellowing jokes, mugging for the photographer. His eyes, I discovered, were pale blue. And a little red. The wedding had made him cry, just as he’d said it would.


Every family has its eccentric element — the renegade relation who charts their own exasperating destiny and so becomes an anomaly, to be puzzled over and spoken of with an affectionate shrug. My husband’s Uncle Gilbert is an anomaly of long standing. He has three brothers, my other acquired uncles, all with lives neatly bordered by suburban lawns and regular office hours. Gilbert has lived in the same downtown walk-up apartment for nearly thirty years. He is what was once known as a “cocktail pianist.” Or, as the rest of the family puts it, mildly mystified, “Gil plays piano in a saloon.”

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For thirty years, Gilbert has descended from his apartment each evening to walk to a nearby job at a neighborhood bar. For the last twelve years, that walk has taken him along 6th Avenue and the green of Balboa Park to a small club called The Granada. The Granada has a trim, tidy brick exterior that seems slightly uncomfortable with the place’s name, stylishly scrawled in pink neon next to the door. Occasionally, my husband Rob and I stand in that pink light and then walk beyond it, into the dark interior, to watch his uncle perform. Inside, the dimness is enhanced more than lifted by a few candle lamps with red shades. A deep laugh unfurls out over the room and we follow it through the stale dark to where Gilbert is holding court. He sits at a piano that’s been built into the bar, which curves around him like an enormous boomerang. A dozen people lean against its padded leather border or perch on stools around it. We pick out two stools and sit, and he breaks off his banter with the others to give us an automatic smile and a “Hi, good to see you.”

Then Rob always says, “Hello, Uncle Gilbert,” raising his voice over the other conversations. And his uncle always peers across the bar and does an elaborate double-take. “For heaven’s sake — Robbie!! I didn’t recognize you two for a minute!” Hands are clasped all around, and Gilbert turns to his audience to announce in mock bewilderment. “This is my nephew and his wife! I didn’t think they hung around places like this…!” The joke has been the same every time we’ve stopped by.

He begins to finger the keyboard, playing softly as he launches into a monologue of polite fictions. “You know, I was just thinking about you folks the other day, and decided I’d give you a call, and then a couple of friends stopped by, and…well, you know how it is.” We agree: yes, we know how it is. Gil asks after all the relatives, laughing, groaning or shaking his head in sympathy as we pass along the family gossip. All the while, his hands are picking out melodies; the music swells up to fill any pauses when we don’t know what to say. And all the while, the rest of the crowd waits.

The regulars at The Granada are pretty proprietary about their favorite musician. They show up, some of them every night, to have their bit of the evening show and to be acknowledged. He has a special word, an inside joke for each of them. There’s a microphone set discreetly to one side on top of the piano, and at some precise point every evening — when the noise and numbers are at a comfortable level, not intimate but not anonymous — someone sidles up to the mic, gives Gilbert a cue he’s already expecting, and begins to sing.

The small man in the dark blue suit sings Verdi, complete with operatic gestures, while two of his friends smile and nod, waiting to applaud. Then a younger, nervous guy with curly dark hair and lots of gold chains takes up the mic and quavers into Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” His beginning is painfully weak, but Gilbert pounds away at the piano and the music buoy the singer up until he remembers the way he rehearsed it in the shower, and finishes on a note of shaky triumph. An immaculately groomed woman of about forty signals from behind her Manhattan and confidently approaches the microphone. At the first notes from the piano, she throws herself into an energetic medley of songs from Sweet Charity. Tunes from Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks are big with The Granada’s regulars. So are life histories, exchanged in familiar asides between the songs and refills.

Besides making the music, Gilbert puts on quite a show himself, dropping one-liners culled from the Late Show and holding forth on everything from the state of the Union to the best way to grill a steak. Showbiz is a favorite topic, free-wheeling commentary that can cover pop stars in rehab, celebrity divorces, TV show plot twists and Hollywood icons going back generations. Telling a well-worn story about Frank Sinatra, he says, “Well, you know how short-tempered he can be…” The regulars nod their heads. Yep. Old Frank always was pretty touchy. Gilbert punctuates the end of his story with a few bars of “My Way” and then bellows “Nurse!” — calling for another round.

I remember I used to worry about those endless refills, until one night I picked up Gilbert’s glass by mistake and discovered it was straight 7-Up. Later, Rob confirmed it; his uncle never drinks alcohol. The boisterous tippling is an act, part of the invitation to relax and join the party around the piano. That night wasn’t the first, or the last, that I watched and wondered who Gilbert really was.

There was another night, when we spent the entire evening watching him minister to his faithful night-blooming flock. They all came craving something and they all went away satisfied. The more inept the performer, the more solemn and smoothly professional Gilbert became, treating whoever was faltering at the mic like they’d just closed at Caesar’s Palace and decided to drop by. The piano-playing was loud, emphatic, with lots of flourishes to lift the singer out of himself and keep him moving through the nervousness into the approval and applause. It was near the end of that evening that Rob spoke up. “Uncle Gilbert, would you play ‘Capriccio Italien’ just once? I’d like Barbara to hear it.” I remember something passing over his face, then softening it with a gently pained expression. For a moment, I thought he was going to refuse, but he looked down at the keys and flexed his hands, and the light, prancing music from Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” began to float up. The few folks still around nodded their heads to the three-quarter lilt for a few bars, then went back to their conversations while Gilbert played — deftly, precisely, so that each note seemed to rise and glint in the air around us, clear and bright.

On the drive home later, I asked Rob, “Didn’t you say your uncle didn’t read music?”

“He doesn’t. Never has.”

Whenever I think of this man, the images in my mind form and revolve in time to that music. I see him blustering and back-slapping at our wedding, with eyes suspiciously red. I think of his solitary walk to The Granada each night, and each night’s string of 7-Up “cocktails.” I think of him at his keyboard, bantering, garlanded by people waiting to perform. There is another image too, from a photograph in an album full of old playbills and clippings with Gilbert’s name underlined in red. The photograph is large and glossy, carefully preserved in a manila envelope. It shows Gil in his thirties, dressed in his best suit and standing by a mirror-smooth swimming pool, next to a stunning woman. She’s impeccably turned out in a skirt and jacket ensemble, a fur stole draped over one arm, her blond hair swept back in a chignon. There’s a caption on the back of the picture that reads, “Me with Faye Emerson (Mrs. Skitch Henderson) at a party in Palm Springs.” I remembered Skitch Henderson was the bandleader for The Tonight Show early on, when Johnny Carson first started keeping everyone up late. But I had to Google Faye Emerson: a minor film star, a popular TV personality, and a bona fide celebrity from San Diego.

The description Gilbert wrote seems self-consciously nonchalant, like the pose: poolside, with a cocktail casually cupped in one hand. But there is nothing nonchalant in his face. He is grinning ear to ear, dazzled, a man in the midst of his dream. I always wonder, thinking of that photograph, how big the dream was, and how long it went on. And I think of the people at The Granada — the shower singers, would-be Pavarottis and might-have-been-musical comedy stars — and of the careful, kindly way the man at the piano treats their dreams. They come in, some of them every night. Some nights, we come in too. And Gilbert plays gently, just for us.

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