Humankind, in Yiddish terms, can be divided, more or less, into two distinct classes: shlimazels and shlemiels. Very loosely translated, shlemiels knock things off tables and onto the laps of shlimazels.
I came to know definitively to which group I belonged at a now-defunct rock club called the Café Au-Go-Go in Greenwich Village. It was June of 1967, and the Grateful Dead were on the first leg of their first East Coast tour. They were already an underground legend out west, but not yet an international cult. So for us, three dumb-ass college kids on summer vacation, waiting to be inducted into the love generation, this was less a music or cultural event than another night on the town.
Truth is, I don’t remember much about the concert itself except that I was enjoying it, until nature called about halfway through the set. Café Au-Go-Go was a small (400-seat), cramped venue with low ceilings. The audience sat huddled close together on benches around little end tables. During the show, waitresses came around taking orders for elaborate ice cream concoctions, which they served in tall parfait glasses.
As I struggled to extricate myself from my seat, my elbow inadvertently slammed into the adjoining table, where an all-American teenage couple was quietly taking in the show, dressed to the nines in their senior prom outfits — he in a blue tux, she in a silver gown. Cute as buttons, they were. In dreams, I still see their pitiable, uncomprehending eyes staring up at me as giant gobs of gooey chocolate, vanilla, whipped cream and cherries ran down their fresh faces and all over their rented prom clothes.
For a moment, I simply froze in front of them. I remember wanting to say something profound, something that might help them in that moment, and in the many years to come, make sense of the complete and utter ruination of their most precious night. But all that came out of my flustered 19-year-old mouth was a tepid, “Sorry,” before I ambled off to the bathroom.
When I returned five minutes later, the two were gone. My friends told me that they had left without saying a word, walking dejectedly out the front door trailing a path of melted ice cream. We were all sitting only a few feet from the stage, and I have since wondered if the Dead witnessed this fiasco and what they might have thought of it. Did Jerry and Bob and Phil find it funny or tragic, or both?
I’ve told this story before and gotten big laughs, but the thought of having destroyed a young couple’s prom memory, as effectively — if not as brutally — as Alex Hammond, the “Prom Night” slasher, still weighs on my soul.
So if the two tender shlimazels from that long-ago Au-Go-Go evening are alive and happen to be reading this mini-memoir, I say again, with the vast wisdom and maturity gathered over nearly five decades: I’m so very, very sorry. Please forgive me!