Early this morning, I opened my Facebook page and there was a reminder that it was Brian Sommers’ birthday.
Ironically, it is also Ernest Hemingway’s birthday … not that either individual has anything in common with the other. If anything, they were diametrical opposites.
At least, that is what I thought as a cloud of sleepiness still hung over my head.
I worked with Brian for a number of years at the Palm Restaurant.
Leigh Kelly, our first female waitress to work at the restaurant, recommended Brian to our bosses when one of our bartenders decided to quit and move on to bigger and better things.
The first thing you noticed about Mr. Sommers was his bald head. It was shaped like a giant egg with a glitter and shine about it that seemingly could blind you if you looked at it too long or too closely.
It was immediately and undeniably a great attraction. It was not unusual for a regular customer to grab a first-time guest at our famous eatery and introduce him to Brian.
Pointing at Brian’s head, the longtime customer would ask his guest, “Have you ever seen anything like it? Tell me the truth, is that not one of the great wonders?”
Contrary to what one might think, Brian was not offended by these blatant acts of rudeness.
Instead, he took pride in his unique and polished head and often used it in his stand up routines at The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. On his nights off, he often performed at this legendary club. His main goal in life was to be a successful stand-up comedian like Robin Williams or Rodney Dangerfield.
Brian was not without talent, but his biggest obstacle to his career goal was that he could not tell a joke without bursting into laughter before finishing. Regardless of how funny the joke or story he told was, the only one to hear the punch line was Brian. He drowned out his audience with his laughter, but have no fear…that did not deter the man.
After working as a bartender for a couple of years, Brian decided to take a shot at being a waiter. The first response from our GM, Gigi, was to laugh at such an insane idea.
Then it dawned on Gigi and our assistant GM, Jimmy, that if Brian became a waiter, they wouldn’t be subject to anymore of his jokes. Fortunately (at least in hindsight), the manager’s stand was right beside the bar so throughout the day and night Gigi and Jimmy were constantly bombarded by Brian’s gales of laughter.
They could have fired Brian, but in truth, he was an excellent bartender…quick and affable…and the customers loved him.
Fortunately, I was handpicked to train Brian. I never had a doubt that he would make a really good waiter. He knew our menu better than some waiters who had been there for decades.
Besides comedy, food and history were Brian’s other great loves. If he could resist the urge to insult a customer who did not find his humor very appealing, I didn’t see any reason he wouldn’t succeed.
After a week of training, it was up to me to decide Brian’s fate.
More importantly, it was time for me to get my revenge for his making fun of me in his comedy routines, especially since I was taking the time to go see him on my days off.
We sat down after our final shift, and I told him point blank that there was no way I could recommend him to be a waiter.
He was loud, obnoxious, insulting and all this was reflected in the terrible tips he received (he actually averaged above 20 per cent which was way higher than most waiters at the restaurant).
He looked at me as though I had kidnapped one of his kittens (he loved cats) and I refused to give him back. I had expected him to start laughing at any moment. Surely, he knew I had to be joking, but the laughter never came.
He was seriously disappointed and instead of getting back at him I felt terrible.
He got up from the table and said he was going to punch out and tell Gigi that he decided it would be better if he remained as a bartender. Unable to bear the guilt, I confessed and the look on his face was of pure joy and happiness, but no laughter. I told Gigi he would be great and the look on his face was that of relief.
Brian and I were good friends. Occasionally, my wife and I would go out to dinner with Brian and then go to a museum, usually to the Getty or the Museum of Art in downtown Los Angeles.
When he was not trying to make you laugh, it was quite apparent that he was a well-read individual with a vast amount of knowledge.
More importantly, Brian Summers was a conscientious and an extremely moral person. My wife, not one to put up with pretentious individuals, noticed these qualities in him the first time they met, and she would always ask me about Brian.
A number of years after I left the restaurant, I was talking on the phone with Brian late one night. While still working at the Palm, he opened an antique store not far from where I lived. I promised I would go see him, but before I had a chance, he had to close the shop.
He told me he was going up to Sequoia National Park to look at the redwoods and to meditate (he was also a Buddhist) and think over his next step on his journey through this life.
A few months later, I got a call from a friend telling me that Brian checked into a hotel and killed himself with a bullet to the head. I guess that’s where my sleepy brain made the correlation between Brian and Hemingway.
The redwoods in Sequoia are some of the tallest trees in the world; some estimates put them at thousands and thousands of years old. Legend has it that if one was able to climb to top of one of these trees one would be knocking on Heaven’s door.
I like to imagine that the last time Brian visited Sequoia and meditated on his voyage through this life that he climbed to the top of one of these lovely trees, knocked on Heaven’s door, entered, and couldn’t stop laughing and laughing and laughing. Rest in peace, my friend.