camden joy

Recently, a room full of people were almost killed by Frank Sinatra. I was there. I know. The scene was a Turkish kebab house in Lower Manhattan. This is my neighborhood hangout, the sort of place where only the employees are permitted to smoke. I go there because so do a lot of others– Muslim cabbies on their breaks, fashion students from Kyoto, elegant immigrants from Tehran.

So there we all were the other day, eating grilled lamb and deep-fried balls of chickpeas off Styrofoam plates with plastic forks and knives, when suddenly we heard a new sound. A television. Now many of you have already seen televisions, and most of us had too, but the surprise of it in my local kebaberie is that thus far, we’d only heard Turkish radio. So with all due respect, we turned to look at it, as tradition tells you to do whenever anyone switches on a television in your presence.

There was a black and white movie. There was a man twitching on a train. There was a woman wearing pearls and a great deal of mascara, hairspray, and lipstick. There was Janet Leigh, and there was Frank Sinatra.

There are moments in a crowd when America makes so much sense, when you want to scream, bring me your tired, your poor, your hungry, and let’s all dig Frank Sinatra. I mean to say this was one such moment. So all of us fell silent as, again, custom holds is the courteous thing to do when a television plays in a public setting. And through the steam of onions browning in olive oil, we watched The Manchurian Candidate.

Now, I’ve always wondered why you can never go into a place and hear my favorite Sinatra albums– his sad albums, like No One Cares or In the Wee Small Hours– and instead, you only hear songs like “New York, New York.” Well, there’s a reason. And it’s the same reason restaurants have to be careful when his movies are on TV. It’s a possible health code violation. You can die from Sinatra.

In the movie, Sinatra is coming apart. He sets a cigarette between his lips, and it falls into his Scotch and water. He looks around, embarrassed. Only Janet Leigh is watching. He tries to light a match, drops it, manages to light one, but his hands shake too badly, and the match goes out. He asks Janet Leigh whether she minds if he smokes, and their eyes meet, and they fall in love. She tells him she doesn’t mind at all. Please do. He tries to light one up again, looks like he’s going to vomit, bursts out of his chair, knocks over his drink, and runs.

There in the Turkish kebab house our mouths were full of baba ghanoush and hummus and baby lamb. But all of us had stopped chewing. We were too struck by what we were seeing. A man we all recognized was on the television about to break down. Sinatra has tried to flee the woman, but she follows him. She asks him where his home is. He can’t look at her. His voice catches on every syllable as he tells her he’s in the Army. His eyelids flutter. He sucks on the cigarette she has lit for him. He sighs, apparently at everything.

We all know people who hate Frank Sinatra for all sorts of reasons, mostly for how he treats other human beings in so-called real life. And they dismiss the undeniable beauty of his talent. I wonder if these people had been in the Turkish kebab house with us what they would think, seeing this scene. As with his best albums, Sinatra doesn’t seem to be going from any script. There aren’t printed-up lyrics and dialogue for this kind of thing. It’s the real stuff. In this scene, he says almost nothing. He exhales and sweats and looks away. He’s standing before us letting his feelings utterly overwhelm him. It’s scary.

It’s time I mention what else was happening in our Turkish kebab house, and that was that all of us– employees, bike messengers, cabbies– felt Sinatra’s confusion so completely that we ourselves were about to cry. We would have been crying, that is, if our throats weren’t clogged up with Turkish cuisine. Sinatra can barely talk. We could barely breathe.

On the television, Janet Leigh starts to tell Sinatra who she is. Then she stops. Instead, tells him her address, tells him the apartment number, her phone number. She gently asks him if he can remember it. His larynx closes up as he tells her, yes. You aren’t sure how to take this response, because he still can’t look at her. Janet Leigh repeats the phone number, and he turns even further from her, shakes his head slightly, closes his eyes in weariness.

In that moment, finally, after attentively watching this, the whole group of us in the kebaberie began to cough. Most everyone was choking back tears. But by this time, many of us were choking on shish kebab too. We were gagging into napkins, downing our sodas, poking ourselves in the ribs, crossing our hands at our throats. And then, abruptly, just like that, it was gone. We were OK. We would be fine.

We looked up at the television. Sinatra, our would-be killer, was breathing easier too.

—  Camden Joy