Monday night at Harmonious Monks was worlds away from the Saturday night two days previous. Glitter and confetti were swept away, the dim lights were turned up brighter and several large tables in the middle of the restaurant were carried out to make room for a full, 20-piece, big jazz band.
Starting at 5pm, buses from senior centers would show up dropping off dozens of elderly patrons who wanted nothing more than to eat chicken fingers, slowly nurse a Yuengling dark ale, and listen to the songs they used to know when their hips and memories worked a little better. They would come in and take their seats - the same seats they took every week, and order their food - the same food they ordered every week.
My portion of this regular crowd was Jim and Homer. Table 21, every Monday. Jim would order a bacon cheeseburger (well done) with onion rings and a decaf coffee. Homer would order chicken fingers and fries with regular coffee. Jim would always tip me $8.00 and Homer would tip what he could. Homer had recently been widowed, so Jim would pick him up every Monday for jazz night to help him get out of his house and exercise his legs a bit, even if that exercise was just walking to the bathroom (a walk that could take quite a while).
At 7pm, a man named Mark would turn on a microphone and introduce the band. They called themselves "The TBA Big Band", which I think was an inside joke from long ago that no one asked about anymore. Then the music would begin.
And it was beautiful. The sound would fill the room in a way that our covers of Journey songs never could. The patrons would close their eyes and hear more than music, but an emotion seldom felt in the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Many of the musicians were jazz professors from the University of North Florida and were considered some of the best in their field. One guy, a trombonist named David "Stumpy" Steinmeyer is said to be one of the best trombonists in the world, having played at Carnegie Hall.
The wait staff was considerably smaller on Mondays, consisting of just me, Ethan and Ria. At one point Ria called us the Three Musketeers, a nickname that stuck for a while. One of Ria's regulars, a man named Rodney, loved to talk my ear off about what he called "old timey rock 'n roll". Maybe because I nodded a lot when he was talking or maybe just because he was happy to have someone listen, he made me no fewer than 8 mix tapes of "old timey rock 'n roll". He came in one day, both hands full of cassette tapes waving above his head and a smile plastered on his face. I took them graciously and put them my car so I wouldn't leave them behind. For over a year now they've been sitting in my car, waiting for a tape player to appear in my life and help me understand what Rodney was raving about.
When the evening slowed down and the patrons were done with their dinners, their places were cleared and their coffees were refilled. I would sit at the bar and watch the slow sway of the audience. Sometimes a young couple would come to dance. There wasn't really a dance floor, but near the computer there were fewer tables and enough room to allow Diantha and Josh to spin and turn like professionals for delighted onlookers. She was a trained ballerina, he was just good at spinning and catching her. They would twist and untwist in elaborate and beautiful ways that complemented the music flawlessly. A few times Josh asked me to dance and I would try my best to keep up, but without Diantha's grace and experience, my efforts paled in comparison.
At nine o'clock, the music would end and the buses would come collect their respective participants. Ethan, Ria and I would get to cleaning and back-work, consisting mostly of wiping tables and covering unused lettuce. By nine thirty, I would collect my tips and clock out.
There was something magical about Monday nights at Harmonious Monks. The money was paltry compared to the profitable returns of Friday and Saturday nights, but something about exposing yourself to Gershwin, Whiteman and the people who love them can make an empty life full for an evening. I would leave with $18 in my pocket and a wealth of appreciation for big band jazz.