The walls of his home, a modest Cape Cod on Cherokee Road, are filled with homemade photo collages showing hundreds of people grinning tipsily and having rowdy good times at the Cow & Clam. "My philosophy in life is, I've always been around young people," Chetti says, looking at his old friends and customers. "That's what keeps me young."
Indeed, the burly, black-bearded Chetti is as boisterous a 55-year-old as you'll find in Richmond. His buttoned-down shirt is patterned with floating martini glasses and olives. He has a tattoo of his tavern logo on his right shoulder. The consummate bartender, he knows that all the best stories have bawdy parts but you have to ask him about those yourself. When he tells his favorites, his guffaws are so loud they set off a clap-activated sensor on one of his toys, an electronic golf bag with eyeballs. It wiggles and shimmies on the wall. Chetti pays no attention. This sort of thing must happen all the time.
The tavern is how most Richmonders know Chetti. But he's the first to tell you that it's only the most recent chapter in his history. "Speed is important to me," he says. "I'm a speed person."
Ready for the 30-second life summary?
The son of a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and a scientist who worked on the portable nuclear-shell launcher, Chetti grew up in New Jersey. At age 22 he had "a friendly shotgun wedding" to a "little hippie girl." He worked as a teacher and wrestling coach, then as an assistant principal, at two tough high schools in South Carolina. In the turmoil of integration, he was the one teacher who was well-liked by both black and white students, Chetti says. Once, he relates, a Russian teacher was stabbed right next to him in the hallway. Right before the attack, he heard one student exclaim, 'Not Chetti!'" (He and the wounded teacher later became good friends).
A job as general manager of Dobbs International Services, an airline catering company, took him from South Carolina to Jackson, Miss., to Richmond. But his heart was in storytelling and theater, and so he became a radio pitchman, theater actor and adman. (Some Safeway supermarkets still use an early 1990s advertising photograph of Chetti dressed like a deli man, brandishing an enormous varnished sub). Chetti even sold cemetery plots for a year, to raise start-up capital for his tavern.
On a 1993 canoeing trip as he was fishing a 4-inch blade from his life vest, his beloved husky Azor jumped at him, plunging the blade into Chetti's stomach. The story of how his dog had stabbed him caused a stir in the hospital and even made the national news. Unfazed, Chetti amazed the doctors by refusing surgery and painkillers and demanding a sandwich.
He has a grown daughter and a son, both teachers. He divorced his first wife in 1979 and next year will celebrate 20 years with his wife, Nancy. He has two master's degrees, in geography and counseling. Plus a 1972 degree in mixology from Seagram's "That's the thing I'm more proud of than anything else."
Chetti closed his tavern in 2000. "We brought a lot of people down there," he says, but eventually he decided it was too big a responsibility for him to shoulder. Nevertheless, he couldn't completely give up bartending, and so he works evenings at Joe's Inn in Bon Air.
Chetti spends his spare time making records of his variegated life: filling legal pads with journal entries and cassettes with his best bar stories. "I call it 'The Tortello Papers,' just for the hell of it," he says of his collected writings. He despises computers; he uses a quill to write his children letters that he seals with wax.
"We have a sense of simplicity as we get older," he reflects. Chetti's done with business. He just wants to tell tales, and says he is thinking seriously about starting a one-man show: "I think I have a few stories to keep your interest for a little while " S
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