To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Magic Of My Father's City: St. Patrick's Day Memories Of Danny Boy's

FOR MOSTof my life, my father owned a saloon on the East Side of Manhattan, which I had the chance to publish something about shortly after it closed in the mid-1980's. Unlike many of the establishments catering to men of my own generation, Danny Boy’s would never have been confused with a failing art gallery that applied for a liquor license as an afterthought. Art was in the conversation, not on the walls. Class and taste were demonstrated in the way that you treated people, not in the priciness of the menu or the trendiness of the decor. 

The place was stout, plain and resolutely unhip, a public house in the old style: simple yet idiosyncratic. Years of tobacco smoke had yellowed the whitewashed walls and clouded the waxed beams stretching overhead. Beery shadows spread past scuffed wooden paneling into deep brick alcoves. The place always wore the musty perfume of yesterday’s spilled whiskey. “Cut flowers are for funeral parlors, not barrooms,” my father once explained to a floral salesman who stressed their deodorizing qualities. “Thank you all the same. “ I remember coming back from college one time and thinking that a hanging plant might brighten the front window. The regulars eyed it suspiciously and waited until I left before taking a cigarette lighter to it. 

A Runyonesque array of rogues and rough guys, gentlemen and jewels made up the clientele, people of night and city, drawn from the same mythic dimension of New York that bred my father, a retired captain of detectives. There were priests and prizefighters, judges and professors, lawyers and stockbrokers, cops and carpenters. Sudanese diplomats joined floozy actresses and artists along with greengrocers, seedy newsmen (from UPI mainly) bookies (just don’t let them sit near the phone, that’s all) and famed southern writers (Capote was a Sunday- evening regular dissolving a Sunday-evening sadness). Some were well off; others weren’t. And there was also a clutch of moth-eaten guys of completely indeterminate livelihood and residence - antic and jovial men of goodwill who were always ready with a song, a gag or a story.  

Just as the place itself nestled in the cold shadows of office towers behind it in a leaning, peeled-paint building, misfits in the outside world always fit snugly. Most of the patrons shared the very simple desire to lose themselves in the company of each other, regardless of position or pedigree. They all had a solidity of character that went beyond class and social convention, and shared a curiosity and fondness for each other as well as a reverence for the idea of equality. A militant decency was the standard for behavior. However different their backgrounds, the customers in my father’s place had a way of finding common ground, no doubt a function of the humility learned in the Depression and an appreciation of broadly diverse people attained through service in World War II. Bonds, however momentary and liquor-born, were forged. Being completely unsnobbish, the clientele had a greater capacity for spontaneity and for living bigger in the moment than my own peers, which left a lasting impression on me. 

I wasn’t always such an enthusiast, though. As a self-conscious teenager, I became impatient with some of the patrons, particularly the ones I thought maudlin or foolish. Balky village lad, I was embarrassed when ordered to walk one of them home to their furnished rooms, or to hail them a taxi, their glazed eyes weak with overindulgence. I began to feel that my attachment to the place was of questionable social cachet and that I was too sophisticated to have old guys with jellyflab arms and stinky-breath faces singing into my ear as I escorted them down Second Avenue. Sometimes on a date, I’d go right by the place with the same discomfiture a groom might feel as he steers his bride away from a table of loud uncles at their wedding - the ones he’s conveniently left unintroduced. Everyone goes through a time of feeling awkward about where they fit in; but it’s only later that you realize that the anxiety is not just your own. During my disenchanted phase, I couldn’t see why my father had such an attachment to the place or why he chose to spend his evening hours in the company of such dubious fellows. When I asked him one time, he simply gave me a cryptic look that said, “If you have to ask such a question, you’d never grasp the answer. 

I can’t say what it was exactly that turned my head around. It might have had something to do with the writer’s block I suffered for a while, which left me with lots of time on my hands and not a lot of money in my pocket. Free drinks at Dad’s bar took on new appeal. There was no dramatic breakthrough moment, though, just a quiet revelation. Something that Eugene O’Neill said about the men he used to drink with on the old West Side waterfront seemed to click inside me. “I lived with them, got to know them. In some queer way they carried on, I learned not to sit in judgment on other people." 

After that I found myself wandering down there at cocktail time, soaking up the bar banter, which always flew back and forth with such zest and timbre, punctuated only by the clankings of the rusty cash register, not by traded business cards and dropped names. Politics and religion, topics usually taboo in most bars, always led the conversational agenda. The syntax may have been rough at times with double negatives and malapropisms, but the talk always brimmed with lyricism, wit and the idiom of old New York, surely the dialect of a lost Atlantis. I’d sit there sometimes and scribble notes on coasters and napkins, barely keeping up. The place became a touchstone for me, a way to reconnect after a frustrating day wrestling with phrasing and loneliness. 

To brisk passersby, the place may have seemed strange and slightly unwholesome, merely a dark place to get drunk in. But it was really just like a small town, with its own distinctive characters, customs and sense of community. It was one of those eddies that humanize the city. We regularly fed the neighborhood "bagmen" and "bagladies" (“Hey, Irish, put a little more ketchup on that burger this time, will ya?”) and overpaid local unfortunates for window washing and the like. Christmas Eve one year, we set up a bar outside in the falling snow and served surprised strollers as we sang carols. Once, my father brought George the Turk and Blind Andy - customers with nowhere else to go - home to our holiday dinner table, where they sat as stiff and formal as my mother’s starched lace curtains - until George put us all in stitches with his tales of the aging dowagers trying to corner him into marriage. 

My father cashed checks and lent money when it was needed, and was both confidante and confessor to a variety of the heartsick and rueful: once-attractive girls wrinkling into spinsters; good-time Charlies turned into miss-outs; delinquent fathers hoping to win back an alienated child. Sure, he was concerned about feeding his family, but the place was really like a midtown living room for him; patrons were house guests, not dollar signs. He was religious about “buy-backs,” usually giving a customer one free drink for every three bought, sometimes going one for two. 

Bartenders were instructed to refuse overly generous tips from the inebriated. Lost wallets and forgotten raincoats were routinely returned, a rarity in New York. Such integrity paid itself back. When our last bartender, the late Eddie Verdun, took sick with cancer, the benefit we threw to defray his hospitalization netted nearly $20,000. A couple of his longtime customers wrote $1,000 checks right at the door. Later, during the witching hours, my father would go on a pub crawl around the block to size up the competition, all winks and whispers as he traded hearsay and quips with the other owners. Pauli, our grizzled Chinese porter, would accompany him, cracking jokes, guarding his flank: Fool to his Lear on the hearth of East Side gin mills. Meanwhile, back at our place, Danny O, the crank, would have everybody riled to blow up the Bank of England. 

At one point, my father reversed a long-standing order and I got a chance to bartend. “You lack love for your fellow man and have the kind of face that anybody’d love to punch in the nose,” he scolded, “but I’m short a barman tonight. “ (I only got slugged once, and that was by a waitress, perhaps deservedly, after an unintended insult. ) As all good things, I began to appreciate the place just as it had to end, but for a few months, I tended whenever the regular man wanted off, happy to be spared another night of young urban ennui. 

Experience taught me that handling bar patrons is not romantic or thrilling. However fascinating a story was the first time, it rarely held up to a fifth telling. Excitement when it did come took the form of wondering whether the two smart alecks remaining at 4 o’clock in the morning were readying to rob me and whether the baseball bat I had behind the bar as back-up would take them both down in one swing if they rushed. There were also the times I had to break up fights between guys with hair-trigger tempers by vaulting over the bar like a doughboy going over the top. Another swell scene was when I warned an out-of-towner that the woman he was with was a known professional we usually didn’t let in. To get back at me, she convinced the guy that I had mortally insulted her honor, and Galahad waited outside until I closed and chased me for 30 madcap blocks in a taxicab. 

Bad jokes and bromides, bruisers and blowhards may have lengthened the night sometimes, but I came away with a lesson from all this. The range of human feeling was somehow wider in these people than in a lot of my contemporaries, allowing for greater joy and greater sorrow. Why? Who knows, but it might have been because they weren’t as distracted by continually looking over their shoulders to see where they stood in relation to the other guy. In their often messy, profane, whiskey-rank presence, something of a mystery was uncovered, and I began to see that even the most ordinary life held amazing secrets and a density of experience worth absorbing. Even small change could be coined in solid gold. 

Occasionally, there were especially high-proof nights when a fine flash of heart and brain would burst from the gab and goodwill. These were times when the most banal scrap of conversation would glow sacramentally and when the sensation of existence was sharper, pure and shared. There were instants in that bar when I thought all the joy in the world spun from that very spot, and even upon waking the next afternoon I felt the aftereffects of an untypical transit. The euphoria wasn’t simply a function of boozy bonhomie, though, but came from a feeling of deep human connectedness rooted in mutual respect and compassion. 

“Here we are,” Himself would be saying, nursing a scotch at 4 a.m. while we closed. Pauli, who had to be up early to open up for the lunch trade, would be chasing out the stragglers in his screechy broken English (“Letsee go! Letsee go!”) while sweeping the floor in search of loose change. Second Avenue would be quiet except for street people and stray taxis, whose taillights traced red arcs downtown. “Here we are. “ A normally articulate fellow, these were the only words that seemed to fit. 

In May, 1984, my father sold the place to an outfit that paid handsomely to turn it into a fancy French wine bar. He was tired of the hours, and many of his favorite customers were getting on in years. On the last night we had a final party to drink the place dry, as tradition holds a place should be dry when it changes ownership. People came from all over the city: 20 years of ha-has and growly how-are-yas. Choruses of “Danny Boy” circled round the tap as a New Yorker reporter duly took notes. Everything was free. High spirits were general, except in the last knot of regulars who took the closing as some kind of greater dispossession and faced diaspora sullenly. I myself, the penitent snob, was about as happy as a librarian at a book burning. 

Closing for the last time, my father and I locked the door behind us, standing minutely in the morning sunlight that knifed between the high-rises. Pauli shuffled away to his Chinatown, a little faster than he’d normally go and a little more hunched, unconvinced, perhaps, that the skyline would be as sturdy having lost a part of its footings. “It’ll all be so sterile after this,” I intoned, clumsy with feeling. “Sure it will,” my father snapped, lip aquiver, an old believer to a new acolyte. “Sure it will. Do you think I don’t know that. Do you think you’re telling me something?"

Having grown up in this atmosphere where snobbery and manliness were mutually exclusive, I’m uncomfortable with the increased status consciousness of watering holes frequented by men my own age, shooting at 30 from either side. They all seem too predictable and prepackaged, dull even if the brass is shiny, full of the tepid, the tight-tongued and the oh-so-tasteful. Drinking establishments used to be places that brought people from different backgrounds and generations together, permitting them to appreciate their common lot. Now they’ve been ferned, feminized and stratified, with the accent on the upscale, not on the broad-based. 

Bars of the so-called “new man” have become extensions of office life - clean, well- lit places where the hustle and the get-ahead leave no room for grit, color and spontaneity. Everyone’s about the same age, doing about the same thing. What passes for social diversity is being with people who don’t have a law degree or an MBA. Blah! Executive daybooks don’t seem to come with slots to pencil in reckless good cheer, a sudden, sodden cry or a deserved punch in the nose.Sometimes I feel I’m in an eerily animated fashion spread with the models all too preoccupied with posing to enjoy the aimless grace of plain camaraderie. For their part, I’m sure they find my regard for the common touch vaguely loser-like, but that’s to be expected from their sensibilities, shaped by TV commercials and men’s magazines that counsel how to drink in a style that’ll boost your career. Status anxiety has imposed a grim conformity of upward mobililty and a desire to cut the other guy down. What they are in danger of becoming are guys who get straight A’s and still fail Life - lost in “the suck of the self,” as Walker Percy phrases it, slighter for their self-absorption. 

Nowadays, I tend to do most of my drinking in “old man” bars, generationally dislocated but more at home with the prevailing values, however arcane. I find something in these places that I don’t around my peers: simple pleasure within the gruff democracy of other guys. I draw a lot from this well of informal and seemingly unimportant attachments. There is a natural sociability there, a richness of contact and an authenticity that sharkey “new man” bars just don’t have. Some of my friends worry about my preference for such obviously declasse places, often dark as caves. They don’t seem to view my bar buddies in the proper light, seeing only the smudgy shadows. Occasionally, I’ll run into one of the old crowd and drink too much. To the days back when, salute, honor bright! Once in a while, I’ll muster the nerve to walk by the old place, each time met by a twinge of phantom pain and a longing that follows me home. Many lives, that place. 

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