Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Older I Get...

When I was a kid in the 1950s my first bicycle came from the guys that I hung out with at the bar.
It was a Columbia – one speed, balloon tires, with a turquoise colored tank containing a push button horn over the top bar.  And technically my bar buddies didn’t actually give it to me.  Instead, with my father’s encouragement, they voted for me at $1.00 per vote with their purchases –mostly cigarettes – at the drug store just down the street from the saloon.  The bike was first prize, and I actually didn’t want it.  I was hoping for the runner-up prize, which was a leather fringed cowboy jacket.  I was after all probably only eight or ten years old and my consumer judgment wasn’t all that developed.
The drinking establishment – The “Parkway” on Park Street in New Britain, Connecticut – was the first of many that my father took me to over the next several years.  We went mostly on Saturdays and Sundays – occasionally spending the afternoon there and then going home to collect my mother and bring her to the restaurant part of the tavern in back for dinner.  I am an only child.  And I liked the feeling of having this special “guy place” to which we could, on special occasions, bring my mother. But when it was just the two of us, Dad and I always sat up front in the barroom itself.
I of course was not allowed (by law) to actually sit “at the bar”.  Instead I was ensconced in one of the several booths that separated the actual watering hole from entrance.  I think these leather stalls were intended for female customers who also at that time were not permitted access to the alcohol altar – but I can’t remember ever seeing anyone other than me ever occupy them. My father sat on a stool with the other men drinking rye and gingers, playing cribbage, and winning arguments on the merits of the New York Yankees, the Democratic party (especially Harry Truman) and labor unions – while I downed several cokes and bags of Wise potato chips several feet away.  The grease and salt from my hands and lips would coat the glass like a dog’s nose on an automobile window.
The Parkway was owned and run by two Italian brothers, Sam and Tony – the former tall and slim, the latter the opposite in both ways.  With not much else to do – I don’t remember this bar as having a television – I mostly watched the two proprietors go about their daily business which seemed to consist almost entirely of wiping down the wooden surface of the bar and being available to pour another one.  This was fine with me – a quiet, if not anti-social at most an a-social child – I found the thoughts inside my head more interesting than the fears and challenges of interacting with the outside world.  Both of the Parkway brothers wore freshly starched and ironed white dress shirts with the top button open and both sleeves rolled up twice to reveal enough of a glimpse of their large wrists to be impressive.  This dress code and work ethic turned out to be universal among the various bartenders that served me cokes over the early part of my formative years.  I aspired to that look but my forearms never acquired the girth to pull it off.
 All of the men smoked cigarettes – my father’s choice was unfiltered Camels – and sometimes on weekends we would wander down the street to some form of mini-arena with balcony seating where we would watch semi-professional basketball games.  (The teams were sponsored by local business and the players were former high school or college jocks who received a small stipend for playing.)   Cigarette smoke would rise from the fan base in the upper tier and eventually settle down onto the court to mix with the smell of sweat.  At halftime we would return to the bar for a quick break.
Then one evening my father, who stopped at the Parkway daily on his way home from work at a Tool Manufacturing Factory in a neighboring town, announced that Sam and Tony had “forgotten where they came from” (or something similar) – and we never went back there again.
But almost immediately we became regulars at the “Blue Danube” – slightly out of town but on my father’s route from work.  A new place with the same crowd but different people.
Sunday mornings were my favorite time at our latest haunt.  After nine o’clock mass (to which my mother never went) Dad and I would head to the Blue Danube.  I think bars were not allowed to serve alcohol before noon but nonetheless rye-and-ginger somehow appeared.  My father was a very good cribbage player – to the extent that he was monetarily “backed” by other lesser players and split the winnings.  In this case the “bank” was the bar’s owner who had nicknamed himself ‘King”.  The Sunday morning games seemed more serious (i.e. higher stakes) than those at the Parkway.  But that wasn’t what was special about that time and place to me.  It was the shrimp cocktails, which replaced the bags of Wise potato chips as my principal form of entertainment.  Again from time to time we left to get my mother and bring her here to our place for Sunday dinner in the back room.
I think “King’ got into some kind of financial trouble because suddenly we were hanging out at another out-of-town but on-the-way-home-from-work taproom called “The Hedges”.  And now my father was picking me up after school and bringing me there on some weekdays as well as Saturday and Sunday.
There were no shrimp cocktails here so I was back to chips.  But there was a bowling machine and – even though legally I was not supposed to use it because of its physical location.  In fact the bar’s operators knew when the “Liquor Inspectors” (or whatever) were paying them a visit and during those times I was confined to my booth.  Most of the time however I would monopolize the device for hours at a time perfecting my carom shots and seven-ten splits, occasionally taking on, and beating just about anyone in the house.  They had a tournament for two-person teams and I partnered with the fiancé of one of the owner’s three sons who likewise spent a lot of time on the machine.  We swept the competition.  And my father, who encouraged me as well as feeding me quarters, couldn’t stop talking about it – even outside of the tavern.
The father-owner died and I think there was some inheritance fall-out because dad and I were now patronizing “The Chatterbox” in our immediate neighborhood.  The two owners each had nicknames.  “Doc”, a former high school basketball star and “Chink” an extremely non-Asian looking Italian the origin of whose sobriquet was never made clear.
It was the familiar storyline with different actors but sausage grinders instead of shrimp, and pinballs in lieu of bowling machines.  And they, again illegally as I recall, paid prize money.  I was no wizard but I usually came out ahead in the profit-loss ratio.  And my father stood by me as I played and kept feeding me coins.  Dad’s factory went on strike during our Chatterbox phase, so I probably put in more hours per week there than any other place.  They even let me sit and eat at the bar occasionally.  Fortunately I was hidden deep in a booth one day when Doc’s daughter, with whom I turned out to be in Junior High School, dropped in to see her dad.  She didn’t say hi so maybe she didn’t see me.  Or maybe she was as uncomfortable as I was in the situation.
My father’s and my last stomping ground was “Teresa’s” – a pizza and Italian cuisine restaurant and bar just up the street from the Chatterbox.  I don’t know why we moved, but suddenly one day we were just there.  Largely “same old, same old” but: (1) Teresa’s had an above-the-bar television on which I watched, among other things, the classic movie “High Noon” standing just barely outside the legal bar area in order to see over the heads of the disinterested stool sitters, and (2) a shuffle board table.
The elevated playing surface was probably twenty or more feet long with gutters on each side that allowed a player to slide their fingers along the side to help align their shots.  (Not everyone did that, but it was my preferred technique and one I picked up by observing one of the better players style.)  Controlling the speed and placement of a metal disk over a twenty-foot distance is an immense ego-boost at any age, but particularly as a wannabe man among men. 
Like the bowling machine I had a virtual monopoly on the board – playing solo much of the time and contending with my fellow barflies on occasion.  Unlike all our previous haunts, the crowd at Teresa’s included a good portion of twenty to thirty year old men and they provided most of the competition.  There were no tournaments – but I think that I won more than I lost.
Frequently my father would play doubles with me or against be in singles.  Maybe he realized our time together in bars was nearing an end.  In any event, it was good.
I entered high school and wanted to participate in more life outside the cave.  By my junior year I had stopped going.  My father remained a regular frequenter of Teresa’s – normally driving there every night after dinner while I worked on my homework.  In my senior year he died at work of a cerebral hemorrhage.   That night he and my mother were going to come see me play basketball for my high school team.  My now widowed mother and I continued to get pizzas at Teresa’s and through college – the first two years of which I commuted to from home – I would visit Teresa’s back room with my male friends or a date for soda and pizza.  But even when I became “legally of age” I never sat at the bar.  In fact I can only think of two times in my adult life when I sat at any bar – and both of them were years before I had a son of my own.
 This whole set of memories was set off by an interview I heard the other day on NPR’s “Terry Gross - Fresh Air” program with J.R. Moehringer – author of a memoir “The Tender Bar”.  Abandoned as a young boy by his disk jockey father and in need of a male influences – with his mother’s encouragement and choreographing – young Moehringer hung out incessantly at his uncle’s bar – "Long before it legally served me, the bar saved me" – providing him with role models and an entry way in to the mysterious business of being a man.
In spite of how it might appear Moehringer said that the hours he spent with his bar buddy/surrogate fathers was a happy time.  And, other than occasional moments of boredom, mine were also.  
His adult bar family seemed to have consciously adopted the male-mentor, father-figure role while the men at the series of bars at which I habituated were more of the slightly distant uncle type – seemingly glad to have me around, occasionally interacting, friendly enough – profane (but cursing then was levels below what has now become common language) – and frequently really, really funny. 
Still I’m not sure why my father did it.  He never talked about it and by the time in life that I wondered about it, he wasn’t around to ask.  I chose never to ask mother about it.  I’m guessing he had a similar motive to Moehringer’s mom – men teaching boys to be “a man”.  This was after all the world in which he chose to define much of himself to others and to me, but he never hyped this way of life being “the way” – perhaps it was intended as a show-not-tell life lesson.
Even after writing this, it’s a mystery to me.  But I don’t think that I suffered for it.  After all, how many of us ever get the chance – with the shuffleboard game on the line, in a noisy smoke-filled bar, and our father watching – to score the winning four-point “leaner”?
The older I get, the better I was.  


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