A good bar story
The irksome thing about bar stories is getting them to add up to something more than the random revelations of inebriated dreamers. But a local bar and gathering place in Manhasset, New York, called Dickens and then re-named Publicans, provided just the fodder for the literary machinations of one of its most devoted patrons. Now, this bar may mean nothing to you (unless, of course, you lived in Manhasset in the 1970s and 80s), but for Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author JR Moehringer, Publicans bar was his sanctuary and security blanket, and serves as the cozy backdrop for his best-selling memoir, “The Tender Bar,” a poignant recounting of Moehringer’s fatherless boyhood spent amidst a group of tawdry intellectual barflies.
When we meet JR in the mid 1970s, he’s a neurotic 9-year-old living in a dilapidated house in Manhasset with his toothless grandparents, his poor and melancholy mother, his Aunt Ruth and her five kids, and his Uncle Charlie. JR spends most of his time trying to put order to chaos by listening to his estranged father on the radio. A popular New York City rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey, the man’s voice is all the father JR has. “My father’s voice was so deep, so ominous, it made my ribs vibrate …” writes Moehringer. His father would henceforth be dubbed The Voice. Early on, we learn JR so misses the presence of a father that he reaches out to the only other viable option: Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie – nicknamed Chas – is a 30-something bartender and gambling addict who suffers from alopecia, which renders him “pathologically self-conscious.” Invariably hung over and babied to death by JR’s grandma, Uncle Charlie isn’t exactly the ideal father-figure. But, JR looks up to his uncle and romanticizes the bar where his uncle works and plays, believing if he could only be allowed into the bar, he would be saved. And Uncle Charlie reluctantly gives into being – at least – a decent uncle. He and his crew of quirky barflies with nicknames like Colt, Frosty, Fast Eddy and Bobo take JR to the beach, ballgames, and eventually let JR settle comfortably into their inner circle at the bar.
Although he adores his devoted mother, JR relishes the company of the men, and finally feels a sense of acceptance at the bar. “Uncle Charlie introduced me to each man … I now pretended I was The Most Popular Person in Dickens.” He falls in love with the bar, describing it lovingly: “I ran my hand along the bar top. Solid oak. Three inches thick … and admired the tongue-in-groove floors, buffed smooth by a million footsteps.” Although JR is no barfly misfit like the rest of the guys (his mother takes great care to drill into her son’s head that he will indeed one day attend Harvard or Yale, and he certainly works toward that goal), the second half of the book showcases him as a young man facing disillusionment. He gets accepted and goes to Yale, but feels way out of his element. While bombing tests and pissing off his professors, JR falls in love with the smart and beautiful Sidney, his on-again off-again girlfriend who plays a critical role in his young adult life. But whenever he screws up at school or when Sydney breaks up with him (yet again), JR hops a train for Publicans: his hideout, “holy place” and “security blanket.” After barely graduating from Yale, JR gets an odd job as a sales clerk in the home fashions department of Lord & Taylor. “I spent my days at Lord & Taylor smashing sales records, and my nights at Publicans, learning from Cager and Fast Eddy how to play Liar’s Poker.” While JR admittedly enjoys his easy lifestyle of selling vases and drinking Scotch, there is an inner dissonance with which he is constantly battling. But even after the New York Times hires him as a copy-boy (aka glorified gopher), he refuses to give up Publicans. Instead, he remains comfortable in his copy-boy, barfly lifestyle, quoting Homer: “There is strength in the union of even very sorry men.”
For all his sotted nights at Publicans, Moehringer is a reliable narrator. There is a fine line between idolizing a bunch of drunks and finding and then capturing the tenderness and truth of their inner nature. Moehringer took copious notes during his days and nights at Publicans, and has a wonderful ear for dialogue. The passages describing Publicans and its patrons are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. And a prologue dedicated to the 50 Manhasset residents killed on 9/11 is eye-opening for those of us who didn’t experience first-hand the devastation of that day. There is something in “The Tender Bar” for every bar regular out there. (And haven’t we all been regulars at a local bar at some point in our lives?) But it would be a mistake to dismiss Moehringer as just a good writer with a knack for creatively documenting his life. This author can tell a great bar story, and I hope be has more stories to tell.
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