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Thursday, November 15, 2012


I'll admit that when I was young I was sceptical of bars, but that was understandable as my entire knowledge of them was my mother's warnings about the evils of bars and the alcohol sold within. I never knew my father to go into a bar. Then I turned 18 the same year they changed the laws to allow 18-yo.'s to vote and drink, so I got to vote for McGovern (r.i.p.) and enjoy ice-cold Heineken as we commiserated on Nixon's self-destructive soon-to-be-Watergate-contaminated victory. We went to a bar to celebrate Nixon resigning too!
Really I grew to absolutely love bars in New York City. Nigel and I pounding pints of Guinness or lager, smoking cigarettes, & scarfing down chips.

It was going to Irish-owned and staffed bars in the island of Manhattan that made me understand and appreciate good bar tending. There is also for bar patrons a certain etiquette and code of acceptable behaviours and real men understand and adhere to these and pass them on to the next generation, like not annoying the staff or other patrons, holding your liquor, paying your tab and tipping your server appropriately. Bar tending to me is one of the world's most important, vital and perhaps underrated professions in this world. I am not talking about people who tend bar while they are waiting for a call-back(talking on the phone to their agent or other actor friends) for a show/movie/play or to pay their way through college (leaning up in the corner with face in a book) though these situations do not necessarily preclude being a good bartender.

Patrick Conways on 43rd near to Vanderbilt hard by Grand Central was owned by two young brothers named Clancy and they were nice though business-like fellows. Their bar was always staffed by fellow Irish people. The bar men were just that, bar men. I never saw a woman behind the gleaming, immaculate, mahogany. For sure the restaurant had plenty of young Irish girls waiting the tables and working in the kitchen and dining rooms including the owners' sister. In my time I remember 4 of the barmen who went on to own their own bar and each of these was an attempt at replicating Patrick Conways' gleaming brass, wood and tile. We became such regulars, my brother Patrick, my friend Nigel and myself, that Friday didn't feel like Friday if we didn't see Sean, Liam, Martin and Edmond. The clientele was almost exclusively business people and the bar staff behaved accordingly -friendly but resserved, attentive but not intrusive in other words professionals.
In fact, the brothers themselves opened a second bar at 34th Street and 3rd Avenue called Patrick Kavanaughs which was similar but more of a neighbourhood place. The two brothers sold out eventually and returned home to Dublin as the nascent Celtic Tiger began to roar.  There were great Irish barmen all over Manhattan from the Plaza, to the Abbey, to Dempsey's, to the Central, to The Blarney Stone, to Swifts. 

The great NY bars were places for men, and not in a chauvinistic institutionalised way, but in the sense that men could congregate, be at their ease, talk or be silent, get drunk or not, spend a lunch hour, meet old or new friends, kill time or make a rendezvous for further perambulation with or without the social pressures of female society as one chose.
A good bar is and should be too a shelter from driving rain, blistering heat, or importantly the cold, cruel world. I've never been one to bend a barman's ear too much with personal tales of woe, save the one or two who were my pals outside of their place of employment, and even then I thought it best to make sure those were rare occurrences. 
My teetotal wife doesn't understand bars further than the fact that I am happy in them  and it is where I meet up with my like-minded pals ("Why don't you go play with your friends?") and that's as ok with me as it is with her.

Brian part 2

I was recalling an evening in the "East Village" today which was spurred by seeing someone's immediate Facebook location needlessly displayed for all to see on Facebook.
The eveningin question I had taken the train into Manhattan I recall from Queens, where Antoinette and I were crashing with her sister Peggy after our return from Jamaica. This was 1982 and my brother Brian was living between friends' flats in the East Village and Brooklyn. We met up near the 8th Street Playhouse
that lost treasure of a neighbourhood movie house where I saw my first Jean-Pierre Melville films under advice from the late great Andrew Sarris who was then the film critic of the Village Voice in its heyday

What was nice in those times was that the crowds on 8th Street and Greenwich Village in general thinned out in the evening as you proceeded eastward (the opposite of Horace Greeley's exhortation!) and as you passed First Avenue you were away from the tourists, bridge-and-tunnelers, and other non-resident downtown revelers and entered a real New York neighbourhood. Brian suggested we eat over at the Odessa on Avenue A
In those times the Odessa fed emigrés from Eastern Europe the food from back home at diner prices and we had pot roast with gravy and pierogies for like 4 bucks. We then went up Avenue A to a bar near 10th Street that had a jukebox with a terrific selection of old R&B and rock and roll.We had a beer or two and then crossed over and stood in the park and burnt some rope as was our wont in those days.

Our former block of E.3rd Street.

Tompkins Square Park and the streets around it were nearly deserted, this pre-dating the great homeless invasion brought about by Reagonomics and the ruthless gentrification of Manhattan by real estate interests.

The Joe Strummer mural memorial on what was King Tut's Wah Wah Hut bar w/yours truly.

Brian seemed glad to see me, glad I had come to hang out with him. He had been by this time suffering more and more from some inner angst or demon which could make him restless and of which his drug use, the heroin specifically was I now believe both a symptom and self-prescribed remedy. Brian was intelligent and perceptive and like most of my family extremely sensitive. He was that evening as usual well versed on almost every current topic culturally or socially - local news and international, music, books, film etc- and those that knew Brian knew he was a voracious and catholic reader and as likely to be carrying the Silver Surfer as William Burroughs under his arm or in his satchel and every time he changed addresses he left behind him a small library. In those times I saw him more than anyone else from our family and my trick was to limit my exposure to him so I could control my own sadness and feelings of impotence that grew inside me when I was around him.
His unease seemed to ebb and flow, sometimes Brian acted like he was hunted by or hiding from unseen agents-quiet, jittery, curt-but mostly he was easy to be around, good and interesting company, generous materially and spiritually.

This night was a good one, one that has stayed with me all these years, recalled many times over the years especially when we moved into that neighbourhood, Antoinette, Sean and me, and we witnessed first-hand the evolution and gentrification of the Lower East Side. In fact in a few short years I stood pushing Sean on the swings sweeping the crack vials and hypodermic needles aside with my Air Wear soles in almost the exact same spot, where the playground had been moved as a renovation of the park was under way.

Renovation of St Brigid's Famine Church under way, after the idiot Catholic Diocese tried to demolish it.