To say New York City is a great drinking town would be stating the obvious. There are hundreds of places to go to enjoy a cocktail before dinner or get hammered on game day. At the very least you are assured of getting an ice-cold Bud.
But the other thing that New York is, is old; as in like over 400 years old. Now there aren’t too many taverns that can lay claim to that kind of heritage, but there are some that come close.
Growing up, of course, the bar scene was non-existent for us. Famously Dad would have a sip of a glass of wine or a cocktail at a holiday dinner, and push the glass aside, satisfied with that one sip, not wanting to slip down that slope into liquid debauchery. Mom was much the same though she might take two sips and then giggle for the rest of the evening. We didn’t even have beer in the house growing up; alcohol was a stranger to us.
That all changed with the coming of age of course. The High School and College years were ones that saw a strong push to make up for lost time, and I and my classmates became well acquainted with dozens of bar stools in Manhattan.
As I said, there were hundreds of places to drink; but only a few that had stood the test of time, and saw whole generations of patrons come and go. These special few watched as whole graduating classes were shipped off to war –The Spanish American, World War 1, World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. Parties to say goodbye were held in these saloons, parties to welcome sons and daughters back home were as well, and yes, when a loved one didn’t return home, a funeral luncheon was held instead. You walk amongst ghosts when you enter these hallowed spots.
A few of them have a special place in my memory and heart for they allowed for a few moments of truth, of compassion, of awakening.
Moments like the one at The Old Town, a beautiful place on East 18 Street, dating from 1892, with a bar made of mahogany and marble measuring 55 feet long. And I remember gazing at that bar from a booth I sat at, as a regular, someone I saw every single time I can into the place, sat on one of the high stools, swaying. He was a big, jolly fellow, balding, large glasses slipping down his nose, always laughing saying hello to everyone who passed. But you see, the thing was this poor guy got that way after like two Miller Lites. I mean he would act like he had been downing them since noon, and all he had had was two not very real beers. I would watch as he would come in stone sober, sit at the bar, order his first, and I would just wait, and sure enough, within moments he was swaying this way and that. Obviously, the guy shouldn’t have been drinking at all, but I always got a sense he was kind of lonely and needed to be surrounded by what passed for friends.
One night I came in, and he was there in his normal state of inebriation. I went to my usual booth, and no sooner had I opened my book, that I heard a loud crash – one too many sways by that big body, and he had hit the floor, splintering the chair into pieces. The bartender came rushing around, I jumped up and went to help along with a few others. The guy was big and heavy and we managed to get him up on another barstool, where he hung his head and started to cry. I had seen this guy a hundred times but didn’t really know him at all, and yet at that moment, all I could do was hold him up and tell him everything would be ok. I knew I was probably lying. I asked the bartender to call a cab, at which point the guy starts shaking his head, muttering he lived nearby and could walk home- yea right, sure you can pal. Anyway, the cab came, and the bartender and I walked him out. I had managed to get his address out of him and told it to the cab driver, who being a veteran of the New York streets, had seen it all before.
“Take him home,” I said tossing the driver my last two twenties “And make sure he gets inside safely alright?”
I tried to sound like I would somehow know if he didn’t but who knows if it worked or not. He sat in the back seat, not crying anymore, just shaking his head and trying to say something. It wasn’t until I watched the cab pull away that I realized he was saying “God Bless You”.
Then I wanted to cry.
The bartender and I headed back in, and as we did he turned back to me:
“Next one is on the house ” which was good because now I was broke.
But I didn’t feel broke, I felt whole for the first time in a while.
The White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street was founded in 1880 and holds another soft spot in my heart. I had been there many times before it earned that spot. It had always had killer cheeseburgers and great taps, but it became a place of solace and comfort for me when, just a couple of blocks away, Dad was living in the Village Nursing Home, his last stop in his long noble journey through life. I would take the train from Philly every other week, just to sit with him, assure him that I had found a good parking spot (repeatedly), and just watch him watch me both of us worrying about the other.
After each visit, I certainly needed a beer and there was The White Horse. I would walk in, nod in the direction of the increasingly familiar bartender, and sit sipping a cold one while watching the Mets on the small black and white television above the bar. Eventually, I would order one of those heavenly burgers. At first, it was just a good and necessary place to decompress after seeing my Dad grow further and further away from reality. But after a while, the bartender, like all good ones, struck up a conversation, probably sensing my mood. He asked:
“You doing ok today pal?”
How much did I want to share with what was just another stranger in a city full of them? But I wanted to – needed to – talk.
“Been to see my Dad” I answered “He’s in the Nursing Home….it’s hard”.
He didn’t miss a beat.
“Oh boy, that is tough” he said and I thought that would be the end of the conversation.
“Went through that with my old man” he continued “Strange isn’t it, or is it just stupid how we waste so much time being angry at stuff, all the time forgetting what you’re blessed with?”
We were both silent for a moment. He reached for a fresh glass, saying:
“Like my old man…we used to really go at it…but geez I miss him now”.
With that, he tipped the tap and filled his glass halfway with beer. He raised it, looked at me and said:
“To your Dad. I’m sure he knows how much you love him, and I bet he’s damn proud of the son he raised”.
Fighting back tears, I could only raise my glass in response.
“That’s good of you to say” I managed to croak out. He smiled, said:
“Hey, nothing but the truth spoken here” and he winked “Here let me get your food”.
That may have been the best cheeseburger I ever had. I was still sad about Dad, but didn’t feel so alone anymore.
That’s what a good bar does.
Besides Fraunces Tavern, McSorleys is the oldest bar in the city, dating from 1854. It has sawdust on the floor and two kinds of ale they used to make in the basement, light and dark; don’t dare ask for beer – they make ale, not beer. The small kitchen makes thick liverwurst sandwiches with slabs of onion and spicy mustard unlike any other found in the city. There are two signs hanging, one “We Were Here Before You Were Born”, and they are right for everyone that walks in, and the other “Be Good or Be Gone”, and that too was the truth; they made sure of it. The walls and ceilings were adorned with bits of the past, it’s past, the city’s past, the nation’s past–Houdini’s handcuffs hung on a wall, wishbones heavy with dust, hang from a pipe, undisturbed since the Doughboys that went off to fight in World War One left them there – the idea was when they came back from the war, they would take back the wishbone, as their wish of making it home safely having come true.
All the ones that remain are still waiting for their owners to come home.
There is a pot-bellied stove, scarred tables, and chairs. Lincoln, as a young lawyer, drank there. Ulysses S Grant, as an old battle-scarred General was a regular.
In 1970 the court ordered that McSorleys had to allow women through their doors, and they did, though they didn’t build a Ladies Room until ten years later.
It is a time capsule, sitting quietly on East 7th Street; it is everything an American bar should be, and there isn’t a television to be found in it. It is a place to come, eat, drink and talk. In college, my friends Mike, Ted, Dan, Joe and I all made sure our classes ended at noon on Fridays so we could pile into the D Train and hurry downtown to spend the rest of the day and all of the evening doing just that.
One time, during a nasty winter, a blizzard raged outside the windows as my friends and I sat around the pot-bellied stove absorbing it’s warmth, not wanting to budge, not caring if we got snowed in. Where else would be better than where we were? As the day aged, we found ourselves the only patrons left in the place. Two bartenders and the cook were all the staff left.
“Don’t worry boys” one of the bartenders said, “You put two of those chairs together and you have a pretty comfy bed.”
We looked at each other wondering if he was putting us on.
“Oh” he continued “and the next couple of rounds are on the house!”
Well, that settled it; snow be damned; we weren’t going anywhere. And we didn’t.
And he was right about the chairs.
Three bars, three special memories; three times when I was reminded we are all in this thing called life together; sure we are strangers to each other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t share a beer together, lend a hand or offer a kind word at the very moment it is needed most.
Something to ponder next time you take a seat at the bar.