The Tender BarA Memoir
Hyperion BooksCopyright © 2006 J. R. Moehringer
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780786888764
Chapter One THE MEN
If a man can chart with any accuracy his evolution from small boy to barfly, mine began on a hot summer night in 1972. Seven years old, driving through Manhasset with my mother, I looked out the window and saw nine men in orange softball uniforms racing around Memorial Field, the silhouette of Charles Dickens silk-screened in black on their chests. "Who is that?" I asked my mother.
"Some men from Dickens," she said. "See your Uncle Charlie? And his boss, Steve?"
"Can we watch?"
She pulled over and we found seats in the stands.
The sun was setting, and the men cast long shadows, which seemed made of the same black ink as the silhouettes oil their chests. Also, the men sported cummerbunds of blubber that stretched their XXL jerseys until those silhouettes looked like splatter stains caused by the men stomping in their own shadows. Everything about the men had this surreal, cartoonish quality. With their scant hair, giant shoes, and overdeveloped upper bodies, they looked like Blutos and Popeyes and steroidal Elmer Fudds, except my lanky Uncle Charlie, who patrolled the infield like a flamingo with sore knees. I remember that Steve wielded a wooden bat the size of a telephone pole, and every home run he clouted hovered in the sky like a second moon.
Standing at the plate, the Babe Ruth of the beer league, Steve dug at the dirt and growled at the pitcher to give him something he could pulverize. The pitcher looked scared and amused at the same time, because even while barking at him, Steve never stopped smiling. His smile was like the strobe from a lighthouse, making everyone feel a little safer. It was also a command. It bade everyone to smile also. It was irresistible, and not just to those around him. Steve himself seemed unable to stop baring his teeth.
Steve and the men of Dickens were fierce competitors, but the game never once got in the way of their main goal in life-laughter. Regardless of the score, they never stopped laughing, they couldn't stop laughing, and the fans in the stands couldn't either. I laughed harder than anyone, though I didn't get the joke. I laughed at the sound of the men's laughter, and at their comic timing, as fluid and quicksilver as their turning of a double play.
"Why do those men act so silly?" I asked my mother.
She looked at the men, thinking.
"Beer, sweetheart. They're happy about beer."
Each time the men ran past, they left a scented cloud. Beer. Aftershave. Leather. Tobacco. Hair tonic. I inhaled deeply, memorizing their aroma, their essence. From then on, whenever I smelled a keg of Schaeffer, a bottle of Aqua Velva, a freshly oiled Spalding baseball glove, a smoldering Lucky Strike, a flask of Vitalis, I would be there again, beside my mother, gazing at those beery giants stumbling around the diamond.
That softball game marked for me the beginning of many things, but particularly time. Memories before the softball game have a disjointed, fragmentary quality; after, memories move forward, smartly, single file. Possibly I needed to find the bar, one of the two organizing principles of my life, before I could make a linear, coherent narrative of my life. I remember turning to the other organizing principle of my life and telling her I wanted to watch the men forever. We can't, babe, she said, the game is over. What? I stood, panicked. The men were walking off the field with their arms around each other. As they faded into the sumacs around Memorial Field, calling to one another, "See you at Dickens," I started to cry. I wanted to follow.
"Why?" my mother asked.
"To see what's so funny."
"We're not going to the bar," she said. "We're going-home."
She always tripped over that word.
My mother and I lived at my grandfather's house, a Manhasset landmark nearly as famous as Steve's bar. People often drove by Grandpa's and pointed, and I once heard passersby speculating that the house must suffer from some sort of "painful house disease." What it really suffered from was comparisons. Set among Manhasset's elegant Gingerbread Victorians and handsome Dutch Colonials, Grandpa's dilapidated Cape Cod was doubly appalling. Grandpa claimed he couldn't afford repairs, but the truth was, he didn't care. With a touch of defiance and a perverse pride he called his house the Shit House, and paid no attention when the roof began to sag like a circus tent. He scarcely noticed when paint peeled away in flakes the size of playing cards. He yawned in Grandma's face when she pointed out that the driveway had developed a jagged crack, as if lightning had struck it-and in fact lightning had. My cousins saw the lightning bolt sizzle up the driveway and just miss the breezeway. Even God, I thought, is pointing at Grandpa's house.
Under that one sagging roof my mother and I lived with Grandpa, Grandma, my mother's two grown siblings-Uncle Charlie and Aunt Ruth-and Aunt Ruth's five daughters and one son. "Huddled masses yearning to breathe rent-free," Grandpa called us. While Steve was creating his public sanctuary at 550 Plandome Road, Grandpa was running a flophouse at 646.
Grandpa could have nailed a silhouette of Charles Dickens above his door too, since the conditions were comparable to a Dickensian workhouse. With one usable bathroom and twelve people, the waits at Grandpa's were often excruciating, and the cesspool was constantly backed up ("Shit House" was sometimes more than a flippant nickname). The hot water ran out each morning in the middle of Shower Number Two, made a brief cameo during Shower Number Three, then teased and cruelly abandoned the person taking Shower Number Four. The furniture, much of which dated to Franklin Roosevelt's third term, was held together with duct tape and more duct tape. The only new objects in the house were the drinking glasses, "borrowed" from Dickens, and the Sears living room sofa, upholstered in a hypnotically hideous pattern of Liberty Bells, bald eagles, and faces of the Founding Fathers. We called it the bicentennial sofa. We were a few years ahead of ourselves, but Grandpa said the name was right and fitting, since the sofa looked as if George Washington had used it to cross the Delaware.
The worst thing about life at Grandpa's house was the noise, a round-the-clock din of cursing and crying and fighting and Uncle Charlie bellowing that he was trying to sleep and Aunt Ruth screaming at her six kids in the nerve-shredding key of a seagull. Just beneath this cacophony was a steady percussion, faint at first, louder as you became more aware of it, like the heartbeat deep inside the House of Usher. In the House of Grandpa the heartbeat was supplied by the screen door opening and closing all day long as people came and went-squeak bang, squeak bang-and also by the peculiar thudding way that everyone in my family walked, on their heels, like storm troopers on stilts. Between the screaming and the screen door, the fighting and the stomping feet, by dusk you'd be barking and twitching more than the dog, who ran off every chance she got. But dusk was the crescendo, the loudest and most tension-filled hour of the day, because dusk was dinnertime.
Seated around the lopsided dining room table, we'd all talk at once, trying to distract ourselves from the food. Grandma couldn't cook, and Grandpa gave her almost no money for groceries, so what came out of that kitchen in chipped serving bowls was both toxic and comical. To make what she called "spaghetti and meatballs," Grandma would boil a box of pasta until it was glue, saturate it with Campbell's cream of tomato soup, then top it with chunks of raw hot dog. Salt and pepper to taste. What actually brought on the indigestion, though, was Grandpa. A loner, a misanthrope, a curmudgeon with a stutter, he found himself each night at the head of a table with twelve uninvited guests, counting the dog. A Shanty Irish reenactment of the Last Supper. As he looked us up and down we could hear him thinking, Each of you has betrayed me tonight. To his credit Grandpa never turned anyone away. But he never made anyone feel welcome either, and he often wished aloud that we'd all just "clear the hell out."
My mother and I would have left, gladly, but we had nowhere else to go. She made very little money, and she got none from my father, who wanted no part of his wife and only child. He was a hard case, my father, an unstable mix of charm and rage, and my mother had no choice but to leave him when I was seven months old. He retaliated by disappearing, and withholding all help.
Because I was so young when he disappeared, I didn't know what my father looked like. I only knew what he sounded like, and this I knew too well. A popular rock 'n' roll disc jockey, my father would speak each day into a large microphone somewhere in New York City, and his plummy baritone would fly down the Hudson River, tack across Manhasset Bay, zoom up Plandome Road and burst a millisecond later from the olive green radio on Grandpa's kitchen table. My father's voice was so deep, so ominous, it made my ribs vibrate and the utensils tremble.
Adults in Grandpa's house would try to protect me from my father by pretending he didn't exist. (Grandma wouldn't even refer to him by name-Johnny Michaels-but simply called him The Voice.) They would lunge for the dial whenever they heard my father and sometimes hide the radio altogether, which made me wail in protest. Surrounded by women, and two remote men, I saw The Voice as my only connection to the masculine world. Moreover it was my only means of drowning out all the other hateful voices in Grandpa's house. The Voice, hosting a party every night in the same olive green box as Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison and the Beatles, was the antidote to all the discord around me. When Grandma and Grandpa went to war over the grocery money, when Aunt Ruth threw something against the wall in anger, I'd press my ear close to the radio and The Voice would tell me something funny or play me a song by Peppermint Rainbow. I listened so ardently to The Voice, achieved such mastery at shutting out other voices, that I became a prodigy at selective listening, which I thought was a gift, until it proved to be a curse. Life is all a matter of choosing which voices to tune in and which to tune out, a lesson I learned long before most people, but one that took me longer than most to put to good use.
I remember feeling particularly lonely one day as I tuned in my father's show. For his first song my father played the Four Seasons, "Working My Way Back to You," then said in his smoothest, silkiest tone, in which you could hear the smile on his face, "I am working my way back to you, Momma-but be patient, 'cause I've only got a paper route." I closed my eyes and laughed and for a few moments I forgot who and where I was.
Chapter Two THE VOICE
My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing. Without warning he would change shifts or switch stations. I'd counter by taking a portable radio outside to the stoop, where the reception was better. With the radio on my lap I'd wiggle the antenna and slowly turn the dial, feeling lost until I found The Voice again. One day my mother caught me. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Looking for my father."
She frowned, then turned and went into the house.
I knew that The Voice didn't have the same tranquilizing effect on my mother. In her mind my father's voice was "full of money," as Fitzgerald wrote of another careless voice in Manhasset. Hearing my father boom from the radio, my mother didn't hear his jokes, his charm, his voice. She heard every child-support payment he'd failed to make. After I'd spent the day listening to The Voice I'd often see my mother looking through the mail for The Voice's check. Dropping the stack of envelopes on the dining room table she'd give me a blank face. Nothing. Again.
For my mother's sake I would try to keep the radio volume low. Now and then I would even try to give up The Voice altogether, but it was hopeless. Everyone in Grandpa's house had at least one vice-drinking, smoking, gambling, lying, cursing, sloth. The Voice was mine. As my dependence grew, so did my tolerance, until it was no longer enough merely to listen. I began talking back. I'd tell The Voice about school, Little League, my mother's health. She was exhausted every night after work, I told The Voice, and I worried about her constantly. If I timed it just right-listening when The Voice was speaking, speaking when The Voice was not-it almost felt like a conversation.
Eventually my mother caught me. "Who are you talking to?" she asked.
She put a hand to her mouth and looked stricken. I turned the volume lower.
One afternoon, just after The Voice had signed off the air, the phone rang in Grandpa's living room. "Answer it," my mother said, her tone strange. I picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hello," said The Voice.
I swallowed. "Dad?"
I'd never used that word before. I felt a release of pressure inside me, as if a cork had popped. He asked how I was. What grade are you in? That so? You like your teachers? He didn't ask about my mother, who had secretly arranged the call after overhearing my latest conversation with the radio. He didn't explain where he was or why he never visited. He made small talk as though we were old army buddies. Then I heard him take a long puff on a cigarette and exhale so hard that I thought a jet of smoke would spurt through the phone. I could hear the smoke in his voice, and thought his voice was smoke. This was how I pictured my father-as talking smoke.
"So," he said, "how'd you like to go to a baseball game with your old man?"
"Mets or Yankees?"
"Mets, Yankees, whoever."
"Uncle Charlie says the Mets came into Dickens the other night."
"How is your Uncle Charlie? How's he doing down at the bar?"
"They play the Braves tomorrow night."
I heard the click-clock of ice cubes in a glass. "Sure," he said. "Tomorrow night. I'll pick you up at your grandfather's-six-thirty."
"I'll be ready."
I was ready at four-thirty. Sitting on the stoop, wearing my Mets cap, slugging my fist into the pocket of my new Dave Cash mitt, I peered at every car that approached the house. I was waiting for my father, but I didn't know what that meant. My mother hadn't saved any photos of him, and I hadn't yet been to New York City to see his face on billboards and buses. I didn't know if my father had a glass eye, a toupee, a gold tooth. I couldn't have picked him out of a police lineup, something my grandmother often suggested I'd need to do one day.
At five Grandma appeared at the door. "I thought he was coming at six-thirty," she said.
"I want to be ready. In case he's early."
"Your father? Early?" She made a tsk-tsk sound. "Your mother called from work. She told me to tell you to bring a jacket."
"It's too hot."
Again she made a sound and walked off. Grandma was no fan of my father, and she wasn't alone. The whole family boycotted my parents' wedding, except my mother's rebellious brother, Uncle Charlie, four years younger, who walked my mother down the aisle. I felt ashamed to be so excited about my father's visit. I knew it was wrong to welcome him, to think about him, to love him. As the man of my family, as my mother's protector, I should have been prepared to demand money from my father the moment he showed his face. But I didn't want to scare him off. I longed to see him even more than I longed to see my beloved Mets in person for the first time.
I bounced a rubber ball on the front stoop and tried to concentrate on the good things I knew about my father. My mother had told me that before he went into radio my father had been a "stand-up," and people "rolled in the aisles" when he performed. "What's a stand-up?" I asked. "Someone who stands up in front of people and makes them laugh," she said. I wondered if my father would stand up in front of me and make me laugh. Would he look like my favorite comedian, Johnny Carson? I hoped so. I promised God I'd never ask for another thing if my father looked like Johnny Carson-those twinkly eyes, that kindly trace of a smile always playing at the corners of his mouth.
A terrifying thought made me stop throwing the ball against the stoop. What if my father, knowing how the whole family felt about him, didn't want to pull into the driveway? What if he slowed down on Plandome Road, checked to see if I was there, then sped away? I sprinted to the sidewalk. Now I could jump through his window as he slowed down and away we'd go. Leaning sideways like a hitchhiker I stared at each man who drove by, trying to decide if that could be my father. Each man looked back, concerned, irritated, wondering why that seven-year-old boy was staring at him so intently.