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Prologue | ONE OF MANY
We went there for everything we needed. we went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.
My personal list of needs was long. An only child, abandoned by my father, I needed a family, a home, and men. Especially men. I needed men as mentors, heroes, role models, and as a kind of masculine counterweight to my mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins with whom I lived. The bar provided me with all the men I needed, and one or two men who were the last thing I needed.
Long before it legally served me, the bar saved me. It restored my faith when I was a boy, tended me as a teenager, and when I was a young man the bar embraced me. While I fear that we're drawn to what abandons us, and to what seems most likely to abandon us, in the end I believe we're defined by what embraces us. Naturally I embraced the bar right back, until one night the bar turned me away, and in that final abandonment the bar saved my life.
There had always been a bar on that corner, by one name or another, since the beginning of time, or the end of Prohibition, which were the same thing in my hard-drinking hometown-Manhasset, Long Island. In the 1930s the bar was a stop-off for movie stars on their way to the nearby yacht clubs and posh ocean resorts. In the 1940s the bar was a haven for soldiers coming home from the wars. In the 1950s the bar was a lounge for greasers and their poodle-skirted girlfriends. But the bar didn't become a landmark, a patch of hallowed ground, until 1970, when Steve bought the place and renamed it Dickens. Above the door Steve hung a silhouette of Charles Dickens, and below the silhouette he spelled out the name in Old English lettering: dickens. Such a blatant display of Anglophilia didn't sit well with every Kevin Flynn and Michael Gallagher in Manhasset. They let it slide only because they so thoroughly approved of Steve's Cardinal Rule of the Barroom: Every third drink free. Also, it helped that Steve hired seven or eight members of the O'Malley clan to bus his tables, and that he took pains to make Dickens look as though it had been shipped brick by brick from County Donegal.
Steve intended his bar to look like a European public house, but to feel quintessentially American, an honest-to-god house for the public. His public. In the heart of Manhasset, a pastoral suburb of eight thousand people, seventeen miles southeast of Manhattan, Steve wanted to create a sanctuary where his neighbors and friends and fellow drinkers, and especially his high-school buddies coming home from Vietnam, could savor a feeling of safety and return. In every venture Steve was confident of success-confidence was his most attractive quality and his tragic flaw-but with Dickens he surpassed his greatest expectations. Manhasset quickly came to see Steve's bar as the bar. Just as we said The City to mean New York City, and The Street to mean Wall Street, we always said The Bar, presumptively, and there was never any confusion about which bar we meant. Then, imperceptibly, Dickens became something more than The Bar. It became The Place, the preferred shelter from all life's storms. In 1979, when the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island melted down and fear of apocalypse swept the Northeast, many Manhassetites phoned Steve to reserve space in the airtight basement below his bar. Of course everyone had their own basements. But there was just something about Dickens. People thought of it first whenever doomsday loomed.
Along with sanctuary, Steve provided nightly lessons in democracy, or the special plurality of alcohol. Standing in the middle of his barroom, you could watch men and women from all strata of society educating and abusing one another. You could hear the poorest man in town discussing "market volatility" with the president of the New York Stock Exchange, or the local librarian lecturing a New York Yankees Hall of Famer about the wisdom of choking up on the bat. You could hear a feebleminded porter say something so off-the-wall, and yet so wise, that a college philosophy professor would jot it on a napkin and tuck it in his pocket. You could hear bartenders-in between making bets and mixing Pink Squirrels--talk like philosopher kings.
Steve believed the corner bar to be the most egalitarian of all American gathering places, and he knew that Americans have always venerated their bars, saloons, taverns, and "gin mills," one of his favorite expressions. He knew that Americans invest their bars with meaning and turn to them for everything from glamour to succor, and above all for relief from that scourge of modern life--loneliness. He didn't know that the Puritans, upon landing in the New World, built a bar even before they built a church. He didn't know that American bars descend directly from the medieval inns of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which descended from the Saxon alehouses, which descended from the tabernae along the roads of ancient Rome. Steve's bar could trace its lineage all the way back to the painted caves of Western Europe where Stone Age elders initiated young boys and girls into the ways of the tribe nearly fifteen thousand years ago. Though Steve didn't know these things, he sensed them in his blood and enacted them in everything he did. More than most men, Steve appreciated the importance of place, and on the cornerstone of this principle he was able to build a bar so strange and shrewd and beloved and wondrously in tune with its customers, that it came to be known well beyond Manhasset.
My hometown was famous for two things-lacrosse and liquor. Year in, year out, Manhasset produced a disproportionate number of superb lacrosse players and a still-greater number of distended livers. Some people also knew Manhasset as the backdrop for The Great Gatsby. While composing portions of his masterpiece, F. Scott Fitzgerald sat on a breezy veranda in Great Neck and gazed across Manhasset Bay at our town, which he turned into the fictional East Egg, a historic distinction that gave our bowling alley and pizzeria a certain archaeological grandeur. We strode each day across Fitzgerald's abandoned stage set. We romanced one another among his ruins. It was a kick-an honor. But like Steve's bar it was merely an offshoot of Manhasset's famous fondness for drink. Anyone familiar with Manhasset understood why liquor surged through Fitzgerald's novel like the Mississippi across a floodplain. Men and women throwing raucous parties and boozing until they blacked out or ran someone down with their car? Sounded to us like a typical Tuesday night in Manhasset.
Manhasset, site of the largest liquor store in New York State, was the only town on Long Island with a cocktail named after it (a Manhasset is a Manhattan, with more alcohol). The town's half-mile-long main drag, Plandome Road, was every drinker's street of dreams-bar after bar after bar. Many in Manhasset likened Plandome Road to a mythical country lane in Ireland, a gently winding procession of men and women brimming with whiskey and good cheer. Bars on Plandome Road were as numerous as stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and we took a stubborn, eccentric pride in their number. When one man torched his bar on Plandome Road to collect the insurance, cops found him in another bar on Plandome Road and told him he was wanted for questioning. The man put a hand over his heart like a priest accused of burning a cross. "How could I," he asked, "how could anyone-burn down a bar?"
With its curious division of upper class and working class, its ethnic mix of Irish and Italian, and its coterie of some of the wealthiest families in the United States, Manhasset was forever struggling to define itself. It was a town where dirty-faced urchins gathered at Memorial Field-to play "bicycle polo;" where neighbors hid from one another behind their perfect hedgerows-yet still kept careful track of one another's stories and foibles; where everyone departed at sunrise on the trains to Manhattan-but no one ever really left for good, except in a pine box. Though Manhasset felt like a small farm community, and though real estate brokers tended to call it a bedroom community, we cleaved to the notion that we were a barroom community. Bars gave us identity and points of intersection. The Little League, softball league, bowling league, and Junior League not only held their meetings at Steve's bar, they often met on the same night.
Brass Pony, Gay Dome, Lamplight, Kilmeade's, Joan and Ed's, Popping Cork, 1680 House, Jaunting Car, The Scratch-the names of Manhasset's bars were more familiar to us than the names of its main streets and founding families. The life spans of bars were like dynasties: We measured time by them, and found some primal comfort in the knowledge that whenever one closed, the curtain would rise on another. My grandmother told me that Manhasset was one of those places where an old wives' tale was accepted as fact-namely, that drinking at home was the mark of an alcoholic. So long as you drank publicly, not secretly, you weren't a drunk. Thus, bars. Lots and lots of bars.
Of course many bars in Manhasset, like bars everywhere, were nasty places, full of pickled people marinating in regret. Steve wanted his bar to be different. He wanted his bar to be sublime. He envisioned a bar that would cater to Manhasset's multiple personalities. A cozy pub one minute, a crazy after-hours club the next. A family restaurant early in the evening, and late at night a low-down tavern, where men and women could tell lies and drink until they dropped. Essential to Steve was the idea that Dickens would be the opposite of the outside world. Cool in the dog days, warm from the first frost until spring. His bar would always be clean and well-lighted, like the den of that perfect family we all believe exists but doesn't and never did. At Dickens everyone would feel special, though no one would stand out. Maybe my favorite story about Steve's bar concerned the man who found his way there after escaping a nearby mental hospital. No one looked askance at the man. No one asked who he was, or why he was dressed in pajamas, or why he had such a feral gleam in his eye. The gang in the barroom simply threw their arms around him, told him funny stories, and bought him drinks all day long. The only reason the poor man was eventually asked to leave was that he suddenly and for no apparent reason dropped his pants. Even then the bartenders only chided him gently, using their standard admonition: "Here now-you can't be doing that!"
Like love affairs, bars depend on a delicate mix of timing, chemistry, lighting, luck and--maybe above all--generosity. From the start Steve declared that no one at Dickens would feel slighted. His burgers would be three-inch souffl_s of filet mignon, his closing time would be negotiable, no matter what the law said, and his bartenders would give an extra--extra--long pour. A standard drink at Dickens would be a double anywhere else. A double would leave you cross-eyed. A triple would "cream your spinach," according to my mother's younger brother, my Uncle Charlie, the first bartender Steve ever hired.
A true son of Manhasset, Steve believed in booze. Everything he was, he owed to booze. His father, a Heineken distributor, died and left Steve a small fortune when he was young. Steve's daughter was named Brandy, his speedboat was named Dipsomania, and his face, after years of homeric drinking, was that telltale shade of scarlet. He saw himself as a Pied Piper of Alcohol, and the pie-eyed residents of Manhasset saw him that way, too. Through the years he developed a fanatic following, a legion of devotees. A Cult of Steve.
Everyone has a holy place, a refuge, where their heart is purer, their mind clearer, where they feel closer to God or love or truth or whatever it is they happen to worship. For better or worse my holy place was Steve's bar. And because I found it in my youth, the bar was that much more sacred, its image clouded by that special reverence children accord those places where they feel safe. Others might feel this way about a classroom or playground, a theater or church, a laboratory or library or stadium. Even a home. But none of these places claimed me. We exalt what is at hand. Had I grown up beside a river or an ocean, some natural avenue of self-discovery and escape, I might have mythologized it. Instead I grew up 142 steps from a glorious old American tavern, and that has made all the difference.
I didn't spend every waking minute in the bar. I went into the world, worked and failed, fell in love, played the fool, had my heart broken and my threshold tested. But because of Steve's bar each rite of passage felt linked to the last, and the next, as did each person I met. For the first twenty-five years of my life everyone I knew either sent me to the bar, drove me to the bar, accompanied me to the bar, rescued me from the bar, or was in the bar when I arrived, as if waiting for me since the day I was born. Among this last group were Steve and the men.
I used to say I'd found in Steve's bar the fathers I needed, but this wasn't quite right. At some point the bar itself became my father, its dozens of men melding into one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder, providing that needed alternative to my mother, that Y chromosome to her X. My mother didn't know she was competing with the men of the bar, and the men didn't know they were vying with her. They all assumed that they were on the same page, because they all shared one antiquated idea about manhood. My mother and the men believed that being a good man is an art, and being a bad man is a tragedy, for the world as much as for those who depend on the tragic man in question. Though my mother first introduced me to this idea, Steve's bar was where I saw its truth demonstrated daily. Steve's bar attracted all kinds of women, a stunning array, but as a boy I noticed only its improbable assortment of good and bad men. Wandering freely among this unlikely fraternity of alphas, listening to the stories of the soldiers and ballplayers, poets and cops, millionaires and bookies, actors and crooks who leaned nightly against Steve's bar, I heard them say again and again that the differences among them were great, but the reasons they had come to be so different were slight.
A lesson, a gesture, a story, a philosophy, an attitude-I took something from every man in Steve's bar. I was a master at "identity theft" when that crime was more benign. I became sarcastic like Cager, melodramatic like Uncle Charlie, a roughneck like Joey D. I strived to be solid like Bob the Cop, cool like Colt, and to rationalize my rage by telling myself that it was no worse than the righteous wrath of Smelly. Eventually I applied the mimicry I'd learned at Dickens to those I met outside the bar-friends, lovers, parents, bosses, even strangers. The bar fostered in me the habit of turning each person who crossed my path into a mentor, or a character, and I credit the bar, and blame it, for my becoming a reflection, or a refraction, of them all.
Every regular at Steve's bar was fond of metaphors. One old bourbon drinker told me that a man's life is all a matter of mountains and caves-mountains we must climb, caves where we hide when we can't face our mountains. For me the bar was both. My most luxuriant cave, my most perilous mountain. And its men, though cavemen at heart, were my Sherpas. I loved them, deeply, and I think they knew. Though they had experienced everything-war and love, fame and disgrace, wealth and ruin-I don't think they ever had a boy look at them with such shining, worshipful eyes. My devotion was something new to them, and I think it made them love me, in their way, which was why they kidnapped me when I was eleven. But now I can almost hear their voices. Whoa, kid, you're getting ahead of yourself.
Steve would have me say it like this: I fell in love with his bar, and it was reciprocal, and it was this romance that shaped all my others. At a tender age, standing in Dickens, I decided that life is a sequence of romances, each new romance a response to a previous romance. But I was only one of many romantics in Steve's bar who had reached this conclusion, who believed in this chain reaction of love. It was this belief, as much as the bar, that united us, and this is why my story is just one strand in the cord that braided all our love stories together.