Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tell Me About Your Dreams, Laddie.

During my early years in New York, I worked as a bartender in an Irish Pub on the Upper East Side. I think it was 67th and 3rd Avenue. I had only been working there a couple of months when St. Paddy's day came around. The head bartender was an older Irish guy, a real Irish guy - first generation - with a face like a catcher's mitt and an impossibly upbeat personality. We hoisted more than a few 'poynts' together after our shift. Later I had to do an Irish accent on stage and it was his that I used as my model. His name was Brennan and I believe he's still there, tending bar at the same pub all these years later, well into his seventies by now. At least I'd heard he was a couple years ago.

Brendan taught me the finer points of bartending. He had a remarkable rapport with his customers, particularly those right off the boat from Dublin. He loved to get into the thick of things regarding his customers private lives. He really did see himself as a sort of father confessor behind the bar. I can still hear him saying as he set a shot of Jameson's in front of some baleful guy at the bar, "Tell me, Laddie, what's got ya' so horse-faced early in the day?"

People poured out their problems to Brendan. And he took it all in without judgement. 'Nobody ever brings anything small into a bar,' as Mary Chase says in the play, 'Harvey.' Brendan, although I'm sure he had never read or seen that play, took that truism very much to heart.

So it's St. Patrick's day and I come in for my usual afternoon shift. This was a bit of an upscale bar/eatery on the Upper East and the bartenders wore black pants, white button down shirt, a black tie and a long white apron...very much in the old school bartender tradition. We all kept an unsharpened pencil, the kind with a blunt end, behind our ear like Brennan did, for no real reason.

As I walked in that particular day, Brendan took one look at me and said, "Change your tie, Cliffy, and put one on that brought I in...they're in the back." Huh? I went into the back room and there were several clip-on, black ties laid out. I took mine off and put one on. I went back out to start my 'side work' and asked him why? "Just trust me, Laddie."

It was a long bar, triangle shaped, with three bartenders at any given at the point, two on either side. The other bartender came in a few minutes later. He, like myself, was a young guy. Brendan told him the same thing, "Go in the back, Laddie, and put one of the ties on that I brought in." I don't remember the other guy's name but he was a surly sort, didn't really like bartending, and always seemed to be hungover. He looked at Brendan and said, "I've got a tie, thank you." Brendan smiled and said, "And it's a lovely tie. But you'll want to put mine on." The surly guy ignored him and kept on cutting lemons and cleaning up behind the bar readying himself for opening, which was 10:00am, sharp.

As I said, it was St. Paddy's day in New York and the Irish in that city take that day very seriously. When we unlocked the door, they swarmed in. Three or four deep at the bar within an hour. We were all in the weeds, pouring shots and tap beer at top speed. After a while I heard a commotion at the other end of the bar (Brendan always had 'point' because he was the fastest). I looked down and saw that a customer had the other young bartender by his tie and was punching him repeatedly in the face. He couldn't get away because his tie was a regular wrap-around tie. He was helpless. By the time Brendan and I got to him, he was a goner. Eyes swelling, bloody lip, dazed. Brendan was chuckling as we pulled the drunk customer off him and lowered him to the floor behind the bar. "Told him to put one of my ties on," he said under his breath.

And that was my lesson for the day: always wear a clip-on tie when you're bartending on St. Paddy's day.

I didn't stay long with that job because I got an acting gig shortly thereafter. But of all my 'service industry' jobs in New York back in those day, it was by far my favorite. The tips were surprisingly good for an Irish Pub and, more importantly, it was always fun. Mostly because of Brendan and his refusal to take anything too seriously. Plus he actively encouraged drinking on the job, felt it was the bartender's duty to drink with his customers, and in those days for me, anyway, that was a huge incentive to go to work.

And, like I said, Brendan took a liking to me and we often drank together after we clocked out for the day. He had an amazing ability to always move the conversation away from himself and focus on me. "Tell me your dreams, Laddie," I can still hear him saying. However, one night in a moment of unexpected candor, he did say he had always wanted to be an opera singer. He was tone deaf and to my knowledge had never been to the opera, but nonetheless, it was the one thing he always wanted to do. "Ah, but enough about me, Laddie, tell me your dreams."

If Angie and I ever get back to the city, I'll stop in for a club soda and see if he's still there. If he is, I'll have Angie meet him. If he remembers me, and I think he will, I'll say, "Brendan, I'd like you to meet my wife." I suspect he'll smile knowingly and say, "I heard all about you twenty one years ago." He always did have a flare for the poetic.

See you tomorrow.

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