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 Fieldto play "bicycle polo;" where neighbors hid from one another behind their perfect hedgerowsyet still kept careful track of one another's stories and foibles; where everyone departed at sunrise on the trains to Manhattanbut 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 Scratchthe 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 factnamely, 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 nowyou 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 soufflés 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.
From The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. Copyright J.R. Moehringer 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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