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 bartendersin 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 thingslacrosse 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 kickan 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 dreamsbar 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 anyoneburn down a bar?"
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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