Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides
-Dylan Thomas, "Light breaks where no sun shines"
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 hometownManhasset, 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 successconfidence was his most attractive quality and his tragic flawbut 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.
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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