by J. R. Moehringer
Reader’s Choice 3/06
Each night after reading J. R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, “The Tender Bar”, I felt light-hearted or more accurately light-headed. I’d spent yet another evening with a rowdy, hilarious, competitive, verbal group of comrades, drinkers all, at a Manhasset, Long Island saloon named Publicans. Even if the setting doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, so to speak, it’s hard not to enjoy people who are having such good-hearted fun with each other, who have chosen a way of life where a few laughs and a lot of beer conquer all. With Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Moehringer as a commentator and guide, this is a memoir not to be missed.
Young J. R. Moehringer’s story though is not just about good times. As a boy he knew his father only as “The Voice” on his radio. The volatile disk jockey had split on his wife and baby without leaving a cent. The pair lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the crowded home of relatives in the New York suburb. Even though his loving and understanding mother anchored his life, J. R. yearned for a father to teach him “the secrets of manhood”.
At eight years old, J. R. found a “pretend father”. His Uncle Charlie was a bartender and serious gambler who talked with “a crazy, jazzy fusion of SAT words and gangster slang”. By tagging along to work with him, J.R. got to know and love Publicans, the local hangout where Charlie worked. Moehringer explains that Publicans was “something more than The Bar. It became The Place, the preferred shelter from all life’s storms…when the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island melted down and fear of apocalypse swept the Northeast, many Manhassetites phoned Steve [the owner] to reserve space in the airtight basement below his bar. Of course everyone had their own basements. But…people thought of it first whenever doomsday loomed.”
The master storytellers who lined the bar each night taught J. R. lessons that shaped his life. With an almost daily dose of role models to pick from, Moehringer says, “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 the 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…”
There was heavy baggage though that went with schooling at a saloon. Moehringer became addicted to alcohol and lost the energy and will to work hard that the ambitious young man needed. These problems impacted his social life, his college experience at Yale and a promising internship at “The New York Times”. It takes an unexpected event to propel him towards a successful career and more settled life.
Moehringer’s combination of keen observation, a comic sense and intelligence enliven every page. He addresses any questions of the authenticity of his vividly detailed scenes and conversations. He writes, “Over the years [I’d] filled shoe boxes with cocktail napkins on which I’d recorded random impressions, scraps of dialogue, exchanges overheard in the barroom…” When reminiscing about a Vietnam veteran who hung out at Publicans, he says, “He had been through the fires of hell and come back with his mind and sense of humor intact, and just standing by his side made me confident about my own small battles. The euphoria I felt was the same I’d experienced reading the “Illiad”. In fact the bar and the poem complemented each other, like companion pieces…Lines from Homer came back to me and I heard them in new ways. ‘There is a strength,’ Homer wrote, ‘in the union even of very sorry men.”
I’ll drink to that.