Jeannie Talierco can look at the backbar at Hank’s Saloon, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and know who’s been in recently. “I know exactly who’s been here, because I do the liquor,” she says. If the Jose Cuervo is low, Richie’s been around. If the levels of other particular bottles are sinking, it means Joe, Smitty or David have been by. “There are about 15 people here who are my original customers.”
She speaks of her regulars with obvious affection in a hoarse Brooklyn accent, and knows everyone at the bar by name, including a guy actually named Fast Eddie, who’s been coming in on Sundays since 1969. The customers, who wear everything from T-shirts to full suits, seem to sense that she is as lacking in pretension as they are, and it puts them at ease.
Talierco—who feels enough of a connection to the bar that she got a Hank’s tattoo three years ago—has been tending bar at the corner of Third and Atlantic Avenues so long that the name of the bar has changed while she has remained in place. This dark-as-night, graffitied-as-all-hell dive was once known as the Doray—the name a conflation of its owners, Dottie and Ray. It was for many years the chosen watering hole of the Mohawk Indian iron workers who lived in the area, and is the last vestige of that community, which was vividly captured in Joseph Mitchell’s 1949 New York magazine story, “Mohawks in High Steel.” When Ray sold the bar in 2004 to Dave Shereem, the son of the owner of nearby sports bar, O’Keefe’s (another bar where Talierco has worked), the Doray was rechristened Hank’s, after Hank Williams.
Soon it, too, will be gone, surrendering its old bones to the Great God Gentrification come November. Until then, Talierco will be there, lovingly referring to her clientele as “loonies” and thoughtfully placing a napkin over their beers when they go outside for a smoke. “We have a nice class of people come in here,” she says, enumerating Hank’s virtues. “It’s a decent day bar. It’s a good night bar. This is a very good bar.” Just ask Fast Eddie.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
“I was an assistant librarian at Pan Am building. My children were young. I wanted to take care of my kids. So I decided to go out there and waitress. I went to a tavern in Manhattan where I knew people and they said, ‘No, get behind the bar…’ One day I walked in here out of the blue looking for my friend. It was the Doray then. Dottie, the owner, says, ‘Come here, you. I want you to work for me.’ It was a bad area way back then. It was terrible. I gave it a try. I walked in, Ray said, ‘You want to work in my joint? Okay, I’m going home. There’s the register. Do what you want to do.’ He called me at 5 o’clock and said, ‘You want to stay here?’ I said, ‘Okay.'”
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“A lot of discipline. Do not drink behind the bar. I just trained a young lady, 24-year-old girl. A good head on her shoulders. I said, ‘Don’t drink behind the bar.’ She said, ‘Oh, I drink behind the other bars.’ It’s not only bartending. You deal with the people. You have money. You have deliveries. You have people walking in off the banana boat, even in the daytime.”
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“Don’t do it. I had a girl here, she was adorable. I said to her, don’t stay here. Go get your education. You’re too smart. You know what she is now? A professor. I got the chills. She’s a mother of two. I’m glad I did that.”
Has bartending changed over the course of your career?
“Years ago, the drinks were cheaper. People had less money. It was very family oriented in here, with Dottie and Ray. I miss them so much. Everything was family. We used to go a dinner-dance at El Caribe in Mill Basin. It was like going to a wedding without the bride and groom. They paid for 50 couples—customers, whatever. It was amazing.”
What’s the most unusual encounter you’ve had with a customer?
“I miss my iron workers. They were really the best people. This was nothing but iron workers here when I first started. They mostly lived on State Street because there used to be furnished apartments over there. A 50-year-old guy came in on Monday; he told me a couple of them passed away. I get very emotional. I’ve lost about 63 customers. They got sick, older, numerous things. My favorites were Leila and Artie. I used to call her Mama. Blond hair. She thought she was Marilyn. She dressed for every event. They were so good. We used to have couches and customers used to sit there and sleep. There was Michael. He was an old-timer who’d been here for years. He passed. He had his own table. No one was allowed to sit there except the cat woman. She used to feed the cats. She was the only one allowed at his table. He was a piece of work. We had a public phone, where the jukebox was. He would always answer it. That was his job. Later, we had the phone rewired. He came to me and said, ‘You took away my job!’”