I was always intimidated walking into the bar at the American Legion Post 140. While I had attended countless clambakes, chicken barbecues and Friday fish fries there, the bar was a members only affair. Behind the Legion there was a covered deck and then a locked entryway with a one-way mirror. After ringing the bell there was an awkward moment of silence staring at my own reflection as I waited to be let inside. Then I’d hear the bartender shout from the other side, “What’s the password?” Then laughter as I was buzzed in with a shout: “Bert, it’s your son.” Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the basement bar, I’d find my father at his favorite stool and he’d buy me a Coke and discreetly slide over a short stack of pull-tabs for me to help him tear through while he ordered another Miller Lite.
My father’s name was Herbert. But when people called the house it often turned into a round of “Who’s on First?” when relaying the message, on whether they asked for Bert, Herb or Herbert. Depending on the salutation, my father could discern whether the caller was a friend, co-worker or telemarketer. To complicate matters, his good friend and neighbor across the street went by Herbie, which was somehow short for LaVern.
Bert, as his friends called him, lived in Canastota, New York, a small village smack-dab in the heart of Central New York, just off Exit 34 on the Thruway. The historic Erie Canal cuts through the center of town and it’s home to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, (Italian-American world boxing champions Carmen Basilio and his nephew Billy Backus were both natives). He served four years in the Navy and was a veteran of the Korean War, and after leaving the military he spent most of his professional life working as an airline mechanic out of Syracuse Hancock International Airport. In 2004, less than five years into his retirement, he was felled by a stroke, leaving him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to read or speak. Four years later he passed away.
My parents divorced when I was 10. My mother re-married but my father never did. He lived alone, set in his ways (as one is when they live alone). He rarely traveled more than 30 miles from his house, saying that he got all of the traveling he ever wanted to do out of his system when he was in the Navy. He was predictable with his drink order, too: an ice-cold Miller Lite, preferably in a bottle. (At home he drank it out of a can, storing an everlasting case in the crisper.) But there was a time when he drank more than beer.
It’s true, a bar can be a beacon for the sad and lonely or those just weary after a miserable day at work, but even when you’re drinking alone, you’re a featured cast member in the organic community that springs up around a bar—whether the actual bar is at a tavern, a restaurant, a hotel or a member’s only club.
When I was a boy I recall the buzz of conversation and clinking ice cubes against a soundtrack of Tom Jones and Blood, Sweat, and Tears when my parents had friends over or entertained during the holidays. Unable to sleep I would wander into the living room and make a cameo appearance in my Star Wars pajamas while my dad stirred Manhattans in a tall glass cocktail shaker and garnished them with neon-red maraschino cherries.
But over the years he shifted away from drinking any hard liquor and stuck with Miller Lite, the occasional glass of red wine and a traditional tumbler of Baileys Irish Cream over ice on Christmas Eve. His liquor cabinet became a preserved tomb of Canadian Club, Lancers and half-filled bottles of liqueurs and schnapps caked with dust.
You could set your watch by his routines and Friday was his preferred day to stop off for a drink on the way home from work. When I was in high school, if I ever needed to find my father (usually to ask him to borrow the car or hit him up for 20 bucks), there was a short-list of establishments where I could find his white Cadillac parked out front.
I’d always start at the Legion, but there was also The Three Pines, a local tavern whose menu was decorated with sports-theme puns. (On the menu, my go-to order of chicken fingers with French fries was called the Fowl Line.) He had a favorite female bartender there and always sat at her station. When I stopped in he kept me occupied with a fistful of quarters for the jukebox where I would play “Riders on the Storm,” one of his favorite Doors songs.
And there was The White Elephant, a once-popular lounge where traveling entertainers would stop in for a drink on their way to the nearby train station, lured in by the large tipsy neon elephant hanging over the door. On the other side of town was Graziano’s Casa Mia, a red-leather banquette-bedecked Italian restaurant run by Tony Graziano, a former World War II paratrooper and boxing manager, trainer and promoter who always greeted me with a pantomimed upper-cut to the jaw.
These were my father’s joints and at all these places he normally drank by himself. He would run into friends or people he knew, but he never really made plans to specifically meet anyone. He would have a few beers and then order something from the kitchen to go. Drinking alone was fine, but eating alone wasn’t something he liked to do in public.
He wasn’t always the only person at the bar drinking by himself, but he was my dad, and there were times when I felt sorry for him. It took me years to understand that he was never really alone. It’s true, a bar can be a beacon for the sad and lonely or those just weary after a miserable day at work, but even when you’re drinking alone, you’re a featured cast member in the organic community that springs up around a bar—whether the actual bar is at a tavern, a restaurant, a hotel or a member’s only club. I think, for him, it was something he genuinely looked forward to, signaling the transition from workweek to weekend. A way to kick back, catch up on gossip and (as he’d say) “shoot the shit,” with the other regulars. But ultimately it was all about keeping a routine.
While I didn’t inherit my father’s gift for being mechanically inclined, I like to think that he’s responsible for a few of my key character traits, including a passion for books, a swift sense of humor and a love for animals (especially cats). And as I grew older I realized that, like my father, I, too, am a creature of habit.
I lived in Seattle for over a decade and I pretty much hit the Palace Kitchen every Friday night—sometimes with friends or co-workers or on a date, but most often sitting alone at the tiled, horseshoe bar. And now, back in New York, I’m a Friday night regular at spots like PDT, Prime Meats and Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I return to my regular haunts because of the conviviality of the routine—that combination of the music, the bartender, the servers and the genuine buzz of people having a good time spilling out onto the sidewalk on a summer night.
There are many people who’d have an anxiety attack at the thought of going to a movie by themselves, let alone going out to a bar alone, but it’s never really concerned me. I’ve found that when I’m alone, strangers and other customers at the bar are more likely to ask me questions about the menu or what I’m drinking or engage me in a conversation about the neighborhood. And being a regular expands my interaction with bartenders and servers into a genuine connection. I’ve become friends with many of them; I’ve been to see their bands, cheered them on in bartending competitions and kicked back at bonfires. I even attended the baby shower of one of my favorite hostesses. And with cycling rituals of life, I’m drawn back to my favorite bar to seek solace when I’m feeling blue or had a frustrating day, when I want to celebrate good news or just have cold beer or a well-made Old Fashioned. The familiarity of routine is one of the best things a bar can offer.
Among the things borrowed or bequeathed from my father that are still in my possession, that vintage cocktail shaker he used to make Manhattans has a place of honor among the cocktail books in my library. As do the dozens of drink tokens he collected over the years. Bars used these “good for one drink” chips when someone sent over a round but the customer still had a full drink in front of them. My dad kept the ones he didn’t end up using in a mug atop his dresser.
While I don’t need physical objects to conjure memories of my father, having those drink tokens atop my own dresser—resting in an old Beefeater London Gin ashtray—serves as a daily reminder of the man he was, and how much I wish we could cash a couple of those in at one of his favorite bars to have just one more drink alone, together.