The Tender Bar
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. R. Moehringer is the son of a fiercely devoted Irish mother and a mercurial, disinterested Italian father. His parents separate when he is a baby, and his father abandons his son physically, financially, and emotionally. His mother, Dorothy, moves back into her parents’ ramshackle house in Manhasset, Long Island, in which her brother, Charlie, her married sister, Ruth, and Ruth’s six children also live. J. R. listens to the radio to hear the voice of his father, a popular disc jockey known as Johnny Michaels. Living in a household dominated by women, J. R. craves validation from men and talks back to his father’s radio voice, pretending they are having a conversation.
Dorothy works long hours, always striving for enough money for her and J. R. to move into their own apartment. Occasionally she succeeds, and for a time they have a place of their own, but financial crises always send them back to the chaotic family home. J. R.’s cousins also move in and out, as their parents, Ruth and Harry, separate and reunite.
Although their house is one of the most dilapidated in town, J. R.’s grandfather is quite well-off. He had retired after acquiring an impressive stock portfolio, but he is so cheap that he digs in trash cans for discarded newspapers to check on his stocks. Worse, he is as stingy with affection as with money, rarely speaking a kind word to anyone and never calling his wife anything but “Stupid Woman.”
J. R. is intelligent and an avid reader; books provide the only respite from his crowded, chaotic, noisy home. His mother realizes how much he longs for a father. Hoping to provide him with at least male companionship, Dorothy asks Charlie to take J. R. to the beach with him and his buddies.
Charlie, a heavy gambler, is a flamboyant bartender at one of Manhasset’s most popular bars, Dickens (later called Publicans), and all of his friends are employees or regular patrons of the bar. Charlie and his buddies soon accept their young charge and become almost as much of a constant in the boy’s life as his mother. Thus begins J. R.’s journey to manhood, the path littered with salty language, strewn with chauvinistic attitudes, and watered by alcohol but also providing him with admiration, encouragement, and a refuge from his problems.
Bars and churches were the most prominent establishments in Manhasset, Moehringer recalls. A church stood at one end of the main street and Dickens/Publicans Bar at the other end. These he find to be equally impressive and important temples. The predominantly Irish neighborhood happily patronizes Dickens/Publicans, where most of the staff is Irish, each drink is a long pour, and every third drink is free. Dickens/Publicans attracts an eclectic crowd from the neighborhood and beyond, from Wall Street tycoons to the unemployed, pontificating intellectuals to the barely coherent.Everyone has a holy place, a refuge. . . . For better or worse, my holy place was Steve’s bar. . . . I grew up 142 steps from a glorious old American tavern, and that has meant all the difference. . . . For the first twenty-five years of my life, everyone I knew either sent me to the bar, drove me to the bar, accompanied me to the bar, rescued me from the bar, or was in the bar when I arrived. . . . At some point the bar itself became my father, its dozens of men melding into one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder, providing the needed alternative to my mother, that Y chromosome to her X.
Mother and son are extremely close and loving. As much as he depends on his mother, J. R. also feels a huge responsibility to take care of her, despite Dorothy’s efforts to allay his concerns. As a young child, he decides to become a lawyer so that he can put his mother through college; his grandfather had refused to allow his daughters to pursue higher education. J. R. worries obsessively about his mother, their finances, and their future, fearing that if he is not perfect, he will fail his mother as his father had done. In Dickens, he finds a different dynamic: The men there applaud him as much for losing as for succeeding.
When J. R. is a young teenager, Aunt Ruth and her children move to Arizona. Looking for a new start, Dorothy and J. R. follow. However, Aunt Ruth soon returns to New York, leaving Dorothy and J. R. somewhat adrift. With their relatives gone, Dorothy decides that J. R. would be better off with family during vacations, and he returns to his grandparents’ home every summer. There, he has few social outlets beyond Uncle Charlie and his drinking buddies, and he lives for the days that Charlie gets up early enough and in a good enough mood to take him to the beach.
(The entire section is 1935 words.)