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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bar news that has nothing to do with lawyers

By Dick Hirsch
The truth is that I’ve never been much of a devotee of what has become known as the bar scene, but I definitely get a vicarious jolt from reading about all the many places I never before heard of and will never visit.

I think it must qualify as an out of body experience, and part of the reality is the utter disbelief that such stories actually qualify as news in what describes itself as a major metropolitan newspaper.

Attitudes are largely shaped by past experience. We all recognize that. During my reporting career, if somebody would propose a feature story mentioning some bar, the type of patrons who frequented the place, the kind of clothes they wore, and the kind of food and drink that was served, they would be laughed out of the office. The laughter would be followed by accusations that certain reporters were eager to write such stories in order to ingratiate themselves with the proprietors, and thus be entitled to regular servings of free beer and a choice of menu items.

I once wrote a column about what I considered a rather unique business operation in Wyoming County, a combination supermarket, service station, restaurant, tavern, post office and barber shop. There were semi-serious suggestions of professional malfeasance. Of course, I was absolutely innocent. Editors must have been more suspicious in those days. They were also intent on saving space in the paper for what they considered news. I’m not saying that any such stories turned out to be more interesting than today’s regular bar features, but at least some of them faintly resembled news.

The regular bar or “club” stories are yet another manifestation of the changing description of news as defined by today’s editors. They are searching for topics in which there is interest and the old primers of journalism no longer are applicable. Bars are part of sports/recreation/entertainment sphere, and apparently it isn’t necessarily bad to provide them with some free publicity.

For me, the the most illuminating and engaging aspect of all those bar stories has been the gender of the bartenders. I have not kept any statistics, but a high percentage of the bartenders are women. I realize that most of the traditional occupations related to gender have devolved, but for some reason I never noticed how many women are tending bar. It must be good for business.

In many places, the bartender creates the image of the establishment. They greet the customers, open the bottles, mix the drinks, keep track of the tabs, collect the payment, and keep things neat and organized behind the bar.

They also may provide an attraction that could not possibly be duplicated by some grumpy male cousin of the owner. By legend, bartenders were noted as good listeners. For generations, cartoonists have been depicting scenes during which an ever-patient barkeep is seen listening to the sad tale of one of the customers. The cartoonists have not yet realized that bartending is now a gender neutral job and that women must be just as patient listeners as men.

As I indicated earlier, my experience with bartenders has been limited but educational. The initial lesson was very revealing because it dealt with the synergistic relationship between bars and bartenders and politics and politicians. In college, I developed a liking for a place near the campus, a neighborhood joint, not frequented by many students. There I became acquainted with Henry Mikarski and Bud Mahon, the co-owners. Both were hard workers and personable, but Bud seemed to be able to greet everyone by name. He had a following, how big a following I never realized until the November day he was elected to the City Council. That provided me with an early insight into the role of the neighborhood tavern as a political springboard. Bud was the first of only three bartenders who ever knew my name.

The only other two were Ernie Cohn and Ray Flynn, men who had worked together for years, and who had grown old and occasionally cranky behind the bar. They had long memories and they talked as much as they listened. When Ernie died, Ray, who no one had ever described as a sentimental man, sighed and said: “He was my only friend.”

Times are different today and those guys probably wouldn’t draw much of a crowd; maybe it’s better to have a personable woman. The business must be good because although more churches are closing, more bars are opening.



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