Monday, August 2, 2010

Mornings at Tammany Hall

The art teacher generally turned up at Tammany Hall around 9 in the morning. The saloon was closed, but someone would let Cliff through the double doors of the converted Washington townhouse near 21st St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW. He would amble to the far end of the bar, away from the doors and the windows and place his briefcase on the barstool next to him.

He was an art professor, actually, at George Washington University, just a block down the street, and a watercolorist of some renown. “Gin,” he would offer, though anyone behind the battered counter would already be reaching for the Beefeater bottle.

Some men who drink at 9 in the morning need a newspaper or a crossword puzzle or a detective novel as a prop. And of course, in the era of Dick Nixon, the cell phone had not yet become an all-purpose appendage and refuge.

Cliff needed nothing but the gin. He was meticulous, quiet and polite, making church steeples with his fingers and pushing back his lank brown hair. He did not require gossip or bartender bonhomie or witless chat about the weekly fate of the Washington Redskins. He needed gin.

Around 10, Mr. Sims, a native Washingtonian of indeterminate age, would make his way from the downstairs kitchen to Cliff’s end of the bar. He would fire up a Kool, nod at Cliff and shoot a look at the bartender.

Charles Sims was famously uninterested in the names of the customers or of his white-boy colleagues who tended bar or waited tables. Someone would place three fingers of room-temperature gin in front of him and he would knock it back, always offering the same assessment.

“Make you sick or make you well,” he’d gasp.

From time to time, as a kind of peace offering, Charles would emerge from the kitchen with bowls of what he called “Turkey Butt stew.” The translation was literal – Charles wasted nothing in the Tammany Hall kitchen. But as appalling as it was in concept, we came to believe the stew (it was soup, actually) possessed miraculous, recuperative powers over the hangover. To that end we consumed it with vigor, and we didn’t ask too many questions.

For his part, Cliff, the art professor, would ignore the stew and generally have a pair of large gins, maybe three on a morning when the prospect of facing his students and his peers got the better of him.

Their behavior was in no way viewed as unusual or problematic, and the gin in the bottle was almost never Beefeater.

Resplendent in a turtleneck and Frye boots, I was the guy behind the counter cutting the fruit. Being hired as a waiter at Tammany had saved me from a life of graduate school and working as a loan officer wannabe in a bank on 14th St. I had ascended to day bartender when a colleague had, in a festive manner, fallen down about a hundred rows of seats at RFK Stadium.

“No hard feelings,” Leigh told me. “I ‘d rather wait tables. You actually like talking to these people.” And I did.

I was a guy who had never had much fun, and was essentially unfamiliar with the concept. On my 25th birthday, my new friends Tom Costello and Chris Reidy appeared to tell me I would be working the bar that October night and they would be celebrating my birthday because, well, they felt I didn’t know how.

They were right. But I learned pretty fast. Unlike the bank or grad school, the bar was always open. Cash flowed into the tip jar. There were interesting women with drinks who stayed up late. At night a gaggle of journalistic regulars appeared, men and women who looked like they were having a lot of fun on and off the job. There was live music a couple nights a week, notably Emmylou Harris and Asleep at the Wheel.

My career path was just about where I wanted it to be.

On some mornings we would earn an early visit from Father Tim, a crowd favorite in local saloon circles. He was a defrocked priest and a kind of hero by our raffish standards, having been bounced from the clergy by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington for “disseminating” birth control information to poor women.

Not abortion counseling. Father Tim lost his stripes for suggesting to poor women that they needn’t get pregnant. A firing offense in those days.

So we liked Father Tim. But he was not without his odd habits and tendencies. He kept a number of checkbooks, including one that identified him – ex post facto – as a priest. Bars honored personal checks in those days and it was remarkable how often Father Tim would flash the priestly checkbook in Georgetown or on Capitol Hill and be told it was all on the house. And thanks for coming in, Father.

At Tammany Hall we were in on the game, of course, but the padre never got whacked for more than every other drink. This was despite the fact that Father Tim routinely indulged in a personal saloon ritual that can only be described as disturbing.

Customers who order the same drink the same way every time are generally held in high regard by bartenders. And Father Tim pushed the limits, as unpredictable as the College of Cardinals. Perhaps it was some relic of his boyhood days in the seminary but the good father insisted on many variations of beverage, all in the same vessel. He might start with a soda, then transfer his affections to a Bloody Mary, then perhaps move on to a cold draft beer. Same glass.

We viewed this conduct as closer to a mortal sin than a venial one, but he was our mascot priest. He was often in the company of Maryland real estate moguls who were masquerading as doctors, looking for some public entity to build them a hospital, the better to fleece the government and the needy.

Father Tim forgave them their sins, apparently, but we pounded their bar checks, making them pay for everything, and then some. It was a simple rule of thumb: if someone we liked was going to pay a little less, then someone else was going to have to pay a little more.

At about 11:30, the place was as ready as it was ever going to be for business. On an average morning I’d brew another pot of coffee, discreetly pour the better part of a quart of King George IV scotch into a Dewar’s bottle and tighten the apron.

Normal people – strays – would be coming for hamburgers and chef salads and fish & chips, with iced tea, and we would have to serve them. “The job must be done,” Tom Costello would say. In five or six hours we could start the party again.

Cliff, Mr. Sims and Father Tim are real people; they are not real names.

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