Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Purity. Body. Flavor": The Stuff of a Lifetime

A guy sits down at a bar and says “Oh, I’m so tired from doing all those chores.”

Next barstool says, “What chores?”

First guy, “I’ll take a Ballantine, thanks.”

Did I mention it’s 1953?

Even that detail wouldn’t have helped me get it entirely. This was a little joke my father once told me, and he had to explain it was a play on “What’s yours?” which is a way of saying “What’ll you have?” and that if you ask it in a bar, it means you’re buying the round (unless you’re the bartender.)

[Let’s take a tangent here: Not that I doubted my father, but I had never heard this “What’s yours” in real life anywhere. Then in college I was reading Hemingway’s "The Killers" (written in 1927), and here are the opening lines:

The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They say down at the counter.

“What’s yours?” George asked them.

So Hemingway and Dad were on the same page; that’s an English major’s dream. It was also one of those moments when you are reminded just how much more your parents really do know, especially when you are just 18.]


But back to our bar. This little joke was part of the jocular culture of a neighborhood bar in Richmond Hill, Queens, in the late forties and fifties.

My father walked into The Shelton in Richmond Hill as a young man, and, in a sense, met his life when he met another Irish American habitue named John. They would enjoy a special, deep, lifelong friendship along with John’s own brother Luke. Their personal histories would become part of the larger picture of the forces that built post-war suburbia.

It sounds cliché, but it was all the real thing. They three drank together, laughed together, and dated together. They were each true, devoted, smart baseball fans, with that special edge that comes from being New Yorkers, and they spent many, many happy hours arguing the merits of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Mets (my Dad) over the Yankees (Luke and John).

They married within months of one another, started out in small garden apartments in Brooklyn, then all made the big move to the house on Long Island, mostly fueled by the G.I. bill in one form or another. Soon the three families were growing.

My memories of these two uncles along with the faux cousins are some of the happiest of my childhood. Particularly ringing in more than a decade of successive New Years with 2-day parties that rotated among the three houses.

They faced the trials of life in the knowledge of several certainties, including God, country, and each other. I admired their rooted goodness and decency, and came to understand that their own flavors of quiet desperation were tempered by their commitment to family.

The last of the friends died this week. My father died first when just 57, which was terrible. One of my clearest memories of his wake was how visibly upset my Uncle Luke was. “How could this happen” he cried out with honest abandon in the funeral home.

As the families of Ed, John, and Luke gathered yesterday for Uncle Luke’s funeral Mass, we each had the same visual thought:

They are sitting on the great bar stools in the Shelton in the sky, arguing about the Yankees and Mets. It did not go unnoticed that the first of the day’s Subway matchups, while we were having lunch after the Mass, went to the Mets. What happened in the evening at Shea would be cause for recriminations and another round of celestial Ballantine.

2 comments:

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Yes, one of several possibilities!

A stranger comes (why do we use the historic present in these circumstances?) into a bar and says 'I'm afraid I'm a stranger to these shores...'

...and so on. I thought Ballantine's was a whisky? But maybe that's Ballantyne's.

M.A.Peel said...

CCH--I love the historical present. It's that timelessness of it all.