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Letter From P. J. Clarke's
James MacGuire
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For the last 10 years, until quite recently, I lived on East 55th Street between First Avenue and Sutton Place. It was a convenient commute by foot to the two publishing companies where I spent most of the 1980s forgetting to get rich, and although I found it rather faceless at first, in time I saw a neighborhood there.

I got to know some of the shopkeepers, janitors, and doormen as I made my morning and evening rounds. Thanks to a rent strike I even achieved that relative rarity in Manhattan—an acquaintance with other people in my building. And during those years, I saw the neighborhood change. Big buildings began to arise all around the neighborhood, and many of the mob-operated porno shops and the rougher gay bars on the 53rd Street strip closed down.

There is one place in the neighborhood, however, which has not changed much in 10 years, or even longer. I’m talking about my local bar for the past decade—P. J. Clarke’s.

There are other fine watering holes in the community, but I like Clarke’s best. It is older, dirtier, cheaper, and serves a more limited menu. But the real reason I like it is that, while over the last 50 years the neighborhood around it has shifted and changed beyond recognition, Clarke’s remains what it always was: a New York ethnic bar with a patina of criminals and celebrities, successes and failures, young and old. Most importantly, it is a place where people talk, a rare commodity nowadays.

On a recent visit around three of the clock on New Year’s Eve afternoon, I pushed the swinging wooden door open to see two dozen people standing and sitting around the bar, a slab of unfinished oak soaked in the spilled spirits of a century.

Behind the bar, white-aproned bartenders ignored the customers and discussed point spreads in the upcoming weekend’s football games. Irish and American flags waved proudly from a dirty mirror, and there were no fewer than three portraits of Lincoln, while FDR and JFK merited one apiece. There was a Union Pacific calendar, an ancient ad for Glenlivet, bad check lists, a jukebox, two clocks, three antediluvian cash registers, and a Tiffany glass window on top of the door to the men’s bog. Near the door a faded blue sign said, “UN: We believe.” And further down there were photos of the dismantling of the Third Avenue El and a poignant portrait of Michael Collins, the doomed hero of Irish Independence, dressed in a military uniform outside the Dublin Post Office, his face creased in a confident smile.

After fighting for a beer in the bar I meandered into the middle room, its 10 tables covered in red-and-white-checked tablecloths, and on into the back. The back room is darker and larger. There are old gas lamps, now fitted out with electric light, and the walls are covered with pictures: of Terence MacSwiney, the martyred Mayor of Cork; of Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator, of Charlie Conerly, of McSorley’s; of the pedestrian bridge at Broadway and Fulton Street in 1866; and of Skippy, the late house-dog.

These are not the ersatz tsatskes of a fern bar reaching futilely for some archetype of the authentic, but the archaeological detritus of one of the proudest and most turbulent eras of this city’s history.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, mid-Manhattan remained undeveloped. Fifth Avenue was called the Middle Road, and there was a sheep meadow at the site of today’s Tiffany & Co. Irish and German immigration poured into New York in the 1840s, however, and the city swelled northward.

At that time, as is true again today, many of the immigrant Irish were employed in construction. Others worked in the slaughterhouses situated where the UN now sits nervously. Still more were employed at Peter Doelger’s brewery on Sutton Place, then called Avenue A. (Breweries were abundant in midtown—Cook’s, Rheingold, Schaefer—thanks to the confluence of four natural streams which have now been plugged.) Sutton Place soon became a street of typical four- and five-story tenements, and one of the most venerable of P. J. Clarke’s waiters, Tommy Joyce, whitehaired, handsome, and still working at 76 years of age, grew up in one of them on 59th Street.

“My uncles both had full-time jobs, but they also worked for the city as lamplighters. They would get up at five in the morning and go outside to light the lamps, and before they went to bed they’d snuff them out.

“We were poor, but in those days it was safe to play in the street. And in the summertime the city brought portable bath lockers down to the edge of the East River. Before the FDR Drive was built, there were just rocks on the bank, no big embankment like today. We called 54th and the river Allen’s Point, and if the tide was running right, we’d swim. I used to swim all the way to Long Island City. But if the tide was running north and bringing all the crap up from the slaughterhouses, why then, of course, we wouldn’t swim.”

In the last years of the nineteenth century, the neighborhood was linked to distant sections of the city by the newly constructed Second and Third Avenue Els. The forerunner of P. J. Clarke, a publican named Jennings, located his saloon close by the Third Avenue El to cater to the Irish laborer who rode it to work. Although city records date the building from 1868 (it replaced squatters’ shacks), nobody knows for sure how long ago “Jennings” opened. “Forever” is the closest estimate I have heard. But it was there in another incarnation, owned by a Mr. Duneen, when an Irishman named Paddy Clarke came off the boat in 1902. After 10 years of hard work behind the bar, the original P. J. bought the place and renamed it.

The Clarke family owned the bar for 36 years, from 1912 to 1948. The neighborhood changed steadily through those years. Migration to the suburbs grew. Doelger’s brewery and the tenements were sold to developers who built luxury apartment houses along Sutton Place. The el was torn down and high-rise office buildings were thrown up on Third Avenue. St. John’s Church, built in 1881 and long the center of neighborhood life, was demolished by Cardinal Spellman in 1969. Through all these changes, Clarke’s survived. Mr. Lavezzo, who had immigrated from Italy and built up a successful antique and furniture restoration business, bought the building from Paddy Clarke for $19,000 in 1942. Six years later, after P. J.’s death, Mr. Lavezzo’s sons bought the bar from 26 beneficiaries of the Clarke Estate. Longtime employees got along with the new regime, and one member of the Clarke family, Charles Clarke, who was born in a room upstairs, continued working there until he retired in 1989.

By the Fifties, more businesses were moving uptown, and Clarke’s had become a popular spot for the advertising crowd. Always a favorite with sports personalities, its late hours (P. J.’s closes at four in the morning, though anyone who knocks and is known can get in until dawn; the problem is that people seldom do anymore) made it a favorite with show business folks as well. When the Tishmans assembled the block for the Marine Midland Bank Building, they held long negotiations with the Lavezzos and in the end agreed to buy the building and its air rights, contingent upon leasing it back to them for 99 years.

So P. J.’s survived. But what makes Clarke’s so special?

Is it Frankie Ribando, the dapperly dressed maitre d’, who a disgruntled patron once likened to a Lionel conductor? It could be, if you can get him to talk to you about New York architecture. He has been studying it all his life. He also knows furniture, having started with the Lavezzos at age 14 in their antique store upstairs. But what he knows best of all is Clarke’s.

“This is a place of history, you know,” says Frankie. “Everybody passed through here. Hedy Lamarr, Eugene O’Neill. Alice Faye still comes to Clarke’s. Teddy Kennedy came to P. J.’s for lunch the day after he lost the nomination to Carter in 1980. He stiffed the waiter out of his tip. Frank Sinatra loves to hold forth at Clarke’s. He doesn’t stiff. The old-time editor, Dennis McEvoy, used to come in at three A.M., stand on his head in a chair, and sing an aria from Pagliacci in Japanese. They don’t make them like that any more!”

I wandered into Clarke’s by happenstance one night in the early Eighties and ran into a friend of mine from the racetrack. “Come over to the house table,” he said, and meet a couple of friends of mine.”

There were two older guys sitting there, both in beat-up looking clothes, one of whom proved to be the owner, Danny Lavezzo Sr. He had the face of a hound dog and thick black eyebrows. His friend, Bill Healy, a stockbroker born and raised in Providence, wore a once-stylish tweed jacket and spoke in a voice with all the delicacy of a foghorn.

“I don’t care what you say,” he bellowed, “Mayor Crotch is nothing but an uptown Manny Skolnick.” The reference, as I later learned, was to a star of the Yiddish theater.

“That may be,” Danny answered, chewing his cigar. “But the fact is that he knows how to run the city without Putting it up to its ass in debt. I remember Toots Shor talking about his first job in Jersey waiting tables at the Shore. ’Those were great days,’ Toots said. ’I was making $20 a week at the restaurant and betting $200 a night on the fights.’ And it was the God’s honest truth. The problem is that’s how every cretin since La Guardia has tried to run this town, including Lindsay, the glamourpuss. He was the biggest ’fubar’ of them all. His administration was a living illustration of what Franco said in the last speech he gave before he died: ’Four years ago we were on the edge of the precipice. Today we have taken a step forward.’”

Danny Sr. and Frankie are not the only characters at Clarke’s. Another is the house manager, Jack Sterling. He sits silently at a table in the middle room nursing a Campari and soda, his face a scowl of Buddha-like impassivity. Jack was not born into the business. He started out as a gentleman horse trainer.

“Had a big place on the Eastern Shore. Three hundred acres. Fourteen in help. Didn’t have to pay much in those days. Came up north with a string of race horses and ran pretty well until the Crash. I struggled as long as I could, but I finally had to sell the farm in 1938.”

A Maryland beau of the Twenties, lame, squinty-eyed, but still going forward, 50 years later or more.

“How did you get into the saloon business?” I asked him one night.

“When I went under I had a lot of debts around town, and the Copa offered to let me work off my bill there. I’d been married to Liz Altemus (who briefly married John Hay Whitney instead) and spent a lot of money courting her I didn’t have. They fired me within two weeks. They said that I’d given away more free booze in two weeks than anyone else had in a year. So I worked the nightclubs and casinos in Saratoga for a few summers, but eventually Senator Kefauver had to screw that up. I was getting tired anyway. Glad-handing mafiosi like Three-Eyes Paserolla and Irish Moshie Blumberg all night long and then going down to the whorehouses on Caroline Street to unwind. But damn if those girls would leave me alone. It was exhausting.

“Eventually Danny’s father gave me this job. It suits me fine so long as the unions keep their noses in joint. I’m management. “

Clarke’s is a union shop, although what difference that makes is hard to figure. No one ever tells anyone else what to do, and when they do they are ignored. Yet the place runs night after night, day after day, 365 days a year, like a finely oiled machine.

There are the good nights, like those in the Eighties when Geraldine Page or Liza Minnelli lit up the place. There are funny nights, such as the one when Lord Carrington and Giscard D’Estaing found themselves cramped at adjacent tiny tables, while Frankie saved a big empty one for a really important politician, ex-city commissioner Neil Walsh, whose claim to fame is that since the Equal Opportunity people forbade the city from doing it, he now pays for the green stripe that’s painted down Fifth Avenue each St. Patrick’s Day. There are interesting nights like the ones when veteran Broadway columnist Jack O’Brien, who hates Neil Walsh, tells stories about Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon as he sips his Jack Daniels.

Moses Hurwitz, a.k.a. Moseley, who owned two dirty bookstores in Times Square, was a frequent visitor to the bar until his death just before Christmas. Another haggard, unshaven character with haunted eyes is known simply as “The General,” or more colloquially as “The Lifter.” He has an unusually large overcoat, and his vocation in life is to remove from the shelves of department stores, groceries, liquor shops or wherever, articles of interest to his customers, which he sells to them for half their retail price. He is almost like a private shopper, you might say, although he costs less.

Most days, Clarke’s has its own resident bookmaker, a distinguished-looking gentleman in Savile Row threads, who reads Debrett’s Peerage in bed at night, knows who lives in every Park Avenue apartment from 60th to 94th Street, and keeps the back-room phone booth as his exclusive preserve from 4:30 in the afternoon until well past midnight, specializing in college football action. He used to patronize Mortimer’s, the once bearable boîte on Lexington Avenue, but he was barred for his honesty. He was sitting at the bar with the owner one night when Claus von Balow walked in, in mid-trial and having resigned from his New York clubs. “I see that Claus is with us again tonight,” said the proud proprietor.

“That makes the third time this week.” “Yes, Glen,” responded our hero. “He’s going to prison next month, you know, and he wants to get used to the food.”

Danny Lavezzo Sr. himself became a casualty of the Eighties as the decade wore on. A recognized authority on thoroughbred breeding lineages, Dan bred a Triple Crown candidate and named it for one of his best friends, the greatest of Giant quarterbacks (with no disrespect meant to Hoss, Simms, or Tittle), Charles Conerly. The colt won two Derby Preps, the Bay Shore and the Gotham, but could not at that point in his career stretch out beyond seven furlongs. Chas. Conerly was sold some months later. Nonetheless, his success brought great cheer to 55th Street.

Unbeknownst to anyone then, however, Dan’s fascination for another aspect of the racing game—high stakes betting—was about to change his life radically. Big Dan had a taste for long shots and doubled up heavily when he lost. As his losses mounted he borrowed money from some, uh, high-interest sources. Eventually, his lenders invited him to pay his debt, then around $2 million. He has reportedly been living in a series of motels ever since. Dan Sr. has been sighted occasionally—in the grand stand at Atlantic City, at Charles Clarke’s retirement party in the back room of Kennedy’s on Second Avenue, and even, by some accounts, in the wee hours of Friday mornings, when a solitary figure emerges from a car and enters the side door at Clarke’s to collect enough cash to live on from the old bar’s safe before the weekly deposit gets made.

Now the place is managed by Danny Jr., who is amiable, bright, widely read, and insightful. But I miss Dan Sr. and so did all of Clarke’s. He was funny, bright, knowledgeably cranky, and eccentric—all admirable qualities in a saloon keeper. He set a certain tone of reasoned iconoclasm (reasoned, in his conversation, if not always in his conduct), and he could tell a story wonderfully well. Once he was recounting how in the Sixties he had first broken the rule against unaccompanied women at the bar (a rule originally imposed to discourage prostitutes and their accompaniment, the bribe-seeking worthies of the N.Y.P.D. vice squad, who, before the Knapp Commission, used to come around threatening to close the place down):

“Tommy woke me up at 11:00 one morning and said, ’You’d better get over here. We got 30 broads with their arms linked surrounding the bar.’

“When I got over there I looked at the first broad I saw and said, ’Take me to your leader.’ She did. I introduced myself and asked, ’What is it you ladies want?’ She said, ’We want a drink.’ I looked at the bartenders. They were standing with their hands clasped behind their backs. So I said, ’Give them a damn drink.’”

Behind a gruff exterior, Danny was a soft touch. He never pressed anyone to pay his bill and even sent occasional presents to his house accounts. At lunchtime to this day, Clarke’s patrons write out their orders with a pencil on a yellow pad. The origin of this quaint custom is that Dan wanted to promote a hard-working Chinese busboy to waiter, but the busboy couldn’t speak English. So Danny installed writing pads at every table, and the new waiter only had to hand the order slip to the cook.

I walked in for a late supper one night in the mid-Eighties: Just as I entered the back room a shouting match broke out between Frankie, the maitre d’, and a young man with a date who objected to being seated at the table nearest the kitchen. The kid was screaming.

“Oh no, I ain’t waited 20 minutes to sit at no crummy table like that.”

“Yeah you have. You’ll sit right there.”

“Aw, no I won’t. I won’t sit anywhere like that.”

“Yeah you will. You’ll sit there or you’ll get out of the restaurant. “

At this point two things happened. The young guy’s girlfriend said, “Larry, let’s sit down. I think we ought to sit down.”

Then Danny Sr. limped into view, nursing a bad leg, wearing loose sneakers beneath his baggy trousers, a cigar in one hand, and a glass of beer in the other. He raised his voice in rage.

“Don’t tell him he has to sit at that table. Never tell a customer he has to sit somewhere he doesn’t want to. How many times do I have to tell you that? Isn’t 30 years long enough?”

Frankie might reasonably have been expected to do his boss’s bidding. Instead, he looked at the owner contemptuously and spat hard on the floor. Then he turned and said, “You take that first table, kid, or I’m running you right out of here. Jamie, you take the big one on the right.”

The big one on the right was Danny’s table. He was giving me the owner’s table! I didn’t move to it right away. Danny swore and walked out in disgust. A minute later Frankie came over and, in an air of saintly resignation, said, “He was lookin’ for an excuse to blow up all !@?! night.”

Later, Danny came back in with some friends and joined me. The group included Billy Mack, a wisp of a man with four generations of family in Greenwich Village who used to manage Jimmy Weston’s, a nightclub that closed last year. Billy was fresh out of a rehab home in New Jersey and was making a good start toward unconsciousness in his first three hours back on the town. Then there was John Nostrangelo, “Johnny Angel”; he had been a partner in one of New York’s greatest dives—the Chez Madison, by the Westbury Hotel—years before. Phil Kennedy, the old Cardinal infielder who used to save me a stool at the bar while I was at mass Sundays so we could watch the Giants game on TV together, was there as well, and Jake LaMotta was sitting by himself at a table along the wall. (LaMotta likes to sit in the back room. When he was still alive, Rocky Graziano preferred to sit beneath his photo in the middle room of P. J.’s, dressed, appropriately enough, in his pj’s.)

Danny told stories about the actor Larry Tierney coming in to memorize his scripts in the men’s room. “He hid them in the nook right above his stall. I think one’s still there.”

Then Charles Clarke, who was running the service bar behind our table, began to reminisce. He had been born upstairs, and during Prohibition the liquor had been kept there. “Downstairs the green shades were drawn, the cops were paid off, near beer was served, and stronger stuff was available if you knew how to ask for it. The original P. J. always said that the Volstead Act was ’like a bad cold—someday it will go away.’”

“Yeah,” said Phil Kennedy. “I agree with Ring Lardner, though. ’Prohibition was better than no drinking at all.’” Then employed as a “career consultant” to the Penthouse pet of the month, Kennedy continued: “Remember the night we were all here, and a guy came in on crutches around midnight, and we helped him to his table and then came back to this table. Six-thirty in the morning we’re still going good. I’m getting ready to go down to the Waldorf for my seven o’clock shave, Billy Mack here and Jack Price are asleep on the table, so I look up and see that the whole joint is deserted, and on the back wall is hanging a pair of crutches. ’Danny,’ I says, ’You got the only miraculous saloon on Third Avenue.’”

We laughed.

“You’re young,” Johnny Angel said to me then. “Why don’t you have a goil? “

“Yeah,” said Eddie Tru. “You should get married. You’re the right age.”

“Yeah,” said Billy Mack. “Why should you be happy?”

Everyone else grunted their assent.

Thrice-married Phil Kennedy simply shrugged. “As George Bernard Shaw put it so well, ’Women, if we knew what they wanted, we’d give it to them.’”

When he died the next spring it was only fitting that his ashes were placed on top of the ladies’ toilet.

However happily married I now am, however much I like my new neighborhood, and however natural it feels to move on to a new phase in my life, I still miss Clarke’s. I miss the likes of Don Nexer, who used to operate the burger grill by the front door and as a sideline sold two products—rosaries and porno postcards—from a shelf underneath. I miss Jimmy Ennis, an Andover alumnus who went to work at Clarke’s 30 years ago to pay off his bill and is still at it. I miss Mary, my favorite waitress. I miss Louie and Lefty and Joannie, who are all gone now. I miss Alice Gold, a schoolteacher who came in on Saturday nights and had a heart just like her name.

I miss all the patrons and all the staff and all the talk going on night and day, and all the ghosts of all the people who have passed through, and all the echoes of all the talk that has taken place there in the last 100 years.

A priest I know who works at Cardinal Hayes High School in the South Bronx, Father Joseph O’Keefe, grew up in a tenement on 56th Street by the old St. John’s, and one day he said to me, “When I was a kid my parents knew everybody in our building, and everybody in our neighborhood, and everybody at church, and everybody in the local bars. And they knew all their families and where they all came from, and what they all did, and how they had all gotten into trouble. That’s something these kids up here don’t have at all, and I feel sorry for them because it’s a great thing.”

Clarke’s is still a great thing. Within its walls much of what has been still survives, not only in the daily routine but, more importantly, in the human memories of those who pass through its doors.

It was my dumb luck to have heard those voices over a decade. After chatting with him on and off for five years, I learned that Jack Sterling, the house manager, knew my grandfather. After seeing him on a weekly basis for over 10 years, I learned last fall that, as a boy, Tommy Joyce had once worked for my great-grandfather. Frequently over the years I ran into people whom I had not met before who knew my aunts and uncles, cousins and brothers. And I enjoyed listening to them spin their yarns, adding unfamiliar threads to the tapestry of my relations’ lives which, once added, seemed instantly to become a part of the whole.

In good times, New Yorkers come to take the cosmopolitan side of the city for granted, to grow nonchalant about luxury and glitz. But there is another New York, too, and a place like Clarke’s is the crossroads where the two sometimes meet.

Cosmopolitan New York is fickle. When the bad times come, it can even disappear —hightailing it to Connecticut, or staying at home in Corpus Christi. But the other New York, the real New York, is here all the time, quietly flourishing in the shadows far from the limelight. When cosmopolitan New York—which might almost be defined as that part of New York which writes about itself, reports its assets, celebrates itself—comes to town, it often misses the jobs, the adventures, the lives that go on ticking, recession or no, in the real New York, in the city’s heart. Look for that other New York and you will find it, like Clarke’s, tucked away in crannies and nooks, surrounded by the monuments of a cosmopolitan city. Just like Clarke’s, it will always be there.

 

 


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