My first job was at Hennessey’s, the bar my parents owned. When I was 12, I’d go there with my father on Saturday mornings to break down cardboard boxes. Rinsing ashtrays and scraping gum off the floor was the entry level. It was a sticky-elbows joint, and my dad—Jim, known as Hambone—was deep in his element. Some called him Ham; some called him Bone.
We didn’t use soap in the mop bucket, just piping hot water and bleach. When the mopping was done, the toilets got doused with ammonia. It’s not wise to combine volatile compounds in a windowless room, but that’s the way they’d always done it at Hennessey’s. My mother wasn’t pleased to hear that I was mixing a poison cocktail. Hambone got an earful.
After the vapors cleared, the urinal received the pink sanitizing disc that my dad called “the candy.” Hambone was big on a certain kind of madcap ambience. He would “French the place up” with a can of Lysol, running from one side of the horseshoe-shaped bar to the other, canister held over his head, finger firmly on the trigger.
This contrail of disinfectant he called the Flying French. It often got a round of applause. I learned early: a bar is where the unexpected happens. A good bar is where everyone gets the joke.
The bathrooms at Hennessey’s were up a short flight of stairs. Lugging the mop bucket up and down was hard to do without dousing your legs. “Didja put the candy in?” Hambone would ask as I wobbled and slopped. I had. My pay in the early years was five bucks, a Coke, and a bag of popcorn. Later, I got $10 for a Saturday session. Not bad money for 1986—enough to pay for a movie and a bag of Twizzlers.
At 16, I served customers. Hambone taught me to pour a beer and measure a shot. He taught me how to tap a keg and regulate the mixture of nitrogen and CO2 feeding the Guinness. My working behind the bar probably wasn’t legal, though Hambone didn’t seem worried about the law. It wasn’t any fun, either. The type of guy who spends his lunch break washing down a turkey club with four or five Buds does not want to be served by a high school kid. I got no tips.
I worked at Hennessey’s again in my mid-twenties. By then, I knew the game. Regular customers got a buyback after the third drink; strangers after the fourth. For good tippers, I hustled; bad tippers waited. Over time, I learned how to move guys from one category to the other—no different from training a dog.
The regulars had nicknames. Toilet Tim’s trips up the stairs were too frequent not to notice. The Chairman carried a briefcase, though his only meeting of the day was with me. Tall Paul was not to be confused with Small Paul. Of course, there was Hambone, who disappeared after lunch to drink coffee and shoot the breeze with his buddies. He’d earned it.
The Irish Brigade paid only a buck for their drinks—by order of the boss. You had to be over 75 to get into that club, and it didn’t hurt if you’d been at Inchon or Guadalcanal. Old Man Larry was a ballplayer in his day. In the service, he’d struck out Ted Williams and popped up Joe DiMaggio. Or so he said.
“These guys are on fixed incomes. Some of them, this place is all they’ve got,” Hambone said. “It’s tough getting old.”
Hambone was a soft touch. He gave jobs to guys who were close to the bottom. Some abused his trust. He gave them second chances, third and fourth chances. When it was time to sort out their problems, he put them together with the right people. My dad had been down that road. He knew where it led.
One night, Old Man Larry called me over. “You gotta get out,” he said, waving his pitching hand at the regulars. “You don’t want to end up like these clockers.”
He was right. I couldn’t stay. I flew the coop the moment another opportunity presented itself. I ended up tending bar in the big city. The money was better. I served the odd celebrity. But no place ever felt quite like home—not like at Hambone’s joint.