When you're looking for a father figure, what better place to go than a neighborhood bar? For J. R. Moehringer, author of the moving and...
When you’re looking for a father figure, what better place to go than a neighborhood bar?
For J.R. Moehringer, author of the moving and evocative memoir “The Tender Bar” (Hyperion, 370 pp., $23.95), it would be impossible to come up with a better answer.
Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, has written a loving tribute to the Long Island, N.Y., bar Publicans, where as a youngster he learned many of life’s lessons. He imbues the place and the singular men who frequented it with a loving humanity that makes them jump right off the page.
The son of a hardworking single mother and a mostly absentee disc-jockey father, Moehringer spent much of his early life searching for a male figure to look up to. His grandfather, a slovenly man who was psychologically abusive to his wife, was quickly dismissed as a candidate. But his Uncle Charlie, who acted like Humphrey Bogart and slept well into the afternoon every day before being awakened by a bookmaker’s telephone call, soon partially assumed the role.
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J.R. Moehringer will read from “The Tender Bar,” 8 p.m. Nov. 4, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
But Charlie, a bartender who still lived with his mother in the same house with Moehringer and his mother, wasn’t up to the task by himself.
So he enlisted the help of friends and co-workers from the bar in the town of Manhasset, including the owner Steve, Joey D, Cager and Bob the Cop. Each was a collection of tics and foibles, making up a personality that fascinated young Moehringer.
Moehringer’s first glimpse of the men comes in 1972, when he is 7 and he and his mom stop to watch a beer-league softball game. He is immediately enchanted by the oversized laughter of the men, and his first impulse is to follow them. It will be years before he will legally be able to do so, but that is the moment when his sense of a bar as a place of community, and not mere drunkenness, is born.
“The softball game marked for me the beginning of many things, but particularly time,” he writes. “Memories before the softball game have a disjointed, fragmentary quality; after, memories move forward, smartly, single file.”
From these men he would learn about women, about failure, about hard work and about friendship and loyalty. Moehringer’s father, whom he often refers to as the Voice because he usually hears him only on the radio, seems a cipher next to them.
“The bar fostered in me the habit of turning each person who crossed my path into a mentor, or a character, and I credit the bar, and blame it, for my becoming a reflection, or a refraction, of them all,” Moehringer writes.
Despite a temporary move with his mother to Arizona and his subsequent enrollment in Yale, the pull of the bar and its loyal clientele remained strong. There, Moehringer drowned his sorrows when his first love left him for another man, and it is Bob the Cop who tells him to get over it when he bemoans a mistake he made while on a reporting tryout with The New York Times.
It is to Moehringer’s credit that this memoir does not sink into a phony type of Hallmark sentimentality (though it comes dangerously close several times). The men of the bar, though full of personality, are not made out to be superheroes. There are inevitable disappointments — the main characters, after all, spend a good chunk of their time in a bar — and dreams and grand plans often go unrealized.
The reader knows, of course, what will happen to Moehringer, that he will go on to reach the heights of journalism and “the kid” who so often tagged along with the Publicans’ crowd will one day write a book immortalizing these working-class men.
But as much as the memoir is Moehringer’s story, it is the men who entrance the reader, just as they did the author. These are men who gain our admiration, and it comes as no surprise that at the book’s end, when Moehringer returns to the bar after reporting on the Sept. 11 attacks, he finds Bob the Cop just back from Ground Zero.
Moehringer has set out to write a memoir trying to explain how much he loves the bar that played such a big role in his life. He has succeeded in making us love it as much as he does.