GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

Decorating the tree and finding a special gift . . . that‘s Christmas, right?

Not entirely, at least not for bartenders.

Remember the movie, It‘s a Wonderful Life? Jimmy Stewart struggles to find the true meaning of Christmas, and a bar called Martini’s plays a key role in the story. Lost to most viewers, behind the taps that Christmas Eve, a bartender is working.

Some bartender, somewhere, is always working. While the rest of the world celebrates the holidays a bartender somewhere keeps the beer cold and the mixers ready.

Mac, the bartender

Bartenders have a unique lifestyle and a different calendar. (My favorite line about this lifestyle is a tongue-in-cheek comment from an old Western movie, My Darling Clementine — Henry Fonda has the role of Wyatt Earp and he bares his soul to the barman know as Mac, played by J. Farrell MacDonald.

“Mac,” Henry says as he lifts his glass, “Have you ever been in love?”

“No,” Mac replies, “I’ve been a bartender all my life.”)

No surprise that a bartender’s Christmas tales are not the traditional ones.

My first working Christmas was in Cortland NY, where I was the bar manager of a college joint called The Mug. The other bartenders were home for the holidays so I had to work Christmas Eve.

At the time I was living at Beta Phi Epsilon, the nation’s oldest Phys. Ed. fraternity. Beta Phi was the original Animal House. Over Christmas break, with the chaos of thirty jocks suddenly missing from our three-story house, the silence from each room was eerie — it was like something from The Twilight Zone.

I was glad to go to work.

When the shift began, The Mug was uncharacteristically quiet with all the college kids gone. After a while a few of the local regulars came in; Ken Tobin, Pat O’Malley Jr., and a guy everyone called Mountain. One of the “townies” came in with his girlfriend and she’d brought a Christmas dinner plate for me. They were glad The Mug was open, but felt sorry that I had to work on a holiday. While I enjoyed the ham dinner with mashed potatoes and peas, a few of the couples exchanged Christmas presents.

It turned into an unique, unscheduled holiday celebration. There were lots of shots and beers, and they insisted that I have an occasional drink with them — everyone was in a festive mood as I served good cheer between bites from my plate. This was the first time I’d really gotten to know these townie regulars, who were now the only customers in the place. They were a great bunch. It was one of times where you realize even as it’s happening that this is something you’re going to remember.

As Christmas rolled around the following year, they were all at The Mug again, bringing me another Christmas Eve plate and exchanging presents. It became a holiday tradition for each of the three years I was at The Mug, and it continued after I left for Boston, when my good buddy Jim Fennel took over as manager.

My worst Christmas Eve also happened in a bar — a few years later, at The Sunflower Café in Cambridge MA. (This was briefly described in an earlier post, “A Holiday Thought“.) The night started out with my only two customers somehow getting into an argument that escalated into a table-toppling fist fight. Later a woman broke down and began to sob uncontrollably halfway through her drink. As more people wandered in, a waiter we all knew from a nearby restaurant got a little buzzed and loudly yelled out the most intimate confession to everyone in the now-crowded bar.

But the worst part of the night came when a guy stumbled down the stairs and wove his way to where I was standing behind the taps.

“I’ll ha..ha..ha..ve a gi..gi..gin and tonic,” he managed to stutter.

I looked at him. He was a mess. He was an average-sized guy, twenty-five or so, with thinning hair. His glasses were tilted on his nose and his hands kept jerking as he tried to order the drink.

“G..g..g..gin and . . .” .

I stopped him before he could repeat his request.

“Not tonight,” I told him. “I think that’s it for tonight. Come back another day.”

He looked at me.

“I’ve g…g…got Cer..cer..cerebral Pa…paalsy.” he stammered, his hands jerking as he spoke.

I felt the eyes of everyone in the bar bearing down on me. I could hear them thinking, ‘That poor man . . . he has cerebral palsy, and now the bartender is calling everyone’s attention to it rather than just serve him . . . and it‘s Christmas Eve!”

I felt like such a jerk.

“This one’s on the house,” I told the man as I set down his drink. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am.”

Before he’d finished that first drink, he tumbled off his bar stool. He did have cerebral palsy, but he was also falling down drunk. He’d probably been shut off someplace else before stumbling in here.

As we carried him up the stairs to a cab, the manager of The Sunflower Café kept glaring at me as if to say, “What the Hell were you doing? How could you serve someone that’s so trashed?”

The Cantina Italiana

My best Christmas Eve didn’t actually happen while I was working, but at the home of the owner of The Cantina Italiana in Boston’s North End, where I was a bartender. (See an earlier post, “Joey Cigars”, for a story about one of The Cantina’s regulars.) Fiore Colella invited me to his home for a traditional Italian Christmas dinner. “Don‘t fill up on this,” Fiore told me as he served everyone the first course. Don‘t fill up on this? Jumbo shrimp cocktail, eggplant rollantini, the most amazing plate of antipasto? This was the best food I’d ever eaten.

But he was right. Each course was better than the one before. We ate Veal Saltimbocca, Pasta Primavera . . . then we took a break and went into the living room with Fiore’s family and a few other people, and sat around talking and sipping Sambuca. Half an hour later we went back to the dining room for another course, and another.

Fiore Colella, owner of Cantina Italiana and Ristorante Fiore in Boston's North End

After the fourth serving, Fiore and I lit a couple of good cigars and took a walk while everyone else went back to the living room. We walked around his neighborhood talking and smoking cigars. When we got back, Fiore served the main course, Lobster Fra Diavolo, followed by homemade cannolis and a platter of Italian cookies. We had been eating since six o’clock, with several long breaks in between, and now it was after midnight.

It was a feast like I’ve never had before or since.

I have other Christmas memories from Johnny D’s, the Boston-area restaurant and music club where I work now.

Andy Curtin is a lawyer who stops at Johnny D’s now and then. He served in the US Merchant Marine, then became a patent attorney — but when he’s at the bar what you notice is his sense of humor and his irreverence. Andy is around six feet tall, a clean-cut looking guy.  The best way to describe him would be to think of a free spirit who served in the military, and then became a lawyer, without ever really changing.

When Christmas season rolled around, Andy wanted to get all his shopping done in one fell swoop. He’d start early in the morning and shop until seven or eight o‘clock at night. Then he‘d come to Johnny D‘s with bagful after bagful of presents, wrapping paper, bows and ribbons, and Christmas cards. He‘d find an open spot at the bar, order a beer, and sit there wrapping. Sometimes he borrowed the bar’s scotch tape, or our stapler. He’d just sit there and wrap present after present while sipping his beer, watching a game on TV and talking.

He did this every year.

Other customers at the bar thought this was a riot, and every now and then over years we’d see a few other people doing the same thing.

Andy is the brother-in-law of bartender John Bonaccorso; he married John’s sister, Chris.

John Bonaccorso, behind the bar at Johnny D's on a recent New Year's Eve

John and I were working the bar one night a week before Christmas — a night that provided another Christmas story.

John was talking about his Christmas shopping, how he was trying to find just the right gifts for his girlfriend, her Mom, and his Mom. As I turned to get someone a drink, a woman at the bar got into the conversation and started talking with him. They talked for several minutes.

“What was that all about?” I asked a few minutes later.

“Nothing,” John said. “She just overheard us and asked what gifts I had planned.  She wanted to know who was the hardest to shop for, and what I was buying for everyone.”

Neither of us thought much about it.

In the last days before Christmas, John and his girlfriend went to visit Joel and Carrie, long-time regulars at Johnny D‘s.

“Do you know how to make vegan brownies?” Carrie asked John out of the blue.

“I have no idea,” John said, ” . . . Not a clue.” Why was she asking about vegan brownies? He had bought a cookbook titled “Sinfully Vegan” for his vegetarian girlfriend.

“What about knitting,” Carrie asked, “Do you know anything about knitting?”

What is this?” John asked. He also had a book on knitting for his girlfriend.

“Why all these questions?” he asked.

Carrie showed him an article from the Boston Herald.

That woman at the bar wasn’t just any customer. She was a free-lance writer and had sold an article to the Herald about Christmas shopping. She mentioned John by name. She told where he worked, and she recounted their entire conversation word for word.

Two days before Christmas everything John had said to her appeared in the Boston Herald, circulation 2,000,000. The article told how he made his decisions, all the presents he was buying, and for whom.

The woman quoted John as saying that shopping for his mother was easy . . . but that shopping for his girlfriend’s Mom was a pain in the ass.

“I really didn’t need that,” John said after the holidays. “I really didn’t need that in the paper about ____’s (his girlfriend’s) Mom.”

“And I had to buy another $100 of presents for ____, just so she wouldn’t already know everything she was getting.”

Anyway, that’s enough of these stories for now.

I’ll be working behind the bar at Johnny D’s this Christmas night. We won’t be serving food and we’ll have J. J. from the booking office to spin classic tunes instead of our usual live music . . . but if you’re in the Boston area please feel free to stop by and say hello. If I don’t see you then, best wishes to you all for a very happy holiday season.

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One Response to GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

  1. Dorene Sullivan says:

    Enjoyed “Ghosts of Christmas Past” — a bar seems to be a microcosm of human relationships — with the bartender kind of an unofficial psychologist/narrator!

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