On Sundays, I’m behind the bar for the Blues Jam at Johnny D’s — it’s not much money, but there’s always good music and good people.
This past Sunday, regulars John (drummer) and Grant (guitar) played some rocking sets. Dan (also a drummer) stopped in, as did another Dan (harmonica) with his lovely lady, Ashley.
Then Mike Daley walked in.
I hadn’t seen Mike in almost a year.
He looked horrible. He looked like hell.
He must have lost twenty pounds. He looked tired and worn down. His face was a little distorted and swollen along the jaw line.
“It’s cancer,” Mike told me. “I gave up smoking last year,” he said, “After 40 years I finally quit, and now I’ve got cancer.”
“My lungs are fine,” he said, “It’s in my mouth and throat.”
Before I go further, let me say this isn’t a sob story. Sometimes a customer will talk about his or her illness, and sometimes no matter how much you might sympathize, it’s difficult to listen as they go on and on. You still have to deal with other customers and everything that’s happening behind the bar.
Mike was different. “They had me down on the floor twice,“ he said, using bar-fight imagery to describe the sudden onset of the cancer, and then the chemo and radiation treatment that followed. “They had me down twice but they couldn’t keep me down. I got up, and I’m still here.”
There was no self-pity in his voice. He was just filling me in on the details, which I wanted to know.
He told me that his girl friend in Florida (where he’s been living) took a leave of absence from her job to stay with him while he got treatment in Boston. He talked about the side effects of radiation therapy. He said that he now had a tube inserted into his stomach that comes out through the intestinal walls and his skin. The tube ends with an IV connection on the outside so he can attach cans of liquid nutriment. It’s the only nourishment he can take, although he’s just now beginning to chew soft foods.
I was thinking that listening to this while working behind the bar wasn’t as awkward as it might have been — Mike kept cracking jokes about his treatment, about his doctors and himself. He still had his non-stop sense of humor. His cancer was something that happened, and now he was fighting back.
I was the only bartender while we talked. One of the waitresses came up to order drinks just as Mike was telling me about the tube, and I had to break away for a minute. Two customers at the other end of the bar wanted menus. Each time, I’d go back and talk more with Mike.
Then the conversation turned to the old days, and we rehashed some of the stories from when Mike was living in Boston.
Back then Mike worked at MIT’s Draper Lab. He was a CAD (Computer Aided Design) Supervisor working on the Trident and Peacekeeper missile systems.
Mike had separated from his wife, although he still doted on his two young daughters, so we began to see him more and more at Johnny D’s.
He’d come in with his buddy, Jack, who also worked at MIT. Mike was a CAD specialist involved with top USA military projects, and Jack — well, Jack jokingly described himself as a custodial engineer. He was a janitor at Draper Lab.
Somehow the two of them became friends. Jack had wit and humor that easily matched Mike’s own. Mike was a member of the Faculty Club at MIT, and even though Jack could never be a member he’d always go there as Mike’s guest.
Jack had been born with only three fingers on each hand. His paws had a kind of Edward Scissorhands look. But he was so sharp and funny that he disarmed everyone immediately. After the first few minutes you didn’t notice his hands, or how difficult it was for him to just pick up his drink.
Let me give you an example, something so typically Jack. One afternoon he was talking with his next-door neighbor who had recently purchased a large attack dog. The guy who sold the dog had stopped by to see how things were going. I guess the guy made a six-month check up on all his customers.
Jack just happened to be standing there in the backyard when the guy asked the neighbor if there had been any problems. After the neighbor said no, everything was fine, the guy turned to Jack and asked if there had been any problems for him, living next door. Had the dog caused any difficulty?
Jack slowly lifted his scissor-like hands, with three fingers on each, and said, “Well, no . . . not after that first day.”
The guy’s face turned ash white before Jack told him that he was just kidding.
That’s what Mike and Jack did; they were always joking, always busting balls.
I’ve told a few stories about busting balls in this blog — Auntie Rosie, The Cute Blonde Nurse and After-hours at Cindy’s. One night, Mike broke my chops as much as they’ve ever been busted behind the bar.
That night Jack left early, and as he exited the front door Mike suddenly became serious.
“I’m worried about Jack,” he said.
It was a fairly busy night and I had to spin away to make someone’s drinks.
When I got back, I asked Mike what he meant.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Mike told me.
For the next hour, Mike gradually filled me in each time I rushed back from making drinks. The information he gave me came one piece at a time.
Jack was in danger of losing his job. “There’s a big shake-up going on,” Mike told me, “I think they’re going to let Jack go.”
This went on for an hour, piece by piece. Mike told me about a new woman who had recently been hired, a woman named Mary. “Sure, Mary comes in exactly at eight AM., but what does she accomplish after that?”
“I know Jack isn’t the type to go by the clock,” Mike said, “He’s always late. But when he gets there, no one does more.”
Mike told me that he was worried about Jack. This job was important to him, not only for the benefits and a weekly pay check — but the job was a big part of Jack’s self-esteem. Jack loved that fact that he was employed by MIT. Mike was worried what would happen if Jack lost that.
“He’s said something once about suicide,” Mike told me.
I was feeling sick about all this as I continued to work the bar, dashing back to Mike whenever I had a free moment. Jack was a great guy. Mike said Jack might kill himself.
I began thinking of taking up a collection for Jack. I wondered about finding work for him at the club, maybe checking ID’s. I was desperate.
“I’m sure it’s not an easy decision for the big shots at MIT,” Mike went on. At this point I should have smelled something fishy, but I had swallowed it all, hook-line-and-sinker.
I never saw it coming.
“I don’t know,” Mike continued, “I mean what would you do if it was your decision?”
“Tell me,” Mike asked, “What would you do if you had to lay one of them off.”
“Who would you let go?” Mike asked.
“What would you do?” he asked, “Would you lay Mary, or Jack off?”
It took a minute for this to sink in, what he’d done to me.
“Would you lay Mary, . . . . or Jack-off?” Mike had tormented me for an hour, he had me worried sick about Jack . . . he had created a fictional Mary and phony lay-offs just to pull that punch line on me.
He’d probably heard this as a joke somewhere, and thought that Jack’s name was too perfect not to pull it while I worked.
To this day, that’s the worst anyone has gotten me behind the bar.
Anyway, it was great to see Mike again. He’s in a fight for his life now, but it was good to see that underneath he’s the same old Mike. He looks different; he’s thinner, worn down, but the same tough, funny bastard continues to shine through.
I got an email from Mike on Monday, and he sent me the picture of him and the red-suited mannequin shown earlier. He’s improving every day.
I’m sure he’ll stop in again before he heads back to Florida, if for nothing else than just to bust my chops.
Whoa, that’s one hell of a story. I just got home and had to finish reading it. My hat is off to the Mikes and Jacks that frequent your bar.
I’m not sure what to make of this. I’ll let you know.
I’ll say a prayer for your friend Mike.
I second what Llylak said, good luck to your customer and friend.
What a neat article. I had no inking.
Nikki has a good point. A man battles cancer but most of the post is humorous anecdotes. Unless it’s meant that this is how he deals with it. In any case I also wish Mike Daley the best of luck.
Thanks for the shout out, Mike Q. We’ve known each other a long time, nearly 25 years going back to when you started @ johnny D’s in the late 1980’s. I had already been a semi-regular there going back to the ’70’s (when it was a CW honky-tonk with red naugahyde booths and Sleepy LaBeef). When you came on board, I remember sizing you up, like we all do with new people, and after a little evaluation, I think I liked what I saw: a good solid professional barman, with a good personality and a sense of humor. We became what I would call casual friends.
I know you never quite forgot or forgave me for the Jack and Mary joke. I’m not sure I can blame you. I almost felt bad myself for getting you that bad. I guess I’d had a few that night and wanted to see if I could pull one over on you. Mea Culpa, sucka’. As you know, I’ve been away for 8 years between Hawaii & Key West, but whenever I make it back to Boston, I try to make it to D’s to look you up and say Hi! I was sorry to hear about Tina a couple of years ago. She was a class act, a real old school restauranteur and club owner. I can remember one winter night when I refused to pay the $10 cover at the door because I only wanted to stop for a quick one or two. I was walking away up the sidewalk when I heard her unmistakeable voice behind me calling “Mike – no, you come back – you don’t have to pay – you always welcome.” I thanked her, turned around and came back. That’s the way she was, she loved her regulars and she took good care of them.
The cancer’s been a real kick in the ass but it hasn’t got me licked yet. I have good reason to hang on. I met a real special lady, Sonnia, in Key West about a year and a half ago. After a long dry spell for me, she is like an unexpected oasis in the middle of the desert, a small miracle. She is the best and we’ve been trying to plan a future together despite the monkey wrench the cancer threw into the works. She left her job for 4 months to come up and be with me through the worst of it. I hope we make it. Not so much for me, I’m lucky to have had her this long already; but for her sake, she has had enough hard times in her life, and deserves a good break.
Anyhow, buckeroo, I plan to be back in Key West sometime in May. I will stop in before I leave, if at all possible. And I will be back in Boston in the coming year for follow up work with the Docs. So I will be seeing you again barring the unforeseen. And, lastly, I plan on popping in to D’s in about 25 years with the aid of a walker and as many grandchildren as required for support. I will also be brandishing a cane and laying about me if there are any young whipper-snappers who don’t move out of my way quickly enough. I also expect to see you behind the bar with a cane, or a walker, or a full body brace if needed, slowing things down, knocking things over, getting in the way of your coworkers, and generally gumming up the works pretty much as you’ve been doing all these years anyway.
With affection, Mike D.
Mike D, I thinkthe Jack and Mary story is hilarious! Mike Q has a lot of those funny stories, he’ll never run out of material. On another note, a friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and is now cancer free…keep the faith!
Thank you Mike Daley, for sharing your story. Colleen put it perfectly, Keep the Faith!
Mike Daley turned me on to your blog and I am enjoying it. I am a bartender in Key West…and Mr. Daley is my best friend. I am flying up the third week of May to drag his butt back to Key West. His girlfriend got my old girlfriend’s apartment 2 doors down from me..so it will be great to have him back. There are only 2 places I want to visit when I come up…Johnny D’s and the Kennedy Library. I would love to meet you..but I understand you only bartend weekends. That was a great Daley story you posted.
Steve … sorry it took so long to “moderate” your comment, but we have standards. You may be hearing soon from the FBI, the NSA, etc. They’ve been notified and I’m sure you’ve been added to their “watch” list. (Only kidding, Mr. Daley told me to say that. I must have overlooked your comment … I do get a lot of spam despite the filter.)
Not a problem, Mike. I look forward to meeting you, and seeing Johnny D’s. I wish I could have meet Tina…between the stories Mike Daley used to tell me..and your story…she must have been a special lady.
Mike, I just became aware of this post and wanted to thank you for it as well as provide an update. Unfortunately my brother Michael did not make it back to Boston to resume his treatment as his cancer had spread beyond control. However, he did get to spend his last few months with friends and his beloved Sonnia in Key West before his passing in Sept. of 2011.
To the end, he never complained, kept his sense of humor, dignity, and independence. He made his mark and remember and miss him so.
Judy Daley O’Callaghan: Thank you for this note, Judy. When Mike finally lost his battle I posted a sad announcement — https://lifeonacocktailnapkin.com/regular-post-tomorrow-today-a-sad-announcement/ . He was a great guy. None of us … even those who knew him for a relatively short time (ten-fifteen years, as oppossed to those of you who knew him all your lives) … none of us will ever forget his sense of humor, strength, and hard-earned wisdom.
I debated adding an update to this particular post (“Mike Daley and Jack”) when he left us, but decided to leave it as it was. I wanted people to focus on the many good things we knew about him and chose to remember … the better times. If anyone reads the post now, and then these comments, they will know.
I guess as we grow older this is something we have to deal with … the loss of really good people. It’s inevitable, but still hurts. Thank you again for taking the time to stop by and comment.