LILLIAN, one of my worst shut-offs

(This note is from one night at Christopher’s, in Cambridge MA.)


“I’ll have one more VO and ginger,” Lillian said. She had said the same thing before ordering each of her last four drinks.

I was behind the taps at Christopher’s Restaurant and Bar. Christopher’s is an upscale bistro known for its natural-foods menu, the quality selection of draft beers, the mixed yet decidedly college town clientele, and a relaxed low-key atmosphere. But the place still had it’s bar crowd, and I was responsible for making sure that everyone made it home safely.

“You still have half a drink in front of you, Lillian,” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

I knew Lillian from the first bar I’d worked at in the Cambridge area, The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square. She had told me back then that she was a retired Navy officer. She said that she had once been second-in-command of a cruiser or destroyer, something like that. She was a tall, regal woman in her late fifties, with solid grey hair pulled back in a tight bun. She had a stiff-upper-lip sort of presence that made her story about being a Navy officer seem possible.

But she drank alone, and she drank too much, even back at The Sunflower.

Now she was sitting alone in Christopher’s and I didn’t want to serve her another. I kept busy, hoping she might decide to leave on her own.

“I’ll have one more VO and ginger,” she said when I happened to pass by a few minutes later. She said it as though we hadn’t just spoken.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, before rushing away to fill the wait staff order. By now, Lillian’s glass was empty.

“Just one more,” Lillian said smiling, when I felt obligated to go down to her end again. She gestured to the empty glass.

“I’ll be honest with you, Lillian, I think I’m going to hold off on that drink. I want to make sure you get home OK.”

“I’m fine,” she laughed. She was speaking clearly but her smile was a little off, somehow strange. “I live nearby,” she said, “And I’m walking.”

“I know, Lillian, but I don’t want to see you leave here and then have something happen. I don’t want you to try to cross the street, or twist your ankle on a crack in the sidewalk, and then I’ll feel terrible.”

“I want to see you back here another day,” I smiled, “ . . . And in one piece.”

“Just one more,” she pleaded.

“How long have we know each other?” she asked. “How long have you been my favorite bartender? Have I ever caused trouble?”

“No, Lillian, you’ve never been a problem and you’re not being a problem now. You’ve always been nothing but a lady, and you still are. But I want to make sure you get home safely.”

When I walked by a few minutes later, she renewed her case for another drink. “One more,” she said. “I’ll have one more, and then I’ll go home.”

“Lillian . . . ,” I leaned over the bar to make sure no one else heard us. “Lillian, I’m sorry, but I’m done serving you for tonight.”

At first she glared at me as though I was a sailor under her command and when she told me something I had damn well better do it.

“That’s it for tonight, Lillian. Come back tomorrow and I’ll buy you the first drink.”

She continued to stare at me, then her look softened and she smiled. “You don’t understand,” she said quietly.

“It’s not for me,” she said. She glanced to her right, to an empty stool. “It’s not for me,” she continued, “I don’t really care if I have another drink or not.”

“HE wants me to have a drink,” she said, gesturing to the empty stool beside her.

“GOD wants me to have another drink.”

I’m sure my head must have popped back a couple of inches on my shoulders. I was speechless.

“GOD wants me to have one more VO and ginger,” Lillian said. She motioned again to the empty stool, almost secretively, as though she didn’t want God to know we were talking about him.

“HE wants me to have another VO and ginger,” Lillian said. She caught her breath and her voice broke, as though she was about to break down and sob. “GOD wants me to have one more VO and ginger!”

“Listen, Lillian.” I reached out to put my hand on her hands, which were now clenched together on the bar top. “Lillian,” I said softly, “I’m going to call you a cab, I’m going to pay for the cab and the tip . . . but when that cab comes, I need to you get in it and go home.”

Her eyes began to water and she was shaking a little as I kept my hand on hers.

“You’re a great lady, Lillian,” I told her. “I’ve always admired what you’ve accomplished in your life.”

The cab finally arrived.

I never saw Lillian again. Either she woke up the next day too embarrassed to stop in at Christopher’s anymore, or she woke up the next day too pissed.

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(This note is about a plot that was hatched at Johnny D’s, the Boston-area nightclub where I tend bar now.)

For as long as I could remember, my cousin Bill Patti was always breaking my balls. He was a great guy, but he never missed a chance to bust my chops.

Everyone called him “Big Bill.” He was just under six feet tall, weighing 250 lbs., with shoulders as square as a barn door. He was a retired Marine Corps sergeant, a veteran of Vietnam and Korea. In Korea, Bill had fought at the Chosin Reservoir. “The Battle of the Frozen Chosin” is regarded as one of the greatest battles in US military history — a few thousand American soldiers somehow avoided capture as over 60,000 Chinese regulars pursued them across the harsh terrain.

American soldiers on the move at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea

Not all of those US troops made it home, but Big Bill did . . . just so he could give me a hard time.

Let me give you an example. One Thanksgiving I was at Bill’s home for dinner with his family and a few other relatives. We were all in the living room watching TV when the phone began ringing. I looked around. Everyone was busy talking and no one answered it. Bill looked at me and said, “Mike, you’re the closest, are you going to answer it or not?”

I went into the hallway, but when lifting the phone the only thing I heard was the dial tone. That’s when everyone began laughing. The phone that was ringing was on the TV program. Bill had made me walk into the hallway to answer a call that didn’t exist. He’d gotten me again.

When he pulled this stuff, I’d always tell him that someday I was going to get even.

“I’m going to get you, Bill,” I’d say, “And when I do it won’t be these childish little things. When I get you, it’s going to be something big.”

But I wondered if I’d ever get the chance.

A few years later, Bill developed a heart condition and he was scheduled to go in for triple bypass surgery. On the night before his operation I went to the hospital, and for the first time I saw Bill Patti scared.

“I just want you to know,“ he said, clasping my hand hard as we said goodnight, “I just want to say that it’s been great to have known you.”

“Shut up, Bill,” I said, trying to stay positive. “You’re going to pull through this fine. You’re a tough old guy.”

His eyes were watering as we shook hands that night.

Bill did come through with flying colors, and the day before he was scheduled to be released I went to see him again. I was late getting to work after leaving the hospital and when I walked into Johnny D’s, two of our regulars were already sitting at the bar. Pam and Laurie, two nurses.

They asked why I was late and when I told them I’d just come from the hospital, they asked which one.

“Beth Israel,” I said.

“You know I work at Beth Israel!” Pam said, “And you never thought to find me and say hello?”

That’s when the idea struck me.

After all these years, here was an opportunity to get Bill.

The three of us came up with a plan as I worked the bar.

The next day Bill had been OK’d for release and he was in the waiting room before being officially signed out. It was a bright, sunny room. Bill was there with his immediate family, along with two other soon-to-be-released patients and their families.

I picture them all talking and laughing as in the background they hear the creak, creaking of small wheels being rolled down the hallway. Now there’s a cute nurse standing in the doorway.

Pam, the cute nurse

Pam Rowell is 5’ 2”, blond hair, blue eyes, and . . . let me be frank . . . she’s a large breasted little gal. I can see her standing there in her crisp white uniform. At her side is the white medical dolly that she had rolled along with her. Hanging from the dolly’s long arm at the top is a red bag.

“Mr. Patti?” Pam addressed the room, looking for Bill. “Mr. William Patti?”

“That’s me,” Bill responded.

“Mr. Patti,” Pam said, speaking quite a bit louder than she normally does, “Mr. Patti . . . it’s time for your enema.”

All conversation in the room stopped. Everyone looked first at Pam, then at Bill. Bill was speechless.“W. . . What?”

“Your enema,” Pam smiled pleasantly. “It’s hospital policy. I have to give you an enema before you leave.”

“No . . . no, I don’t need one!” Bill protested. Everyone in the room was looking at him. “I’m fine!” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Pam told him firmly, still smiling. “It’s hospital policy, Mr. Patti. You won’t be able to leave here until we’re finished.”

“No . . . hold on,” Bill was so flustered he was sputtering, “I don’t need one!” Now he was desperate.

“No,” he said, “I . . . I . . . I went three times today already!”

No longer able to keep a straight face, Pam burst out laughing and it finally dawned on Bill what was going on.

“Say,” he asked, “You don‘t know a guy named Mike Qualtiere, do you?”

Bill could bust your balls until you wanted to choke him, but he would laugh just as hard when someone got him. I think he retold that story every time I was at his home for a holiday dinner. He told and retold that story until his heart condition finally got the better of him — I like to think he’s still laughing today. He was one of the greatest guys I‘ve ever known.

Rest in peace, Bill.

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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 a 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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(This note is from Johnny D’s on Thanksgiving night.) 

Yup, Johnny D’s was open last Thursday. 

Johnny D’s is always open — Easter, Thanksgiving, even Christmas night. It’s a tradition that began when John and Tina DeLellis first opened the club in 1969. It’s a family commitment still carried on by their daughter, owner Carla DeLellis, now that John and Tina are gone. 

For the DeLellis family, the holidays are no time to be closed. Some people like to escape to their favorite nightspot after spending a day with the relatives. Others simply have no where else to go. 

It’s a noble sentiment, always being open, and I applaud Carla for providing that . . . but there’s a catch. 

Someone has to work the shift. 

It’s just part of this business. While everyone else is taking a break, relaxing on a holiday, the people employed in restaurants and bars are often on the job. Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked every New Year’s Eve but one. That year I went to a really, really boring party and I remember thinking at the time that I should have worked. It would have been a lot more fun and I would have been making money rather than spending it. 

So I went to work on Thursday night, knowing that it wouldn’t be the usual Johnny D’s. On a holiday, there’s no band and we don’t serve food . . . we’re just a neighborhood bar. 

This is a 300 capacity club, and when we have busy local shows like Booty Vortex, Sarah Borges, or Jesse Dee, there’ll be a line around the corner. When we have national shows like Emmy Lou Harris, Alison Krauss, or Dixie Chicks (yes, THE Dixie Chicks, and Alison Krauss, both used to play here before they won their Grammies) — then we’ll have a line around the corner, down the sidewalk by the park, and around the next corner by Tedeschi’s convenience store. 

But on holiday nights there’s usually only a handful of customers and they don’t begin coming in until eight or nine o‘clock. 

My first customer was an old Irish guy. “I just got back from Ireland two days ago,” he told me as he sat at the bar. Those were the first words out of his mouth. 

“Do you have any Jameson?“ he asked. He was a small guy, short and wiry with a leathered face and brush-cut grey hair. 

While we watched the football game, he asked for another. “I just got back from Ireland last night,” he told me. 

“You know,” he said after a while, “I think I’ll have one more. I just got back from Ireland this morning, and I’ve got a little bit of jet lag.” 

By now he’d gotten back from Ireland three different times on two different days. Maybe that little slur in his words was more than just an Irish brogue. 

“How are you doing?” I asked, looking at him. 

“I’ve got a bit of jet lag,” he said. “It was a long flight back.” 

Fortunately when he counted the crumbled bills he pulled from his pocket, he was one dollar short for a shot of Jameson. Normally, I’ll give someone a break, especially on a holiday, but I wasn‘t sure he needed another drink . . . so I shrugged my shoulders and told him that the next time he came in, I’d buy him the first one. 

A bartender’s antennae are always up on the holidays. I had one of my worst nights ever bartending on a Christmas Eve at The Sunflower Café, in Cambridge MA. That night began with my only two customers getting into a fight and throwing punches at each other. Later, a woman started to bawl uncontrollably half-way through her drink. A waiter we all knew from a nearby restaurant got a little buzzed and decided to announce to everyone in the now-busy bar that he was gay. 

“I don’t care who knows!” he said loudly, despite my attempts to convince him that there might be a better time to share this. I felt pretty bad, as though I was somehow responsible, when I learned a few days later that he had quit his job, and moved to another city. 


Maybe I was feeling a little sorry for myself, now alone in Johnny D’s after the Irish guy left. Maybe I started to wonder if this was really any way to spend a holiday. Then my best friend, Colleen, called to wish me a happy Thanksgiving. She’ll be cooking a second, complete Thanksgiving dinner later this week in New Hampshire. I can’t wait. She’s a great cook. There’ll be a roasted turkey perfectly done, mashed potatoes and roasted potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffed dressing, Italian string beans, and acorn squash sliced in half with melted butter and brown sugar pooled in the middle. 

While we were talking, Colleen told me about a program she’d just been watching on the Lifetime Channel. It was a story about a young girl who was in a wheel chair, paralyzed for life after being struck by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. 

The program featured interviews with the girl and her mom, and with the man who did the shooting, who is now serving 20 years in prison. 

As Colleen told it, the program was about forgiveness, and redemption. The young girl wasn’t bitter. She’d forgiven her unintended assailant and when interviewed in prison, the man said that her forgiveness had changed his life. 

But it was a comment from the mother, retold by Colleen, that made me grab a pen and write down one line. The girl’s mom said that continuing to carry hatred was like “taking poison into yourself, and hoping that your enemy will die.” 

“Wait,” I said to Colleen, “Say that again. I want to write it down.” 

To carry hatred is like taking poison into yourself and hoping that your enemy will die.

It sounds like good advice, but how does one do that? How can you not hate someone who has hurt you so irrevocably? I guess it’s not all or nothing, but more like a goal. You try to let go of as much of the anger as you can . . . how successful you are determines the extent to which you can lead your own life afterwards.

There was still no one at the bar; the club was empty so I continued to talk with Colleen. 

We remembered a Kurt Vonnegut character in Slaughter House-Five. After a battle in WWII, the man was so obsessed with getting revenge on his fellow American soldier, Billy Pilgrim, (he blamed Billy for the capture and eventual death of another soldier) — that he spent the rest of his life plotting revenge. That was the only life he had after the war, plotting and scheming to kill Billy. 

I told Colleen that the I Ching describes such hated/obsession, and it’s price. The I Ching is an amazing book of ancient Eastern thought. Some people use the I Ching to predict the future, or to try to fathom the mysteries of life. 

The I Ching says that the superior person doesn’t hate his (or her) enemy, because hatred only ties you to the hated object. 

As we continued to talk about the I Ching, about friendship and redemption, I recited my favorite passage from the book. In hexagram 13 — T’ung Jen/Fellowship with men, nine in the fifth place — there’s something from Confucius: 

Life leads the thoughtful man on a path of many windings.
Now the course is checked, now it runs straight again.
Here winged thoughts may pour freely forth in words,
There the heavy burden of knowledge must be shut away in silence.
But when two people are at one in their inmost hearts,
They shatter even the strength of iron or of bronze.
And when two people understand each other in their inmost hearts,
Their words are sweet and strong, like the fragrance of orchids.

Anyway, it didn‘t end up all that badly, working on Thanksgiving night. More people wandered in, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in groups of three or four, or more. A man and a woman who had met at Johnny D’s twenty years ago stopped in for a drink. A group of Tufts graduate students from India were at one table, and I talked with a guy at the bar who said he was a cook and had just gotten off work. 

Eric Pierce stopped in with his girlfriend, Sucin. Eric was one of the main bartenders at Johnny D’s, until he left to help his friend Ky Nguyen run Kingston Station, a new restaurant and bar that Ky had opened in downtown Boston. (You can see a picture of Eric in the photo section of this blog — it’s the last one, “The Four Horsemen.”) We sure miss Eric at our club, but he’s happy with his new position and the experience he’s gaining. It was good to see him. 

Other people came by Thursday night that I’d never seen at Johnny D’s before. They stopped in because we were one of the only places open. I didn’t make much in tips, but it was a good night to put my foot up on lower rail, say hello to the faces old and new, and just talk.

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My mother, my sister Kathy and me, as my mom graduated with a B.S. in Education

A thought occurred as I was writing the last post.  Someone out there reading about Free Beer, Joey Cigars, or Sal (no pizza!) — someone might read this blog and say, “Hey, I once knew a guy who met all the same people in the same places, a guy who did exactly the same things, but his name was Mike Dunford!”

Yes, it‘s true . . . but not because I‘m stealing anyone‘s identity or stories.  I was Mike Dunford, from grade school through college, and for quite a few years afterwards while bartending.  Dunford was my stepfather’s name.  And it was my name, until I changed back to my original surname, Qualtiere.

This has caused some confusion with my old college buddies, a few former girlfriends and the people I’ve worked with over the years behind the bar.  A lot of them remember me as Mike Dunford.  But what can I do?  My name has been through a number of changes, and it’s been happening for years, even before I was born.

When my father’s dad came to America from southern Italy, his name was Gualteire — pronounced GallTear (as in tear a piece of paper) – E.

That name was somehow changed when my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island.  My aunts used to tell the story.  Tobias Gaulteire was led away shouting — “Gaulteire!  Gaulteire!” — over his shoulder, while the clerk at the desk kept saying, “Yes, Mr. Qualtiere. Welcome to America, Mr. Qualtiere.”  (The new name was pronounced “Qual – tear,” as in tear drop.)

So I was born Dominick Qualtiere, Jr., son of Dominick Sr., who was the middle boy of Tobias (now) Qualtiere.

There were a lot of Dominicks in the family.  It seemed all the boys had “Dominick” in their names, and all the girls had “Theresa.”  There was one cousin everyone called “Dominick,” another was “Dom,” and my father was known as “Mickey.”

I became “Little Mickey.”

Domnick Qualtiere, Jr., soon to be Mike Qualtiere

I was “Little Mickey” until my parents got divorced.  I can’t imagine my mom really liked that name, after finally leaving Mickey Sr.

I remember being three or four years old, standing at the kitchen table of our new home in Hanover, MA (we’d just moved there from Boston).  I remember the kitchen was filled with bright yellow light streaming through a large window over the sink.

My mom was at the table, layering frosting on top of a huge chocolate cake.

“Wouldn’t you like a new name?” she asked out of the blue.

Her question confused me. I’d been staring at the cake, mesmerized.  Why would I need a new name?  Maybe I asked, “I already have one. Why should I change it?”

“Well,” she said, “It seems that everyone in this family is named Dominick, or Dom, or Mickey.  Wouldn’t you like to be called something else?  Wouldn’t you like a name of your own?”

“I’ve always liked the name Michael,” she continued. “Yes, I think I’d really like a son named Michael.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the cake.  I had the distinct feeling that my answer was somehow related to whether or not I would get a piece of cake now.

I thought about it for a minute.  What difference would it make?  What’s the big deal with changing names . . . as long as I’d have that slice of freshly-made, frosted cake.

“Sure,” I said, “That’s OK with me.  Call me Michael.”

I sold out my first name for a piece of chocolate cake.

I have one other vivid memory from that Hanover kitchen.  I was being held over the kitchen sink with the bright light washing the room in yellow.  My father was holding me under his arm while with the other hand he lifted a glass of beer to my lips.  I remember spitting it out, gagging while my father laughed.  I couldn’t have been more than three years old.

I remember thinking that I’d let him down by spitting out the beer, which I knew was very important to him.

I wanted to try again.  I must have said something like, “No, no don’t put me down.  I want to try again!”

The second time I managed to hold onto a big swallow, although the liquid seemed to be exploding in my mouth.  When I finally gulped down the bitter stuff, I was proud.  It was good to be a man, having a beer with my dad.

Then my mother walked in, and my dad caught hell.

My dad, Dominick Qualtiere, Sr., after a day of prospecting

For my mom it was the last straw in a barnfull of bad hay, and shortly afterward my father left for the hills of Utah to prospect for precious metals.  (He’d been a coal miner as a young man.)  I never saw him again, although we did exchange a series of letters and a few pictures over the years.  But I still I have that memory — the first beer of what has perhaps been too many beers in the course of a lifetime — I had my first beer with my dad.

Anyway, after that slice of chocolate cake, my first name was “Michael”.

Kathy and Mike as kids

I was Michael Qualtiere until my mother remarried.  My mom and her new husband decided that my sister Kathy and I should take “Dunford” as our last name.

I didn‘t like our new stepdad, Francis Dunford.  I missed my real father.

I remember I was in second grade, and my sister Kathy was in third grade, that day our new stepdad hit her.

Kathy and I were standing together, maybe sassing him back, when Francis Dunford’s hand snapped across her face.  It was a short, sharp little slap.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing until it’s over.  It was as though someone had suddenly shoved me so hard from behind that I flew up at my stepfather — as if shot from a cannon, two small fists flailing.

“Don’t hit my sister!  Don’t hit my sister!  Don’t hit my sister!”

He was falling back, so I was still up off my feet with my chest riding his, those little fists bouncing off his face.

“Don’t hit my sister!  Don’t hit my sister!  Don’t hit my sister!”

He pushed me off and I landed on my feet glaring at him, a seven-year-old boy, fists clenched and eyes filled with tears of rage.

I don’t know what happened next.  The next thing I remember I was standing by my bedroom window, looking out on the upstate New York countryside that was now our backyard.

Looking back, I don’t hate my stepdad.  If anything, I feel sorry for him.  He didn’t know what he was getting into with those Qualtiere kids.

Mike Dunford as a high school athlete

So, from grade school all through high school, I was known as Mike Dunford.  I won a scholarship and became a collegiate wrestler as Mike Dunford.  I started bartending and moved back to Boston as Mike Dunford.

But then I began working as a bartender at The Cantina Italiana in Boston’s North End (that’s where I met Joey Cigars).  I was suddenly surrounded by the Italian culture.  There were guys at the bar named Dominick.  I loved the atmosphere, and felt vaguely connected to it.  After all, I was second-generation Italian, despite my English last name.

At the same time, I was beginning to get published.  Editors at the academic journal, Western American Literature, really liked my paper on Jack London and Nietzsche, and they were going to make it the lead article in that year’s biggest issue. I also had articles for Offshore Magazine, Hardcopy, and Restaurant Hospitality in the works.

So who was I?  As I began to get published, did I want the name “Dunford” or “Qualtiere” credited in the byline?

I decided to go back to my name at birth.  Unlike the incident at Ellis Island, or a decision made by my mom or stepdad — this was the first change to my name I actually made on my own.  Now it felt particularly good to see the name published in a magazine or journal.  I still go by “Mike” or “Michael” . . . but now it’s Michael Qualtiere again, or Mike Q.

(You can ignore this next part. I was trying to send my cousin, Rosemary, a family photo–see the comment from her husband Jerry Repash below. But my email wouldn’t accept such a large file … so I’m posting it here in case she wanted to look at or copy it. This is an old, old family photo of some of the Qualtieres. I’m at the bottom left, probably two years old, with my sister Kathy and our mom.)

Copy of Qualtiere gathering


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