(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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(Here are some photos from the Johnny D’s party.) 

Booty Vortex was the perfect booking choice for Halloween Night at Johnny D’s. They’re a rocking disco/funk band — a bunch of great musicians having fun. (You can hear samples on their website, BootyVortex.com.) 

Wearing a foxy nurses’ costume, singer HoneyChild got everyone hopping as the band launched into tunes like “Lady Marmalade” and “Disco Inferno.”  Waitress Jenny came dressed as a cowgirl.  Marie came as a toddler.  Craig was dressed like the Beatnik he really is at heart.  There was a contest for best costume, but even those who didn’t win an offical prize still won on the dance floor as Father Time got his chance to dance with a Slutty Stewardess, and the guy with the pencil head danced the Hooter‘s Girl. People were dancing and partying all night.  (If you missed this party, Booty Vortex will be playing at the club again on New Year’s Eve.) 

Our youngest waitress, Nikki, came dressed in prison garb.  The letters on the back of her shirt originally read “Dept. of Corrections“ — but John Bonoccorso couldn’t resist making one small alteration. While the staff finished the set-up he grabbed a sticky-note pad, wrote down the capital letter “E” and then made like he was simply patting Nikki on the back. 

Nikki was a good sport when he finally told her, and she let him snap this picture.  She took the yellow “E” off before the party began . . . too bad, because she would have made ridiculous tips if she’d left it on. 

John has worked on the bar with me at Johnny D’s for years — he recently moved up to general manager. Owner Carla DeLellis and her husband Sean have four kids, ages 8 – 16.  John will give them have a little more time with their family, but they‘ll never change his sense of humor.  (You can take the bartender out from behind the bar, but you can’t take the bar out of the bartender.) 

Bartenders Jeremy Newcomer (left) and Will Henry (right) both wanted to come as Boston Celtics star Rajon Rondo.  Neither would give in, so they came wearing the same costume.  They got a referee‘s shirt for me wear in the middle. 

Will and Jeremy are roommates.  They’re both in their twenties and they‘re bartenders at a nightclub. I wish their landlord and their next-door neighbors good luck. 

Below are a few more photos from Johnny D’s Halloween Night. 

(We’ll be adding everyday pictures of other bars, restaurants and nightclubs from across the country.  You’ll be able to view them by clicking the “Photos” and “Videos” links on the black navigation bar at the top.  Right now the pictures are only from Johnny D’s . . . but that’s your fault isn’t it?  Send us yours!  See “Contact Us” for details.) 

Back with more stories about life on a cocktail napkin next week. 

Mike Q (still bartending, after all these years)

Nikki and Jenn, the cowgirl

Craig the beatnik




Booty Vortex from the stage

Oscar in drag (now that's scary!)

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(This note is about one of our good friends at Johnny D’s)

Dave at Johnny D's (with Jenny)

Dave is huge. He must be 6′ 7″, and more than three hundred and fifty pounds. I can’t imagine that he wasn’t a football player in college. He’s so big that he holds his drink glass between a thumb and a forefinger, the way someone might hold a small shot glass. (Don’t believe me? Compare Dave’s size to the longneck bottle in Jenny’s hand.)

Fortunately, he’s also a good guy. Always friendly, polite. I don’t know what he does for a living, but he has an air of professionalism. He‘s totally relaxed and confident.

One night at the club he left his drink and his jacket at the bar, and got up to dance. Dave loves to dance. He’ll dance all night, and he’s amazingly light on his feet.

While Dave was dancing, a young couple came up to the bar and there was only one seat open next to Dave’s jacket. The girl sat down and the kid with her took Dave’s seat, ignoring the drink and the coat. I figured it was OK. When Dave came back the guy could get up.

This new guy and his girlfriend were in a foul mood. They were fighting about something and he was treating her like dirt. “Who would ever marry you?“ I overheard him snort at one point, “You’re trash . . . you’re a loser.“

He was a real jerk. Loud, stupid, obnoxious. But he hadn’t quite crossed that line where I felt it was my place to step in. The girl didn’t look around. She didn’t try to catch my eye. This was still a private conversation. She sat there listening. She looked so beaten down.
I was sorry now that I’d given him that first beer, and warned the other bartenders that we shouldn’t serve him a second one.
When Dave came back he let the guy know that this was his seat. Dave was polite; he was smiling. But the guy was an asshole, and dismissed Dave with a wave of his hand.
They began a conversation and next thing I knew the guy stood up and they were arguing. Dave is usually the type to let things slide, but the kid’s attitude was starting to get to him.
“Take your fucking jacket . . . and get out of my face!” the kid yelled at Dave.
Dave’s head snapped back a little on that massive neck. This guy was probably 5′ 8″, maybe 150 lbs. It was an incredible mismatch, the two of them standing face to face. The guy kept cursing up at Dave.
Dave’s face was beet red.
I went over to the two of them. “Calm down” I told the kid. “You’re in his seat.”
The guy wouldn’t listen.
“This man is a friend of ours,” I told the kid.
“Fuck you! Fuck all of you!” the kid kept cursing. He wouldn’t stop.
“Time for you to leave,” I told the kid. By now two doormen were standing behind him. “Just walk away,” I said, “ . . . Head for the door.”
The kid didn’t budge. He looked at the doormen, at me, then at Dave. His fists were clenched. We rarely see any real trouble at the club, but I thought, “Is this kid crazy enough to throw a punch at someone? Did he feel like a big man because he was able to push his girlfriend around?
It was ridiculous, the two of them standing there. It would have taken three or four of this guy to fill Dave’s bulk. Then Dave spoke quietly and calmly, although it looked as though he was about to explode.
“Listen pal,” Dave told the kid, “I’ve taken shits bigger than you.”
Either Dave’s size, something about his voice or what he said finally brought the kid back to reality. He looked around once more, then walked toward the door on his own, luckily for him.
It was one of those situations that could have gone either way. I think if Dave had squeezed the kid’s head between a thumb and a forefinger, his face would have popped open like a grape.
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JOEY CIGARS and the one-hundred-dollar bill

(This note is from The Cantina Italiana, in Boston’s North End.)

The Cantina Italiana

Boston’s North End is the Italian district and as you’d expect the food in the neighborhood is fantastic. Working behind the bar, the best part of the night at The Cantina was the shift meal – Zuppa di Pesce, Bombolotti with Italian sausage, Linguine with Clam Sauce, Pollo Abruzzese. I was in heaven.

The North End is also one of the safest places to live in Boston. Women love to find apartments in this part of town because they feel free to walk down the street day or night.

But times do change, and for a while there were persistent break-ins at some of the neighborhood three-decker tenements. Residents put the blame on a few local junkies.

Who else would be crazy enough to start trouble in the North End?  Invisible to the tens of thousands of visitors who regularly enjoy the food and culture of this district, there are some really, really tough guys living and “working” here. Wise guys. Connected guys. They keep things under control.

Some of them hung out at the bar at the Cantina. If you didn’t know who they were you might have thought that the quiet man sipping his espresso was someone’s uncle or grandfather, and of course he was someone’s uncle or grandfather – but he might also be a wise guy.

Joey Cigars was one of those guys. He was a reputed mob hit man, recently released after serving ten years in jail. Joey was a stocky man, medium height, but his square shoulders made him look as wide as he was tall. He had an aura that steamed off him like the smoke from dry ice. He had a glare that made you want to flatten yourself against the back wall, or slink to the nearest exit.

Joey Cigars and the other wise guys weren’t happy with the break-ins going on in the neighborhood. They had friends and family living here. This wasn’t supposed to happen on their turf.

Joey Cigars came into The Cantina one afternoon when I was working. He was wearing a tan trench coat although it was a warm, sunny day. He ordered a drink, sat at the bar looking around, then left.

Later I heard that he had walked from the Cantina over to the Peace Garden, half a block down the street. The Peace Gardern is a small church park adjoining St Leonard’s — it’s a quiet area with religious statues, fountains and flowers. Strangely, the local junkies used it as their afternoon hang-out.

Joey Cigars walked up to a group of young thugs gathered by the main statue. He stood silently for a minute, his hands in the pockets of his trench coat. The protrusion of two pistol barrels bulged ominously from under either side of the coat.

“Do you see that fire house?” he finally addressed the group. He nodded toward the fire station on the corner. They acknowledged they saw it.

“My mother lives on the other side of that fire house,” Joey said.

“If you’re walking down the street carrying a hundred-dollar bill,” he continued, “if you drop the bill and the wind blows it on the other side of the fire house . . . don’t go after it.”

“Don’t go after it,” Joey Cigars warned. “Don’t try to pick it up. My mother lives on the other side.”

“Don’t ever go further than that fire house,” Joey said, “Not for anything.”

About a week later, Joey Cigars was sitting at the bar and one of the guys he’d been talking to at the Peace Garden came into The Cantina. I only heard a little of their conversation, but he was apparently trying to convince Joey that he wasn’t involved with those break-ins.

“It’s not me,” the guy told Joey. He was maybe in his mid-twenties, not yet a broken-down junkie, but a small, ratty-looking kid.

“It’s not me!” he said.  Just the way he was acting and the tone of his voice convinced me the kid was guilty. I kept busy, cutting more limes.

“I told you once,” Joey Cigars set his drink down, “I told you . . . I want the shit to stop.”

“It’s not me, Joey,” the guy kept protesting, “It’s not me. It’s not me!”

Joey looked to the side for a moment, then turned back to the kid. “Listen,” he said quietly, “I said I want it to stop. Do you understand?”

There was a long pause, then Joey Cigars spoke again.

“Do you understand?”

I never saw the kid again. A couple of weeks later I asked one of the regulars, who I was pretty sure was a connected guy, if he had seen the guy around.

The regular’s answer was cryptic.

“Naw,” he told me, without looking up. “You won’t be seeing him anymore. He’s missing.”

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