It was an amazing sight to see. Six or seven bar patrons thomping on one dude. Some were trying to drag him out of his car, others swatting and poking him with pool cues. It might have seemed unfair and unjust, but when you knew the whole story, it was actually a beautiful thing.
I love the Irish. Even though hanging out with them has almost killed me many times, they have my utter devotion. These mischievous Elves of Eire have always lifted me up when my life had me hammered down. “Dere, dere, Mahreeus, sorry tah here about yahr troubles. It’s nat ahl tha’ bad. Cheers!” A pint of Guinness would appear, and somehow, from the ocean’s depths, I would rise again.
Biddy Mulligan’s is a working-class bar located three blocks from my grandparent’s house in Woodhaven, Queens. People of Irish descent tend to frequent the place. So do people of an Irish disposition. If I die and become an earth-bound spectre, unable to reunite with the Source of All, I’ll probably drag my ghost ass to Biddy’s. There I’ll haunt eternity, drowning my disappointment among the other lost souls. It’s a special place.
I discovered it during one of my trips home. At first, I was a little hinky about going in. These local bars are often very tribal. There’s a whole elaborate dance you have to do as an outsider to get any love. Oh well. It was time to dance. The first part required tipping big and keeping my mouth shut. They’ll be a time for storytelling, jig-dancing, and lass-squeezing, but not now. It was time to let people get used to seeing me, and critically, seeing me not do anything but drink. A strange thing happens when I people watch. I turn into a single floating eyeball. I become nothing more than a point of perception, a mere mathematical cypher. Existing sure, but only in theory, and certainly not a threat to any established bar hierarchy. Meanwhile, I’d wait for the generous tips to strike a spark, a wee tiny one, with the bartender, then cup my kindling and blow.
The Irish have traditionally made good kindling, certainly for revolution and disorder. That’s my favorite part of them. The music is lively too. Yet even among all that riotous disorder there were certain set rules. There was a difference between going “totahlly wide-o” and really crossing the line. With all the fighting, fussing, and frolicking, some things were still sacred. I noticed that everyone left their money on the bar. The bartender peeled away bills and gave back change from the pile. People would go to the bathroom, step outside to talk business, make phone calls, pick a fist fight, whatever, and leave their pile of money on the bar. People coming and going, but the money staying right there. All this in New York City, in a fairly rundown neighborhood in Queens.
One old guy went on about it to me later. “Marius, in here, a fuckin’ man can fuckin’ leave his fuckin’ money on the fuckin’ bar!” He said you could take off for three days and come back to find your money where you left it. I was impressed, and sort of believed him.
Now, honest to God this really happened. Shortly after this chat, a guy walked into the bar. A greasy sort of lowlife, with lots of pawn shop jewelry. He ordered his drink, and put the money back in his wallet instead of on the bar. I noticed that. He’s drinking next to me, and starts running off some shit to me about being a cop, and being able to do whatever he wants. He pulled out a NYPD detective card and handed it to me. A lieutenant. Probably not, I thought, but maybe. Cops in New York run the gamut. I’m sure there’s more than one bad lieutenant out there. He starts talking about all the guns he owns, but I don’t see him printing anything through his shirt.
I was trying to size him up when a big, sweating and puffing fat boy came rolling in. A lovable load in a wife-beater, name Al. He orders a double scotch and hands the bartender a hundred. He announces that he just won six hundred bucks at the track. And then mumbling “It helps make up for the beating I took yesterday.” He lumbered toward the bathroom.
“Can you believe that fucking Pollack bragging about $600?” the bad lieutenant says to me, then reaches over and takes a twenty from Al’s pile. I was shocked, but the brazen way he did it freaked me more. Maybe he is a bad cop who can “do anything.” Holy shit. Al comes back from the head and looks down and right away notices he’s twenty short. He never questioned the bartender. He turned to the two of us. He said he was going to go back to the bathroom and when he came back he expected the money to be there, then left. Pretty classy.
Now the next part is hard to believe, because it happened in front of me and I didn’t. The bad lieutenant says to me “Why the fuck would I take his chump change when I got plenty of money?” and reaches over and takes another twenty! Ok. Ok. What the fuck is going on here? He has to have an angle to pull this shit off, especially in this joint where they make such a big deal about trust. I thought about putting in $40 of my own just to make this situation go away, but Al had come back. He looked down, and then looked up at the two of us pissed. I didn’t know what to do. If this thieving fucker really is the heat, he could ruin my vacation. On the other hand, I saw what I saw. I took a chance.
“I saw this dirty fucker take your money, Al.”
The bartender came over. “If Marius says it’s so, it’s so,” she said. People appeared around us. The bad lieutenant started yelling. Somebody grabbed his arm and the place went off. More people had been watching than I realized, and nobody seemed worried if the guy was a cop or not. A construction worker picked him up by the back of the belt, rag-dolled his ass out the door, then Dublin Dropped him face down into the street. People were pulling on his pocket trying to tear out his wallet as he struggled to get in his two-toned LTD oil-bleeder. He finally peeled out and away, pool cues still banging on his car.
You don’t steal money off the bar at Biddy’s.
There was much rejoicing, and the man of the hour was a hometown Lithuanian. Rounds of Guinness keep materializing in front of me all night, and my money pile never shrank. A girl named Shannon told me I looked “suitable for framing,” and Al kept pulling me into his sweaty arm pit. I made it. I was welcomed into the tribe. I wasn’t Irish, but I could still put away “farty pints a day.” And I could be trusted. I may have been an alcoholic loser, but I still had some people’s trust. I hung on to that. I didn’t have too much else.
Having had the experience of performing this tribal dance on various occasions, I felt my soul warming as I read this story. It is a rare bit of prose that has me rereading lines for the sheer joy of it. Carry on, young man; this is what we’ve been waiting for…
we’re a weird lot, you’n I.
I just got back from living on Capitol Hill. Visited, lunched with and kicked it around, in an officer and gentlemanly way with some Marines, Navy and OSN folk… You know the drill – I’d tell ya ’bout it but then…
The trip was a hoot; from fine wines to a guided tour of the ‘hood, repleat with introductions. Now I’m back to Chicago with this just in:
“You are now friends with Yipee Kiyay.”