Hey! Anyone out there know how to make an Old Fashioned? Or a Side Car? Or a Stinger for crying out loud or even a Marty? Because it’s been so long since I’ve made a drink or even written about it here on this web site, I fear I’ve lost my skills, or worse, my way. (And you guys in the process!) But such is the terrible price one pays for not keeping up with his blog, and for being a man of leisure lo these many months. So before I fall even further behind and forget just who I am and why I do this, I’ve decided to climb back on the horse and put on my bartender’s apron (figuratively, of course), and ride to the dusty days of Barland past.
To the days of my childhood…
One could say your friendly bartender is “to the manor born”, if a boarding house/saloon in Pittsburgh can be called a manor. (I know, I know, it’s a stretch but let’s just go with it!) And the manor of which I speak, dear reader, run by my grandmother Milligan, was a joint aptly called The Column House because across the street sat a factory whose output was columns. You know, porch columns, pillars, posts of all sizes, even bannister newels which were turned on a lathe. I actually spent two summers of my youth working in that God awful place (for a dollar fifteen an hour, I might add!) while the children of a not lesser God spent their summers swimming. Or golfing. Or whatever the hell kids did that didn’t have to work. But it gave me a good education this job, a look at a slice of life I wouldn’t want to live. “Stay in school,” it screamed, “you don’t want to do this!”
The Column House featured thirteen rooms that made up the boarding house portion… twelve rooms up and one room down (the infamous #13 which was where I slept when I spent my summers there)… and each room to be sure was home to a character. There were drifters aboard and losers of all stripes, winners who had recently lost, guys I’m sure who were on the lam and guys whose wives had tossed them out for the night. There were also pensioners on fixed incomes who simply needed a room and a good hot meal. And Grandma Milligan, bless her soul, provided that. Everyone called her “Mom” in the place and each of those guys in her keep she treated like sons. She was up at six to cook their breakfast, she then launched into the lunches, and after her one hour nap at three she was up again to prepare their nightly feast. Then dinners wound down around eight or so after which she took another nap, then at ten she was up and running the bar til closing time. Don’t ask me how she did it, I can’t believe it as I type this, but this was the woman’s schedule six days a week. Her last name might’ve been Milligan which she acquired from my Grandfather Paul, but her German heritage I’m sure provided this work ethic. The woman was a machine! A machine with a heart as big as the sky above us.
Now since the “Blue Laws” were still in effect back then which meant you couldn’t serve liquor at all on Sundays, Gram ran an unofficial speakeasy there on Sundays. A side door leading to an alley next to the window to #13, provided access to those who knew we were open. They just rang the buzzer two or three times and if we knew who they were, by God, they were drinking on Sunday. I sometimes served as the let-‘em-in-guy even though just a kid cause I knew all the players. “Make sure you know who they are,” Gram would shout, whenever I leapt to the door to act like a grown-up.
Well one day, a guy stopped by whom we’d known for years though he rarely frequented our bar, a big shot (and half a gangster I think) from the Teamsters Union. His name was (let’s call him) Armand and he looked like something right out of Godfather II… the “Michael” era. Heavily shoulder-padded camel overcoat, serious wide brimmed hat, shoes you could see your reflection in and a diamond pinky that dazzled if not distracted. No one looked or dressed like that who came to my grandmother’s bar, so it always was something special whenever he came. And I of course felt special letting him in.
“Hey, Kid,” he said with a wink, shaking my hand which was now a crisp dollar richer. Then he walked through the dining room, through the kitchen and made his way to the bar to join all our regulars. But when he walked up to my grandmother who was tending bar as per usual on Sunday afternoons, he filled her in to the following in a rather grave tone. “Mom, a guy is going to join me here in maybe a half hour, a friend of mine from Detroit who’s a pretty big deal. So make sure he gets in the door and we make him feel welcome, okay?”
“Why of course,” said my Gram, “any friend of yours is a friend of ours, Armand.”
“Good. But there’s one little thing,” he added leaning in closer. “You really gotta shout at him because he lost his hearing in the war and is hard of hearing.”
“Geez, poor guy,” said my Gram, displaying genuine sympathy, “I’ll be sure to speak up loud so he can hear me.” Then she made Armand’s drink.
Then a half hour later and right on cue his friend showed up at the door and gained entry. But after he made his way to the bar and was introduced to my grandmother, all hell soon broke loose (at least audibly).
“How nice to meet you,” the man shouted, “Armand’s told me so much about you, Mom.”
“Well thank you,” shouted my grandma, in an even louder voice, “as… I… was… just… saying… to… Armand… when… he… told… me… you… were… coming, any… friend… of… his… is… a… friend… of… mine. So… what… can… I… get… you?”
“I’ll… have… a… Seagram’s… and… ginger,” the man shouted back.
“And… a … Seagram’s… and… ginger… it… is,” shouted my grandma.
Well now there’s a knock on the front door and my grandmother fears that it might be a cop passing by. The knock was that loud.
“Shhhhhh,” hushed my grandma, waving her arms at the rest of the bar as she walked up to the window and pulled back the curtain. Then she dropped her head and let out a sigh indicating the coast was clear, as it was only a couple of strangers who’d heard all the shouting. They must’ve thought a party was afoot and wanted to join that party on a dry Sunday. But when my Grandmother walked back behind the bar to rejoin Armand and his friend, Armand was doubled over in a heap of laughter.
“What’s the matter?” said my grandmother.
“I have a confession to make is what’s the matter,” he said. “To both of you. See, Mom, before I got here I told my friend that you were hard of hearing… just like I told you, Mom, that he was hard of hearing. Well neither of you are hard of hearing I just wanted see the two of you shout at each other. And it worked like a charm!” Then he laughed even harder.
“Why you little pup, you,” my grandmother said, her favorite name for someone who had gotten her dander up. She also joined in the laughter after that with a face that was clearly redder than all the rest. “But if I had gotten a citation,” she added, once she caught her breath, “I guarantee you you would’ve paid it, Armand.”
To which Armand replied flexing his “I got connections” muscles, “If you had gotten a citation, Mom, no on would’ve paid it. Capeesh?” Then he bought a round for the bar and all was well
So not too long after that when someone said my grandmother ran a speakeasy, a light bulb went off in my head which I thought was brilliant. Oh… so that’s where the word comes from, I thought, “speakeasy” means “speak easy” so the cops who are walking their beat don’t hear you inside. (I know, “duh”, right??!!!) Geez, how clever! I kept on thinking that day.
And just to add some irony to the fire, who knew I’d end up working in a (famous speakeasy)?
See you next time, dear reader, thanks for stopping by!