I’m sure you’ve heard this saying before, “He learned most of what he knows at the knee of his father.” Well, when it comes to what your friendly bartender knows about working behind the stick, not about how to make drinks but how to be professional, he learned at the shoulder of his friend and colleague Big Gene. And he uses the word “shoulder” in this case because that’s where his eyes met the man… at his shoulder. Big Gene was a mountain of a man and in more ways than one.
Now to set the physical picture into frame so you can see this man as you read this, if Gene had gone into acting (and believe me he would’ve been great at it) he’d have invariably been cast as the mayor of a town or its bishop. Or Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street” sporting his mop of silver-grey hair, his set of plump rosy cheeks, his beatific grin that beamed from here to Ireland, and his big round belly that shook when he laughed indeed “like a bowlful of jelly”… Gene was the quintessential everybody’s favorite uncle.
And I say “was” because sadly Big Gene is gone now.
But this being Father’s Day and all… Gene was a father of nine and a friend to hundreds… I thought it appropriate to honor this (to me) father figure. For that’s how close we were at one time and that’s how much of an impact he had on my bartending life. Oh, it took a while to sink in to be sure… this Gene stuff and all of its value… but now that I finally got it I’ll never lose it. And sadly I got it long after he’d passed away.
See what I learned from Big Gene is the simple fact that bartending isn’t that simple… it’s more than just pouring some drinks and banging a register… he taught me that what we do really is a profession. And as in all professions both large and small there’s always a right way to do things, and Gene did all the right things and a whole lot more. It’s a job about dealing with people, he taught me, and making them all feel better… the gig is a party and you’re the genial host. For any bartender can pour out the spirits but a Big Gene can lift the spirit that lives within.
Back when I followed Big Gene on my shift, as he worked the days and I nights, I was strictly what you’d call an arms-folded, clock-watching, here’s-yer’-drink’, semi-grumpy, New York bartender. Or what some might even call a pain in the ass. And if someone were to ask what I did for a living when I wasn’t behind the stick, I would always say something like, “Right now I’m just tending bar.” You know, like I was above tending bar and on my way to bigger things. And if that someone were to probe even further… as to who and what I was beyond the stick… I would smartly respond, “Oh, see… I’m really a writer!” Then I’d quick change the subject before I was asked what I write.
How sad, looking back, and how silly, how “who the hell did I ever think that I was?” For boxes of unfinished stories do not a writer make, and tending a bar does not a loser make. And there truly are no small jobs to be done as the saying so rightly goes, just small people out there doing those jobs and I for the longest time was one of those people. Yet here was Big Gene the bartender’s bartender, and proud as a peacock to be so, his colorful feathers not something to hide but an attraction. And his following was legend. When people walked into the bar when he was on duty, and I swear this is true because I’d been his customer many times, those people were smiling before they even ordered their drinks.
“What a nice surprise,” was one of his favorite greetings… a simple, welcome mat of words that always worked. In fact, you could see it in the customer’s eyes that it worked... Big Gene’s on duty, everything’s gonna be fine… The world’s a better place, I’m here with Big Gene. And believe me I’m not exaggerating that fact, the man was more of a draw than what he was pouring. And as I said, it took his passing for this so-called “writer” to get that.
The day after Gene’s sudden passing (the result of a massive heart attack) because much of his clientele was derived from the financial world, the news of his death was run across the screens of countless computers in midtown and down on Wall Street, that’s how big he was. And to later see scores of those people come in, tough-as-nails men and women, to pay their respects and to shed a big tear for Big Gene, more than announced how a job “well done” does affect people. It was both tragic and heartwarming.
Now I know I’ll never be a Gene in this racket… no one, of course, ever will… but thanks to this man I’m a little more proud that I try. Tending bar’s now a good thing and not something menial. And if that sounds a little too “taking-myself-seriously”, that was indeed the intent… I’m serious now about doing this thing called bartending… it matters. The whole frigging deal from pour to good-bye, it matters. Just ask all those people who lined up and mourned my friend’s passing.
So in closing, I have this little joke that Gene used to tell. And you should know that when Gene told this silly little joke, or any joke for that matter, because he laughed while telling the joke his belly really did shake “like a bowlful of jelly”.
Here’s the joke…
When this Irish woman comes home after her annual physical, her husband asks, “And how’d it go at the doctor’s, dear?” “Aw, it went fine,” says she. “But what exactly did he say?” “Well, if you must know… he says me heart’s fine, me liver’s fine, me lungs are fine, me cholesterol’s fine, and all in all yer’ girl’s as fit as a fiddle.” “But what’d he say about yer’ big fat Irish ass?” says he. “Why, yer’ name never came up, Darlin’,” says she!
Well, I’m bringin’ your name up today, Big Gene, with reverence and a whole lot of gratitude, and with hopes you’re behind the stick up in St. Peter’s Pub.
Over and out from Bar-land… Happy Father’s Day!