The Tender Bar
J.R. Moehringer didn’t have a father growing up; he had a bar. His old man, who got into a fistfight at his own wedding, threatened to slice up Moehringer’s mother’s face with a straight razor when the boy was 7 months old, and later left them altogether. As a kid, the author and his mom lived at his grandfather’s derelict house in Manhasset, N.Y., 142 steps away from Dickens, the watering hole (later renamed Publicans) that serves as the focal point for Moehringer’s outstanding memoir, The Tender Bar.
Moehringer is a Pulitzer-winning writer, now at the Los Angeles Times. In other words, he’s yet another ace journalist who owes his greatest training to some old gin joint. But his tale is richer and more unusual than most. And it’s not afflicted with some of the usual schmaltz that comes when writers romanticize a booze-filled past. (There’s a little schmaltz, but it works.) As for the title, his bar is not ”tender” in the sense that life at Publicans was soft or sentimental. It was tender, rather, in the more intimate sense that it tended to the fatherless young man like an especially sympathetic bartender, with its solid-oak bar top, its 40-foot wall of shiny bottles, and, most of all, its talk-addicted regulars exerting a riptide-like pull on Moehringer until he was 25.
The whole memoir is as sneakily effective as the subtle pun in its title, deeply felt where it might’ve turned cheap and easy. This isn’t the boozy confession you might be expecting — not till late in the book does Moehringer start drinking too much, although he can be faulted slightly for not giving much space to the more unromantic aspects of bar life, such as, for starters, the hangover.
But when it comes to the romantic stuff, Moehringer is sometimes as vivid as any of the 4 gajillion writers who’ve already waxed eloquent on the barfly’s life. His crew, led by his alopecia-afflicted, gambling-junkie Uncle Charlie, is a distinctive lot. And of his first visit to Publicans, he reports: ”I saw that the air was actually a beautiful pale yellow, though I couldn’t see any lamps or other possible sources of light. The air was the color of beer, and smelled of beer, and each breath tasted like beer — malted, foamy, thick.”
Publicans — with its ”scintillating talk, which could jump from horse racing to politics to fashion to astrology to baseball to historic love affairs, all in the span of one beer” — taught Moehringer how to tell stories. And the best thing about The Tender Bar is that it is many stories in one. If the boyhood or bar sections don’t give you a buzz, something else will. When he romances a girl named Sidney with ”almond-shaped brown eyes,” the book is an achy tale of doomed first love. When he tries to reconnect with his father, a former New York City radio personality known as ”The Voice,” it’s a hard-luck father-son story. When he lands improbably at Yale, it’s a fondly rendered college memoir. When he arrives even more improbably as a copyboy at his beloved New York Times, it’s the funny saga of a hapless cub reporter. And so on. Moehringer has hours and hours of stories that any bar hound worth his stool would bend both ears to drink in. Thankfully, the writer has opted to put them down on paper.