Let me speak of that noblest of professions – the bartender. Now one could write tomes on the gentlemen keepers of the sacred stick – the exploits of Steve Duggan and Malachy McCourt spring to mind, but when it comes to tough love, lady bartenders leave them in the dust!
I will refrain from mentioning any member of the Irish-American community, since too many know where the bodies are buried; instead I will dwell on the chutzpah and heroics of a Pole, a Finn, and an African-American, three ladies who took no nonsense from their clientele.
The Polish woman ran a saloon on the corner of First and First, now owned by that infamous Dubliner, Terry Dunne. Known simply as Ma’am, she was on the wintry side of 70; yet she had your measure taken in the time it took you to shuffle from the door to the bare-bones bar. Nor did she offer a word of greeting - or gratitude - as you forked over your three bucks for a Heineken.
She employed an alcoholic Polish accordionist who played Chopin with much feeling. She demanded silence for these performances and all banter halted as he labored over his melancholic sonatas.
One night Milan, a fearsome Ukrainian of quicksilver temperament, expressed his homophobic opinion of Chopin and Poles in general.
Without a flicker of emotion Ma’am leveled him with a baseball bat. Blood spurted from Milan’s bald pate while we drinkers scattered to the four walls. Whereupon Ma’am called a round on the house and nodded her approval as the accordionist abandoned his beloved Chopin for a wild Gypsy Mazurka.
The Finnish lady had to be close to 90. At least I assume that was her nationality for she presided over The Finland Bar on 86th Street. I never saw her commit any act of violence, although her Louisville slugger nestled snugly next to the antediluvian cash register.
She was lively, opinionated, and preferred that gentlemen greet her with one word - “Wodka!” One could wave a hundred-dollar bill while soliciting a Budweiser, and it would get you nowhere. No, “wodka” ruled, and she poured shots so liberal men were known to shake hands with themselves after a couple. Women, as a rule, did not frequent this saloon.
A big silent hulking fellow sat in the corner; he was variously described as her son, or lover. One night an inebriated companion of mine ventured to suggest that he might be both. A frigid silence descended upon the room. The Finnish lady glared at us with such cold disdain that we promptly downed our “wodkas” and skipped to the door - some steps ahead of the big hulking fellow.
I was furious at my companion, for good bars are hard to come by and liberal shots even rarer, but perhaps it’s just as well for my liver is pickled enough as it is.
There are some who would say that Maria, the bartender at the Kiwi on East 9th Street, was not even a woman, but no one ever suggested that this tall, willowy transvestite was not a lady. She could converse on any subject, social, political or philosophical with clarity, erudition and grace. She was also quite an impressive sight for she favored six inch heels and towered above all and sundry.
One evening a Hells Angel of much girth and little discretion expressed the view that he would prefer to be served by a “real woman.” In one fell swoop, Maria reached down and came up swinging with a spike heel. No blood spurted as she struck the Angel right between the eyes; nonetheless, this hirsute gentleman burst into tears claiming that his mother had, just that very morning, threatened to throw him out of house and home if he got in another fight.
Ah yes, those were the days when men were men, and women occasionally were too. It’s probably safe to say, they don’t make lady bartenders like they used to.
Still, let us raise a glass to the sisterhood of the stick – when the world has turned its back on you, they’ll still slip you a drink and a knowing wink – just remember to behave yourself in their sacred presence.