Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Vatican of Saloons

PJ Clarke's at Hapy Hour
In the New York years, I drank at P.J. Clarke’s every time I was in the city at the end of the business day. I’d say it was “one and go” but according to my co-worker Erv Hall, that‘s not humanly possible. One evening after work Erv and I went to the bar and I said, “Let’s just have one and go.” He replied with a grin, “Steve, there’s no such thing as one and go.” Those words proved prophetic.

It was at the old saloon on the northeast corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue that I first learned the 80-20 rule. That’s the adage that says 80% of a bar’s business comes from 20% of its customers. The regulars. In my beer o’clock visits I always saw the same half dozen guys at the front end of the bar by the window overlooking Third Avenue. I figured that if they were always there at 5:30pm and I was just an occasional customer, they must be there every single afternoon. Extrapolation is my middle name.

I first visited the joint in 1970 when I was banished to Rego Park, Queens to fix an underperforming restaurant that I had opened a year before. I lived in a basement apartment in Forest Hills Estates where I could walk to work and take the subway to the City for recreational purposes. The floundering restaurant was right across from Lefrak City, a huge apartment complex, and 2-1/2 blocks from the long gone Alexander’s Department Store at Queens Boulevard and 63rd Road. The little pie shop was the first place where a newly fired employee threatened me. “You won’t make it through the week,” he warned. That's 2,486 weeks ago. I'm feeling good about my chances.

How I stumbled on P.J. Clarke’s escapes me, but it became a haunt, the first step on a bar crawl up 1st Avenue to Yorktown and back down 2nd to 57th Street. My guess is that I learned about the bar in a bar, the way I learned everything else I know. My neighborhood bar in Rego Park was in Elmhurst or was it Corona? It’s confusing. Anyway, take a left out of my place, walk to Queens Boulevard, hang a right at Alexander’s, walk another couple of blocks and Walsh’s Pub was across the street.

Among the many things I learned at Vinny Walsh’s establishment was how to process 35mm negatives to get prints that looked like they were made with 4x5 sheet film. I was tipping Half and Halfs next to an older guy who, it turns out, was a local portrait photographer. We began to compare notes. I told him that I wanted to produce prints with as little grain as possible. He turned to me and said, “Go to 47th Street Photo in The City (that's what you call Manhattan if you're in the know). Ask for Seymour. Sy knows everything there is to know about the darkroom. He’ll tell you what to do.”

Sy did. On my nightly, I mean next, sortie into Manhattan I walked into 47th Street Photo and asked for Seymour. I told him some barfly in Elmhurst told me to look him up and that I wanted to know how coax creamy acuity out of a 35mm negative. He told me, “Kid, you gotta use Edwal FG7 developer not that Kodak crap. Use it 15:1 with a 9% sodium sulfite solution. Prints like nothing else, I’m telling you. And here’s the kicker, you can push the film. Take Kodak Plus X film that’s a 125 ASA and push it a 400, 500 ASA. I did it and it did. So, when I got back to my darkroom in South Pasadena a couple of months later I started shooting Plus X at 400 or 500 and getting prints that looked they came from a Hasselblad at 100 ASA. That Edwal FG7-Sodium Sulfite hack is the process I used till my darkroom days ended in the 2002.

I also learned about the Irish bar circuit at Walsh’s which, New York being New York, was epic. My favorite barkeep at Walsh’s, one Jack Kearns, tutored me on the midweek ritual called “busting balls” which isn’t quite what it sounds like. It’s drinking tour of Irish bars. On a barkeep’s night off, say Tuesday, he would hit all the bars on his circuit and “be taken care of.” Meaning he’d be treated like royalty by his brethren of the brew. He’d wouldn’t pay for a single drink. On Jack Kearns’s Irish bar circuit were, Peter’s Back Street in Bayside, Patrick’s Pub in Douglaston and the John Barleycorn in Manhattan. Only the John Barleycorn survives.

Back then it was protocol for your favorite mixologist to “buy” every third drink, and in a clearly understood quid pro quo, you’d tip him the full amount of that beverage. All of this was done with the full knowledge of the proprietor who understood the game. The IRS not so much. If Vinny didn’t tolerate the larceny his star bartender would move down the block dragging his regulars with him.

PJ Clarke’s has been called “the Vatican of Saloons.” PJ was Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish immigrant who tended bar at Duneen’s Saloon which opened its doors in 1887. Ten years later he bought Duneen's and changed the name. The venerable establishment is famous for its longevity, that it hasn’t been replaced by a skyscraper, its celebrity clientele, and for its pews, I mean urinals.

The urinals at PJ Clarke's

You could park your car in those things. They were chest height with an ice block covering the drain. They say you can tell how busy a shift is by the size of the melting block. Easier than counting the drawer I guess. "O'Shaugnessy, go measure the ice."

Wilt Chamberlain walking south on 2nd Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets in 1977 

On one occasion after half a dozen black and tans I stepped into the men’s room directly behind me. When I opened the door to go back to the bar I walked into Wilt Chamberlain’s ass. I do not exaggerate. The man was so big that at 5’-11” I was eyeballing the big center’s pockets. Unlike most “big men” of the day who were storks, Wilt’s 300 pounds was distributed perfectly on his 7’-2” frame. Imagine Lebron James but half a foot taller. Wilt employed a handler to fend off male patrons. I watched his body man collecting head shots from all the women queuing up to meet the man who scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962 and, according to Chamberlain, 10,000 women. I’m afraid to do that math.

3 comments:

Daryl Black said...

It is official. There is definitely a book here, and the sooner the better. People of all stripes, whether they know New York or not, can thoroughly enjoy and identify with so much of what you are writing. The Vatican of Saloons is a great piece, Steve, and I am so glad you put it on your blog. More, please!

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