My buddy Casey and I were driving back from a record show a year or so ago, and our conversation turned to his profession—bartending—and the characters he’d encountered along the way, customers and colleagues alike. Casey knows everyone—that’s part of his job—and I am a frequent patron of several local beverage-serving establishments, so there was much common ground to be covered.
We started talking about Mike, a good friend of Casey’s who often shared shifts with him behind the bar at the Bluebird Inn. They were great foils for one another—a damn fine comedy duo that also happened to be really good at mixing drinks.
Mike was a lifer, we both agreed. Neither of us could imagine him doing anything else. He was a bartender, a damn good one, but he was more than just that. Raconteur, sympathetic ear, devoted sports geek, loud laugher, life of the party, thunder-bringing god of hangover-inducing elixirs, alchemist and apothecary of hangover cures, wager maker, wager taker, expert vacationer, golfer, music lover, women lover, teacher of toasts and knower of a million facts, fibs and other bits of ephemera.
Oh, and he was Irish. That’s important, as any Irishman—any Irish bartender, in particular—can tell you.
I love a good bar. Communities rise up around them; friendships are made and ended within their walls; relationships (both short- and long-term) have their beginnings there (and sometimes their conclusions). The most sacred and profane among us can mingle at a good local tavern. Those who serve there form a kinship with those who come to while away an hour or two or an evening, to relax, to find companionship in their fellow men and women in conversation, sharing their stories, telling their secrets, giving and receiving advice, discussing the worth of public figures and solving the world’s problems. At times when I am most in need of relaxation—even an hour of it—I will try to find a way to stop by one of the local drinking establishments, and just, as the kiddies say, chill. And, yes, the consumption of alcohol is a chilling accelerant, but even if I stay for only one beer, just having spent time in those friendly confines leaves me feeling more tranquil, more prepared to face whatever comes next.
Twenty years ago, Mike tended bar at the Fenwick Tavern, which was, at the time, my bar, and I always had a good time talking to him about any number of subjects—his trips to Ireland, Jimmy Buffett concerts, who Notre Dame was playing that weekend. Small talk is an art form, and Mike was a master, as any good barman should be.
He didn’t pour you a Guinness—he built you a Guinness, taking his time, filling the glass to just the right level on the first pour, then letting it sit, letting the nitrogen settle, letting you watch the cascades of bubbles form and rise, letting you understand that this was how it’s done, properly, expertly, by a professional, dammit. Then the second pour, the forming of the oh-so-creamy head and, to top it off (and also, I imagine, to show off a little), the shamrock drawn gently on the top. Mike would start the first pour on my first pint the moment he saw me walk through the door, and the only questions he’d have for me as I sat down were how was I doing and did I want a shot of Jameson to go along with the Guinness.
Once, I saw him pour a round of drinks for a party of older customers and they all raised their glasses in his direction and said, “Sláinte,” the ages-old Irish toast that means, “To your health,” or “To our health,” or “Hey, watch me drink this shot,” or some such thing. It’s pronounced SLAHN-chah or SLAN-cha. Whichever way the customers pronounced it, I heard something different and later asked Mike why they were toasting cilantro. Now, this was something I’m sure he’d heard hundreds of times before, but the way I asked it must have struck him as particularly funny, because he laughed, genuinely and hard, and for the rest of the evening, before my first sip of every round, he mock-toasted me with “Cilantro.”
Eventually, ownership of the Fenwick changed hands; the place shut down and got knocked down, to make way for a CVS, of all things. For years, I couldn’t look at that soulless corporate drug store without first getting angry, then getting wistful, then regretting that I hadn’t gone to the auction they held before razing my bar, to claim my barstool.
Mike wound up at the Bluebird—he was a lifer—which at the time was a small restaurant with an even smaller bar. A few years back, they expanded the place—the bar is now spacious but still warm, and in the summer, a second bar opens on the expanded outdoor deck. That’s where Mike and Casey got to hone their comedy chops and grow their friendship. I’d go in from time to time, and if Mike were on duty, he’d build me a Guinness, same as before. We’d chat, when time and his customer load allowed, and I’d be reminded of the afternoons and evenings at the Fenwick. The last time I saw him was last summer; he was busy at the deck bar, and there were no seats, so I passed up the opportunity to say hello.
The thing was, he was probably sick then, and didn’t know it. Heart problems usually take time to build up, for symptoms to manifest themselves into something a person can recognize and that others—doctors, one would hope—can see and treat.
So I was stunned last month to find out Mike had died, likely of a heart attack, at 51. Casey was devastated, as was his wife, as were the staffers at the Bluebird, as were the regular patrons there. I went there the night after Mike passed; Casey was working, and I wanted to check in on him. I got one of the last stools at the deck bar and drank Guinness that my friend built the proper way; even had a shot of Jameson with my first round. The place was packed with unsuspecting strangers enjoying their meals and drinks on a beautiful evening. Every few seats, though, and every few tables, you saw people who knew—who knew Mike, knew what had happened. You could tell by the dour looks, the slow shaking of heads, the tears. I saw an elderly gentleman pay his bill and leave the deck, sobbing. Casey was working with a young lady, and they seemed to tag up every so often, repairing back to the walk-in refrigerator, to let go some of their grief. They each returned after a few minutes, damp-eyed, ready for the next customer.
I was sitting in the middle of a community that night, one that had risen up around the Bluebird, one that had made it their bar. Mike was their guy—a bartender, a confidante, a friend. Though I was only an occasional patron there, I was welcomed in. Four gentlemen sitting to my right handed me a shot of whiskey and invited me to toast Mike (I accepted); a woman to my left couldn’t finish her hot wings and offered them to me (I declined). In the two hours I sat there, I felt part of a collective something, we were bound by our sadness, yes, but also by the happiness that good memories bring, that sharing those memories can bring to ourselves and others. I went there to comfort my friend and wound up sharing a significant moment with that community; I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
I drove home in silence, but with a song very much in the front of my mind. Steve Earle wrote “Ft. Worth Blues” for Townes Van Zandt, his mentor and friend. It’s a beautiful elegy—simple and sad, heavy with grief. The details are also very specific—specific to the relationship between those two men, each of whom had built his own legacy, his own statements through music, but who were inextricably connected to one another. I thought of Casey and Mike, both given to the same profession; both lifers, same as Townes and Steve. For Casey, the song’s penultimate verse will certainly ring true—of reminders of his buddy and partner in comedy, cropping up whether he’s ready for them or not:
There’s a full moon over Galway Bay tonight
Silver light, over green and blue
And every place I travel through I find
Some kinda sign that you’ve been through
But ultimately it made me think of Mike, and of others so recently lost. Earle’s gorgeous imagining of passage is a comforting thought:
Somewhere up beyond the great divide
Where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
Just hold on tight
That’s all you gotta do
I haven’t been there, so I don’t know. But one can only hope it’s that easy, and that beautiful.
I’ve heard all my life that before that moment, your life flashes in front of you—the whole thing, flying out of the cerebral cortex through some straight path, some neural superhighway with a high-speed lane, into your vision, somewhere behind the cornea, so only you can see it. I like this idea, and I hope it’s true. It’d be nice to think that in his final moments, Mike could have gotten one last opportunity to see every customer he ever served, every one of them he ever engaged in conversation, every one he made smile or laugh, every one who ever raised a glass in his direction. I’d be in that number, many times; if it happened, I hope he could hear me thank him one last time.
Go safely, Mike, wherever you are. Go dte tú slán. Cilantro.