Life at the Union Villa, when we lived there, was like a cross between “Joe the Bartender” from the Jackie Gleason Show* and Cheers.** My dad was definitely “Joe the Bartender,” well, “Jack the Bartender.” “Joe the Bartender” was a regular skit on the Jackie Gleason show. As each scene opened, the doors of the bar would part, to reveal Joe wiping off the bar and singing “My Gal Sal” although it was barely recognizable. He would pour a drink for Mr. Dunahee, whom the audience never saw, and start a conversation. Eventually Joe would invite a local named “Crazy Gugenheim” to join in the conversation. “Crazy” was played by Frank Fontaine.
How was life at the Union Villa like Joe the Bartender? Joe was a big guy, wearing a white dress shirt, wiping down the bar singing off key and holding forth with the customers. That was dad. Although he would not drink during the busy season of Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the off season he would have a few drinks with the fellas at the end of the bar. When he had had enough to drink, or rather too much, he would sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” while wiping down the bar. That was dad and I had no doubt then, or now that he was singing it for my mother!
The similarities with Cheers was mostly in the downstairs, although it was just three steps down, not a whole flight, and in the special group of regulars that hung at the end of the bar. They nick-named themselves “The Dirty Corner.” I have no intention of being crude here, just describing the atmosphere and my family. Dad would hang in the corner with them when it wasn’t too busy. There were some customers who came in for a beer or two on their way home from work, but these guys stayed, for hours it seemed. They were always nice to me and careful around me and in many ways, some of the guys seemed like extended family, especially Dick and Hoppy, and others to some extent. They were not only regulars at the bar, but they were regulars in dropping in for a few free drinks at the apartment, when the bar was closed for the winter. I never felt that I wasn’t safe around them and there was a lot of good-natured teasing. When they decided they had exercised enough restraint and wanted to let lose, there would be a chorus of “Good Night, Michele!” Letting me know it was time for me to move along.
A word about language and liquor: If you have been following along on my blog you know that my Dad, Jack, was a sailor. He talked like a sailor and there were probably more cuss words than non-cuss words in his general conversation. Although I have no doubt that he knew the word, I have long been grateful that the “F-Bomb” was not one that I heard from him. When I hear such language, I wish that I could hand out small pocket versions, not of Gideon Bibles, but of dictionaries or Thesaurus’ or some other type of resource for the clean-language deprived.
When it came to alcohol, my social world as a child was filled with it, the only difference between living at The Union Villa and life before we moved there, was the numbers of people who were imbibing. I think I became immune in some way, and I always understood that this was my parents’ business and livelihood.
There were many perks to life at the Union Villa. I should say that biggest perk was that my dad was home and not at sea. It was especially a bonus for my parents. They worked hard and had a good strong work ethic. In the early part of the season, and after Labor Day, they did everything themselves, which meant that dad was the only bartender and mom was the only person in the kitchen. Once a day mom would tend bar, so dad could go upstairs to shower and change. She did most of the cooking, but dad made the spaghetti sauce and the meatballs.
Mom made the pizza sauce, the pizza dough and made the pizzas as well as sandwiches (Meatball Subs, and Italian subs, and occasionally she made stuffed Quohogs.) The first year, she sliced peppers and onions and made a design on each pizza. After that she got wise and chopped everything up and kept things moving. I wish I had her recipe for the pizza dough, just for sentimental reasons, but it made 36 pizzas and I have never made more than two at a time.
In theory, all our meals could have been pizza or spaghetti and I have not outgrown my love of pizza. Mom made sure to cook real meals for us, so that we ate well, even though we couldn’t sit at the table and eat together. In the busy season, from Memorial Day until Labor Day, there was extra help, an additional bartender, one waitress and one extra person in the kitchen. I helped where I could and I wanted to, I never felt required to do it. On occasion, I made pizza dough and could roll and make a pizza, if it wasn’t rush time. I mostly folded pizza boxes, but not at the rapid pace I have seen on recent television commercials.
On a busy night in the summer, they might make as many as 100 pizzas or a little more. I know that is nothing today, but it was a barroom that sold food, not a restaurant that sold liquor.
My father could be outrageous. When a friend visited, dad would ask him, in front of the whole bar, “Young man, what are your intentions toward my daughter?” There were only 2boys I knew who could stand up to that kind of treatment and still come back, my best friend, and the boy I eventually married, who was my best friend’s college roommate. Once a boy came to see me and ordered a pizza. Dad said, “I’ll give you the pizza free if you go get a haircut.” (1965). Not surprisingly, he did not come back.
For my own part, I could be a bit of a brat. Sometimes when I had a quarter to put in the juke box, I would play, Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” though I never meant it. When dad was drinking during the off season, I would sometimes take a magic marker and mark the line on the Jim Beam bottle (his preferred drink) before I went to bed. And when I went behind the bar to kiss him goodnight, I would ring the ship’s bell. I knew that would only be annoying if he had a hangover, but I did it to be, well, a brat.
Some of the more selfish perks to life at the Union Villa were that I could have pizza with my friends whenever I wanted. I could also have all the soda that I wanted, but that wasn’t as wonderful as it might seem. In the 1960’s soda bottles came with bottle caps that required a bottle opener. There were rubber stoppers with metal handles that would be inserted after the bottle was open. But I was pretty sure then, and still feel now, that dad gave me the soda from the bottom of the bottle that was going flat.
I have never been much of a picture taker and most of the pictures I have that my mom had taken were from the 1950’s. I have only two pictures of my mom and dad behind the bar and they are so old and beat up they would not show very well. They are Polaroid pictures that I keep in a plexiglass frame and seldom remove them lest they totally fall apart. One of them is a long shot down the bar, showing many of the regular customers and dad at the other end. The other one is mom and dad in a closeup, with dad in a pressed white shirt and mom wearing a skirt and sweater with a frilly apron. Mom wore uniforms in the kitchen, but always pretty colors. Not sure she owned any casual clothes and I never saw her in slacks until she was in her 70’s and those were pantsuits that she had made for herself. So, many pictures of mom and dad, especially at the Villa, are in my heart. All I can do is show you snapshots through stories.
It was an interesting way to grow up, not particularly good or bad. I had many blessings and some trials. Some days I marvel at the fact that growing up in that atmosphere I did not become an alcoholic, which in some sense, seems to be a family disease. I was relatively sheltered in the midst of all that alcohol and other things. I remember the smell of stale cigarettes and beer. I remember the noise of the bar, the sounds of the band and the player piano, Dad with a wad of chewed up cigar, not too discretely tucked in his cheek, dad ducking his head in the window to the kitchen to holler in a pizza order, “Two plain pizzas for red-shirt.” I remember the sting of cigarette smoke in my eyes on busy Saturday nights. I have carried these memories and stories with me for years, carefully storing them as if in a secret compartment and only hinting at them with the simple statement, “I grew up in a bar.”
Most of all, I remember life at the Union Villa with mom and dad, Jack and Maggie, during the most formative years of my life, as if it were yesterday.
Not holding back the tide,
**Cheers http://www.imdb.com › title
Created by James Burrows, Glen Charles, Les Charles. … The regulars of the Boston bar “Cheers” share their experiences and lives with each … 3:49 | TV Program
*The Jackie Gleason Show https://g.co/kgs/CH8epX