It takes a gin mill to raise a child—or so one might think from this memoir filled with gladness by a Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times correspondent.
In the early ’70s, grade-schooler Moehringer lived with his mother in her father’s house in Manhasset, a small town 17 miles east of Manhattan that F. Scott Fitzgerald used as the setting for The Great Gatsby. Listening to the radio for his absent father (a drunken deejay), puzzled by his slovenly grandfather, the boy had no male role models until Uncle Charlie took him to the local saloon where he bartended. Moehringer evokes the sights, sounds and smells that gave Publicans (originally known as Dickens) its sodden charm: not just the beer and the fund of coins accumulating in the urinal, but the “faint notes of perfumes and colognes, hair tonics and shoe creams, lemons and steaks and cigars and newspapers, and an undertone of brine from Manhasset Bay.” Sporting Runyonesque nicknames like Bob the Cop, Cager, Stinky, Colt, Smelly, Jimbo, Fast Eddy and Bobo, the bar’s denizens included poets, bookies, Vietnam vets, lawyers, actors, athletes, misfits and dreamers, all forming “one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder.” Moehringer captures in all its raunchy, often hilarious glory the conversations of these master storytellers, as intoxicated by words as by alcohol. Their saloon community later provided a retreat for the author following a disastrous collegiate love affair and failure as a New York Times copyboy. The 1989 death of charismatic owner Steve began Publicans’ demise, but also propelled 25-year-old Moehringer into growing up, as he left his buddies behind and began his journalism career anew out West.
A straight-up account of masculinity, maturity and memory that leaves a smile on the face and an ache in the heart.