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November 2nd, 2006

BELOVED PARK SLOPE BARTENDER DIES

This from the New York Times:

One of those New York City bar guides prints helpful little symbols
to describe each spot, and beside the entry for O’Connor’s in Park
Slope, there is a silhouette of a man diving into the water.

A
dive bar. Patrick O’Connor, the owner, hated that label. He didn’t
stand here all day, every day, running a cheap dump. And by the way,
when his was the only place around for blocks and blocks, when the drug
dealers outside outnumbered the old men on the stools, he didn’t hear
anybody complaining.

“We don’t do much here,” said Mr. O’Connor’s
son Joseph, 42, sitting at the bar’s dark wood. “What you do, you do
well. Here, you get a good drink in a clean glass at a reasonable
price. He hated the word ‘dive.’ ”

A good drink: Patrick kept the
liquor lined neatly behind the bar. On the way out the door after
closing time, he would dump fresh ice on the bottles of beer. Nothing
colder on a hot day. He always used a shot glass to make drinks, so the
customer knew just what he was getting. And on Sunday, it is worth the
trip just to watch the 78-year-old bartender, Charlie Campbell of
Ireland, make a bloody mary. His back ramrod-straight, he pumps the
tumbler out and down, out and down, looking like Jack La Lanne with one
of his health juices.

 
   

A reasonable price: Patrick once told his
son, “Joe, I raised the price a nickel, and I took 50 cents of abuse.”
The highest amount on the ancient cash register, still in use, is on a
button marked $3. That’s what most everything costs.

Clean
glasses: perhaps the most important part to Patrick O’Connor. “This
place was like his garden,” said Kevin Kash, 38, a bartender. “He’d sit
here and wash the glasses the way you’d bathe a child. He had newspaper
spread all over the bar. He’d wash one and look at it, wash it, look at
it.”

Patrick was born on Nov. 13, 1932, in Galway, and was a
baby when the family moved to Brooklyn. His father, Dominick O’Connor,
opened O’Connor’s Bar and Grill on Fifth Avenue, on a trolley line just
off Flatbush Avenue, in 1933. The grill part was dubious. People came
to drink. Patrick began working there as a boy, cleaning the spittoons
on either side of the long bar, and later took the place over.

He
changed next to nothing. The room snuffs out sunlight and replaces it
with either abject gloominess and despair or a cozy, warm embrace,
depending on how you feel about dark bars. That big moose’s head
mounted on the wall? Patrick said it was the last moose in Ireland, and
that his father shot it. Patrick said a lot of things.

“They
tell you, never talk politics or religion in a bar,” said Mr. Kash.
“Well, he thought politics was one of the only things worth talking
about.” He had a saying, when he left for the day: “Keep smiling.”

He
survived the hard times in the 1970s and into the ’80s in this way,
talking and shining glasses and pouring honest shots of rye. He worked
all night and into the morning, closing at 4 a.m. He could not afford a
porter to clean the place, so he did it himself. He preferred to leave
after sunup anyway, both for his safety and for the bar’s. He could not
afford a break-in.

“He was like a farmer,” said Bart DeCoursy,
34, who used to tend bar at O’Connor’s. “A city farmer. It really was
like a day-in, day-out thing. This was his.”

Patrick had six
children. He and their mother divorced. “We had an absentee father,”
Joe said. “He was killing himself. There was no money here. He’d come
home and have a couple sandwiches and a couple cans of beer and go to
bed.”

Joe took the day shifts at the bar with the old-man
regulars. “They were depressing, depressing,” he said. “After 8 or 10
hours, you’d want to hang yourself. But when he came in at 6, the whole
atmosphere changed. He lit the place up.”

Then the neighborhood
came back. Patrick said he always knew it would. "He was right," Joe
said. "He paid the price, but he was right."

Suddenly, it was
not unusual to enter O’Connor’s and see something unfathomable a few
years earlier: young customers in their 20s and 30s, and lots of them.
Drawn to the jukebox, generally regarded as top notch, and the drink
prices, the new face of Park Slope — generally smooth-skinned and white
— began to outnumber the old men.

The cancer came about five
years ago, starting in Patrick’s lungs. “Typical Irish,” Joe said. “He
waited to go to the doctor. He thought he could take care of it
himself.” He kept working. Patrick O’Connor died Oct. 8, a few weeks
after walking out of his bar for the last time. He was 73.

His
son gathered a few dozen of the regulars at the bar last week, poured
Irish whiskey for everyone, and gave a toast: “He believed even the bad
times were always a good time for good friends and good customers.”

Try
to find a bar owner in the city today who spends every day behind the
bar. It is easier to find a moose in Ireland. With Patrick gone,
O’Connor’s cut its hours, opening at 5 p.m. on weekdays. Few even
noticed. Most of the old regulars are gone, too. The prevailing belief
at last week’s gathering was that wherever they were, they were all
together, with plenty of clean glasses that would not stay clean all
night.

“He’d say, ‘If I could have anything,’ ” Mr. Kash said,
“ ‘I’d have a little tavern on the side of the road, and be a friend to
all men.’ ”

Posted in New York Times | 4 Comments »