I was born with an Irish surname. It's the kind of name they give black cops in the movies as a joke. On St. Pat's Day my father and grandfather left the house with their green ties flapping in the frosty Michigan March wind and felt the-luck-a-the-Irish at the end of the day if they made it home in one piece.
I went to Catholic school where most of the priests and nuns were Irish; we all ate corned beef and potatoes on the 17th and tried to kiss the girls when those same priests and nuns were looking the other way eating their corned beef and potatoes.
I had a certain pride in it, I'll admit. The fact the Irish were looked down upon as a servile brutish race, the "last peasants of Europe," fighting the last communal war (at least with guns) between Catholics and Protestants only came later after I broke from the fold and started to read books not on the approved list.
Nobody ever called me a "mick" though I sure heard enough "micks" call other folks names. The word "Catholic" originally meant "universal" and I'll give them that--or give it to the few who actually believed it as my family did. It didn't hurt that my mother was Italian and converted to the faith when she married my father. She became more "Catholic" than any of them in the true meaning of the word.
Somewhere in the middle of the 70's, I got stuck after traveling around the world for a year and couldn't find work. I'd been a patron at one of the oldest Irish bars in NYC and happened to walk in the same day somebody else walked out. He was a nasty fellow who used to spit in the ale when they didn't give him a tip.
As was the custom, I was given the lowest job in the house--clearing tables, watching the door on Friday and Saturday night, and cleaning the toilets. For those who don't know, however, among working folk the bar business is very glamorous--no heavy lifting--you get to bring happiness to the thirsty and food to the hungry--and get paid for it. What more can an Irishman ask?
The bar was half-staffed with Irish "from the other side," and American/Irish like me. Hence, it was a meeting ground and my first real opportunity to learn something about the gang from which I sprang (minus my mother, of course.) At the time, and for two generations before it was owned by Americans but that changed while I was there.
The place started to fill with revelers two weeks before Paddy's Day and by the big day the line was half way around the block by the time it opened. I could tell it was coming by the knot in the pit of my stomach. It meant basically running from dawn until dusk carrying mugs of ale to patrons committed to total inebriation. I learned two words I haven't heard since: a "lubny" was a person so far gone you could no longer make sense to them, and a "momock" made the lubnies look staid.
Our "technique" was to fill the place up, let the crowd drink their fill, then close it down and kick them all out, clean up the vomit, scatter fresh sawdust, and start over again. We called it "amateurs" night. The big problem was when fights broke out. My approach was to try to spot the trouble makers before the fights began, and "escort" them to the door, but the Irish born Irish preferred letting the fights start and then joining in. There were differences in our togetherness, or as a wise young friend once said, "they wouldn't be steriotypes if there wasn't something true about them."
One year, I had the termidity to write an article about it for a local newspaper pretty much telling it like it is--or was. That was about the time my relationship with the boys from Tipperary took a turn for the worse--only it was a guy from this side of the Atlantic who screamed "how could you!"
It wasn't long after when one of the Irishman bought the place. He'd acquired the funds by pouring drinks that were mostly foam and pocketing the difference. He was also usually the first to spot a wallet under a table, remove anything green and sympathize with the poor devil the next day when they came looking for it. I'd worked side by side with him for about four years by then, but still was a novice to the ways of the former denizens of the Emerald Isle.
He put in a new system of keeping track of what went in and what went out--so nobody could do to him what he did to the prior owner. The money was still good enough so he had no contenders. But the purpose was one of submission, like dogs in the park. Since I was waiting tables at the time rather than working the taps, he had to come up with something else for me, so kept insisting I left marks on the glass when I cleaned the pictures or the windows.
Finally, I couldn't take it any more and said: "There's nothing on that glass. You're just busting balls." I didn't know at the time he had a cousin recently arrived from the old country he wanted to give my job, but suspect I'd have said it anyway.
"You're fired," he said. "Get out."
"You can't fire me," I said. "It's against the laws in this country for a reason like that." And kept working.
It took him by surprise. After all, I was the first person he fired as the new owner and he knew his motivations. "You better talk to your attorney," I advised him.
I don't know if he did or didn't, but it became a standard routine between us. He'd come up with something I was supposed to do, I wouldn't do it because I already had, he'd fire me and I'd keep working. Apparently, I'd won some respect because I stood up to him, but in the final analysis that is never enough. In his lexicon, the bad had to be punished, and the bad were those who didn't do what he wanted them to whether it made sense or not.
The Irish I learned are persistent; he wore me down. One day, I simply got tired of it. This time when he fired me I took off my apron, threw it on the bar, and walked out. I had a child by this time and it would take years before I'd make the money I was making there. My time in the Irish bar business was over, and you know what--I didn't miss it--I still don't.
But Happy St. Patrick's Day nonetheless.