Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer








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When we read most memoirs or biographies, we look to learn lessons that we can apply to our own lives. The lesson from J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar is that one can find nurturing and community almost anyplace. Moehringer is a fine writer (Los Angeles Times Pulitzer-Prize winner) and his skills make reading this book a delight. The title refers to Publicans, the bar in Manhasset, New York, where J.R. grew up. It was the bar, its owner and its patrons who nurtured him. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Three, “Security Blanket,” pp. 22-29:


When not crouched over the radio, listening to the Voice, I was tuned to my mother’s frequencies, monitoring her moods. I watched her, analyzed her, followed her from room to room. It was more than attachment, more than protectiveness. It was partly a pursuit, be­cause no matter how intently I watched and listened, my mother was often a complete mystery to me.


When happy, when expressing joy or love, my mother could be mar­velously loud. But when sad or hurt, when frightened or worried about money, my mother would fall silent and her face would go blank. Some peo­ple interpreted this tendency as coldness. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Even at seven years old I understood that my mother’s silences and blank faces concealed an emotional cauldron. What seemed a lack of feeling was an overflow, a surge. My mother would slip behind her mask of feigned calm for the sake of discretion, as someone might step behind a screen when changing.


There had always been a trace of the unfathomable about my mother, ac­cording to Grandma, who told me a story by way of explanation. When my mother was in second grade, the teacher asked the class a question and my mother shot her hand in the air. She knew that answer and couldn’t wait to shout it out. But the teacher called on someone else. After a few minutes the teacher noticed my mother’s hand still hovering. Dorothy, she said, put down your hand. I can’t, my mother said. Put down your hand, the teacher said. My mother’s eyes filled with tears. The teacher sent my mother to the principal, who sent my mother to the nurse, who concluded that my mother wasn’t fak­ing. Her hand and arm were truly stuck in the upright and locked position. Grandma was summoned to school, and she described to me with some won­derment that long, strange walk home, my mother a half step behind, her hand rigidly aloft. Grandma sent my mother to bed—the only thing she could think to do—and in the morning, when the sadness or disappointment presumably had worn off, my mother’s arm fell to her side.


Though she was mysterious by nature, some of my mother’s mystery was by design. The most honest person I’ve ever known, she was a beautiful liar. To avoid giving pain, to cushion the blow of bad news, she’d fib or baldly fabricate without the slightest hesitation. Her lies were so well crafted, so ex­pertly told, that I never gave them a second thought. As a result, every now and then, sorting through childhood memories, I still come upon one of my mother’s lies, like an elaborately painted Easter egg that was hidden too well and forgotten.


The earliest lie I can remember came about when my mother and I had moved into a small apartment five minutes from Grandpa’s house. At last, she said, we’ve escaped. She was loudly, riotously happy, until she got laid off from her job. Soon I found food stamps in her purse. “What are these?” I asked.


“Coupons,” she said brightly.


She didn’t want me to know we were broke. She didn’t want me to worry more than I already did. For this same reason she lied when I asked if we could buy a TV. “You know, I’ve been meaning to buy us a TV,” she said. “If only the TV makers weren’t on strike.”


I nagged her for weeks about the TV strike, and she concocted detailed stories on the fly about picketers at the factory and breakdowns in the negoti­ations. When she’d saved enough for a used black-and-white Zenith, she came to me and announced that management had caved. For years I believed there had been a bitter work stoppage among Long Island’s TV makers, until I heard myself telling people about it at a dinner party and saw them staring at me.


On those rare occasions when my mother was caught in a lie, she was re­freshingly unrepentant. She had a “relationship” with the truth, she explained coolly, and like all relationships it required compromises. Lying, she believed, was no greater sin than turning down the volume on the radio to protect me from The Voice. She merely notched down the volume on the truth.


Her most inspired lie marked a watershed in our relationship, because it concerned my most cherished possession, my security blanket. Made of mint green satin, quilted with thick white thread, the blanket was my other addic­tion, besides The Voice. I grew edgy when it was out of reach. I wore it as a poncho, a sash, a scarf, and sometimes as a bridal train. I regarded my blan­ket as a loyal friend in a cruel world, while my mother saw it as a disorder in the making. Seven was too old for a security blanket, she said, trying to reason with me, but when did reason stand a chance against obsessive love? She tried seizing the blanket, but I howled as though she were hacking off my arm at the joint. Finally I woke one night to find her on the edge of my bed. “What’s wrong?” I asked.


“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”


Over the next few weeks I noticed my security blanket getting smaller. I asked my mother. “Maybe it’s shrinking in the wash,” she said. “I’ll use colder water.” Many years later I learned that my mother had crept into my room each night and taken a scissor to my security blanket, snipping off an imper­ceptible slice, until it became a security shawl, a security washcloth, a security swatch. Over time there would be more security blankets, people and ideas and particularly places to which I would form unhealthy attachments. When­ever life snatched one from me, I would recall how gently my mother pared away my first.


The one thing my mother couldn’t lie about was how deeply Grandpa’s house offended her. She said Grandpa’s house made the Amityville Horror look like the Taj Mahal. She said Grandpa’s house should be burned down and the soil plowed with salt. She said Grandpa’s house was Manhasset’s an­swer to Alcatraz, except with lumpier mattresses and worse table manners. She d escaped that house at nineteen, literally flew away, joining United Air­lines as a stewardess, jetting around the country in her aqua blue uniform and cap. She d sampled other fun jobs, including a stint as a girl Friday at Capitol Records, meeting Nat King Cole, eavesdropping at the switchboard on phone conversations between her boss and Frank Sinatra. Now, thirty-three years old, a penniless single mother, she’d returned to Grandpa’s house, a bitter de­feat and a sad step backward. She juggled three jobs—secretary, waitress, baby-sitter_and saved constantly for what she called Our Next Great Escape. But every escape was foiled. Within six or nine months our savings would run out, our rent would go up, and we’d be back in the Shit House. By the time I was seven we’d moved out of Grandpa’s house three times, and back three times.


Though I didn’t love the Shit House, I didn’t despise it the way my mother did. The sagging roof, the duct-taped furniture, the exploding cesspool and bi­centennial sofa—all seemed a fair trade for being with my cousins, whom I adored. My mother understood, but Grandpa’s house sapped her energy to such an extent that she couldn’t take any pleasure in the compensations it held for me. She was so tired, she said. So terribly tired.


More than returning to Grandpa’s house, more than moving our stuff yet again, what seemed to devastate my mother was the moment she realized that our next return was inevitable. I remember waking in yet another one-bedroom apartment, going out to the kitchen and finding my mother pecking at her calculator. I could tell she’d been pecking at it since dawn, and she looked as if the calculator had been pecking at her. I’d long suspected she had conversations with her calculator, as I did with the radio, and that morning I caught her red-handed. “Who are you talking to?” I asked. She looked up and gave me her blank face. Mom? Blank. Before my eyes she was reverting to that catatonic schoolgirl with her hand in the air.


Each time we returned to Grandpa’s, my mother would insist that we take regular mental-health breaks. Sunday afternoons we’d climb into our rust-spackled 1963 T-Bird, which sounded like a Civil War cannon, and go for a drive. We’d start on Shore Drive, the finest street in Manhasset, where the white-columned houses were bigger than Town Hall, and several had Long Island Sound as their front lawns. “Imagine living in one of these showplaces,” my mother would say. She’d park in front of the grandest house, the one with the golden yellow shutters and the wraparound porch. “Imagine lying in bed on a summer morning,” she’d say, “with the windows open, and a warm breeze off the water blowing the curtains in and out.”


It always seemed as if a misty rain was falling during our drives, so my mother and I couldn’t get out of the car for a closer look. We’d sit with the engine and heater running and the windshield wipers slinging back and forth. My mother would study the house and I would study my mother. She had lustrous auburn hair, which she wore to her shoulders, and green-brown eyes that turned a shade greener whenever she smiled. Her most common facial expression, however, was one of enormous self-command, like a young aris­tocrat posing for her coming-out portrait. It was the look of a woman who could be gentle, and fragile, but who would assuredly be fierce when protect­ing those she loved. I see in some photos of my mother that she was aware of her ability, in hard times, to set aside her delicate qualities, to fight like hell, and she took a certain pride in it. The camera captured her pride in a way my seven-year-old eye couldn’t. The only pride I noticed as a boy was the plea­sure she took in her sense of style. Petite and slim, my mother knew what looked good on her. Even when we were broke she managed to look classic, which probably had more to do with her carriage than with her clothes.


After we’d been sitting there for some time, the owners of the house would hear the T-Bird and peer through their windows at us. My mother would then jerk the T-Bird into drive and we’d rumble south on Plandome Road, through the commercial district that started at Dickens and ended at St. Mary’s Church. I liked the way Manhasset was bracketed by its two most sacred sites, each a house of furtive adult communion. At St. Mary’s we’d hang a left onto Northern Boulevard, then a quick right onto Shelter Rock Road, passing Shelter Rock itself, the 1,800-ton glacier that had skittered downstate many millennia before, like one of the marbles I pitched on the playground at Shelter Rock Elementary School, a mile away. Legends sur­rounded Shelter Rock. For centuries its sharp outcrop, a natural canopy of stone, had shielded people from animals and elements and enemies. Revered by Native Americans who lived along Manhasset Bay, the rock was then prized by Dutch cow farmers who came to Manhasset seeking their fortune in the 1600s, then adopted by British colonists who came seeking religious free­dom in the 1700s, then co-opted by millionaires who built their grand estates along Shelter Rock Road in the 1800s. If things got really bad at Grandpa’s, I figured, my mother and I could live alongside Shelter Rock. We could sleep under the canopy and cook our meals over an open fire, and though it would be rough, how much rougher could it be?


Just beyond the rock my mother and I would come to a stretch of rolling hills where the houses were even more astonishing than those on the water. Prettiest houses in the world, my mother said. Every few hundred yards, through a tall padlocked wrought-iron gate, we’d glimpse another lawn wider and greener than the outfield at Shea Stadium, stretching toward another replica of the Irish castles in my storybooks. “This is where the Whitneys live,” she said. “And that’s where the Paleys live. And that’s where the Paysons live. Isn’t that lovely?”


Hanging a U-turn at the last mansion, heading back to Grandpa’s, my mother would invariably start to sing. She’d warm up with “I Got You Babe,” because she liked the line, “They say our love won’t pay the rent—before it’s earned our money’s all been spent.” Then she’d belt out her favorite, an old Tin Pan Alley tune.


Oh! we ain’t got a barrel of money,

Maybe we’re ragged and funny,

But we’ll travel along,

Singin’ a song,

Side by side



She always sang at the top of her voice, but volume couldn’t mask her frustration. Those mansions tormented my mother as much as they fasci­nated her, and I understood. I felt the same way. Pressing my forehead against the car window as the mansions flew by, I’d think: So many beautiful places in the world, and we’re barred from them all. Obviously the secret of life was getting in. Why couldn’t my mother and I figure out how it was done? My mother deserved a home. It didn’t even need to be a mansion, just a little cot­tage with a rose garden and cream-colored curtains and rugs that were soft and clean and kissed your bare feet as you walked across them. That would be plenty. It made me mad that my mother didn’t have nice things, madder still that I couldn’t provide them for her, and furious that I couldn’t say any of this aloud, because my mother was singing, striving to stay upbeat. Taking care of my mother meant saying nothing to disrupt her fragile optimism, so I would press my forehead against the window, harder, until it hurt, and shift my focus from the mansions to my reflection in the glass.


Though I kept my feelings bottled tight, eventually those feelings fer­mented, then fizzed to the surface in the form of odd behavior. I turned overnight into a compulsive and neurotic child. I set about trying to fix Grandpa’s house—straightening rugs, restacking magazines, retaping furni­ture. My cousins laughed and called me Felix, but I wasn’t being neat, I was going crazy. Besides doing what I could to make the house less offensive to my mother, I was trying to put order to chaos, a quest that led me ultimately to seek a more dramatic rearrangement of reality.


I began dividing life into absolutes. Manhasset was this way, I thought— why not the world? In Manhasset you were either Yankees or Mets, rich or poor, sober or drunk, church or bar. You were “Gaelic or garlic,” as one schoolmate told me, and I couldn’t admit, to him or myself, that I had both Irish and Italian ancestors. Life was governed by polar opposites, I decided, as proved by the stark contrast between the Shit House and the Whitney man­sion. Things and people were either perfectly bad, or perfectly good, and when life didn’t obey this black-or-white rule, when things or people were complex or contradictory, I pretended otherwise. I turned every defeat into a disaster, every success into an epic triumph, and separated all people into he­roes or villains. Unable to bear ambiguity, I built a barricade of delusions against it.


My other delusions were more obvious and therefore more troubling to my mother. I became extravagantly superstitious, collecting phobias as other boys collected baseball cards. I avoided ladders and black cats, threw salt over my shoulder, knocked on wood, held my breath walking past cemeteries. So determined was I not to step on a crack, for fear of breaking my mother’s back, that I weaved down the sidewalk like a drunk. I spoke “magic” words three times to ward off dangers, and watched for signs and omens from on high. While listening for my father’s voice I also listened for the voice of the universe. I communed with rocks and trees and inanimate objects, especially the T-Bird. Like a horse whisperer I petted its dashboard and begged it to keep running. If the T-Bird broke down, I worried, my mother would break down. Irrational fears hounded me, and the worst was the fear of being the last one to fall asleep in Grandpa’s house. If everyone but me was asleep, I felt unbearably alone, and my limbs went cold and rigid. It may have had some­thing to do with the absence of all voices. When I confided this fear to my cousin Sheryl, five years older than I, she put her arm around me and said the perfect thing. “Even if we’re all asleep you can be sure Uncle Charlie and everyone down at Dickens will be awake.”


My mother hoped I’d outgrow my odd behavior. Instead I grew worse, and when I began throwing tantrums she took me to a child psychiatrist.


“What’s the boy’s name?” the psychiatrist asked as my mother and I set­tled into chairs across from his desk. He was jotting notes on a legal pad.

“JR,” my mother said.

“His real name.”

“Those are his initials, no?”


“Well.” The psychiatrist dropped his legal pad on his desk. “There’s your answer.”

“Pardon?” my mother said.

“The boy is obviously suffering an identity crisis. He has no identity, which causes rage. Give him a name—a proper name—and you’ll have no more tantrums.”


Rising, my mother told me to put my jacket back on, we were leaving. She then gave the psychiatrist a look that could have cracked Shelter Rock in two and in measured tones informed him that seven-year-olds do not suffer identity crises. Driving back to Grandpa’s she gripped the steering wheel tightly and ran through her repertoire in three-quarter time. Suddenly she stopped singing. She asked what I thought of the doctor’s remarks. Did I dis­like my name? Did I suffer from an identity crisis? Was something or some­one causing me to feel—rage?


I peeled my eyes from the mansions flying by, turned slowly from the window to my mother, and gave her my own blank face.


Readers will smile, choke with tears, and wince on many of the pages of The Tender Bar. Moehringer’s life experiences are unlikely to match that of many readers, but all will be touched in reading The Tender Bar because of the humanity, caring, love and support shown by so many people.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2006 issue of Executive Times


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