The Tender Bar - by J.R. Moehringer


The Tender Bar - by J.R. Moehringer

Read: 2024-05-05

Recommend: 10/10

Reading this book reminds me of the Japanese movie Kikujiro 菊次郎的夏天, where many “strangers” act as surrogate parents. The theme of imposter syndrome is constantly present in JR’s life too.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. Regardless of the score, they never stopped laughing, they couldn’t stop laughing, and the fans in the stands couldn’t either. I laughed harder than anyone, though I didn’t get the joke. I laughed at the sound of the men’s laughter, and at their comic timing, as fluid and quicksilver as their turning of a double play.

  2. Grandpa could have nailed a silhouette of Charles Dickens above his door too, since the conditions were comparable to a Dickensian workhouse. With one usable bathroom and twelve people, the waits at Grandpa’s were often excruciating, and the cesspool was constantly backed up (“Shit House” was sometimes more than a flippant nickname). The hot water ran out each morning in the middle of Shower Number Two, made a brief cameo during Shower Number Three, then teased and cruelly abandoned the person taking Shower Number Four. The furniture, much of which dated to Franklin Roosevelt’s third term, was held together with duct tape and more duct tape. The only new objects in the house were the drinking glasses, “borrowed” from Dickens, and the Sears living room sofa, upholstered in a hypnotically hideous pattern of Liberty Bells, bald eagles, and faces of the Founding Fathers. We called it the bicentennial sofa. We were a few years ahead of ourselves, but Grandpa said the name was right and fitting, since the sofa looked as if George Washington had used it to cross the Delaware.

  3. Because I was so young when he disappeared, I didn’t know what my father looked like. I only knew what he sounded like, and this I knew too well. A popular rock ’n’ roll disc jockey, my father would speak each day into a large microphone somewhere in New York City, and his plummy baritone would fly down the Hudson River, tack across Manhasset Bay, zoom up Plandome Road and burst a millisecond later from the olive green radio on Grandpa’s kitchen table. My father’s voice was so deep, so ominous, it made my ribs vibrate and the utensils tremble. Adults in Grandpa’s house would try to protect me from my father by pretending he didn’t exist. (Grandma wouldn’t even refer to him by name—Johnny Michaels—but simply called him The Voice.) They would lunge for the dial whenever they heard my father and sometimes hide the radio altogether, which made me wail in protest. Surrounded by women, and two remote men, I saw The Voice as my only connection to the masculine world.

  4. I realized that even a pretend father would be better if I could see him. Manhood is mimesis. To be a man, a boy must see a man. Grandpa hadn’t panned out. Naturally I turned next to the only other man in my vicinity, Uncle Charlie—and Uncle Charlie was something to see. When he was in his early twenties, the hair on Uncle Charlie’s head began to fall out, first in small tufts, then clumps, then divots, followed by the hair on his chest and legs and arms. Finally his eyelashes and eyebrows and pubic hair blew away one day like dandelion spores.

  5. I shared Aunt Ruth’s concern. I too feared that McGraw and I were doomed to sissyhood. When McGraw, who was more easygoing than I, didn’t worry about such things, I forced him to. I initiated McGraw into my neuroses, drilled into his head the notion that we were growing up without the manly arts, like auto repair and hunting, camping and fishing, and especially boxing.

  6. Roughly once a year my mother would drop all pretense of optimism, cover her face with her hands and sob. I’d put my arms around her and try to cheer her up, by repeating her positive affirmations back to her. I didn’t believe them, but they seemed to help my mother. “That’s very true, JR,” she’d say, snuffling. “Tomorrow is another day.”

  7. I loved the look of those words, the shapes of them, the subliminal association of their typeface with the pretty face of my mother, but it may have been their functionality that won my heart. Like nothing else, words organized my world, put order to chaos, divided things neatly into black and white. Words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word—tangible, present, real—while my father was the spoken word—invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory. There was something comforting about this rigid symmetry.

  8. With the first taste of cold beer and Bloody Marys the men began to behave differently. Their limbs seemed looser, their laughter more lively. The bait shack shook with their guffaws and I could see the hangovers lifting from them like the morning fog lifting off the ocean. I laughed too, though I didn’t know what the joke was. It didn’t matter. The men didn’t know either. Life was the joke. “It is time!” Bobo said with a volcanic belch. “I’ve wet my whistle. Now I must wet my pants. To the sea!”

  9. They showed me the many ways “fuck” could release anger, scare off enemies, rally allies, make people laugh in spite of themselves. They taught me to pronounce it forcefully, gutturally, even gracefully, to get my money’s worth from the word. Why inquire meekly what’s going on, they said, when you can demand, “What the fuck?” They demonstrated the many verbal recipes in which “fuck” was the main ingredient. A burger at Gilgo, for instance, was twice as tasty when it was a “Gilgo fucking burger.” Everything the men taught me that summer fell under the loose catchall of confidence. They taught me the importance of confidence. That was all. But that was enough. That, I later realized, was everything.

  10. I knew that my mother was searching for romantic love, and though I didn’t understand what that was, I suspected it was similar to what I was searching for, a connection of some sort, and I worried that, as much as we cared for each other, loneliness was our true common bond.

  11. Few men were eager to help raise my father’s son, which reduced my mother’s chances of finding love, and this reality, becoming clearer to me that day on the canal, filled me with guilt. I should have done more to get along with Winston. I should have made him love me. Somehow in my cold war with Winston I’d lost sight of my number one goal—taking care of my mother. Now I was just another man who made her life harder.

  12. I asked what he was doing. He said bookstores couldn’t return every unsold paperback to the publishers—the publishers didn’t have room for them all—so they returned only the covers. When Bill and Bud wanted a book they simply ripped off the cover and mailed it to the publisher, who reimbursed the chain, “and everyone is happy.” He assured me this wasn’t stealing. I couldn’t have cared less.

  13. “You must do everything that frightens you, JR. Everything. I’m not talking about risking your life, but everything else. Think about fear, decide right now how you’re going to deal with fear, because fear is going to be the great issue of your life, I promise you. Fear will be the fuel for all your success, and the root cause of all your failures, and the underlying dilemma in every story you tell yourself about yourself. And the only chance you’ll have against fear? Follow it. Steer by it. Don’t think of fear as the villain. Think of fear as your guide, your pathfinder—your Natty Bumppo.”

  14. He smiled as if he had a winning lottery ticket in his pocket, and I supposed he did. His success was that assured. He looked like someone to whom nothing bad would ever happen.

  15. Getting into Yale had been a lucky break, but getting through Yale, getting a diploma, would be a miracle. I was a good student from a bad public school, meaning I was woefully unprepared. My schoolmates, meanwhile, were coasting. Nothing took them by surprise, because they had prepared for Yale all their lives, at world-famous prep schools I’d never heard of before arriving in New Haven. I’d done my prepping in the stockroom of a bookstore with two mad hermits.

  16. At my high school I felt like Einstein—now I realize why. Half the kids were stupid and the other half were stoned. At Yale I’m the stupid one. And the stupider I feel the less I go to class, which makes me fall more behind, which makes me feel stupider.

  17. “She’ll be happy if you follow your heart. And if you graduate.” The word made my stomach clench. I swallowed half my scotch in one gulp. “Make yourself happy,” the priest said. “That’s the way to make Mother happy.”

  18. Sometimes I try to say what’s on my mind and it comes out sounding like I ate a dictionary and I’m shitting the pages. Sorry.” “Can I tell you something?” the priest asked. “Do you know why God invented writers? Because He loves a good story. And He doesn’t give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we’ve hung between Him and our true selves. Try not to think about the words. Don’t strain for the perfect sentence. There’s no such thing. Writing is guesswork. Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader’s as much as yours. Think about that the next time you curl a piece of paper into your typewriter.” I took my Yale notebook from my backpack. “Would you mind if I write that down, Father? I’m trying to get in the habit of writing down things smart people say to me.” He pointed to my Yale notebook, which was three-quarters filled. “Looks like you’ve run across a great many smart people.”

  19. Shortly after my meeting with the dean I broke my habit of running off to Publicans every weekend. I scraped and clawed my way through the semester, passing all but one class, a turnaround made possible by two encouraging voices always in my ear. One was my mother, who wrote beautiful letters in which she promised there would be other Sidneys, but never another Yale. If I believed in love, she wrote, and she knew that I did, then I shouldn’t abandon my first love, Yale, to mourn my second, Sidney. I would look back on this time, my mother wrote, and remember remarkably little of it, except the extent to which I tried or did not try. If I’d read my mother’s latest letter a dozen times and still couldn’t get Sidney out of my mind, I’d turn up the volume on that other soothing voice—Sinatra. He gave my heartbreak musical accompaniment and, more important, intellectual justification.

  20. As senior year began I was myself again. Going to class, writing for the News, close to the number of credits needed for a diploma. I sat at my desk, typing a paper, listening to Sinatra, feeling strong. All at once, out of nowhere, my happiness got the best of me. I heard new meanings in Sinatra’s lyrics. If Sidney is no different than other women, I reasoned, maybe I should forgive her. If beautiful women lie and cheat, such is the price of loving a beautiful woman. I wondered where Sidney was at that moment. Had she broken up with the grad student? Did she think of me? Did she ever want to hear my voice?

  21. This time, I told myself, everything would be different. Success with both Sidney and Yale depended on balancing the two, devoting myself to neither. I had to do a better job of managing my time and emotions, especially the latter. In the past I’d led with my heart, displayed my desperation like a badge of honor. I’d thought I was being honest, but I’d been a sucker. This time around, I vowed, I’d be cool.

  22. From the breast pocket of my blazer I removed a velvet box and slid it across the table. She cracked the box open. Inside was a Yale ring. A woman’s ring. I explained that Yale had been our dream, and our accomplishment. I told my mother that I couldn’t have gotten into Yale without her, and certainly couldn’t have gotten through without her. “As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “you graduated from Yale today too. And you should have some proof. Sparkling proof.” Her eyes welled with tears, and she tried to speak, but her voice caught in her throat.

  23. My mother held up her hand. Wait, she said. Slow down. Her heart wasn’t set on my being a lawyer. She only pushed me in that direction, she said, because she wanted me to make a contribution to the world, and to build a career, instead of just punching a clock. She’d be happy if I was happy, no matter what career I chose. “What is it you think you might like to do instead of law school?” she asked sweetly.

  24. We’d all been hurt by something, or somebody, and so we’d all come to Publicans, because misery loves company, but what it really craves is a crowd.

  25. At most bars, Dalton said, people talk to justify drinking—at Publicans they drink to justify talking.

  26. I thought of the great reporters who passed through that front door each day, then thought of my pathetic clips in the folder under my arm. I wished those muscle-shirted thugs in New Haven had beaten me to death.

  27. I could see it towering before me like a drive-in movie screen. But there was another life waiting, a Sidneyless life, also prearranged. I couldn’t see it yet, but I could sense it, believe in it, thanks to the Times and the Mets and Publicans. I could hear the voices of that other life as distinctly as the voices at my back, inside the bar. I remembered Professor Lucifer lecturing us about free will versus fate, the riddle that had vexed great minds through the ages, and I wished I’d paid more attention, because leaning against my lucky mailbox, dangling Sidney’s letter above the slot, I didn’t know why fate and free will needed to be mutually exclusive. Maybe, I thought, when we come to our crossroads, we choose freely, but the choice is between two fated lives.

  28. I worried about Uncle Charlie’s debt, and I particularly worried about the way he refused to worry. He would strut back and forth behind the bar, singing to the doo-wop music on the bar stereo. I watched one night as he danced out from behind the bar and across the floor, a tangoing flamingo, and I thought I understood him. After losing his hair, and Pat, Uncle Charlie had given up on sustained happiness—career, wife, kids—and was trying only for short bursts of joy. Any worry, any prudent thought, which interfered with his bursts of joy, he ignored.

  29. I hate when people ask what a book is about. People who read for plot, people who suck out the story like the cream filling in an Oreo, should stick to comic strips and soap operas. What’s it about? Every book worth a damn is about emotions and love and death and pain. It’s about words. It’s about a man dealing with life. Okay?

  30. “Sidney’s getting married.” There are 206 bones in the human body and I was suddenly conscious of each one. I looked at the floor, then Bebe’s feet, then the bartender, who was standing with his arms folded, eyes narrowed, watching me closely, as if Bebe had warned him ahead of time what was going to happen.

  31. We sped to my father’s apartment. The door was locked but I climbed in a side window. I’d barely unpacked in my week there, so it took minutes to throw everything into my one bag. Then we drove along dark roads. As if in a horror movie we kept checking the rearview, waiting for headlights to materialize behind us. The daughter was lying on the backseat, either asleep or rigid with fear. The night was moonless and uncommonly dark and I couldn’t see anything but stars, though I knew we were driving through farm country because I smelled freshly turned soil and manure and every few hundred yards I glimpsed in the distance the yellow lights of a farmhouse. When we reached the airport the girlfriend pulled up to the curb and yanked the parking brake. We sat for a few moments, trying to gather ourselves. “You know,” she said at last, “I gotta say—y’all don’t seem nothin’ like your dad.”

  32. I thought of Bill and Bud. They had warned me that disillusionment was the great danger up ahead and they were right. But that morning, rid of lifelong illusions about my father, and about a few other men, and about men in general, I found myself whistling as I patted shaving cream on my jaws, because being disillusioned meant I was on my own. No one to worship, no one to imitate. I didn’t regret all my illusions, and I surely didn’t shed them all in that airport men’s room. Some would take years to pare away, others were permanent. But the work had begun. Your father is not a good man, but you are not your father. Saying this to the young man in the mirror with the shaving-cream beard, I felt independent. Free.

  33. The wind was whooshing through the dead leaves in the branches of the trees. A sound like static. Somewhere in that white noise is your old man. I tried to believe this. I tried to hear my father’s voice telling me—what? That he was sorry? That he understood? That he was proud of me? That it was normal to feel sadness about your father? That we all do, and that such sadness is part of the hard work of manhood? It was wishful thinking, hearing these things, hearing his voice, but as I left the cemetery I granted myself that last wish.

  34. Like its author, this book has been rescued many times by a number of extraordinary people.