THE SMOCKEY BAR by MIMI LIPSON
As is often the case with bartenders, a lot of people knew Smockey a little. Smockey wasn’t talkative, he didn’t call you “Sport,” he betrayed no particular enthusiasm for anything except WWII documentaries on the History Channel, which was always on in his bar. But if you spent enough time there, you learned a few things about him. For instance, his name wasn’t really Smockey. That was a sort of stage name that he’d inherited when his father died. Smockey the Elder, a South Philadelphia Italian, had opened up the bar in what was then a Polish neighborhood, so he gave it what he thought was a Polish-sounding name, “The Smockey Bar,” and he became Smockey. And when he passed the bar on to his son, he passed the name on too.
I liked the place right away, just based on the sign: black lettering on a white field, the kind of Plexiglas sign that lights up at night, though it was afternoon when I first stopped in. It was on the ground floor of a narrow row house—just wide enough for a long bar and a few small tables and a pay phone. The walls were paneled, stained dark and coated with a glossy spar varnish. I thought at first that a trick of perspective was making the room appear to taper toward the back, but in fact the building wasn’t square. It must have been built as an afterthought to fill in the slightly trapezoidal space between two older houses.
Smockey had the place to himself when I first came in—an old man in a vest with a nice full head of Grecian Formula-black hair, brushed straight back from his forehead. He was sitting on a stool by the door and looking out at Passyunk Ave. I sat near the front so he wouldn’t have too far to walk.
“A lager, please,” I said as he dumped my ashtray and swabbed the bar with a grey dishrag.
“Woant a gleyce?”
“A gleyce? Or you just woant the bottle?”
“Oh… no glass. Just the bottle is fine.”
He fetched himself an O’Doul’s and went back to his stool, and we sat in companionable silence until a couple of other old guys came in and started chatting me up. I recognized them. I’d seen them sitting in lawn chairs outside the barbershop on 10th Street, a few blocks away. Introductions were made all around, and I stayed for another lager. At some point a kid came in—really a kid, maybe not even in high school—and bought a six-pack to go.
“You know, Smockey,” I said when the kid was gone, “I don’t think he was twenty-one.”
“Bah. He ain’t even eighteen,” Smockey said.
There was no jukebox at Smockey’s, but if there had been, it would have been loaded with Sinatra. The walls were covered with Sinatrabilia: posters, signed photos, even a moody, heavily impastoed oil painting of young Frank leaning against a lamppost. It was that kind of place, an old man’s bar. The inner circle of regulars were guys with names like Taffy and Bimbo, old friends from the neighborhood who split their time between the barbershop and a La-Z-Boy when they weren’t looking in on Smockey. The place belonged to them, but I think Smockey liked to have young people around, too. There were plenty of other old man bars in the neighborhood—places with the same dark paneling and nicotine stained mirrors and shelves sparsely stocked with Old Granddad bottles and bowling trophies—but the Smockey Bar had a particular geniality that encouraged mixing. Sometimes, later in the evening, every barstool would be occupied, and union plumbers would rub shoulders with bookstore clerks. And as the volume rose from all those minds meeting, Smockey would turn on the close captioning so he could follow along as the Luftwaffe got its ass kicked in the Battle of Britain.
I started coming in regularly, and he set me up with a tab. Before long, he was trying to get me to buy the place off him.
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “You’re like a farmer, Smockey. When was the last time you had a day off?”
“She’s got you there, Smock,” said Taffy.
Smockey probably hadn’t had a day off since he started helping his dad out behind the bar when he was ten years old. He himself had no help; he was there seven days a week. If it wasn’t busy, he took an hour off in the afternoon to go home for lunch, but otherwise, he made do with whatever he had warming in the ceramic steam well behind the bar: canned chili, beef stew, clam chowder and oyster crackers. He’d never married—he lived with his sister around the corner—and now he was old, and stiff, and he’d heard all Taffy’s jokes, and he was ready to retire. He wanted to go fishing. There was a picture of a bass boat taped to the cash register, and a postcard of a beach in Florida. But there was no Smockey III.
It became a routine between us. “When are you gonna take the joint off my hands so I can move to Florida already and get warm for a change?” he’d ask as he plunked a bottle of beer in front of me, and I’d wave him away. But secretly, I fantasized about it. What if I raised the money somehow and took over? Every decision for the rest of my life would be made. I imagined myself sitting on his stool by the window and gazing out at the pizza place across the street, slowly shrinking and desiccating, my hair getting blacker and blacker as I presided over my wedge-shaped time capsule.
Another thing I learned about Smockey: he’d been born upstairs, at a time when working class Italian women had their children at home. He had probably been taken down to the bar and shown off to his father’s customers before he even saw the South Philadelphia sky. One evening I brought someone in with me, and when Smockey went into his routine about unloading the bar, my friend asked for a tour of the upper floors.
“There ain’t nothing up there now, but you can go ahead and look,” Smockey said.
We found a jukebox on the second floor, and stacks of chairs, and tables too big for the bar downstairs, and a pile of disconnected swag lamps that must have hung over the tables—everything under a blanket of dust. There was a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, left behind after a casual renovation. I imagined young Smockey knocking down the walls of his childhood home, eager to banish the crepuscular gloom of his father’s time. I imagined flush years, and couples dancing, and after-hours poker games with Bimbo and Taffy. And I saw how Smockey’s world had closed up like a telescope. First he’d left his apartment on the third floor for a clean room at his sister’s house. Then the second floor of the bar had become too much, so he’d abandoned that too. Now, finally, he wanted to lock the front door and hand someone else the key.
I moved away to a city where there were no old neighborhoods, or not in any form I could recognize. I drove through permanent sunlight, past endless iterations of the same strip mall, trying to find a bar where I could start up a tab and settle in. After a while, I stopped looking for a Smockey Bar and developed an appreciation for the cinderblock-and-stucco cantinas that were its native counterpart. Word came to me that Smockey had sold the bar. I didn’t mourn it, though, because I pictured Smockey with a fishing rod in his hand and a cooler of O’Doul’s at his side.
And then, not long after that, Smockey died, and someone sent me an obituary—a tribute, really, written by another of his young customers. It was full of surprises. Smockey hadn’t moved to Florida. He was still living with his sister when he died. According to the article, he’d never even been farther than New Jersey, and he didn’t know how to swim. When he sold the bar, he hadn’t bought a bass boat: he’d bought a new Cadillac and parked it over by the barbershop every day, and he’d told anyone who asked that selling the bar was the biggest mistake he ever made.
The Smockey name died with him. The old white sign with the block letters has been replaced by a giant, whimsical Schlitz can. The upstairs room is open for business, and they have music, and quizzo nights. And, in what I guess is a lunkheaded gesture of commemoration, they call it “The Dive.”
© 2009 Mimi Lipson
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
This story originally appeared in the zine Food and Beverage (All-Seeing Eye Press, 2009)
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MIMI LIPSON lives in Kingston, New York. She will complete an MFA in creative writing at Boston University in September. Her work has appeared in YETI, Chronogram, and various places online. She has a story in the Significant Objects anthology (Fantagraphics, 2012), and her chapbook, Food & Beverage, is available from All-Seeing Eye Press. She is writing a novel about sociolinguistics.