Now, the honest saloon tradition still more or less obtains in San Francisco. Out our way we don't have much in the line of museum life, except for a pretty good aquarium. But the men have had time to form salutary drinking habits, habits which the ladies, with all the determination in the world, have not been wholly able to burke.
In the very best Frisco saloons women are not exactly forbidden, but they clearly understand they are not welcome in Breen's on Third Street, the House of Shields on New Montgomery, and Day's in the Tenderloin. These are all hearty, masculine quaffing joints, where the talk is of Willie McCovey and the outr� managerial habits of Alvin Dark. True, there was a recent crisis among Frisco's career drinkers when the four-bit drink began to go down the drain. (Out there a drink is an ounce or more, no nonsense.) This lamentable sign of progress was greeted with deep grunts of distaste, but we tosspots paid, continuing to ask for a Scotch and splash in a nervous glass. (I haven't seen these in the East. They are tumblers with serrated lower halves to annul the shakes. Their use is indicated before noon, seldom after.)
For anyone accustomed to this spacious drinking tradition, a visit to a thing like Toots Shor's emporium on 52nd Street, just abaft the New York Hilton, is like a blow in the face. I had known Shor's slightly in the old days and had my own view of it; but various sporting types around the country had said I should try the new joint. Well, let me tell you. My earlier opinion stands. You are allowed to put out $1.10 for a whisky. You get in return a plastic plate with your change on it—which seems to indicate the bartender thinks he is being underpaid by Mr. Shor, which may or may not be true. You end up by paying out $1.35 for the privilege of hearing a lot of con men in Austin Reed suits tell each other what they told Bill Paley in the CBS gents' room, and how Mr. P. nodded agreeably in return. It ain't worth it, at $1.35 per pop.
If you are right lucky you may have your ear bent by the owner himself. He'll be glad to tell you the Giants are going to win the pennant and that he just told Horace so on the phone. He will acknowledge that most of his best customers are obscenity rumbums. You think what you will, but for my part this bundle of boyish charm is loud and pugnacious. Why the clientele takes it from him is one of the mysteries of the great city, like why the bodies of the drowned rise at the same time each year in the East River. But my friends were right enough. Like the whole island of Manhattan, Shor's is a sight to see.
This is just one aspect of the Crisis of the Saloon in New York. The thing started about 20 years ago, a crisis no bigger than a man's pinkie. Some wise guy from The New Yorker found something indescribably cute about the charm of an Irish saloon—in this case, McSorley's down on East 7th Street.
The best thing that can be said of the author is that he knew a good thing when he saw it; the worst, that he damn near ruined the place. The readers of his infatuated prose were mostly the kind of bargain seekers who will make a weekend trip to New Paltz because Clementine Paddleford found a bo�te there that does gorgeous things with eggplant. These and their siblings flocked down to McSorley's to gape at the pot-bellied stove, the sawdust on the floor and, of course, the crusty old Irish drinkers. Time was when the ale was served in a porcelain mug. It still is, if you buy the mug for $1.50.
The McSorley article marked the start of the mystique of the Irish saloon in New York, a bad thing all around. Seldom has so much goodness been debauched by so few: again, mostly The New Yorker crowd and the intellectual banditti from the ad agencies. Third Avenue was where the locusts swarmed with greatest effect. They came in about the same time the El went out. When they come, grass never grows again. The spoilers brought in the brightest flowers from Louisiana State University and the avant-garde of Detroit. These fellas put their cordovan brogues on the brass rails and became familiar with bartenders named Tim and Owen, whose names were really Paddy. They were living! It was, and it is, a sight to make the sprites weep.
The worst-used of the Third Avenue bars are P.J. Clarke's at 55th and Tim Costello's at 44th. Both were once real Irish saloons. They catered to the shanty. You got a good drink; and, if you wanted it, a disquisition on the great hunger strike of Terence McSwiney against the hairy British, or the latest scabrous thing Dr. Gogarty had to say about Yeats. As saloons should be, they were places where you could invite your soul, defeat your enemies and be promoted in fantasy to a $30,000-a-year job because you had the guts to tell the boss off. You cosseted your hangover as a mother would her son after he had been decked in his first street fight. These dives were bliss.
And then the blight. The auslanders from the Midwest with their tidy felt fedoras and their sweatered women (oh, those women) began to louse up the barroom floors. It is characteristic of these predators that they Take Over. They took over Clarke's and Costello's. It was a sad thing, like those other instant New Yorkers who took over the honest structure of a brownstone, cleaned the outside, gussied up the inside with Swedish Modrun and tripled the rent. A good thing had been hollowed out. Its bones had been trimmed with tinsel, the price had been wildly marked up. In the end everybody had been cheated.
A city like this deserves the Mets. The romance of New York with the Mets is a dandy example of water meeting its own level. In this curious conjunction we have true bushness. The team is bush. The cult that has grown up around it is busher.