food 09.6.06

One for the Road

[MUG has learned that after its lease expires, it will be last call for the much-loved Upper West Side watering hole, the P & G Cafe. What follows is an essay by P & G's weekend bartender Mike Taranto, written shortly after getting the news.]

I found out last night that in 28 months the P & G Cafe will be losing its lease and closing its doors for good. For those of you who don't know, the P & G Cafe, on the corner of W. 73rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has been serving every day since it opened in January of 1942. If you have never been, you have probably seen our "Cafe Bar" neon sign, either getting out of the subway or as a telltale NYC background in one of the many movies, TV shows, or comic books in which it has appeared.

I am a relative newcomer. I have been a patron since I moved into the neighborhood in the late 1980s. Twelve years ago I became the Friday, Saturday, Sunday night bartender. Needless to say, I'm a little upset about losing my job, but I'm still healthy and I'll find a gig somewhere. However, there is something deeper troubling me. You know it's true that some people tell their bartender their troubles; I've been listening for years so I figure it's only fair that I get my turn.

I always thought that the true value of a neighborhood was more than just the amount of rent or property taxes you had to pay. I always thought that the people had something to do with it. If that was the case, then the places where those people got together mattered too.

I loved my job because I worked in a place like that. I worked in a place where people from all over the neighborhood and all over the world came together. It seemed like there was no limit to the variety of people that sat next to each other. I worked in a place where people met their future husbands and wives. I worked in a place where people celebrated the births of their children and grieved over the loss of their loved ones. I worked in a place that overflowed with joy when the home teams won. I worked in a place that stayed open through blizzards and blackouts. On that horrible day in September when hundreds of thousands of people walked north, we were there. On that day and the days following we needed places like the P & G more than ever. We needed places to be together, to cry, to get angry, to get drunk, to get sober, to figure out what we could do to move forward. I always knew that I worked in the "Service Industry," but it was during that time that I truly understood what the scope of that meant.

I understand that it is just a bar and that I'm just a bartender and things go on. I took pride in my job and I took pride in the service we provided for our customers and for our neighborhood. It's just that it needs to be said that we were the REAL thing. We were a real neighborhood joint where everybody really did know your name. Those Bar/Restaurant chains that you find near malls all over the country, the ones that all look alike and are filled with the same prefabricated nostalgia — they are trying to look like us. The stuff on our walls is real. We are old school and we are closing.

I'm not really sure why I'm telling all this. Maybe it's the fallout of making me read "Death Of A Salesman" in high school. In my head, I keep hearing Linda from near the end of Act One say, "He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid…" I feel like that. Maybe I'm hoping for some kind of unforeseen public ground swell that will save my place. I'm not too optimistic on that count. If CBGB's or the Bottom Line couldn't be saved, I don't give us much of a chance. Hey, look on the bright side, now we can get our new music from TV shows like American-whatever-it's-called.

In the end, I feel pretty fortunate to have been part of something that meant a great deal to a great many people. I guess I wouldn't be worth my apron if I didn't end this with an appropriate story.

A few years ago, average guy walks into my bar on an average Friday Night. I could tell by how he greeted me, ordered his drink, etc. that he was a good guy. I gave him a buy-back (one on the house) early. For those of you who may not know, buy-backs are how New York bartenders show customers that they are welcome. He stayed for a few more then went home.

Sure enough he comes in the next night. Now this time I really want to make him feel at home so I introduce him to one of my regulars who also happens to be a good guy. Part of the bartender's art is to put people who you think will get along together. Now these two are having a very pleasant conversation and getting along great. Before you know it they are buying drinks for one another. As the evening wore on, their conversation got around to the "what do you do, where are you from" part. Turns out they both come from the same part of the world. They both came from the Middle East. One was from Egypt, the other from Israel. Turns out they were both in their respective militaries years back.

It is still difficult for me to describe what it was like as their conversation led towards the realization that they were both on the same part of the same battlefield at the same time. I hope you are all fortunate enough to get to experience at least one truly profound moment in your life. Here, in my little corner of the world were two people who some time in their past were literally trying to kill each other, but now here they were, talking to each other, buying each other drinks, forming a friendship that has lasted to this day. People sometimes ask me what the biggest tip was I ever got in my 18-plus-years as a New York bartender. Hands down, no doubt… Hope.

They tell me it's going to be a bank.
We wrote yesterday that "Take Me Out" was directed by Sam Mendes. Wrong. It was directed by Joe Mantello.


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