"The fooker is spying on us," Barney said.
We were working the stick at the old Savoy Hotel, and the action at the bar was slowing after a busier than usual Thursday night dinner rush. The hotel was almost full, the occupancy rate bolstered by out-of-town Christmas shoppers and the dining room by a couple of holiday parties from neighboring offices. The Savoy Hotel, which is gone now, in those days was located on the far west side of Manhattan, west of Eighth Avenue on 48th Street, and the fooker Barney referred to was the hotel's manager, James MacAlister. The Savoy had seen better days, even then in the early '90s--as had many of us who worked there--but the rooms were clean, the restaurant prices reasonable, and the food better than you'd expect two blocks north of Restaurant Row, thanks to the French chef, Francois DeLouge, who'd bounced around the hotels of New York almost as long as I had.
The establishment boasted a staff of journeymen hoteliers, many of whom had been there since the hotel's heyday. Barney Saunders, my partner behind the bar, a wild young Irishman and a good bartender to boot, had been at the Savoy a year or so before I arrived and had already built a pretty good bar business. There was a growing coterie of regulars, and with some business from the dining room, that's really all a bartender needs to make a living. For the nights later in the week, we had Tiny Waters at the piano. All in all it was as good asmany bartending gigs in the city and better than some. The problem was that the pay scale was lower and the benefits fewer than at the other union hotels in the city.
How Barney and I found ourselves in this hotel on the western fringes of Manhattan, too near the coast of New Jersey for comfort, is one of those long stories better told on a rainy night when you're still at the bar because you can't get a cab and don't have anywhere much to go if you could get one. Barney was exiled from the mainstream when he fell out of favor with the bartenders union honchos. He brought me on board at the Savoy when I ran afoul of the new management at the Sheraton. The union was processing a grievance for me but, since I was a malcontent like Barney, wasn't in any hurry to settle anything.
On this night, Barney was trying to talk me into a plan he'd hatched to get rid of MacAlister, whom he suspected of being in cahoots with a crooked business agent from the union. As much a natural-born leader as Napoleon--or in his case, Brian Boru--Barney had taken up the rank-and-file rebellion at the Savoy where he'd left off at his former job, and had dragged me into the battle to reform the union.
My devotion to the cause of the workers of the world--and bartenders in particular--was my birthright, my having been born under the sign of the hammer and sickle, so to speak; that is, my parents were Communists. Barney's background was a bit murkier, having to do with, he told me, being born and reared in County Cavan, a stone's throw--or brick, bottle, or stick of gelignite--from the border of the six counties occupied by the British in the north of Ireland.
"Dere's a deal," Barney had told me soon after I arrived, when he explained about the lousy pay and his plans to change things, "a sweetheart of an arrangement if ever there was one, between Eliot and MacAlister." Eliot was the union business agent, who was bad enough, but MacAlister really got Barney's Irish up.
"A whoore of man," said Barney. "A Scotsman that hates the Irish. The man is dangerous, Brian."
MacAlister was a tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, arrogantboss-type. Since I'd been there, he and Barney had had a series of runins, the latest over Barney's free-pouring. The night he called him on it, Barney's reaction was sudden and violent, surprising me. We'd been through the free-pour versus use-a-shot-glass wars a dozen times. None of us cared that much. But Barney the cheerful, friend of every man, got his back up with the first words out of MacAlister's mouth. I didn't get it until Barney explained at closing time. "A Scotsman lording over an Irishman, Brian. It's in his voice, his eyes. He'll get me if I don't get him first."
A couple of beers later, I learned that this antagonism between the Irish and a segment of the Scots had its origins in the seventeenth century--when the British sent Scots to colonize the north of Ireland. Both the Scots and the Irish had long memories, it seemed, and battles had been raging ever since. Whatever its cause, the change in Barney was remarkable--the hatred resonating in his voice, the no-quarter-given, no-quarter-asked glare cast in the direction of the departing MacAlister. It was like seeing your old pooch who wagged his tail and licked the hand of whomever he came across suddenly go for the throat of the mailman.
Most of the time, Barney was full of good cheer. When he worked the stick, the long faces of the workaday weary regulars broke into smiles even before they got their first cocktail. With his mop of dark hair and his blue, smiling Irish eyes, he was as handsome as a prince. The waitresses flirted with him unmercifully, but he was as shy around women as an altar boy in a cathouse, so all he'd do was blush and mumble. One of those rare human beings who kept his own troubles to himself but was always willing to heave a shoulder under yours, Barney would do you a favor, as if he were required by law to do it. He had a quick wit and a quicker tongue, the words tumbling over one another, cascading from his mouth, in a verbal blur, so he'd have mumbled three or four things, and if you weren't quick, or if your mother hadn't been from Cavan, like mine, you'd have missed it. The good nature vanished, though, when he talked about MacAlister.
"I've had me eye on him," said Barney, after we'd closed and cleaned and restocked the bar this night. "I'll find out more abouthim, to be sure." On top of his hail-fellow-well-met personality, Barney was a derring-do sort of guy, two characteristics missing from my repertoire. I knew he was up to something, but this was the last I heard about it until the following Sunday night.
The guy at the bar was small, dark-skinned like a Dominican infielder with a good tan, and wearing a suit that was, if I remember my son Kevin's infancy accurately, the color baby shit sometimes gets. He ordered a rum and Coke made with Appleton's--a waste of good liquor, if you ask me; one of those guys who orders a call brand to let me know he can afford it. I poured the Appleton's because he was sitting at the bar watching me. If he'd been at a table, I'd have poured the rail rum, and with the Coke to mask the flavor, he wouldn't have noticed if I'd used Sterno.
His eyelids were like hoods, and when he lifted his head to speak, the hoods came down, so I couldn't see his eyes. On top of this, he mumbled, and on top of that, he spoke in clumps of words rather than sentences. Given these impediments to clear communication, it took some time for me to make sense of what he was saying.
"You're from the union?"
"Smart guy ... My friends ..." He waved an arm, gesturing to take in the small bar and cocktail area. "You could do good." He drifted off into his own thoughts, after making his point.
"Your friends come in here?" I tried. "I wouldn't know. I'm new."
He nodded a few times, then pursed his lips and changed directions, shaking his head sadly from side to side. "The other guy not so smart ... You gotta know better." He raised the hoods for a second, so I got a good look at the yellowish-white-framed black, expressionless eyes. "The other guy. Not here?"
"Not now." The other guy was Barney, and he was due to arrive any minute. I could have told the guy this, but I didn't, since I doubted it would be to Barney's benefit.
"He listen to you?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
My visitor nodded sadly again. "Busy night."
"Not so busy," I said.
"Busy tonight," he assured me.
Something in the way he said this caught my attention, and those hooded eyes notwithstanding, he didn't miss my epiphany.
His expression didn't change.
"Did something happen to him?"
This specter, perched like a vulture on the bar stool, drained his drink, shook the glass to rattle the ice cubes, then pushed it toward me. "This a good job?" When I didn't answer: "Am I right? A good job? No trouble?"
"I don't know," I said. "I just started."
The man nodded. "No trouble," he said. This time it was a command.
The call from the hospital came at around eleven o'clock.
DEATH AT THE OLD HOTEL. Copyright © 2007 by Con Lehane. All rights reserved.