An Evening At Doherty's

A Story by Michael J. O'Brien

The day shift at the gasworks ended at six o’clock and the three men walked up Fourth Avenue in light snow towards Tompkins Square and Doherty’s Bar, their destination. The Square was teeming with haggard workers, Christmas shoppers and mothers with small children. A large Christmas tree, garishly decorated, stood beneath the somber bronze statue of Garibaldi in the center of the Square. A uniformed trio of young Salvation Army musicians played discordant marches on a trumpet, drum and trombone at the corner of Eleventh Street next to Doherty’s. The frigid air was permeated with the odor of fresh pretzels and roasted chestnuts from the carts of vendors on the sidewalks.

Doherty’s was located in a working-class neighborhood of drab gray tenements in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Ten concrete steps led down to the bar, which occupied the basement of a small garment factory where fifty women labored over sewing machines during the day. A raised tin sign on the door warned: Intoxicated Persons and Women Not Permitted on the Premises.

A few dim bulbs hung from the low ceiling and provided inadequate illumination for the unruly crowd seated at the long mahogany bar and two dozen tables. Arriving late, Gallagher, Patrick and Seamus grudgingly accepted the last available table, which was so close to the door that they had to endure frequent gusts of cold air. Gallagher, the oldest of the three, suffered from asthma and appreciated any relief from the dense blue pall of cigarette and cigar smoke.

Next to the bar, some army veterans from the Great War told familiar stories about their recent exploits in northern France. Other men played poker or craps and gambled loudly while they drank whiskey, beer and rum. Many of them were already drunk. The room reeked of sawdust, smoke and the fetid odor of dried beer.

Gallagher quietly but hurriedly drank stout and shots of whiskey while his friends talked. His mood was somber. Liam, his twenty-year-old son, was again in jail, the result of a drunken brawl a week earlier. It was his third arrest for assault in the last year, and yesterday a judge had sentenced him to a month at the Tombs.

Gallagher and his wife Mary Catherine had lost not only their son, but also his vital contribution to room and board. The rent was already in arrears, and Mary Catherine’s income from piecework on her sewing machine had fallen off because of her bad wrist. They were already two weeks in arrears on the rent and their landlord had lost all patience.

By eight o’clock the bar was filled with boisterous workers, mostly Irish immigrants and their sons. In response to loud demands, Doherty’s brother and cousin began to play an assortment of reels, planxties and slip jigs on the flute and violin. To raucous laughter, two young men clumsily attempted to dance a jig in the sawdust beside the bar.

Gallagher, encouraged by his friends, rose to add his fine tenor voice to the evening’s entertainment. Though his phrasing was marred by occasional incoherence, neither he nor his appreciative audience seemed to notice. He sang The Broom of Cowdenknowes, Swaggering Boney, Drops of Whiskey and Rakish Paddy, all to thunderous acclaim and a reward of free whiskeys.

Near the end of The Blackthorn Stick, a shrill female voice rose above Gallagher’s, commanding the attention of everyone but the tenor himself. The music faded as Gallagher reached the high notes before the last chorus. He stopped only at the sound of breaking glass.

“James Edward Gallagher, you filthy bastard,” she screamed. Mary Catherine stood in the doorway in her old green overcoat, snow swirling around her and her younger sister Kate. Gallagher's wife was small but stout and her cheeks were ruddy from the cold. Unkempt strands of gray hair protruded from the sides of the blue kerchief on her head. She carried a furled black umbrella, which she slammed hard on Gallagher’s table in front of his friends. Another glass fell to the floor and broke.

“Ladies not permitted,” Doherty protested. “You know that, Mary Catherine.”

“You be damned,” she screamed, again pounding the table. A few men began to laugh nervously. Mary Catherine picked up a full mug of beer and threw it against the wall, shattering it. “All of you be damned,” she screamed.

Gallagher staggered across the room and began to push Mary Catherine towards the door. He was at least a foot taller than her, but she resisted strenuously. He stumbled against a table and fell to the floor in a crescendo of breaking glass.

“You filthy bastard,” she screamed again. “Look at you. Just another Sligo drunk. Every night you come here, spending our good money on this poison when we can’t even pay the rent or eat decent food. How much did it cost tonight? A dollar? More? Maybe a day’s pay?”

Gallagher awkwardly rose to his feet again, wiping a trickle of blood from his cut lip. “The boys bought me some drinks,” he said meekly.

“Where are the boys when the rent falls due?” she demanded. Doherty, now determined, walked through the crowd and began to ease Mary Catherine towards the door. “Take your man and get out of here,” he said. "Prohibitionists aren't welcome in my bar."

Kate, who was much taller than her sister, pulled hard on Doherty’s arm until he released Mary Catherine. Four other women appeared on the steps outside the door. Mary Catherine shoved past Doherty and cleared another table of glasses with her umbrella. “And it’s not just him,” she yelled, glaring at the men. “Look at yourselves, all of you. You laugh and dance and sing all night, but you’re just a mob of filthy drunks. No thought to your families and no respect for yourselves. You make yourselves old and sick before your time, trying to drown your miseries in drink. And you’re taking your sons with you.”

Unprepared for this onslaught, the men could only glower back at her resentfully.

“You let yourselves be treated like slaves at your worthless jobs, and this is the only way you can bear it,” Kate shouted, inspired by her older sister. “Your bosses get the profits--them and the pikers who make millions off this swill. And you slurp it down like newborn calves at their mother’s teat. You can’t face your families any more because you’ve lost respect for yourselves.”

Gallagher grabbed the sleeve of his wife’s coat and again pulled her toward the stairs, this time more forcefully. She backed out the door, still screaming at the men inside. The Salvation Army band and an old man on crutches looked on, astonished by the spectacle, from the top of the stairs.

Gallagher gained the first three steps but lost his grip on Mary Catherine and fell sideways back into the bar. The crowd responded with tumultuous laughter, their predictable response to any drunken mishaps.

The six women on the steps could no longer contain their outrage. They burst into the room and pushed over more tables. They broke bottles of whiskey and mugs of beer and confiscated decks of cards and dice, all the while proclaiming that “There’ll be no more of this when the Prohibition passes!”

A few minutes later a squad of police appeared and arrested Mary Catherine, Kate and one of the other women. Gallagher, his head drooped in shame, pleaded with Doherty not to press charges.

"I'll make good the damages to your place," he said. "Just give me a few days. The boys will all chip in. I can't afford to bail me wife out of jail."

"All right," Doherty reluctantly agreed, aware of his customer's plight. "Just see they never set foot in this place again." He intercepted the police as they were placing the women into a paddy wagon. Doherty insisted that they not be released until after they were transported to the Fourth Precinct station, some fifteen blocks away.

Gallagher returned to the tavern, where the men were busily righting the tables and sweeping glass from the floor. Soon all the customers were back in their seats and talking quietly. In the far corner of the room, an old man with a lush white beard began to play the doleful Cailleach An Airget on a battered concertina.

Gallagher and his friends drank beer in silence for a few minutes. Patrick studied Gallagher's face but quickly averted his eyes when his friend took notice. "Ar nhaith leat tuilleadh uisce beatha?" Patrick asked him, smiling faintly. "The breath of life." ”Seo mo sheal," Seamus insisted, searching his pockets for change.

"Yes," Gallagher said wearily, ignoring his friends' resort to Gaelic. "Whiskeys for all, but it's my round, Seamus, not yours."

"You can stay at my place tonight," Patrick said. "And tomorrow if you like. Me wife won't mind."

"That would be good," Gallagher said. "Buíochas. Thank you." He raised three fingers above his head and waved towards the barkeep at his station behind the taps. Doherty acknowledged with a nod and briskly poured three shots for the men.


Copyright 2000, by Michael J. O'Brien