There was a parade of barmaids and bartenders over the years: Mr. Oscar, whom Dad inherited from the tavern’s previous owner; the aforementioned Miss Bea; Miss Vi, a sweet, fortyish woman who moved to Florida after she got married; Hilda, a short,wide-hipped plain woman who wore glasses and had no sense of humor at all. I never saw her smile..She stuck around a long time, but when she quit, she just up and left—I never heard anyone speak of her after that. George Scout tended bar on some of his layovers from the railroad, and he bunked in one of the rooms upstairs, two beds on ancient iron frames with grey sheets, and night tables littered with cigarette ash and tattered paperbacks, mostly Mickey Spillane crime novels.
The best bartender my father ever had was Whitey. Mr. Whitey to me. I never knew his last name. Whitey was an outstanding bartender because he had three unusual qualities that any bar owner give thanks for, every week at Mass: Whitey was always on time and always stayed late; Whitey knew his trade; and Whitey was unfailingly honest. Bartenders skimmed from the cash register for years, but my father wrote it off as a cost of doing business. Once Whitey came on board, the skimming came to a screeching halt, as Dad liked to say.
He found Whitey by way of our next-door neighbor in Hamilton, Miss Angie. Whitey had boarded with Miss Angie’s family for a few years before the war, then he was drafted into the Army. When he came out of the service, he went back to Miss Angie’s parents and asked if he could board there again. He lived with them for the rest of his life—they became his family. Miss Angie put Whitey, who was looking for work, in touch with my dad.
The customers liked Whitey. We liked Whitey. My father loved Whitey. Whitey never took a sick day. He never drank on the job. He never complained about his salary. He was happy that my dad paid into Social Security for him. My father stopped worrying so much about what was going on at The Place when he came home. He started showing up for dinner by 5:30 on weekdays.
One school night, well after my younger sister and I had fallen asleep, the phone rang. Kresson Street, or the police who called. The Place was burning. My father quickly dressed and drove off to Highlandtown. The fire was extensive. The old wooden bar was ruined. So were all of the wooden tables and chairs in the bar area and in the Ladies’ section. The whiskey was ruined, too. I assume all those bags of Utz chips and the pretzels and Slim Jims clipped to their tall racks were gone. .The claw machine and the Bally pinball machine, the jukebox—all were burned up, useless.
Dad had to close the business for a long time, until the insurance company could settle the claim, and the tavern could be gutted and refitted with new ceilings, floors, insulation, and a new bar. The rehab project expanded to include maintenance and esthetic work that was long overdue .
Whitey was on duty when the fire started . He may have been the one to call the Fire Department that night . The stress of it all got to him. He suffered a heart attack not long after that, and then another one, and his doctor advised him to stop working, or at least to find a less stressful line of work until he could start collecting his social security.
Spigelmire’s had a grand reopening, with a modern ceiling covering the old stamped tin one, and glass bricks in the wall along Fairmount Avenue. Dad bought a new meat slicer. Mr. Poffel at Gift Novelty had his guys wheel in a new claw machine and a new pinball table.
But there was no new Whitey.
The Place lived on for another ten or fifteen years, when a series of holdups—armed robberies—on railroad payday, when there was lots of cash in the register—persuaded my father to follow Whitey’s lead and retire. He sold the Place—and with that deal came the valuable Baltimore City liquor license—to his last bartender.
We don’t have nearly enough photos of the Place. We have a few church keys that were given out at Christmas time, and an ashtray that spells out the words Spigelmire’s and Tavern in an acrostic pattern.
A recent Google Search turns up El Estanko Sport Bar at the North Kresson Street corner where Spigelmire’s was a twenty-hour-a day business, 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., except Sundays. From the internet photos, the new operation looks pretty fancy inside, with state of the art karaoke, new pool tables, and smiling customers. I wonder if those thirty-somethings sense ghosts of former patrons in the eaves of the building.
I recall the Place so clearly, how it looked, how it sounded, how it smelled in the morning of stale beer and cigarettes: I’m eight years old, I don’t even reach the bar, it’s taller than me. Paddy Saxon sit nursing a beer in a small, straight-sided glass–he’s already emptied his shotglass of 4 Roses. He leans back, looking up at the Muntz black and white tv sitting on a shelf high on the wall, watching a heavyweight fight. The pay phone on the wall at the end of the bar rings, and my father lifts the 1940’s era receiver off its hook, leans into the microphone and almost shouts to be heard over the buzz of the barroom, “Spigel Marr’s. Jim talkin.”