The menu–never written, always spoken but only when anyone asked first– consisted of breakfast, lunch or dinner at any time of day. Eggs, ham or bacon, toast and coffee. Often, a special of the day–baked ham, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, meatloaf, corned beef. Or my father’s specialty—hearty soups—navy bean soup, split pea, beef stew—and on occasion, Maryland crab soup. When he had time and the price of backfin was good, he made up two or three dozen crabcakes, which disappeared fast from under the glass domed cakestand that sat on the bar near the Hotpoint grills.
It was a shot and a beer bar, and a regular didn’t even have to state his order—a man just climbed onto his barstool and the barmaid pulled a small draft beer and poured a shot of Four Roses or Pikesville whiskey. Everyone smoked, mostly unfiltered Luckies and Camels, though one Pennsylvania Railroad fireman, George Scout, favored a pipe. One of my small jobs, when I was young and could persuade my mother to let me go to work with my father for a few hours, was washing out the heavy glass ashtrays, for a dime apiece.
Most of the regulars worked on the Pennsy railroad and ended their work shift at the Orangeville yards just up the road—Paddy Saxon, George Scout, Mr. Dillon. Bernie Dibelius, who lived across the street with his mother, drove a long-distance haul truck for Steel Specialties. Bernie was tall—well over six feet, big-boned, and toothless—though not much more than forty, he gummed his food, and his words as well, so it was often difficult to make out what he was saying.
Hats Canary—real name, Howard—and his wife Bea and their kids lived a few doors down from the Tavern, on the same side of North Kresson. Bea worked for my father as a barmaid for a time, but either he felt she was too slow, or Hats wasn’t crazy about her working behind the bar, so she left. Rumor had it that she got a job-tending bar at the other end of North Kresson, at Hudak’s Bar.
My favorite customers were a duo who worked at the Junkyard. Howard Riley, who for some mysterious reason my father called Rabbi,” and his sidekick, John, to whom my father gave the moniker Junkyard John—Mister Riley had a red nose like W.C. Fields , and he drank all day long–but in small nips. He was a controlled drinker– he never bought a pint or even a half pint of whiskey, even though my father tried to show him how much cheaper that would be.. Instead, he appeared several times a day—and each time, bought a miniature bottle of Old Grand-Dad. He called it a “minister.” “Give me a minister of Old Grand-Dad,” was his refrain.
Junkyard John was younger, dark complected as we said in Baltimorese. He said almost nothing, drank alcohol sparingly if at all, and usually stopped in, mornings, for a ham and egg sandwich and a coffee to go. Over the years, he brought my father various treasures he found in the junkyard—brass hangers that he polished till they looked like gold, and the pièce de resistance, a brass spittoon, which my father passed on to my step-grandfather. He dipped snuff, and up till then had been driving our fastidious grandmother, Mimi, crazy by spitting into an old tomato can. I still have one of the brass hangers in my coat closet today, and my younger sister has the other–Spigelmire family heirlooms from the iron and scrap yard…