Sitting at her kitchen table, addressing her share of envelopes, that housed the invitations, Sally Quinn suddenly thought of that 60's Beatles song,...."I'll get by with a little help of my friends." It certainly applied to Claire Graves and her husband Howdy, in helping her to prepare for her husband's 50th birthday party. Meeting every Wednesday night at Sally's while Howdy and Jim went bowling, the two friends managed to put together Jim's half century of life celebration.

    The ruse was simple; it was going to be a surprise birthday party held at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Touted as "Friends of O'toole's Night," intended as a ploy to get Jim to attend what he thought was a reunion of some of the characters that drank at O'toole's.

    The Quinn's and the Grave's were best of friends. Both husbands were each other's best man. Sally was a bridesmaid in Claire's wedding. Some nights, taking a break from party planning and each with a glass of wine, they'd reminisce about their good fortune. They called it the "Luck of the Irish."

    That's were It all began, at O'Toole's, a local watering hole in a predominantly Irish neighborhood." A corner bar, named "Luck of the Irish Bar and Grill," (O'toole's for short) owned by John O'toole and managed by his son, big (6'4") Mike O'toole. The father already retired from the railroad and not in the best of health, deeded the bar over to his son.

     From the beginning, Mike O'toole wanted to change the concept of running a one bar tap room, that catered to an older, shot and beer crowd. He expanded the floor size by knocking down the side wall that separated the bar from their driveway along side. He installed a rectangular bar, with tables and chairs on both sides, a small stage with track lighting, a kitchen and two restrooms, with one door painted blue and one door painted pink; part of Mike's sense of humor.

    He started catering to a younger crowd, all the while keeping his Irish heritage on display by serving Guinness beer or Jameson Irish Whiskey. He hired and used people from the neighborhood to promote his vision of running a "saloon." He instructed his bartenders, "if a stranger comes in and puts a ten or twenty on the bar, he's Irish." His three biggest three nights of the year, Halloween, St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo would draw standing room crowds. Nobody ever complained about the noise as they were probably inside making it.

    Wednesday night was Karaoke night, Thursday night was the SEAN and ANGUS show, Friday and Saturday night took care of themselves. There might be some thing going on Monday or Tuesday nights but you had to come in on Monday to find out. O'toole's weekly events calendar, was never posted ahead of time.

    After the first year, O'toole's was the place to go. The first big night after Labor Day was the "Monster Mash Bash," held the first Saturday closest to Halloween. NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT A COSTUME...a notice posted inside the bar a week earlier and on the front door. Enforced by big Mike himself, at the door, dressed like the TV character...Lurch... and wearing 2 inch high Cuban heels.

    Enter Jack Malloy, wearing his brother's Army uniform with an eye patch over one eye, looking for love. Spotting a mark just sitting down at the bar, he squeezed in beside her; introduced himself and offered to buy her a drink. Dressed as Bo Peep, she accepted and for the next two hours, while she drank Margaritas and he was hoping not to run out of money, he discussed his war wound and she complained that her boss wouldn't let her take two hour lunch breaks.

    Then nature called and Jack headed to the restroom to relieve himself and freshen up. A little tipsy, but smiling at his good fortune, he returned to his little shepherd girl, minus his eye patch. Seeing the "Miracle of Lourdes" in his blue eyes, she leaned close and said, "next time, wear dark glasses and get a seeing eye dog." Then, finishing her drink, picking up her unspent ten dollars, she left.

    Different characters were used for different times, like when the bar was starting to fill up around lunch time; every once awhile, Annie Boyle would come in with her invisible dog leash, sit down at one of the tables and order a roast beef sandwich, a mug of beer and a bowl of water for her dog. While some of the customers were watching, the waitress taking the order, said, "What dog?" "Oh my God, "BINGO" got out of her leash," Annie screamed, jumping up from the table.  Walking around the bar and calling for the "dog," she had half the bar that didn't see her come in, looking for the dog and calling it's name. It was all an act of course, but it added to O'toole's reputation.

    Is political correctness and social diversity part of your life's agenda? Then try the Chinese take out around the corner, not O'toole's; especially on a Thursday night, when Sean Conner and his dummy Angus performed. "DID YOU KNOW, said Angus looking at Sean, THAT O'TOOLE'S CHARGES EXTRA FOR THE LITTLE UMBRELLA, THEY PUT IN THE GAY PEOPLE'S DRINKS?" "No I didn't know that," Sean replied, giving Angus the shush sign.  Angus continued, "AND DID YOU KNOW, IF THEY FIND OUT YOUR A PROTESTANT, THEY ADD A SERVICE CHARGE?" The crowd roared; as two guys sitting at a table in the back, took the umbrella out of the Pina Colada's they were drinking.

    Of course St. Patrick's day was the high light of the year. An imported Irish band, singing and dancing, four bartenders, corn beef and cabbage, Guinness dark on tap, a case of Jameson Irish Whiskey half gone already, two Irish cops to make sure things didn't get out of hand. (they were off duty of course). You didn't have to be Irish, just wear something green and know how to say "Erin go bragh." Sometimes in a place like O'toole's, "St. Paddy's Day" was know to last a couple of days.

    Jim Quinn, Howdy Graves and Biff Casey, three friends from the neighborhood became regular customers at O'toole's when they were twenty or twenty one.....legally or not. Howdy Grave's first name was Harold, but because he resembled the '50's children TV show, Howdy Doody, in looks and size, ("I'm a inch taller in heels" he liked to say) the name stuck.

    One night before a St. Patrick's Day, Jim, Howdy and Biff went to St. Leo's hall that was having a pre St. Paddy's Day dance. Their intentions were to meet someone they could take to O'toole's the next night. Not one of the three could dance, although Howdy was known to "bust a move" at O'toole's when the jukebox played a Donna Summers disco song and he had a little to much to drink.

    Standing on the side, just chick checking, when the emcee announced one more male was needed to complete an Irish reel. Jim and Biff looked at each other, grabbed Howdy by the shoulders and threw him into the arms of Claire McGoldrick. A year and a half later Howdy and Claire were married with Jim as best man and Biff as one of his ushers.

    It was at that wedding, Jim met Sally during the practice rehearsal the night before; and liked her right away. The next day, standing next to Howdy at St. Leo's Catholic Church, when he seen Sally walking up the aisle, dressed in a blue off the shoulder gown, he turned to Howdy and whispered, "I'm going to marry that girl."

    Sure enough a year later, after being rebuffed time and time again, his persistence paid off, so he thought. On the day he proposed and she accepted, she said, "I let you chase me, till I caught you." Now standing on the same altar as Howdy the year before, and Howdy as his best man, and Biff again as an usher, Sally and Jim said, "I do."

    Sally now 48, two years younger than Jim, tried to maintain her weight and shape since she married Jim, but having three children proved hard to do. When her sons got older, she joined a gym and tried to watch what she ate. As a result, her dress size got smaller and her new one piece bathing suit seem to attract more glances at the beach, then the one she wore three years ago. At parties, men (mostly Jim's friends) made sure they said hello to Jim and his "lovely wife."

    Yes life was good; her man was still handsome in spite of his graying hair, her sons, two of which were in their twenties, the oldest, dating one of Claire's daughters, holding down steady jobs and her youngest ready to graduate from High School, made hers an ideal family. It couldn't get any better than this. Or could it!

    On Wednesday night, the week of the party, Howdy called and told Jim about the reunion party at the Hall. "Biff Casey called and said they were trying to locate as many former customers at O'toole's to participate. It's just a beef and beer party, twenty five dollars a couple, pay at the door." 

    "I'm in Howdy, Jim said, we can both go together with Sally and Claire." "Just what I was thinking, Howdy replied, we'll take my car and pick you guys up, should be fun, I'll let you know what time we'll be over." After hanging up Jim told Sally about the reunion party. Feigning surprise, Sally said, "I'll be ready."

    Saturday night, reunion night, party night, beef and beer night, what ever you wanted to call it, Jim was really excited and ready to go. His two oldest sons were on a date and the youngest, working at the Pizza Parlor, so he was thought.

    Driving to the lodge hall, Jim wanted to know what Biff was doing these days. The last time they saw each other was at O'toole's last Cinco de Mayo night, fifteen years ago; a year before Mike sold the bar. It wasn't the same, sparsely attended, they didn't stay long. Biff had replaced Big Mike as a night time bartender, one of the reasons why they came. As the neighborhood changed so did the clientele. Old timers either died or moved away in retirement, their children headed to the suburbs. The hip crowd was now patronizing center city boutique bars.

    How's does part of the song go?....."old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away".....Who could forget Cinco de Mayo night at O'tooles. Father Keho dressed as a seventeenth century missionary Padre, coming in to bless the "new world wine" and sampling a couple of glasses. All the bartenders dressed in sombreros, serapes and wearing false mustaches. The kitchen menu featured, all Mexican cuisine, bought in the Acme's frozen food section. There was a best mustache contest, open to men and women. Recorded Mariachi music played from behind the stage and three of the bartenders would get up and lip sync "Cielito Lindo.".....Look away, look away.....

    Entering the Columbus Hall's parking lot, Howdy took the spot reserved for the Council President as planned, then they headed for the upstairs entrance. Watching out the window and seeing Howdy parking, the crowd was quieted down and the lights were dimmed. At the top of the stairs, pretending to reach for his wallet, Howdy said, "Jim you go first, I left my wallet in the car."

    When he opened the door the lights came on and a chorus of "Happy Birthday To You" greeted him and Sally. Relatives, friends and neighbors all standing and singing. A large green and white banner with "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JIM QUINN" was strung across the stage. He just stood there, trying to take in what was happening. Turning he looked at his smiling wife, "Did you have anything to do with this?" he said. "Not me," she replied. Then looking a Howdy, smiling, he said, "I see your hand in this."

    His three sons came up hugged him and wished him a Happy Birthday. Between handshakes and well wishes, the band playing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," Sally noticed her husband starting to tear up. She remember seeing him do this four times before; the day they said "I do," and when each of their sons were born.

    About an hour or so went by, with everybody filling their plate and their glass. Jim, Sally, Howdy, Claire and all their kids were all seated at the lead table. All at once a large man, taking a chair from another table, pushed in between Jim and Howdy. "You didn't think you were going to have a party without me, did you," he said. It was Biff Casey, with three empty mugs he kept when O'toole's closed.

    Jim and Howdy sat stunned, they couldn't believe their eyes. Howdy just used Biff's name as a way to get Jim to go to the party, he thought they would never see Biff again. Jim, Howdy and Biff embraced, the three closest friends together again. Howdy still in disbelief said, "How did you know?"

    "It's a long story for another time, right now I want to say hello to your wives, I haven't seen them in a while," he said. Rising from the chair he kissed Sally and Claire and was introduced to their children. "Their still as lovely as the last time I saw them, he said.....I'm surprised they put up with you two this long."

    As Sally and Claire beamed, he handed Jim and Howdy a mug. Each one inscribed, " O'toole's, Luck of the Irish Bar and Grill. "Well, are we going to fill these mugs or do I have to take them back," Biff said. With that they headed to the bar. Walking with their arms around each other, the way they left O'toole's at closing time, some thirty years ago.

    Jim Quinn's, 50th Birthday, his best day ever, "with a little help of his friends."

August 28, 2019 15:28

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