My father got better looking as he aged.
The skinny frame that carried him into marriage and fatherhood expanded into something fuller that made him feel more like the adults he looked up to as a child. His face widened, making his Roman nose seem more distinguished than distracting. He was half-Italian and half–French-Canadian; his black hair was graying perfectly. There was a warmth about him; he looked as much like Judd Hirsch as Alan Alda. Unlike those men, though, he had terrible posture and an odd gait. My mother and I made fun of him because he walked without moving his arms.
He was doing well for himself back then, making a good salary in a Reagan economy. He was a Massachusetts Democrat, but he kept that quiet because he no longer lived in Massachusetts. He lived in Anderson Township, a white-collar suburb where Reagan was too popular to criticize. He owned a four-bedroom Georgian Revival in a verdant subdivision called Federal Hills. Most nights he would come home from work, pour himself a Chivas Regal in a Waterford glass, and sit with my mother by the living room fireplace, where they’d talk about their days. In warmer months, he’d take his drink outside and sit alone in a green lawn chair watching the breeze work its way through the trees.
Some nights that wasn’t enough. Some nights he needed more than a crackling fire or a fine backyard. That’s when he would hop into his Buick after dinner and head down to the Anderson Township Pub. “I’m going down to the ATP,” he would say as he gathered his keys and cigarettes from the kitchen counter. Sometimes my mother didn’t care. Other times she did.
This was 35 years ago, around the time Cheers was kindling people’s affections for convivial neighborhood watering holes. Back then, the closest thing most suburbanites had to Cheers were the built-in pseudo-lounges of the family-friendly chain restaurants that lined commercial strips like Beechmont Avenue. I remember walking by the bar area of the Ground Round and catching a glimpse of men and women guzzling Budweiser and Christian Moerlein as their kids watched Laurel & Hardy movies in the main dining room. I can still hear my friends’ mothers whooping it up over margaritas at Chi-Chi’s.
For transplants to Anderson, especially those who’d grown up in cities and towns where wary workers once gathered at bare-bones taverns after their shifts ended, these places likely rang false. The corporate-sanctioned pleasures of a TGI Friday’s could never measure up to the comforts of an old Irish pub; a beer at the Ponderosa wasn’t as intimate as one enjoyed while listening to Conway Twitty songs at a corner bar.
Then there was the ATP. Sure, you could take your kids there for chicken fingers during the day, but at night it took on a different, less domesticated air. It was a place where neighbors who rarely ran into each other outside of soccer games and King Kwik lines could sidle up to the bar and finally get to know—really know—one another. Like my father, many of the patrons were new to the area because much of Anderson, with its ever-growing subdivisions, was new to the area. The ATP provided a sense of community, a way to interact as genuine adults rather than perfect parents. It was the place Anderson Township needed.
Over time, my father became a regular, joining the ranks of a man named Tom and a man named Skip, a man named Don and a man named Jim—conscripts in their self-selected army. Jim, who taught physics at UC, would go on to become my dad’s best friend, though it took a while for that relationship to gel.
While my father was well liked by most people, he had a tendency to boast, especially when he was drinking. In a journal entry Jim’s son shared with me a few years ago, his late father recounted how the first time he met Ron Pandolfi, he was wearing a camel-hair overcoat and a pricey derby hat with a feather tucked into its brim. Jim thought Ron Pandolfi was pretentious, that he was full of himself. He called him “a dandy.”
My father wasn’t exactly a dandy but he did have his traditions, both sartorial and familial. On the weekends, after church, he would take me to the pub for BLTs and potato skins, which we would eat sitting by a stained-glass window that we, as Catholics, seemed to subconsciously gravitate toward. We were fair-weather Cincinnati sports fans, more interested in the Patriots than the Bengals, but we would half-watch the game on the TVs mounted above the bar, fully aware these were the things fathers and sons were supposed to do, despite our mutual apathy toward the ritual. Back then I was more interested in the adults at the bar than Kenny Anderson or Cris Collinsworth. These were the parents of my friends, and I would watch, fascinated, as they transcended the barriers of P&G exec or neighborhood soccer coach and became more animated and loquacious. A truer version of themselves, perhaps.
Never was this more interesting than when it happened to my own father. While I rarely joined him at the pub at night, sometimes, if my mother had plans, he would use it as an excuse to take me down for dinner. After he had finished his burger or roast beef sandwich, he would buy me another Coke and grab a barstool to catch up with his friends. I’d grow uneasy as he became flirtier with the waitress, laughed at jokes that I knew offended him, or took on an affected masculinity that never manifested itself at home. Did I know there was something more troubling going on? Did I know those scotch-and-sodas at the ATP weren’t just a way for him to exhale after a tough week but more of a gauze to dress the wounds of a failing marriage, a failing career—a failing heart that would steal him away from me five years later?
A memory: My father is sitting next to a guy at the bar, a regular who I’d seen plenty of times before, usually when he was shitfaced and on the verge of belligerence. I am standing behind the two of them, tugging at my dad to go home. I am around 13 years old. The guy starts talking to me, except he’s not talking to me like I’m a kid; he’s talking to me like I’m an adult, an adult he doesn’t like all that much. He’s rail thin and his face is creased as only a three-pack-a-day smoker’s face can be. He’s just cigarette ash and liquor.
“Who’s your hero?” he asks me, and I think about it for a few seconds. The first person that pops into my head is A.J. Foyt because A.J. Foyt is my favorite racecar driver. But just as I’m about to invoke his name, I change my mind and say: “My father is my hero.”
It’s bullshit. My father isn’t my hero at all. During the past year, he’s turned into a lousy drunk almost as bad as the jerk who asked me the question. But he’s still my father. And I want this guy to know that he’s better than his sorry ass.
My father looks at me sheepishly; his lips pursed, his cheeks half-filled with air. He seems a little embarrassed. Maybe he believes what I’m saying, but he’s smart enough to know that I don’t.
Looking back, I think I was trying to let my dad know that he wasn’t as far gone as this guy was—that he was redeemable. I just wanted him to pay his tab, come home, and watch the fucking Dukes of Hazzard with me like we used to. I wanted him to know that home, not a barstool, was where he belonged.
It didn’t work. He was soon spending more time at the ATP than ever. I remember lying awake in bed until he got home, like a parent waiting up for a teenager to return from a party. Relief came when I heard the deadbolt of our front door snap open, followed by dad moving loudly through the kitchen making an impromptu sandwich with the salami mom bought at Hitch’s Meats, humming a contemporary song that had ear-wormed its way into his head. My eyes wouldn’t grow heavy until I heard the reassuring click of the television downstairs, and him laughing at Johnny Carson.
My father eventually quit drinking. It happened a few weeks before Christmas 1985. After three stiff afternoon pops at the pub, he left without paying, called my mom, and checked into a detox program at Bethesda. When he got out three weeks later, he was unemployed and on his way to a divorce. He couldn’t afford the house anymore, so he moved into a one-bedroom apartment, alone.
Dad’s sobriety didn’t keep us away from the Anderson Township Pub. The first time he asked me to join him there for a (sober) dinner, I was surprised. “You sure about that?” I asked. But he was. He knew the pub wasn’t the problem. He knew that most of his friends there could sit back and have a beer or two without sacrificing everything they had. And that he just couldn’t do that anymore.
Another memory: It’s Thanksgiving Day. Two years since my father got sober and a few months since his buddy Jim did the same. I am with both of them at the ATP, volunteering at a dinner for the homeless that the owner is hosting. I am watching my father in his white oxford shirt and gray vest conducting the rearrangement of tables and chairs like an orchestra as a group of weary diners file in. And while it sounds like I’m making this next part up, I’m really not: I am thinking of the drunk who asked me who my hero was that night long ago, and I’m realizing my answer to his question isn’t a lie anymore. I’m realizing that while the Anderson Township Pub tore my family apart, it’s putting us back together.
I live in New York now with my wife and daughter, but I go back to the ATP sometimes when I visit Cincinnati. I sit at the bar and order a beer and get to thinking how much time has passed; how much I miss my father; how much easier it is to commune with him here than at the cemetery.
That I still need this place every bit as much as he did.