This past Saturday was a blue collar work days for me — delivering papers in the early morning hours, wrestling a rusty news box from a bus stop back to our parking lot, manhandling another one into its place, and moving 40-pound boxes of business directories around the office, among other physical chores — and at the end of the day I decided to take a blue collar break at a workingman’s bar.
So where to go? Thirty years ago, before business, kids, and a few medical concerns got in the way, every day was a blue collar day for me. And the workingman’s bars beckoned all over town. From my office at 240 Nassau Street I could head home via Rosso’s Cafe on Spring Street, the Annex on Nassau, Conte’s on Witherspoon, Cenerino’s on Leigh Avenue, Mike’s Tavern, also known as Grandma’s, on Bayard Lane, the Peacock Alley in the basement of the Peacock Inn, or Andy’s on Alexander Street. If I headed in the other direction I could stop at either one of two bars on on Nassau Street between Chestnut and Pine, the Pink Elephant or the Ivy Inn.
Back then a young reporter was told that you never really got to know a story subject until you had a drink with him at the end of the interviewing process. And a corollary to that rule was that you never really knew what was going on in town until you stopped by a workingman’s bar for a drink.
Back then Rosso’s was information central in town, and among its regulars were the waiters for the Nassau Inn, who whiled away the hours between shifts. Jinx was one, a wise man who spoke in a tone that made people listen. Many years later, when I heard that Robert Williams was one of the most vocal neighborhood opponents to the expansion plans of the Arts Council, I knew the opposition was formidable. Robert Williams was Jinx, retired but still speaking up. Jinx died this past Easter Sunday, at the age of 80, and the Arts Council is moving ahead with its renovation, but at a smaller scale.
Charlie Huth, another waiter from the Nassau Inn who hung out at Rosso’s, knew everyone, and everyone knew Charlie. He had gone to Columbia to play football, his career got derailed by injuries, and he ended up in Princeton. When he moved back to New York, he gave me the names of some workingman’s bars near Columbia, and said I should come up and visit someday.
A year later a day in New York ended early for me, and I decided to look him up. I went into the first bar and announced I was looking for Charlie Huth. “Never heard of him,” said the bartender and some of the regulars. I moved onto the second bar. The name didn’t ring a one single bell there, either. At the third bar I didn’t hold much hope. I had a drink. The phone rang, the bartender answered it, and then looked in my direction: What’s your name, he asked. I told him. He briefly resumed his conversation, and then hung up. “Wait right here,” he said. “Charlie’s on his way.” Everyone knew Charlie.
All that was 30 years ago, and most everyone of those workingman’s bars in Princeton has gone the way of the blue collar worker. Those workers are hard to find, of course, which is why I was out there last Saturday doing the blue collar jobs of lugging rusty news racks from the street to the dumpster. You won’t find blue collar workers at Andy’s anymore, where they now sell sushi. And if they finally turn Mike’s into a jazz club, you probably won’t find too many blue collar workers drinking there.
One of the few workingman’s bars remaining in town is just a few blocks away from me, the Ivy Inn. The Ivy was a 10 cent beer place when I was in college in the 1960s. It was a sports-oriented bar — a portrait of a forlorn-looking Bill Bradley hung on the wall. Later the Ivy moved a few doors away into what had been a gas station.
The last time I was in the Ivy, a late-night foray to get a six-pack of beer, the air was so heavy with cigaret smoke that I tried to hold my breath while the bartender rang up the sale. And until last Saturday, I had never returned. But then I remembered that we now live in a smoke-free state — so as I considered my blue collar break at the end of the blue collar day the Ivy Inn turned up as the final destination.
I’m not sure how business has been for the Ivy in the first few days since the ban on smoking. But I will predict that the lures of $1 draft beers (inflation-adjusted, that sounds like a 10-cent beer to me), a pool table, live music, and sports on various television sets, which patrons are encouraged to tune to the station of their choice, will far outweigh the inconvenience of having to step outside for a smoke.
So how was the band, you might ask. I have no idea. The music started at 10 p.m. Thirty years later for me, that’s way past my bedtime after a blue collar day.