Seeing Emerald in the Afternoon

citrin observer irishii 0 Seeing Emerald in the Afternoon“It’s time to play some rebel music!” said the bar owner Barbara Cronin. 

Not everybody had shown up yet. It was still early. The Catholic schools were open despite the holiday. They were making up for the snow days. Ms. Cronin was at her office nook at the end of the bar, cheek-jockeying the pay-phone receiver, barking orders or bets on horse races. She had a little snifter of whiskey, two sips left at all times. Ms. Cronin owns the place and holds sway in the neighborhood. She’s “the Mama Grizzly of Inwood,” a man told The Observer. But Ms. Cronin said they call her lots of things.

It was the Irish Brigade Pub, at the top edge of the island, 2 p.m., on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I’m turning up the volume,” said the owner. “It’s the only day I can get away with this.

Jean the barkeep kept asking The Observer if he’d like another after he polished off the dregs, and he did, and she wiped down the bottle sweat from the Bud with a shamrock napkin. Jean called him honey, hon or darling. “It’s a nice Irish bar, you’ll like it,” she said. The rebel music and grunted conversation meandered around and lingered like a stench.

“Take the empire by surprise!” went the song on the jukebox.

“Some say the devil is dead … more say he rose again—and joined the British army.”

“Take the empire by surprise!”

Bill Caula, who lately got laid off from a construction crew, was at the bar reading The Portrait of Dorian Gray. He also had Tristram Shandy. He’s stocky and short-fused and very much against the unions.

“It’s not gonna be long until me and my brothers band together and start choppin’ trucks up and shit like they used to do in the early 1900s,” Mr. Caula said. “Quote-unquote. William J. Caula Jr.”

Jack used to live in the East Village. Now he lives up here and temps as a security guard. He’s happy, and he likes the Cloisters.

“He met a, well, a lady of the night, and now there are a thousand descendants—including me and me kids,” said a bearded patron of one of his Irish ancestors.

“Shoulda been here in the ’80s—there were bars everywhere. …” said an older fellow down the bar. “You shoulda been here when there was like 100 bars—it was deadly.”

The older fellow was a lifer. He knew Ms. Cronin from the old days. At home he had yellowed Polaroids from a hunger march. Him and Barbara. He wore a button that said “England Get Out Of Ireland.” He was drinking a Jameson on the rocks that Jean bought him. A man in a suit ordered a round for the house, and as extra coasters slid in front of half-done beers, the crowd all thanked him in nods.

People were missing. Jim the Pirate had phoned Barbara, said he felt awful rotten, all sick and tied up in bed, and would be in sometime in the next hour. Heineken Joe was present in the guise of cheap streamers that he bought to festoon the back deck, snaking around the bobbleheads of idols, news clippings from whenever the regulars make it in the papers and axioms of the old country (invariably whiskey toasts). Nowhere were Father Moore and the nuns. And of course the guys with the food—bangers and mash, steamed cabbage, a temple of stacked-up corned beef sandwiches, their gray-pink innards spilling out from the folded wedges of rye bread. And a tub of violent horseradish mustard. They were on their way.

Where was Gene? “Right outside, he’ll be here in a minute. …”

And that guy with the GTO? “Haven’t seen him in 20 years, worked at a gas station. …”

And—um, um—Eric? “Died of cancer, hid it from everybody. …”

Also missing was the swath of Irish once dominant nearby. When the adjoined building went up in the 1930s, a pub soon followed, and this is the Irish Brigade. Why change? Yes, Jerry wanted a cup of Black Bush. Yes, the men’s bathroom is labeled “Clergy.” And when Jean told a man he looked familiar, he did—it had been 20 years, but he thanked her, he thanked Jeanie.

“The tradition is,” said the dignified gut plopped on a stool next to The Observer, “if you don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, you come back for Saint Pat’s.”

“Been on the wagon a month—I’ll have a beer today,” said a 50-something man in a hat.

The Observer lured the boss away from her corner to the outside at a break in the races. The customers could handle the rebel music themselves. Ms. Cronin had on pink glasses and a kelly green pageboy cap. She chewed her words. She has been the proprietress of the Irish Brigade for nearly 30 years.

“The neighborhood changes; we have a lot of Spanish,” she said. “We used to have a lot more Irish, you know, like all the neighborhoods change. But they’re cool, most of them.”

Other non-Irish were coming around, too. The day before, men from the BBC had come to tape a special on the Irish Brigade. No one talked about it. Why change?

“It’s nonsense,” Ms. Cronin said of the BBC’s interest in her modest Irish pub. “I don’t pay no mind to any of this crap.”

nfreeman [at] observer.com | @nfreeman1234