We think we found the drunkest bartender in Manhattan.
The Transom feels confident in this assertion, as we have seen our fair share of Manhattan dive bars since 10th grade.
When we first met Frank Mortagua on a sunny Saturday afternoon he was behind the bar at the Tribeca lushing den Nancy Whiskey. Dressed in his trademark gray tattered Hugo Boss sweatshirt, he had a pair of wire framed sunglasses perched low on the bridge of his nose. He was also pouring a bottle of Budweiser into a small beer glass, another customary trait of Frank the bartender.
“I’m not the boss,” he said, pointing to the “Boss” on his sweatshirt. He then stole a sip of his beer —as he would throughout the day, always leaving a few dollops of beer foam on his Don Quixote-esque mustache.
“He’s either at this side of the bar or the other,” said Bob Cendella, a painter who has immortalized Mr. Mortagua—and Nancy Whiskey’s loyal fanbase of blue collar workers and bohemians— in two murals that hang on the bar’s walls.
Whatever side of the bar he is on, Mr. Mortagua will still be drinking with you.
Frank, 53, was born the son of Portugese immigrants and raised on 6th Avenue and Broome, what he says was once called “The Lower West Side.”
He said he worked just about every kind of job, from a delivery boy for a laundry shop to a motorcycle messenger and a plumber.
“I delivered Bob Dylan his clean clothes,” he boasted.
He said he wasn’t a regular at Nancy Whiskey when the bar first opened in 1967.
“I was underage,” he said, taking our bottle of Amstel Light and tapping it twice on the bar top —as he does with each drink he takes.
He retired from plumbing and eventually co-owned a deli, the Broome Street Food Shop, with his brother, which they later sold in the 1980s.
“I had a couple of dollars, so I didn’t work for a while,” said Frank (he now co-owns an apartment building on Broome Street with his brother).
Frank came to Nancy Whiskey in 1986 after his local, the Rum Runner Bar on Canal Street, shut down.
The pub at the time was filled with a motley mix of roughnecks, lawmen and colorful folk like Frank.
“Nancy Whiskey back then, people were afraid to come here,” said Mr. Cendella.
Asked if he had been drinking steadily at the Nancy Whiskey ever since he started going there, Frank raised his glass to us.
“Just about,” he said, tilting his head so his dark eyes could peer out at us from under his sunglasses. He finished his beer and went to the icebox to fetch another bottle of Bud.
One day in the 90s, William Wall, the owner of Nancy Whiskey, tossed Frank the keys to the pub and told him to open up the bar on Sundays. He has been working —and drinking— regularly at the bar ever since.
As the day wore on, Frank’s moves became more fluid, his balance a tad quivery. He served up drinks as he swayed across the bar, grabbing change and standing still, his hand pressing the dollar bills against his forehead as he wondered aloud who he was supposed to hand change to. He eventually always got the right guy (or at least, was corrected at the last moment).
“As drunk as he is, he’s always sharp,” said Ray Foster, a Nancy Whiskey regular who was drinking seabreezes throughout the day. “He’s a tough fucking guy. He fucked some people up back in the day, and he’d still kick some ass,” he added.
Almost as prodigious as Frank’s toughness was his ability to throw them back.
“I’ve seen him drink different things on the shelf in one go, and he walks out of the bar, still fucking standing,” said Mr. Foster, with a glint of admiration. “ I can’t keep up with him.”
As Frank helped himself to another Bud, we asked how many he’s had?
“One’s too many and 100 is not enough,” he said. “But I always do my job.”
Upon hearing that, Richie Fine, a young Alabama-born painter who was sitting at the bar, raised his glass of Jim Beam and toasted Frank.
Frank said he did not know who he was.
“I’m Richie! I’ve been coming here a year-and-a-half!” explained Richie, an effete man wearing a backwards cap and bi-colored Wayfarers.
“Those may have been my off days,” snarled Frank, later adding “Yuppies, queers, whacks, blacks, Chinese — I’m not joking, everybody’s welcome,” said Frank.
After spending the better part of our Saturday meeting Frank, we were in need of a pick-me-up. Now alternating between his beer glass and a small tumbler of whiskey, Frank wobbled over to the bar and made us a bloody mary, heavy on the pepper and horseradish.
It was also the best bloody mary we’ve ever tasted.
As the violet hour approached, and we got up to say goodbye, Mr. Mortagua looked admonishingly at our quarter-empty glass of bloody mary.
“What is this shit?! Finish it!” He said, pointing at our glass. We obliged.