By Gregory Clark, September 15, 1923
Into the private office of the manager of a large wholesale establishment on Wellington street was admitted a middle-aged gentleman of refined appearance who told the information girl guarding the sanctum that he was an old friend of the manager.
The manager looked up as the visitor entered, stared at him with a look of puzzlement on his face, and smiled.
The visitor was smiling broadly.
“I have called,” he said, “to see if I could write you up for some insurance under a new plan my company offers men of your age.”
“Now, I’m pretty busy,” said the manager. Then, halting, he asked:
“Look here: I know your face well, but hanged if I can place you.”
Still smiling broadly, the visitor came closer to the manager’s desk. Laying his hat down, he snatched a newspaper off the desk, flicked it open, and, with a sudden movement, tucked it like an apron into his vest. Then, leaning both hands on the manager’s desk he leaned forward and said:
“What’s yours, sir?”
The effect was remarkable on the manager. He leaped to his feet and cried:
“Tim, you old scoundrel! Where have you been all these years?”
And the two set about shaking hands as if they were long-lost brothers.
But they were simply two old friends, a bartender and one of his pet customers, meeting for the first time after seven years of drought.
Tim was head bartender in the downtown bar regularly patronized by this business man for years. An intimacy had grown up between them such as few not habituated to drinking in bars can imagine. A formal intimacy like that between golfers and their old pro, or between a lady and her housekeeper of twenty years.
Making him seated and comfortable, the manager asked his old friend:
“What have you been doing?”
“Well,” said Tim, pulling on the cigar. “I have had some rough times. When the old establishment closed, in 1916, I had no plans, like all bartenders, and couldn’t believe it when the doors were really closed. The old boss offered me a job around the hotel as a sort of watchman. But I was deeply insulted. A soft drink bar was opened in the old bar, and I served exactly four days there, for some of the old boys came in, and to see the look on their faces as they drank a glass of pink pop was really more than I could bear. I felt fallen in the world. I felt unclassed. Without warning, for my kids were all grown up, I packed a valise and went over to the States. Not belonging to their union, I had a bad two years there. I was in several New York towns in succession, but getting further and further down in the mouth.
“When the States went dry, I hadn’t enough money to take me to Montreal, the last oasis. So I worked at odd jobs and darn near starved–“
“Poor old Tim,” stuck in the manager, with real sympathy.
“No, no. It was good for me,” said Tim. “While serving in a bar in Syracuse I made the acquaintance of an insurance man. Two years ago I met him on the street one day, and he gave me a job selling insurance.
“‘If a man who has listened to as many sad life stories as you can’t sell insurance,’ he said to me. ‘nobody can.'”
“So here I am looking up, one by one, all my old friends across the mahogany. Do you remember that sad story you told me one night–“
“Easy, Tim, easy!” implored the manager, a changed man after seven years.
“–about your fears for your poor family, and you feeling that your heart was in a delicate condition?”
“Tut, Tim I have a golf handicap of eight.”
At any rate, Tim drew forth, in the approved manner, his booklets and folders outlining in graphic style the proposition his company had to make to business men of fifty and over. And It was a good proposition, in spite of the sentimental appendages to the deal.
For Tim wrote his old friend policy for ten thousand.
Where are the four hundred and fifty bartenders who, up to seven years ago, were quenching Toronto’s thirst with beers, wines and liquors? Where are the skilful jugglers amongst them whom men traveled far to see, as they tossed a cocktail from glass to glass, a gleaming rainbow four feet long? Where are these repositories of the sad life stories of thousands of male citizens of this now happy city?
Their union is broken up. Thorough enquiries at the Toronto Labor Temple failed to discover Arthur O’Leary, former business agent of the Bartenders’ Union, in his heyday one of the most popular figures in the labor world.
Strange to relate, a good many of Toronto’s bartenders have stuck to bartending, even though the quality of the goods they sell is different.
In remnant of what used to be one of the longest bars in Toronto, now remodeled down to a mere fragment of its old glory, a bartender of twenty years’ experience admitted that he was too old to change his calling just because the law changed.
“Is there much difference between selling liquor and soft drinks?” he was asked.
“I feel,” he replied, “like a banker who has failed and has had to take up the grocery business for a livelihood. As a bartender, I was the friend and confidante of members of the business world, half the city hall staff knew me by name, city fathers took council with me, mayors have wept on my shoulder. In the old days, my customers were regular customers. But of that bunch–“
And he waved a contemptuous hand at a dozen people, mostly idle young men, lounging against the soda bar.
“–of that bunch I don’t know one. Never saw them before in my life.”
“What effect has prohibition had on your income?”
“I don’t get one-third the wages I used to make and I get no tips. My income is about a quarter what it was.”
“Prohibition has hit you hard?”
“Yes it has. But I still think the going of the bar is the best thing ever happened. I do, really. For one good bar, where men had a drink, there were three crooked bars where men got drunk. I never let a man get drunk off my bar in my life. Some bartenders considered their job was to rake over the coin. Some of us, however, figured our job was to serve refreshment to men. But we all got hit just the same.”
Most of the bartenders who are still serving drinks are serving them over the former bars of old hotels. Only a couple are in soda parlors.
A few of the bartenders have gone up in the world. One owns a good hotel near the centre of the city. Others have retail businesses, grocery, hardware and boot and shoe.
One very gifted bartender is now in charge of a gasoline station, and is serving up gas and oil without a hint, in the way he serves up a pint of “medium,” that he was in his day one of the most skilful drink slingers in the city.
But others, the older ones, have had a very poor time the last seven years. Some are jobless, some are janitors and handy men around old hostelries.
“It took prohibition,” said one old bartender, who has been out of a job four of the seven years since his profession quit him, “to show up how shallow was bar-room friendship. I had lived in it so long that I had begun to imagine it was genuine.”
“Men who called me affectionately by name when they ordered a drink, sports who got me to do favors for them, men I’ve cashed checks for, all turned me down when I called on them.”
“I wanted a job, recommendation. But a month after the bars were closed, most of them had forgotten who I was. Not three out of fifty of them held out the helping hand when I was in need.”
Perhaps the hardest part of prohibition to the bartender was not the loss of his calling, but the discovery of the fact that the bar-room affection that shed a glamor over his trade was as thin and unsubstantial as the beer fumes that induced it.
Editor’s Note: Prohibition went through all sorts of referendums and polls between 1916 and 1927 in Ontario when it was repealed. Greg was likely not in favour of prohibition, but his newspaper was. At the time of the article in 1923, Howard Ferguson had been elected Premier, and would move slowly and cautiously on limiting the restrictions.