Originally published in Asbury Park Press Oct. 12, 2017
A stanza from the old Broadway hit “Damn Yankees”: “A great slugger we ain’t got. A great pitcher we ain’t got. A great ball club we ain’t got. What do we got? We got heart.”
The hapless Washington Senators of this wonderful musical spent their seasons as perennial cellar dwellers. Whatever they lacked in talent, they made up for with heart. The same kind of heart that I found in Tom’s Tavern in Farmingdale New Jersey. Elegance, it ain’t got. Appletinis it ain’t got. Daily specials (which, by the way, if you didn’t know, is often what didn’t sell so great yesterday. As in “Hey Boss, you ordered too much salmon?”) it ain’t got. What does it got? It’s got heart. The heart that beats in people of modest means and immodest generosity.
Back when I lived in Farmingdale I’d drop in at Tom’s for a quick brew before dinner. Even today I’ll head out there from time to time for no other reason than to enjoy the colorful characters I invariably meet.
They sell a T-shirt: “Tom’s Tavern; where there are no strangers, only strange people.” If you can get past any preconceived notions about bikers and maybe loud and indelicate people, you’ll find you’re not a “stranger” at all. They laugh a lot. They laugh long and they laugh loud. In fact everything is loud. The hum of the Harleys idling outside the door. Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” blasting from the jukebox. Giant men bellowing at the pool table when they scratch on the eight ball. The couple at the end of the horseshoe-shaped bar raise their voices to have a conversation. The girls at the table by the window shout to be heard over the couple at the bar. The bikers in the corner practically scream at each other to be heard over the girls at the table, over the couple at the bar, over the music and over the Harleys. And also because that’s what bikers do.
The tavern is an easy place to miss. A simple ranch-style frame structure with a 4-foot sign at ground level that reads “Tom’s Tavern: Motorcycles Park Here.” Also a large American flag. More smaller American flags inside. A lot of these people are veterans. They served their country. They’re proud of their country. They have no compassion for self-admiring millionaire football players that disrespect it.
My own sense of being a stranger in a strange land was immediately alleviated by the bartender (bartendress?). Tanya’s her name. She’s a pretty brunette, tatoos on her shoulders and a smile that lights the place up. Not the kind of “hope you leave me a good tip” smile. A genuine exuberance about her that makes you feel welcome. The place was packed but she came right over and took my order: “Beer and a cheeseburger.” She split for the little kitchen in the back, serving three more people on her way, and resurfaced moments later with my food. Cooked to perfection — just the right amount of cheese-whiz. The ketchup bottle was empty. She quickly got me another one. Also empty. I let it go. I mean what guy wants to be a pest to a pretty girl?
I sat next to a couple bikers. Big bikers. Hairy bikers. Big hairy bikers tatted up like a DaVinci mural. But after sharing a basket of popcorn and buying them a round, we got on pretty good. Enough for me to ask them a question that bothered me for years. “How come all you guys are so big? I mean aren’t there any small, skinny bikers?” “I just lost 100 pounds,” said Earl. “I’ve been on Nutrisystem for a month,” added Dave.
I felt horrible. I wanted to go find a rock to crawl under but then I would have lost my seat. They bid farewell a few minutes later, polite as can be. As he exited, Dave called to Tanya, “Thanks for not throwing me out.” His buddy chimed in, “She never threw me out. Asked me to leave a couple times…”
The two guys that took their place I figured I’d size up before I imposed myself. That turned out to be the right decision. Let’s call them Joe 1 and Joe 2. Like in Dr. Seuss’ “If I Ran the Zoo.”
Said Joe 1: “I lucked out. Got this really cool basement apartment. Washer and dryer right there by the bed. Bought a water mattress. But they keep leaking and I have to keep bringing them back. Woke up this morning in a puddle like a hotdog in a roll.” Said Joe 2: “What happened to the place you had?” Joe 1: “Me and the old lady had a fight over her parrot.” Joe 2: “Her parrot?” Joe 1: “Yeah. The damn thing wouldn’t shut up. Drove me nuts. So I disciplined it and she called the cops.” Joe 2: “The cops threw you out because you disciplined a bird?” Joe 1: “Yeah, I don’t know. Well actually what happened was I …um… disciplined it but then I…uh… I guess I shot it.”
I moved my seat. The other side of the bar was more entertaining. And far less scary. I ended up next to two young guys, well marinated and deep in thought. Neither of them, lost in their concentration, spoke for several minutes. And then I was treated to a topic of utmost importance:
“Sooo…What’s Donald Duck to Huey, Dewey and Louie?” “He’s their uncle.” “Then who’s Unca’ Scrooge?” “He’s their uncle too.” A long thoughtful pause, then: “So is Donald and Unca’ Scrooge brothers?’ “Yeah, I guess.” After an even longer pause, “What about Daffy? How’s he related?” “He’s not. Different cartoon.” “So?” “So you can’t mix cartoons.” One more pregnant pause. “What about Popeye and the Power Rangers?”
To my right sat guys with names like Roadkill, the Mayor, Gascap and Bicycle Johnny. All longtime patrons, they showed me the metal nameplates screwed into the wooden bar rail. Memorials to departed regulars as far back as the 1950s. They seemed more than content that their names were not there yet. Bicycle Johnny left early. Had to. He faced a long ride home on his bike and it was already dark. Johnny rides his bike everywhere: to work, to shopping, to Tom’s. Sometimes that’s where life leaves you. Quiet, unassuming, uncomplaining, he never said a word when his old bike wore out. Didn’t have to. All those “strange people” passed the hat. Five hundred dollars later, Johnny had a new bike. That’s how they do it here. Electricians, carpenters, truckers, mechanics; villagers who instinctively have a natural tendency to help out when they can. Don’t worry if you have one too many — someone will drive you home.
As I got more comfortable, I joined the conversations. What was the name of the town in “Murder, She Wrote?” “Who sang ‘Blue Bayou’”? No talk of Trump. Or Christie. Or Rocket Man. Just a bunch of uninhibited people winding down after a day’s work. No frills and leave your sensibilities at the door. After a while, you won’t feel like a stranger anymore. You just gotta’ have heart.