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'Bar' quenches thirst for life

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The Tender Bar, a lovely coming-of-age memoir, begins as a celebration of a saloon, the kind that serves as refuge from life's storms. It ends as a richer, more complex story of growing up and sobering up and remembering the lesson of an old-timer at the bar: "Drinking is the only thing you don't get better at the more you do it."

J.R. Moehringer did more than his share before he became a Denver-based reporter for the Los Angeles Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000.

His story, alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, is set in the '70s and '80s in Manhasset, Long Island. "A barroom community," he calls it, where the thinking went that "drinking at home was the mark of an alcoholic. So long as you drank publicly, not secretly, you weren't a drunk. Thus, bars. Lots and lots of bars.''

The most popular of them was 142 steps from the House of Grandpa, where Moehringer and his stoic mother moved after his father ("an unstable mix of charm and rage") lunged at her with a straight razor.

Moehringer was 7 months old, and for years he knew his father, a disc jockey, only as "The Voice" on the radio: "I couldn't have picked him out of a police lineup, something my grandmother often suggested I'd need to do one day."

The ramshackle house was home to 12 relatives sharing one bathroom. "'Huddled masses yearning to breathe rent-free,' Grandpa called us." Which explains some of the appeal of the nearby bar, first known as Dickens, then Publicans, where Uncle Charlie worked as a comically rude bartender, philosopher and bookie.

Moehringer writes that he used to say the bar was where he found "the fathers I needed, but this wasn't quite right. At some point the bar itself became my father, its dozens of men melding into one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder." It was filled with thirsty storytellers who could "jump from horse racing to politics to fashion to astrology to baseball to historic love affairs, all in the span of one beer."

Moehringer, who scribbled notes on napkins and tried to write a novel about the bar, describes the influence of books -- from The Iliad to The Great Gatsby -- on his life. He is tutored by two lovable booksellers who would rather read than deal with customers.

The bar and its cast of characters anchor Moehringer as he struggles through Yale University, in and out of love, and in and out of an entry-level job at The New York Times, chapters of his life told in a bit more detail than is needed.

As a storyteller, however, he comes on strong toward the end. He celebrates his mother, who was no barfly, as an inspired, beautiful liar:

"I saw that we must lie to ourselves now and then, tell ourselves that we're capable and strong, that life is good and hard work will be rewarded, and then we must try to make our lies come true. This is our work, our salvation, and this link between lying and trying was one of my mother's many gifts to me, the truth that always lay just beneath her lies."

He realizes that maybe a bar wasn't the best place to spend all his free time and that "drinking and trying felt like opposite impulses, that when I stopped the one I automatically started the other."

But, he adds, "I felt grateful for every minute I'd spent in that bar, even the ones I regretted. I knew this was a contradiction, but it was no less true for being so."

A poignant epilogue notes that on 9/11, nearly 50 people from Manhasset, including one of the bar's bartenders and one of the author's cousins, died at the World Trade Center.

Moehringer returns home to write, "Manhasset, where I'd once felt like the only boy without a father, was now a town full of fatherless children."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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