Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Hub of the Pub: Holy Saturday 1998

The pub was McGroarty's on the Diamond; the diamond (in lieu of a square) refers to the town center in Donegal, in northwest Ireland. The "hub" of the pub—at least on April 11, 1998, which was Holy Saturday in the Western church—was a young Irishman named Greg, whom I'd met at a crowded lunch spot that same afternoon. By the end of lunch, he'd invited me out for a holiday pint with friends and family. McGroarty's was a thick sea of people, voices, pint glasses, and cigarette smoke when I arrived at 10:00 p.m. Greg rescued me from looking every bit the lost soul, the interloper—he pulled me into his circle of intimates. Turns out, that meant the whole town. I seemed to have walked into the middle of an impromptu reunion. People who hadn't seen each other in years were calling out, hugging, kissing cheeks. Everyone knew Greg and welcomed him home (he'd made the trip up from Dublin with a brother and sister, the three of them equalling half the clan of siblings). Once out of college, Easter was never a holiday I traveled home for, not expressly. Not like Christmas, which was much more family oriented. Here, though (as elsewhere in Europe, I've discovered), Easter means homecoming. Cities empty out as everyone heads for the hills, the country, the coast. In McGroarty's it became obvious that Greg was a gathering force, drawing people toward him, making connections between his various associates, myself now included. I was introduced to so many sets of brothers, childhood friends, and acquaintances during the hours I stood there, pints in hand, it was impossible to keep track (it would have been impossible even without the pints). The things I remember about our man, Greg: he worked in construction but sometimes ended up with the odd marketing or sales gig; he'd worked once in the U.S. (in Greenwich, CT, of all places, while living in the Bronx for six months); he mimicked a perfect American accent; he'd quit smoking that year; his father had died; he had blue eyes behind round, wire-rimmed glasses; he'd beg pardon by saying "two minutes, two minutes," as he sauntered or, later, staggered off to the bar, the toilets, or else to some other friend he had to talk to (he never wanted a person to think they were being abandoned outright); when someone else was talking, he'd punctuate their speech with interested agreement, a rainfall of "yah, yah, yah," a sharp northern sound. A live band played. Scorning fiddles, pipes, and whistles, they broke out steel guitars and played Country and Western covers well past the midnight hour. Me, I was made to talk endlessly about my writing: What are you writing? (At the time it was my MFA thesis.) What's it about? Why do you write at all? . . . I remember thinking it was refreshing to have so many people interested in my pursuit of literary arts—whether the interest was genuine or, as it sometimes was, feigned in hopes of an eventual assignation (there'd be none). Eventually, the whole of McGroarty's was forced out due to licensing laws, the pub closing. While I'd thought of heading back to my rented room, it was deemed an impossibility: I'd become a necessary spoke to the hub, and Greg talked me into continuing over to the Abbey Hotel. At the side of the hotel, Greg rang a tiny doorbell, so small I'd have overlooked it. A camouflaged door opened and the way was barred by a large man with broad shoulders, a protruding gut, dark hair, and brows forming a solid ledge over darker eyes. Greg silver-tongued his way past this bouncer with the rest of us in tow, but immediately my suspicion that it was all a formality (that no one had ever been turned away, no matter how far gone they were already) was confirmed when I saw the way the hotel lobby had been transformed into an after-hours speakeasy scene. The registration desk was obliterated by full, half-full, and empty glasses. The crowd was rowdy, some kind of disco was going on upstairs. (Was this place ever actually a hotel?) I stayed for a "last glass" several times, watched as the lobby, and those in it, got sloppier. One washed-out redhead broke into a traditional-sounding ballad about a woman who comes home to find another head on the pillow where her own head should be. People slumped in chairs. Couples kissed in the doorway to the restrooms. A loud laughing voice was saying "Would you fuck off now Bernie," over and over. I got called back once by a sad-eyed youth whose name I don't recall, who talked tentatively to me about a stage play he wanted to write about sexual abuse in Ireland. At five in the morning, we hugged and went our separate ways, his sweetness and vulnerability coming away with me. I left when Greg did, kissed him on the cheek before he got into a cab, wished him a happy Easter. It was perhaps not the most holy Holy Saturday, not the most pious with all the evening excesses, but then again, it was Saturday no longer. We'd ushered in a day of celebration, a day of life; a rock rolled away from a tomb. And in some way, that was how I felt—freed of heaviness, even as I fell into a heavy, ale-augmented sleep.

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