There used to be more dive bars in this city. The Safari Lounge, the One Up, Splinter's. I got to thinking about this over a short glass of bourbon at one of the city's last dives — Muldowney's Pub on Empire Street.
It's the first Monday of the fall and Lou Brady, owner and nightly fixture at the end of the bar, is wearing his Dallas Cowboys jersey while America's Team is getting its clock cleaned by the Chicago Bears. At Lou's right is Brenda Hickey, his bar manager and a 20-year Muldowney's veteran. She doesn't so much finish his sentences as cut him off with her own answers to my questions.
Muldowney's is a clean dive bar with excellent bartenders. They don't take credit cards and they don't put up with any bullshit.
I used to sling drinks at a similar bar, the long-gone Talk of the Town. When my shift started at 4 pm, it was old men and working stiffs. After 8 pm, the kids came in to drink stupid shots and try to pass bad fake IDs. It's a bit like that at Muldowney's, where they'll stick a candle in a pickled egg for you on your birthday. But the old days, and the old timers, are mostly gone.
"There were a lot more 'bar' bars in the city back in the day and we all, more or less, shared the same customers," Brenda says. "If you had a problem with an individual, you would actually call another bar and tell them 'watch out for the jerk in the red sweatshirt.' "
It was easier to park in the city back then. Rents were lower. And no one called it Downcity. "I refuse to call it Downcity," she says. "It's downtown. When did that happen?"
It probably happened around the same time hipsters got wise to the allure of the dive bar. Cheap drinks. Incisive bartenders. Stories on every stool. In those days, old men or blue-collar guys coming in after turning wrenches all day sat on those stools. "You don't have that clientele anymore," Lou says.
Most of the old-timers can't take the loud music (Muldowney's has bar bands and karaoke), so they've retreated to VFW and American Legion bars. They've been replaced with young girls with tattoos and young men smitten with the staff. "If I had a dollar for every kid who brought their mother in to meet me . . . ." Brenda says.
Still, there is the occasional throwback, the reminder of what used to be. Chip Coli plays three or four spots on Keno and tips the bartenders with his winnings. He likes to listen to the music at Muldowney's and "dwell on the lyrics." He is 56 years old and has liver cancer, though he looks healthy. I ask him why he keeps drinking.
"You have to live your life," he says.