In the 1950s the septuagenarian owner of Pop's Bar and Restaurant was a short, pleasantly rounded man with a kindly face, wispy white hair and a gentle smile. I still picture him coming through the kitchen's swinging door, wrapped in his chef's apron, carrying a home-cooked dinner to a customer, his smile promising, -- "this, you gonna like."
A big Zenith television beamed black and white shadows of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, boxing, baseball, wrestling, and hard, sinewy ladies knocking each other about in the roller derby. Fifteen cents bought a 12-ounce draft; a shot of rye, straight or mixed, was 25 cents. After buying three drinks, customers enjoyed their fourth "on the house," obliging them to buy several more. Then, the free drinks came less frequently. One night I explained to Pop that he shrewdly had his customers on what psychologists call an "operant, 1:3 fixed-ratio partial reinforcement schedule, fading to variable-intervals." Pop looked at me, his pixie smile growing, and said, in his soft Italian accent, "I knew that."
Pop's was an amiable place. Only once in four years did I need to stop a potential fight. Two old friends had climbed off their barstools and were about to pound each other over some slur against Bobby Thomson, hero of the October, 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff.
The series was tied, one game each. Brooklyn was ahead two-to one in the bottom of the ninth. The Giants were at bat with one out and two on and the Dodgers were about to win the championship. Then, Thomson hit his famous pennant-winning three-run homer down the left field line off Dodger's pitcher Ralph Branca. Sixty-five years later Dodgers' fans still claim, "We was robbed! They stole our secret catchers" signs! Thomson knew what pitch was coming! "No fair!"
The customers often reminded me that working behind the bar was a good deal more educational than going to college. "You'll learn more here than in all them books you read!" they told me. The acknowledged wisest man was Andy, The Philosopher. "Listen to him," I was told. "Listen to Andy. Throw away them books. Listen to Andy. He'll teach you real-life philosophy!"
Andy was a soft-spoken, middle-aged widower, a highly skilled, well paid, tool-and-die-maker, a man of precision work. During the mellowing process of metabolizing nine or 10 beers through an evening, Andy presented his wisdom in the form of metaphors, like an ancient oracle. It was up to his listeners to make sense of them. Peering at me over the rim of his glass, one eye closed against the smoke curling up from his cigarette, Andy pointed at me, preparing me for his enlightenment. Silence descended upon the bar; everyone awaited his wisdom. Andy looked at us, and then, slowly and solemnly pronounced, "You can paint oil over latex, but you can't paint latex over oil!"
"Oh, man. Ain't that the truth!" someone said, impressed by Andy's metaphorical eloquence. "You better listen to Andy," I was told, again. "You won't get that from no books!" I knew that Andy was not really talking about paint. His metaphor was probably an observation about humanity's eternal struggles in this mortal life. It was, perhaps, his way of saying that some things in life are just not meant to be -- impossibilities, like trying to cover oil with latex. Well, maybe. Sixty-five years later I am still not sure what the heck Andy was talking about, but it sounded pretty impressive at the time.