For years, the Longbranch Saloon on Cumberland Avenue had a standing tradition—don’t know if it still holds, as I’ve not set shadow in the venerable dive for many a moon—by which the Alpha beerkeep of the joint’s tiny staff worked the expansive anchor bar downstairs with a certain steely brusqueness, an aloof sense of dispatch that seemed to border on outright arrogance. The regulars accepted and tolerated it with a certain pride, like members of a club with a particularly unpleasant initiation, or residents of notorious northern hamlets who’ve grown proud of living with their city’s lousy weather.
What many of them didn’t realize, after so many years had passed, is that their rudeboy act was the legacy of a ’branch bartender of yesteryear, a singular fellow named Stewart who worked the place back in the early to middle 1980s. Back before it was set in a crusty old two-story former tailor shop on the south side of Cumberland Avenue, back when it was instead located in an even crustier shell of a building on the north side of Cumberland, a joint set about with giant wooden industrial spools for tables and orthopedically challenged fold-out chairs and pool tables left over from the Truman administration and one of the most disgusting bathroom sinks I’ve ever peed in.
Stewart wasn’t a big guy—maybe 5-foot 6-inches, and 150 pounds. But you couldn’t have scalloped an ounce of fat off his hardest figure, and he carried a knife with a blade the size of small boat oar, which he could whip off his belt with the deftness and celerity most heavy smokers have with their Zippo. There were rumors, too—just rumors, mind you—of high-powered firearms behind his bar. Think Dirty Harry Callahan and “This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in world…”
So I first met Stewart one night at the ’branch, hanging with some of my high school buddies. We were drinking beer, playing pool, despite being a bit less than 21—this being an era, the mid-1980s, when bars were generally less rigorous in policing the legal drinking age, especially on Cumberland Avenue.
Somehow, a very tall, parasitically tenacious drunk with some inexplicable need to assert his manhood had attached himself to our party. Or more specifically, he had attached himself to me, because I was a little less worldly then, a little less discerning—so as not to say “gullible and naïve,” or “easily led.”
And so he had my ear, because I was neither rude nor streetwise enough to ignore him, like my friends. And he was enumerating to me in the most solemn tones his various herculean physical accomplishments. He was just a couple years removed from starting on the defensive line of the University of Miami football squad, he said; he had earned his second-degree black belt in some obscure-but-deadly martial art; he could knock one of the bar’s ancient ceiling fans off its fixture with a single, high-snapping front kick.
Apparently, he sensed a twinge of incredulity in my eyes. He was a tall drink of water, no doubt about that—at least 6’4, in flat shoes. But he had long, flaccid arms, with little girth and no visible muscle tone; a sunken chest and a pot belly; chicken legs with twig-like ankles that imparted an odd, clumsy gait. He looked not so much like an athlete gone to seed as a seed gone to seed. On top of that, he was hopelessly, stupidly drunk, and the promised Rockettes-style karate antics would have been unthinkable for Bruce Lee with his BAC.
Seeing I wasn’t quite buying all this, he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me across the bar—“C’mere. I’ll ssshow you”—to a couple of fellows drinking longnecks next to the bathrooms. One of them, not quite 30, was a shaven fellow with a pierced ear and tatts and a do-rag. He looked vaguely like a shorter, younger and less Nordic version of Mr. Clean, wearing a sweatshirt modified for the gym via ripped sleeves and neckline, a pair of rugged trapezius muscles climbing steeply out of the torn shards of cotton.
“Ssshtewart! Ssshtewart!” my intoxicated friend exclaimed, anxious to get Ssshtewart’s attention and ssshow me. “T-tell him,” he stammered, pointing at me, “t-tell him about me.”
Stewart looked up, gave each of us a quick once over, then looked back at me with a self-satisfied grin that contained more than a hint of conspiracy and said—without missing so much as a beat: “Oh yeah, him. He’s actually a woman.”
Everyone who was a regular from that era has a favorite story about someone who pushed their luck too far one night while Stewart was working behind the counter, and found themselves hurled headlong out the front door with less regard than the night’s bar trash—which was at least more gently received by the dumpster.
Remember the Fox sitcom Married With Children? Every time father/protagonist Al Bundy would throw one of slutty daughter Kelly’s boyfriends out the front door, he would move the unfortunate a bit too far to the left or right, cracking his noggin on the door frame before tossing him out on the pavement for good. Well, Al probably copped that one from Stewart, who was doing that to Longbranch miscreants years before that show hit the airwaves.
Thing was, Stewart was a pretty alright guy, really. I never knew him as well as some, but I sat at his bar often enough to know that he was never rude for rudeness’ sake. If he came off as a bit brusque sometimes, it was because he would brook no bullshit, and he didn’t suffer fools.
Eventually, Stewart felt some other distant calling, and decided to pick up and move to Florida. He drove a big-ass motorcycle as his sole mode of transport, of course—either a Harley, or some kind of chopper—and when it came time to go, he tied all his worldly possessions to the back of his hog, strapped his preternaturally blonde girlfriend to the handlebars, and roared out of town in an onerous cloud of smoke.
For a while, I would hear of Stewart riding back in, every so often, for a visit. Don’t know if that still happens or not. If it does, here’s to you, Stewart; you were truly a giant behind the bar.