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Home for Christmas

by Brian Clarey

Home for Christmas

Last night the fabulous Falco brothers set up in the corner of the bar we used to know as Harry-O’s, and JB’s after that.

They call it Murphy’s now, the kind of neighborhood Irish watering hole as common to this part of Long Island as discount clothing stores and vanity license plates.

It’s a lot nicer now than it was when I used to drink here — the new owners tore down the dividing wall between the bar and the booths, creating more flow, and there’s a fresh coat of burgundy paint on the walls, a gas fireplace burning to the rear, and the bar-top, which was always tacky with spilled sour mix and grenadine, seemed freshly wiped so that it no longer tears out your arm hairs when you lean against it. The bar no longer caters to Garden City High School students, clearly, but last night it was full of alumni from my old school.

Dr. Lawyer parked right out front. Espo posted up at the center of the room and his mom, Kay, sat right up front. My sisters scurried around the tables, all pushed to the center of the floor for the night. Dan Dolan and his wife Ellen, who recently relocated to the Triad, make the rounds. There’s Dave Typermass, who has been my friend since we were precocious and mischievous 2-year-olds on Avalon Road, who brought his dad Art with him. Chianese, the Ripper, Serf and Fisher, Mary-Liz, Sal, Di Carlo and Lucchesi. Even Jim Stanford made it in from Jackson Hole, Wyo. — a former journalist who was just elected to city council there. He tells me he’s gonna blow the whole thing wide open.

About the name-checks: Promises were made in the height of the frenzy. I hope I didn’t forget anybody.

And then there are the Falco brothers: Pat, in from Point Lookout, on stand-up bass; Tom, still as kind and gentle a soul as I have ever encountered, gracing us with his clear and smooth voice; and Andy, who took some time of the road with his Grammy-nominated band the Infamous Stringdusters, to spend some time in his hometown and accompany me while I read a few selections from my book in the familiar confines of the bar.

Later, there was a rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” with Sal Napolitano singing and Andy turning in a rare and blistering electric performance that people will be talking about until their last days.

Something special happens in Garden City, NY around Christmastime. While it’s true that so many of the people I grew up with still live here, married to each other and living in our parents’ houses, they all have jobs now, and families; they’re subject to the kinds of pressures from which we were sheltered in this idyll when we were young and wild.

They see each other on 7th Street and at St. Joe’s, gather in small groups in backyards and private clubs. But they don’t often get together like this, in a bar with some history, with all the rest of us who have settled elsewhere and, for this one season, come home.

Does everyone have this? A place they know so well it’s a part of them? Roads they can follow like they’re imprinted on their brains? A familiar and comforting starting-off point, a constant backdrop against which all life experiences are held?

I hope they do. In downtown Garden City today, my people bustle and mingle. The Starbucks on 7th Street that serves as my Long Island office teems with locals, the line stretching to the door. I’ve seen three people I grew up with already, and the rest are so familiar in their clothing, their mannerisms, their speech, that I recognize them as members of my long-ago tribe.

Outside, there are garland and red ribbons wrapped around the streetlights, wreaths and ornamentation in the windows of the shops, Christmas trees everywhere. Tonight is Christmas Eve, and the hearths around town will glow as the hours tick off until the Big Day.

But I’ve already got my Christmas memory. It happened last night, in between readings, when the fabulous Falco brothers did what they’ve been doing since we were all little kids in this place we call home. They played for us. And we loved it. Like always.

The song was “Friend of the Devil,” which Grateful Dead fans know is a much more beautiful tune than its name implies. As Tom picked the opening chords and riff and Andy joined in on lead, we gravitated to the center of the bar, held each other close and began to sing along.

It was just a moment — a tiny flash of shared experience among people who have known each other their whole lives. It was over in an instant. And it will go on forever.

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