I grew up in a town with a lot of bars. This particular one is tucked behind Central Square, Cambridge and was called Charlie’s Tap, a gritty workingman’s tavern. I hated the place as a kid…. because my mother worked there as a barmaid…. a fact I was not proud of as a kid growing up. I guess I wanted more of a stay at home “June Cleaver” type mom than one that had to work 2 to 3 jobs to raise five boys. A few days a week I’d sit in a booth in the back and have my dinner listening to the men talking about their day. A kid can learn a lot, very quickly about life in pub….but nothing that I could repeat in class the next day at the Blessed Sacrament School.
The old building is still standing but bears a new name and ownership, updated brick-face and new clientele. It still has that casual, and inviting feel of a local Tap which draws you up to its very long, narrow, dimly-lit bar. My mom held court behind that well worn barricade and took no guff, gave her fair share keeping the boys in line…. She stored a miniature baseball bat behind the bar and used it liberally when persuasion was required….
Most days it was shoulder to shoulder workingmen all the way to the bustling open kitchen at the back …..The sound of pots and pans clanging, dishes clinking preceded the cook’s barking out Order Up! That steamy kitchen was always hot as hell and the cooks white T shirt and apron looked like he had served a company of hungry Marines. The cook was my brother Charlie… he was one hell of a comfort food cook….but the Camel cigarette that hung while cooking at times from his lips always took the comfort down a notch for me…. I guess you could say it was an original Charlies Kitchen..
At “The Tap”….my mom served whiskey shot’s with a beer chaser on Friday’s ….an especially busy day as most locals stopped to have a pop, cash their checks on their way home for a fish dinner. I guess it kinda took the edge off the week and helped many settle into the weekend.
Seemed like everyone walked to where they needed to go.. We burned shoe leather rather than fossil fuels back then keeping “Jimmy the Greek” Papalambros the local cobbler / shoe repairman piled high with work. Man he could make an old pair of shoes like brand new with soles and heels… My mom always had him put taps on my heels to slow down their wear…. I was Fred Astaire for a few weeks until the taps wore down…
Everything smelled…. both good and bad…each fragrance imprinting on your memory. The Tap smelled of Camels, Lucky Strikes and Stogies… Whiskey, Urine and Beer. The Italian men smoked Parodies …dark black sticks of tobacco….one puff could send a swooping bar fly into a death spiral.
The butchers, fish mongers, plumbers and garbage men all smelled from work and BO. Business cards were not necessary… you knew what they did all day. Cologne was the popular antidote…High Karate, English Leather, Canoe, Old Spice for the men and upstairs Chanel #9 and Jean Nate for the ladies all available at the local Rexall Drug Store.
The best smells of my youth came from the Frank’s Barber Shop….Every haircut started with a funny story moved to the sound of his razor slap sharpening against the leather strap….then to the smell of hot shave cream while he trimmed your neck and sides, the sting of Clubman aftershave and ended with a brush full of talc powder that would choke a horse…. If you didn’t feel like a million bucks after all that you don’t know good living.
When I pass by the old “Charlies Tap” these days I remember how hard my family worked to make a buck. I remember that we walked everywhere because we didn’t have a car, we smelled after a hard days work….but we cleaned up nicely…looking and feeling like a million bucks….Somehow we made life work and like Charlies Tap we are a few bricks short but still standing…