For years now I have had a pre-Passover ritual: I drink one last beer before the holiday starts.
According to Jewish law, for the entire eight days of Passover, you're forbidden from eating or drinking foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats. Those of you into $10,000 Pyramid would by now have guessed the answer why: these are "Things That Could Be Leavened." And at passover leavened bread is a no-no.
All year I have a, hmm, complex relationship with kosher, outside our home. But during Passover, for some reason, I'm scrupulou. I do avoid these foods. Even though this means avoiding one of my favorite foods, beer.
Usually I just put a bottle aside as we’re cleaning the house in preparation for the holiday, and I make it the last grainy thing to toss out—and I toss it right down my throat.
But this year we celebrated Passover in New York City, and in the apartment where we stayed the only beer was a can of Bud Light, which doesn’t have enough beer flavor to last me through the eight day holiday. Actually, it doesn't have any flavor at all.
I asked Naomi to join me on my quest for a local bar and a last beer and she was game. Usually on the first night of Passover we are home, and I am so busy cooking I won’t see her until the seder starts. Now we had a moment to enter the holiday peacefully, together.
It was cold and overcast and miserable—that is, spring in New York. We soon decided the best bar was the closest one. At 72nd and Columbus, I pulled open the door on the first storefront with with a beer sign in the window – the sign above the door said Malachy’s.
An Irish bar at 4 pm on a Monday in New York City— now that’s some good people watching.
We sat at a small table. I ordered a Guinness, and Naomi nursed a coffee with milk she’d bought from a bakery across the street. Then we began a round of “What’s up with them?”
At the side of the bar closest to the front door sat a single woman, pretty, blonde, in her Anne Klein best, drinking alone. Two musicians walked in, lugging a standup bass in a case. At another table an older, bald man held a series of meetings with a steady stream of rough-hewn deliverymen who came in and out—we figured he was either the owner, or a bookie.
At the other end of the bar stood the bartender. He was a very solid Irishman with the face of former boxer and shiny head, and the older man and woman he talked and joked with seemed to all be on their second or third round.
An ancient black cook emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fried food. His white apron was tied around his rib cage, over a T shirt that said, “I’m the Cook.”
At the four-top beside us sat an odd family assortment—a little girl, an old man, maybe 80, eating fish and chips, and a woman, middle age, likely the mom. After a while these people got up to leave. The older man paid, and I heard him tell the bartender he was about to celebrate his 74th wedding anniversary.
Seventy-four? I had to say something.
"How is that even possible?" I asked.
His granddaughter—the woman about our age— explained. They were Jewish. Her grandfather had been coming to Malachy's every year just before the start of Passover to have one last whiskey—a Seagrams VO, on the rocks. He was 99 years old. He'd been coming to Malachy's on the even of Passover, every Passover, for 30 years.
The man and his wife live in Baltimore, but they spend the seder nearby with their daughter and her family.
“One day he went out for a walk to get away from the craziness,” his granddaughter told me, “and he stopped at this bar for a drink, and he’s been coming back ever since. When I was my daughter’s age, he would take me." she pointed to the little girl. " And now he takes his great-granddaughter.”
“He just has a glass of whiskey each year before Passover?” I asked.
Oh, no, the daughter corrected me. “He drinks two every night. He's been doing that as long as I remember.”
The man was tall, straight-backed, and from overhearing their conversation, I could tell he was as sharp as anybody in the place.
I raised my glass to the man and said “L’chaim,” and we wished him a Happy Passover, there in Malachy’s Pub.
The man and his family walked out.
I turned to the bartender and said, "I'll have what he's having."
And I toasted Passover-- and a 99 year old man named Albert-- with my very first sip of Seagrams V.O.