The other day I went with my girlfriend, Sarah, to Locke Ober, a famous Boston restaurant founded in the 1870s. It’s the third oldest restaurant in the city. We didn’t go there to eat. We went to drink. Two years earlier I had been introduced to a cocktail named the Ward 8, which had been created at Locke Ober. For those two years I had been out of the Boston area and had been yearning to experience the drink in the place it was born. We walked inside early on a Saturday evening and strolled up to the bar. The atmosphere was classy and dark with quiet music playing from the Gilded Age. This was the era after the Civil War, with great industrial growth, and fierce politics. P.J. Kennedy, JFK’s great-grandfather, was a prominent Boston politician. This is when the temperance movement started, which eventually led to Prohibition. It was a time of change and turbulence, not unlike other periods of our history.
The solo bartender stood behind the bar in his white jacket serving up a plate of lobster and shrimp with a glass of water and lemon to a large-stomached man in suspenders on our right. He was clearly a regular. To our left was another young couple quietly chatting while sipping cocktails. “What can I get for you?” the bartender asked.
“Two Ward 8s, please.”
The drink was perfect: Rye whisky, lemon juice, house pomegranate grenadine, and a Maraschino cherry. Always shaken. —It was refreshing. The man to our right looked over to us and said, “You from around here?” (It was like we were in an old movie.) We told him that we were and that we had been wanting to come to Locke Ober for a while to get a Ward 8. “You know that drink originated here,” he told us. “Yeah, Ward 8 is the name of one of the political wards in Boston. One of the politicians (Martin Lomasney) was running and the bartender here at the time liked him so he named a drink for him, hoping it would bring him good luck.” Indeed, Ward 8 was a frequent clincher ward in elections back then.
“What’s your name?” I asked. “Brian Murphy,” he responded. “What’s yours?” I told him mine as he shook my hand with the grip only a true old-school Bostonian can give. He asked us what we did for work and told us that he’s a criminal lawyer. He went to Suffolk for law school but went to Boston College for undergrad and BC High for high school. “Good schools,” I said. “You know, I used to be a Jesuit.” – “I knew you looked familiar!” he joked. Then he went on about his love for the Jesuits and his experience of Catholic school. The bartender—who meekly responded from time to time—also went to BC High and BC, just like Brian. Brian entered undergrad in 1953 so I calculated his age to be around 77. The bartender was of a different generation, probably in his mid to late 50s. Brian began to tell a story. Sarah and I ordered another two Ward 8s.
“I remember at BC High when they used to make you go to confession before the school Mass. Oh boy, I was a sophomore and all of us were sitting in the chapel. It was so quiet, you know, we were told to think about our sins, our transgressions. All you could hear was the door of the confessional as people were coming and going. They had about twelve Jesuit priests to hear the confessions of about 200 students. So we’re sitting there quietly and all of a sudden we heard one of the priests shout, ‘YOU DID WHAT!?'”
The three of us—and the bartender—laughed heartily. As we closed up the tab Brian gave us his card, “just in case” we were in need of his legal services. Sarah and I said goodbye walked out the door. I turned to her and said, “You just experienced one of the most Boston experiences you could have.” I mean, we went in just to enjoy a romantic conversation over a classic Boston cocktail at one of the oldest restaurants in Boston and we get into a conversation you could only imagine in the movies: a lonely guy in suspenders—a local—at the bar eating lobster and telling you stories of his Boston youth in Catholic schools, not to mention the story behind the Ward 8. He even had the laugh of a man who enjoyed life and who seemed to look on every moment with fondness.
It was a good moment—even a “God moment”. I thought I went in searching for an authentic cocktail but what I really found was an authentic conversation with a real human being who had a story to tell. Perhaps it wasn’t the same as a conversation with God like in that show Joan of Arcadia where God takes the form of the patron at the bar, but we talked about faith, we listened to each other, and shared laughs. Faith or not, it was a genuine interaction with another. Bars tend to bring people together in camaraderie and deep moments can be shared. For those two drinks Sarah and I were brought outside of ourselves and entered the story not only of Locke Ober but of Brian Murphy: attorney, Irish-Bostonian, Catholic-school-goer, and fellow soul.
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Music: Kevin MacLeod