Thursday, 29 January 2015

'First we take the Manhattan'

Always looks closed from the outside, doesn't it?

Yeah, but it's an open secret. Just look at the queue on the street tonight.

Everyone knows you just need the right knock. The right tap-tappety-tap on the door to gain entry. 

Like it's a shebeen, an illegal drinking den rather than a late-night diner.

Once in the door you find the counter with the stools and the blackboard menu that rarely changes: six or seven variations on a theme, a fugue, BWV 847 if you like, "the works".

No one can agree on the precise ingredients of "the works", or of what exactly constitutes "all the trimmings". In this particular establishment it's a combination of (or variations upon the theme of) fried eggs and various piggy bits plus beans and chips that all add up to a massive fry-up with piles of toast, coffee or - more likely - tea and a ciggie after.

By the opposite wall are two tables and chairs that - damn damn feckity damn - are already occupied of course. Furnishings that are what a 1990s homes and gardens mag might call Minimalist. Yeah. Which just means Spartan. But not Modernist. Oh well, at least it's Clean anyway.

Try the next room. Also crowded, jammers in fact - though must be hardly half two in the morning yet. How come the place looks tiny from the outside, yet its interior has this enormous capacity? It's like the flaming Tardis in here. A trompe-l'œil.

They must have started serving around half eleven, the usual time, official pub closing time in summertime. They will close again in less than three hours, say 5:00 am, once they've managed to hoof the last punter out on the street.

Good, an empty table over there. Sit.

You haven't even had a chance to take your coat off when your breakfast arrives. God that was quick. Or slow. Or quick-quick-slow. You've just noticed the strange knot in the space-time continuum within the room tonight. There always is.

As part of this twisted knot the next table has four young lads with rough hands, soft country accents. They move in slo-mo as they dig and stab into their mixed grills with lashings of buttered toast, though one of them is fast-forwarding through his lamb's liver with chips and half a sliced pan. They've ordered gallons of tea with a chilled bottle of "the House White" (aka milk).

Yeah, it's a time when milk still comes in bottles, delivered by milkmen around dawn, in a few hours' time. No, not with horse-drawn carts of course, but one of those electric floats.

What's the vibe in here? "Clubby", that's it. Clubby in the sense of a secret society, a den, a private members' club, with the fug of too many fags and wet overcoats. That's another thing: every second person is smoking.

Tonight's clientele is the usual rattlebag of taxi drivers, off-duty guards and hotel and hospital staff, cooks, musicians, thespians, hacks, other shift workers and night owls, plus the students and stragglers and other late-night party-goers on their way home. Slurring their words, worse for wear, dozy heads on wooden tables and sleepy chairs.

* * *

This is, of course, the Manhattan.

Of all its appearances in Irish literature down the years - no, you can't count a brief mention in Another Case in Cowtown - my favourite so far is from Niall Quinn: The Autobiography:

"I knew Gillian Roe was the woman for me when I picked up a piece of hairy bacon from the floor in the Manhattan at 3.30 in the morning and took a bit out of it. She took the rasher off me and ate the other half. Jaysus, I thought, I've never gone out with a girl who'd do that on the first date..."

The rest, as he says himself, is history. His book (sometimes also called Head First) is vivid, funny, poignant, candid. It brings you right back to the time around the 2002 World Cup in Japan, Saipan and all that.

The mighty Quinn also goes on to describe the Manhattan as "the sort of place you'd imagine exists only in songs sung by the Pogues". Such a perfectly perfect description.

If you've come across any other interesting references to the Manhattan in Irish fiction, please drop us a line below.

* * *

The Manhattan was unforgettable. Or was at least until the next morning proper. And it was always there, a constant landmark of a semi-hidden, semi-underground Dublin, set in a strange and scurrilous time sometime after midnight.

For about seven decades that's what it was called - the Manhattan - though in later years it became known as "Auntie May's" too, because May worked there for yonks.

The Manhattan. Daft name of course. Couldn't be any further from Woody Allen's fancy Gershwinny black-and-white movie-set version of New York.

Architecturally, it was a humble two-storey strangeling on the dark side of Harcourt Road, with only its bottom storey in redbrick and that slightly odd door and the over-the-top ironwork on its main window. Admit it: it was ugly.

Outside, the quirky signage with its skyscrapery logos may have tried to give the impression that the place "had notions"; but inside those two rooms it was anything but.

Two plain and simple rooms, the epicentre of a world frozen in time, or slowly dying in time, or not quite awake yet, or too wide awake, in an untamed universe that stretched from the crappy bedsits of Rathmines and Ranelagh right up to Dinny Mullins and his two-man Drug Squad having a quick pint in the Garda Club on Harrington Street...

* * * 

Why does any business go out of business?

  • Because the sums don't add up any more: outgoings exceed income and all that;
  • Because it's an old family business that has run out of family;
  • Because it has been bypassed by new fads and fashions, or by the new bypass around town.

By the turn of this century the Manhattan was increasingly bypassed. Yet despite being surrounded by derelict sites as the rest of the world was pulled down and slowly rebuilt, the Manhattan seemed like it would live for ever, transcending Time.

Then one night in spring 2009 the doors never opened again.

The Manhattan wasn't the only legendary establishment to disappear overnight like that. Yet it still came as a surprise. After all, the Manhattan had managed to survive the dark days of the 1950s, the 1970s oil crisis, the Minister for Hardship, the dole queues of the 1980s.

So what happened? Why this time? When the recession of 2008 arrived was it simply all too much for the frail old thing?

Many a greasy spoon disappeared during the austerity years. In Dublin, for example, there was the Alpha - the one run by the two little old ladies in a little upstairs room in Clarendon Street - and the Market Cafe in Smithfield Square. There were many other casualties in our cities and country towns.

I'm no economist. I don't know the exact factors that caused so many well-established greasy spoons that were fifty or a hundred years old to keel over so suddenly like that.

People will tell you that it was down to "Breakfast Roll Man" (as economist David McWilliams dubbed him). The cranes and construction workers of the Celtic Tiger years were long gone. And so too was the passing trade for many small shops and even country pubs.

But that's just the breakfast rolls, and just the workers from the building sites. Greasy spoons like the Alpha have weathered many a recession. What was so different this time?

For a start, they also had to contend with a new wave of cafe bars, a tsunami of coffee-to-go operators with their industrial lines of espresso machines, their national barista championships and artisan roasters. A different class of a joint.

Sure, people's diets and food habits and snacking behaviours have changed over the years, but it's not as if the health police have completely banned the full Irish just yet. You'll still see row upon row of bacon, sausage and black and white pudding and the "All Four for a Fiver" breakfast specials in the supermarket aisles. You can still order the full Irish breakfast in most Irish hotels and B&Bs.

But a full Irish at half three in the morning? A hairy bacon on the floor of the Manhattan after a feed of pints? A slice of brilliant malarkey in a time machine on Harcourt Road?

The country's licensing laws have changed over the years; there are bar extensions and late-night clubs and what have you. Yet it seems Ireland has no time for that particular kind of time-travelling any more. For that tap-tappety-tap on the door and the whiff of illicit desires.

Or are we just showing our age? Is that just a load of rose-tinted sentimental old tosh? Answers on a postcard please.