The King Of New York

 

Tom Dillon is the King of New York. He is also my spirit guide to a part of the city that stretches north east from the Village to Union Square to Gramercy Park and over to Molly's on 3rd Avenue. I first met him almost two years ago as I sheltered from a blizzard in the dim and sometimes sacred basement of the Village Vanguard - a legendary jazz club where Tom also operates as the world's greatest bartender.

For the visitor, New York is a town of names and territories. You might bump into Quentin Crisp in the Village or Robert de Niro in Tribeca. Or maybe you'll see Woody Allen padding around uptown at Central Park. Certainly there'll be no avoiding Mayor Rudi Guiliani forever giving the impression that he's the head honcho. But of course he isn't really - because Tom Dillon is the King of New York.

We began our day in the Old Town - a beautiful bar just south of the equally beautiful Flatiron where Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue. The talk was of editor Pete Hamill's unfortunate departure from the Daily News because, by all accounts, the owners wanted to "dumb it down". There was a copy of Pete's A Drinking Life on the wall with the inscription: "To the Old Town - the only bar that still makes me thirsty." They are fond of their books in the Old Town and the birth of another was being celebrated. Michael Coffey and Terry Galway's book on the Irish in America was about to be published, but of course Tom had a proof copy in his bag. Maureen, the publisher, whispered to me - "You know he's the King of New York?"

From there it was on down through Union Square where, from the years before the first World War up until the 1930s, socialists and anarchists addressed huge crowds. It was also here that people gathered to protest at the execution of Saccho and Vanzetti in 1927 and, as happens continually in New York, yet another song came into my head as we headed for McSorley's Old Ale House off Cooper Square - a rare spot - notorious until 1970 for its "no ladies" policy. You can blame Tyrone for that. Old John McSorley had arrived in America with some fairly strong views and based his saloon on one he had known in his hometown of Omagh. These days, at the right time of the afternoon, the sun comes through the windows and illuminates both men and women in that lovely cosy brass and mahogany glow that only the best of places can conjure. The walls creak with pictures and souvenirs and in winter you can sit by the stove and make patterns in the sawdust with your boots. The writer Joseph Mitchell described it as McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. And McSorley's is wonderful - a treasure house during the day. At night it is gruff, noisy and ill-mannered.

And so to Gramercy Park - the city's only private park and, wouldn't you know it, the King of New York has the keys. Tom smoked a cigar and pointed out where Jimmy Cagney used to live. Then he introduced me to Roger Donoghue who was sitting on the stoop of the National Arts Club. An old fighter whose picture hangs in the Old Town, Roger spent many years in Hollywood and he told us about Mister Hughes and Miss Russell. He worked on Rebel Without A Cause - as he put it, "teaching Jimmy Dean how to fight and teaching Natalie how to kiss" and he joked about making a comeback. This is the man who taught Brando to box for On The Water- front but who really was a contender himself.

After the mother of all pizzas in John's of Bleecker Street, which operates a "strict no slices" policy, it was soon time for the King of New York to go to work - tending bar at the Village Vanguard. Tom Dillon judges a joint on the type of cash register it uses. The old-fashioned punch-keyed sort is a good sign. Any form of computerisation and you're in the wrong shop. The Vanguard still entrusts its takings to the old-style till and Tom spends the evening looking over his spectacles at dockets and receipts, answering the phone, wiping the bar, pouring drink and dealing with jazz legends and jazz anoraks alike. What's more, he gets to hear the greatest musicians in the world for free.

Tommy Flanagan was there with his trio. For many years with Ella Fitzgerald, Flanagan is now considered perhaps the greatest living jazz pianist. On another night, Clark Terry played - counting the band in with the words, "One, two - we know what to do!"

I like to perch at the bar - that way you get talking to all manner of people - Lorraine Gordon who runs the Vanguard, Sonny Canterini who, years ago, used to run a joint called the Half Note and of course the many musicians who were out in force for Flanagan and Terry. Snatches of conversation as all applauded were usually quite bizarre:

"I used to be in a band."

"What was it called?"

"The Count Basie Band.'

"What do you do?"

"I work for Radio Ireland."

And, the way you do, you start looking at the tourists with a certain contempt - forgetting of course that you're one yourself. I was certainly very wrong about one unlikely looking woman called Doris. Turned out she was no tourist - she was Charlie Parker's wife! And then there was another woman who showed up at several jazz gigs that week - her name was Ellington, one of New York's royal family of Ellingtons. The New York I'm talking about is a surreal yet civilised and decent place. Of course it's not the only New York, but even so. This is the New York of the Welcomes where there are no strangers and no optics behind the bar. In the Village Vanguard, Tom Dillon, the King of New York, has the measure of everything.

John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster. His book Cool About the Ankles is published by The Blackstaff Press.