They called him Hambone.
His real name was James, but few called him that. The priests at Assumption Church did, as did the teachers at the Maple Avenue School. At home he was Jimmy. Everywhere else he was Hambone.
As a child I resented my dad’s nickname. I thought it made him seem small, like he was a joke, like they were all having a laugh at his expense. Over time, I came to realize that it was a good nickname. It was a great nickname, in fact, capturing something about Jim Hennessey’s personality that got to the heart of who he really was.
He was a ham. He loved to be the center of attention, whether it was cracking wise in the back of a classroom or holding court in the little bar business he and my mother built over 30 years. His voice could boom like an opera singer’s when he wanted it to. He could quiet a crowd. He could hold a room.
The bar business is tricky. To succeed you need to have people skills. Jim did well because he cared about the drinkers and seekers who gathered in his place. Many considered it a second home. Some treated it as their primary residence.
But it was Hambone’s joint and he ran it his way. If he wanted to give an elderly patron a permanent discount, he did it. The break wasn’t transferable. If, in your generosity, you wanted to buy an old timer a drink, you paid full price for it.
And Hennessey’s wasn’t a place where welcomes were overstayed. When dad felt you’d had enough, he sent you on your way, often calling the cab himself.
“Bye now,” he’d say while washing your glass and mopping up your spot at the bar. “Safe home.”
Some drinkers consider it an injustice when they’ve been cut off. They argue. You didn’t argue with Hambone. It would’ve been like arguing with the priest about your penance. What good could come of it?
If your drinking was becoming a problem, Hambone was someone who could help. He called alcoholism “the Irish Disease.” He knew the cure because he’d taken it himself. He’d sobered up before he bought the bar.
For all his success, my dad went to work six and often seven days a week. He didn’t do it because he loved cutting lemons and pulling pints. He did it because he loved his family. He’d rather have been a historian or an archaeologist, maybe even a draftsman like his own father. He was an insatiable reader and a skilled sketch artist.
“Matt,” he said. “Sometimes when people are talking to me across the bar my mind is a million miles away.”
When I got behind the bar myself I knew exactly what he meant. It’s a long day’s work when you’re paid to be a captive audience. Only then did I understand what he sacrificed for us.
Hambone wasn’t the only Morristown original with a nickname. His running buddies were all called things like Itsy or Snuffy or Doc or Muzz. He spoke of neighborhood guys like “Fooey” Cullen and “Dingy” Foran. All the brothers in the Kenny family were for some reason called “Darb.” The entire Pelligrino family was known as “Green Bananas.” One fellow in town was nicknamed “Bungalow.”
“You know why they called him that?” my dad asked me once.
“Because there was nothing upstairs.”
Hambone loved a good wake. He was what you might call a regular. When he wasn’t hanging out at Hennessey’s, he was hanging out at Doyle’s, the local funeral home that his cousins owned. He loved wakes because he loved people.
He never missed an evening of remembrance for someone he knew, and there weren’t many people in Morristown he didn’t know.
When someone died, dad usually got the news before everyone else. He had the catbird seat in the upstairs office at Doyle’s. Bartenders and undertakers, he liked to say, rarely hurt for customers. People drink in good times and bad. Death comes for us all.
It came for Hambone on April 17. He was 85. As much as he loved a good wake, he won’t be getting one. You know the reason why. It’s a pity. He would’ve had no problem holding the downstairs room at Doyle’s. I wonder if it would’ve held him.
Jim Hennessey was a local legend, a ham for all seasons, a man you don’t meet every day. I was blessed to call him my father.
Bye now, dad. Safe home.