Letter to the Editor – Working Downtown: A Breath of Fresh Air

Garner Simmons '65

To the Editor:

Reading “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” by Kimmy Cunningham (Editor’s Column 4/12/07) about how much she has learned from her job downtown at Village Wine & Spirits took me back to the fall of 1964 and an infamous bar also located on Lebanon Street called Hickey’s Tavern.

Harold Hickey had been a legendary barkeep at the Colgate Inn who decided to go into business for himself. Purchasing a tavern just down from Shine’s State with his wife Hazel, he opened Hickey’s in 1960 persuading the late artist Lee Brown Coye to paint an extraordinary mural along one wall just as Coye had done at the Colgate Inn (the Inn’s mural is still there in the dining room today). Though back then students more often patronized the Inn or the Jug (at that time the legal drinking age was 18), Hickey’s was more of a town bar. And up until the time I walked in to ask Harold for a job, he had never had a student bartender. To be honest, Harold was skeptical. How would his primarily local clientele react to a student tending bar? After half an hour of answering questions about everything from how to make a Tom Collins to how to tap a keg, I managed to convince him to give me a chance. He agreed to a trial run the following Friday.

The downside of owning a bar for Harold was that he was also an alcoholic. So when I showed up for work that Friday, he could not remember hiring me. On the other hand, he was too drunk to work the bar himself, so he decided to give me a shot. In the course of the evening, I learned an enormous amount about living in rural Upstate NY, local politics, wild affairs of the heart and how to stop several fistfights before they got out of hand. By the end of the evening, I had the job on a permanent basis.

Over the next several months, I began to realize that my job at Hickey’s was the best course in human nature I’d ever taken. That unlike the theoretical debates on the Hill, the discussions at Hickey’s were always grounded in the reality. Every other Friday, I’d find myself cashing welfare checks for people who would proceed to drink them away because the harsh realities of life seemed somehow better when viewed through the bottom of a beer glass. Two of my regulars were stalwarts from Colgate’s grounds maintenance crew. I never really knew them by any other names than “Charlie Tractor” and “The Leaf Eater” — so called for the two pieces of equipment they operated. But they were as honest and fun-loving and loyal as anyone I’ve ever known. One had served in Korea and didn’t like to talk about it. The other had joined the Navy only to discover he preferred dry land. By the time graduation rolled around, I hated to say goodbye. Truly, my time at Hickey’s had been like taking a unique independent study. It provided lessons and memories that have lasted a lifetime.

Thanks for taking me back. It’s reassuring to know that the educational experience I gained at Hickey’s long ago is still available today to those willing to seek it out. Working at Village Wine & Spirits isn’t just a job, it’s a time-honored tradition. One you’ll neither regret nor forget.

Garner SimmonsClass of 1965