"You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home."
"It's not the same."
-- "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Ernest Hemingway
Jim Lerro was new in Annapolis and looking for a home away from home, something with a comfortable stool, a full glass of beer and a lively line of banter.
He found it at the southwest end of the bar at McGarvey's Saloon, bartender Larry Armstrong presiding.
"This is his corner of the bar. They call it the 'Caustic Corner,' " Lerro said yesterday, seated before a noon glass of Budweiser, recalling that first look at the Armstrong congregation two years ago. "People were crowded all around here. He wasn't tending bar, he was holding court."
Armstrong, a 20-year bartender who has worked at McGarvey's for five years, is known far beyond this coterie. Lerro recalled mentioning to some barkeeps in New Jersey that he was from Annapolis. He asked if they knew of McGarvey's. Of course, they said, "Larry's bar."
And now, Armstrong's name goes national as he is among 25 barkeeps across the country selected this year to the Bartender Hall of Fame by Bartender magazine and the House of Seagram. Since the national trade magazine established the award in 1985, 250 bartenders have been chosen from 5,000 applications.
"I have a different attitude about this job than most people would think," said Armstrong, sitting at the back room bar over coffee yesterday morning. "I think it's a very important job. There's got to be a reason why people come to a bar other than to get drunk. Someone can buy a whole bottle of whiskey for $11. To come and pay $3 for an ounce-and-a-half of it, there's got to be some reason there."
With that, Armstrong suggested a short story: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway, "If you want to find out why people come to bars."
The English teacher has not died in Armstrong. He holds a master's degree in English from the University of Virginia and went much of the way toward a doctorate. He taught high school and college for 18 years and for part of that time tended bar on the side. Then he tried nursing school, then went full-time into a healing profession of another sort, bartending.
"It's one of those wonderful situations where you start to do something and you realize 'This is what I should be doing.' " Armstrong reports his age as "57 going on 17." He's a native of Newport News, Va., a father of four children and son of Thomas Armstrong, a Phi Beta Kappa mathematics major who dropped out of college in his senior year to play baseball. Tommy "Shorty" Armstrong made it up to the Cardinals for a year but had the misfortune of playing second base, backup to Rogers Hornsby. He didn't get much major-league playing time. Tommy left baseball to work as a crane operator at a Newport News shipyard. A frustrated man, said Larry Armstrong.
Not so the son.
"I'm just very fortunate," he said. "I just have this wonderful attitude. I'm generally a pretty happy man."
And that shines across the bar, where Armstrong is ever-ready with a quip and an encouraging word.
"I tell you, he's got some good jokes," said a member of the Armstrong congregation who gave his name only as Nick.
Oh, are these jokes printable?
"Probably not," said Nick. But "he's probably one of the finest men I ever met. . . . If he's feeling down, you never know it."
Armstrong has made his peace in bartending, which he views as a compromise between "putting on a tie and making $200,000 a year and going to the islands and being a bum. This is kind of right in between."
Armstrong got word of the Hall of Fame selection two weeks ago. Early next year he'll receive the big Super Bowl-style Bartender Hall of Fame ring. The award comes as the result of an application sent to Bartender magazine by McGarvey's last year. The application lists Armstrong's 20 years of bartending experience, plus his donations of time and money to local charities.
Magazine editor Jaclyn W. Foley said it takes more to make the Hall of Fame than a knack for the perfect Fuzzy Navel. The judges, Hall of Famers themselves, look also for contributions to the community.
"He's the sort of person if he went somewhere else people would follow him," said Foley in a telephone interview from her office in Liberty Corner, N.J. "That's a sign of a good bartender. He has a following."
By 12:30 p.m. several of the flock were gathered round the "Caustic Corner." There was Nick, making quick work of the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas. There was Steve Adams, a Naval Academy sailmaker who is addicted to Armstrong's three-bean salad. There was Armstrong's wife, Barbara, whom he met at this very bar, whom he said he married despite the fact that "it cost me $100 a week in tips."
"You could have married Steve," said Lerro, pointing at Adams. "It would have cost you $5 a week."
And Armstrong presided, looked out over the bar and saw that all was well.
"As you can see, I don't have a job," he said. "This isn't a job. This is a position."