Growing Up at Manuel’s Tavern

Manuel’s Tavern was about 8-9 miles from my house on the South side and we usually got there via the expressway. Given modern Atlanta traffic, and its impenetrable congestion and interminable delays, such a distance would now represent a significant time investment.  As with the city of Los Angeles, no one in Atlanta tells you how far away a place is in terms of distance  – you are told “how long” it will take to get there. Thus, nearby destinations can actually be “far away”.  However, in the 60s and 70s traffic was rarely an issue, and we spent lots of time at Manuel’s Tavern. I was told that my Father frequented the place prior to Manuel’s acquisition of the property in 1956. He and some schoolmates from nearby Bass High School would go to the previous establishment dressed in ROTC uniforms and somehow con the aging owner into believing that they were military veterans in search of a cool one.  So by the time the location actually became Manuel’s my Father was already a regular. When my Father passed away his decades of “service” were honored in the form of a plaque located at the end of the bar facing North Highland Avenue.  Since that time other “veterans” have joined that section of the bar. My Father did little to hide his fondness for Manuel’s (and Manuel himself) though he would still engage in deceptive behavior with my Mother from time to time. As an example he would take my brother and I to King Hardware at Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center but not before first “dropping by” Manuel’s which meant that a trip that should have taken 45 minutes could take could take several hours.

At the time Manuel’s was a single “beer only” barroom with a small “water closet” in the back. It was strictly a man’s bar then and regulars rarely brought in their spouses and serious girlfriends except perhaps on Saturdays and only then during the daylight hours.  It was generally assumed that women, who were there after dark, especially during the week, were probably NOT spouses. As the 1970s rolled around things became more “coed” and the attitudes of the more chauvinistic era were discarded for something more modern. (They also introduced mixed drinks to the menu). As a young man I used to gaze longingly at the nude painting of the woman on the wall near the N. Highland entrance. I was told that it was a composite painting wherein each section of the woman’s body was inspired by each of the three wives of the artist.  “Lucky guy”, I used to think. That painting ushered me through puberty in a way that I would rather not admit although I’m quite certain I was not unique. Manuel always treated women with an old world respect and went out of his way to make them feel welcome. According to my Mother, Manuel and his brother Robert were true gentlemen.  While the talk at the bar could be pretty salty, (that is surely an understatement), Manuel disliked what he felt to be “unnecessary” profanity especially in the presence of women. Many were kicked out for such offenses. He respected the artful use of off-color language wherein the words brought about an improved understanding of the topic at hand. But crass language without a context was frowned upon. It was in this milieu that I learned much.

For better or worse I acquired my early social skills there under the tutelage of bookies, cops, musicians, priests, artists, doctors, lawyers, brick layers, and of course Manuel himself whose sensitivity to political matters could easily lead to spontaneous explosions of anger and expulsions of anyone who was guilty of not respecting the Democratic party. (He might have had an anger issue). Being banned by Manuel became a rite of passage and no one could be considered a veteran until they had been kicked out at least twice. It wasn’t hard to do and the offending party could usually return after staying away for a few days and, upon returning, keeping a low profile and a closed mouth for a time. There were exceptions. One patron made the very foolish mistake of joking about Lebanon (Manuel’s familial homeland). “Hey Manuel! I heard there was a huge bombing in Beirut last night… the news said it caused $5.00 worth of damage”. That guy was not only banned for life, he was thrown out and I don’t mean figuratively. I think my Father had been kicked out a few times though it was just as likely that he kicked himself out. He, like Manuel, had a fierce temper so clashes were inevitable such as the time Manuel chided my Father for being “under employed” , (which was an assessment I happened to have agreed with.) They always patched it up though.

The only people who felt uncomfortable in Manuel’s were those who weren’t being authentic. There was a strong dislike of anyone who appeared to be flaunting money or status and these types were given maybe one chance to straighten up.  A successful gambler could be found giving “the latest line” to a hard working homicide detective. A Superior court judge might be dispensing free legal advice to a mud-covered plumber going through a nasty divorce.  Over in the booths a retired jazz musician would have a hand engraved arrangement spread out on the table as a priest holding a foamy beer mug looked over his shoulder commenting on the “crazy modulation” happening right after the “middle eight”. That musician was jazz pianist Freddy Deland who once played in Tommy Dorsey’s band. Here is a YouTube video of him at work. As a budding Rock N Roll musician I didn’t have the requisite harmonic knowledge or vocabulary to have an intelligent musical conversation with him but he was always very cordial and encouraging of anyone who wanted to played music.

It is impossible to discuss Manuel’s without mentioning sports. When the Atlanta Falcons came to town Manuel arranged for a chartered bus to take customers to and from Atlanta Fulton County stadium.  At this time Manuel’s was closed on Sundays but he knew his core set of customers wanted to be at the game so he helped arrange this transport. Manuel himself never attended these events. More alcohol was consumed on the bus on those days than probably in all of Atlanta combined.  On these trips old timers will recall the passing of the “early morning bottle”. No it wasn’t alcohol but a bottle of Pepto-Bismol used to reduce hangover queasiness and to  “establish a foundation” for upcoming Olympian-scale liquor consumption. These guys would stand in front of the bus while passing the pink stuff until it had all been consumed. Some of the men towards the end of the line would pour liquor into the bottle to shake loose any of the remaining Pepto. Scotch and Pepto Bismol.

Lastly, in 1996 Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympic games and according to Juan Antonio Samaranch it was a “most exceptional” event as opposed to the “best ever” which was his customary reference to games occurring before and after the Atlanta event. He certainly wasn’t the only one to feel that the Atlanta Olympics could have been better. Botched scoring technology, official drivers who did not know event destinations, and the “WhatIzIt/Izzy” mascot that Time Magazine called “A Sperm in Sneakers” were just a few of the problems.  I encountered some ACOGers (Atlanta Committee for The Olympic Games) at Manuel’s about 4 months prior to the start of the Games on a Friday afternoon around 4:30 PM.  I knew they were with ACOG because they all had their badges proudly displayed. (Most people usually take off work badges when not working). The fact that they were knocking off early to drink beer when there was clearly so much to be done was disconcerting. One of the more vocal ACOGers wanted some attention from the wait staff (which admittedly could sometimes be a problem at Manuel’s if you weren’t a regular).  She saw Manuel, flagged him down, and asked for a condiment, which Manuel happily provided. She then asked him ,”so how long have you worked here?” to which he replied most kindly, “I’m Manuel Maloof”. Not having a clue what the implied she said, “Oh Maloof – What a pretty name. Now is that Spanish ?” Evidently knowledge of the Atlanta area and associated history were not major concerns for ACOG.

As of the writing of this Manuel’s Tavern is closed pending significant renovations. Many are concerned that the changes will somehow sour the vibe of the place although I’m happy to wait and see the result. Keep in mind that there were those back in the day who lamented the expansion that added the larger backroom as if it would prevent the serious drinkers and regulars from communicating as they were accustomed to doing. But that didn’t happen.  There is more to say about Manuel’s. Much more in fact so don’t be surprised if I post more.  © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid

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