Denver's place in the story of "Tender Bar" – Colorado Springs Gazette

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“The Tender Bar” is a story very much of its time and place. When author J.R. Moehringer writes, “I learned what it means to be a man in a Cadillac going 90 miles an hour on the Long Island Expressway,” you can almost hear the Springsteen cranking out of the console as he’s tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur.
But Denver also had a place in the making of Moehringer’s beloved, best-selling memoir about a fatherless boy who finds meaningful male role models in his uncle’s neighborhood bar where love flows like whiskey.
Moehringer wrote the book while living in Colorado. He moved to Breckenridge in 1990 and was an all-star features reporter at the Rocky Mountain News through 1994. After stints in Orange County and Atlanta, he moved to Denver working as a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.
Moehringer wrote “The Tender Bar” while barricaded inside his Cherry Creek bungalow, which friends affectionately dubbed “The Spider Hole” because it was small and dark. The book got its formal launch at a 2005 party in Denver, and Moehringer returned a few months later for a Pen & Podium event at the Tattered Cover Book Store then located in Cherry Creek – just a few blocks from where Moehringer had lived. In fact, that’s where he would go to read the galley proofs before the book was published.
It’s a rough story written with a cherishing tenderness – and it was among the most celebrated books of 2005. It was selected as one of the top 10 books of the year by The New York Times and National Public Radio. Esquire wrote: “In content and style, the man has found a new perfect.”
The book went down like Scotch that’s smooth and easy to swallow, and the same can be said of George Clooney’s new film adaptation, which comes off as a love letter to a love letter. That love letter being the source book, which is itself a ode to Moehringer’s mother, grandfather and remarkable Uncle Charlie, who played a vital role in his upbringing.
J.R. grew up only knowing the deeply flawed father who had abandoned him as a disembodied voice on the radio. And yet he spent years seeking the man’s approval, until finally confronted with the poison that spawned him.
Growing up without a father can lead to an identity crisis, which can lead to rage. But it was sitting on his uncle’s barstool that young J.R. was repeatedly told that he has value and potential. And so, he did. It was growing up in his grandfather’s house that he was told by his mother, “As God as my witness, you are going to Yale.” And so, he did. And it was his uncle who told the boy to read everything in sight. And so, he did.
Maybe not everyone needs a father. But everyone needs an Uncle Charlie.
“Of course many bars in Manhasset, like bars everywhere, were nasty places, full of pickled people marinating in regret,” Moehringer wrote in his book. But it was in Uncle Charlie’s watering hole, named after one of the greatest writers in history, surrounded by a colorful cast of characters with names like Fast Eddy, Bob the Cop and Card Shark Cager that Moehringer eventually spun the cards life had handed him into literary gold.
That Moehringer made it out of Long Island and made something of himself is, like the film itself, a testament to his mother (played by Lily Rabe). But the heart of the film is the boy’s relationship with his uncle – played by Ben Affleck in perhaps the most affecting performance of his career.
“The movie is an ode to single mothers, but it is also about the importance of fathers, both by their absence and by their presence,” Affleck told journalist Jess Cagle last week. “When he was present, he was a toxic, damaging influence on the boy’s life.”
And so his mother’s brother stepped into the void and kept J.R. on the right path. He gave him a baseball signed by Tom Seaver. He paid for his application to Yale. He gave him a car. But mostly what he gave the boy was hope.
“When Charlie says, ‘I believe you can be a writer,’ what he’s really telling him is: ‘You have worth, and I love you, and I believe in you, and you can do hard things,” Affleck said. Moehringer’s story is proof that the only thing that really matters in a family system is love.
Moehringer has come far from his days as a lonely boy seeking his place in the world at the foot of a barstool. We were lucky to have had him for a time writing dozens of memorable feature stories for the Rocky Mountain News. But even then he wrote like a man out of place, once describing the Rocky Mountains as “blue point oysters” that reminded him of the empty shells piled on a plate at his favorite Manhattan restaurant.
Moehringer consistently spun stories that could only have carried his signature byline. His final one of those for the Rocky came in 1994. It was a profile of “The Love Lady,” the mysterious voice who took calls from the loveless masses for her popular KOSI romance-advice show, “Cozy After Dark.”
It begins: “Foggy night in Denver. An overwrought Michael Bolton is having a breakdown in the background, wailing at the top of his lungs from the bottom of his heart. The phone calls are pouring in. And the Love Lady is working it. She is not what one expects of someone called ‘The Love Lady,’ though what such a person might look like is hard to say.”
He once wrote that Denver’s now silenced El Chapultepec “smells like New York, feels like New Orleans, and sounds like southside Chicago.” And in 2002, he ruminated on the life of revered Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole, who served for 25 years as the voice of Old Denver.
“On Friday, capping a week of remembrance, Denver honored Amole by doing what it seldom does, what Amole was forever telling it to do: It paused,” he wrote.
Moehringer is now living in the Bay Area and co-writing the autobiography of Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Miles from his Long Island roots but certainly a man who has found his place in the world.
Denver Gazette contributing arts columnist John Moore is an award-winning journalist who was named one of the 10 most influential theater critics by American Theatre Magazine. He is now producing independent journalism as part of his own company, Moore Media.
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