a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conversations will be missed with Sir Harold

By Candy Woodall

PITTSBURGH – His favorite songs became the soundtrack of our lives. His place of business became our living room. His endless supply of trivia entertained and educated us. His bar stools gave us a front row seat to some of the city’s best moments. His reliable presence provided a constant in our lives that ensured we had a friend during happy hours and unhappy hours.

We already miss him.

We already feel the pain of not being able to hear what Harry Patterson thought of the upcoming Steelers-Jets matchup.

We already miss hearing about a rare, B-side, double-extended live version of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bootleg--and getting asked if it was led by Stills and Nash, Stills and Young or Nash and Young. (Note: It would probably be a trick question. The correct answer would probably have been Stills, Nash and Young, and only Lou would get it right.)

Regardless of how much we had grown or changed, Sir Harold always seemed to remember us as the fresh-faced, coming-of-age college kids he met a decade ago. He was always in our corner. He always saw the best in us. And he never let us leave without “a topper.”

He wasn’t just our bartender. He was our friend. He was part of our family. He was part of our story. He watched us grow up.

Before his River City Inn in PPG Plaza had a jukebox, it had a lot of mixed tapes, which featured everything from the Rolling Stones to The Guess Who to The Beatles to Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis to Traffic to Mountain to Bob Dylan.

It seemed as though every time we walked in there the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” or “Ruby Tuesday” or “Satisfaction” was playing--even though “Gimme Shelter” was his favorite Stones song and Let it Bleed was his favorite Stones album. He was also quick to remind us that “Satisfaction” was “the Beethoven’s 'Fifth' of rock ‘n roll.”

Upon an announcement in 2002 that the Stones were touring again, Lou said the legendary band should hang it up. Harry of course challenged that as well as Lou’s editorial about it in The Globe, Point Park University’s student newspaper.

Somehow I ended up with tickets to the Cleveland show. Lou and I enjoyed amazing seats only 20 feet away from the encore stage. “Brown Sugar” became somewhat of a religious experience for us, and Lou ate his words. As he wrote after seeing the show, “If the Stones can’t rock me, who can?”

Harry of course wanted to hear all about it, every detail. He listened to our story about the set list, Mick’s gyrations, Keith managing to play a full song while smoking a cigarette—without ever taking it out of his mouth, Elvis Costello’s opening, Lou allowing me to only play Neil Young and Cheap Trick on the highway, and what it felt like to hear one of our favorite bands play some of our favorite songs.

Sir Harold smiled and seemed so genuinely interested in our stories, so genuinely happy to see us.

He too shared stories of seeing live shows, reliving some of his best moments.

Every time since then, when Lou and I were at River City Inn, “Brown Sugar” was played.

And Harry always asked us about the Cleveland concert. Not because he forgot any of the details.

Not because he really needed to hear that story for the hundredth time. It was because he knew telling that story made us happy. And so he allowed us to relive that moment as many times as we wanted.

That was Harry.

He was there for so many of our best moments. And he also had a way of making our not-so-great moments seem not so bad.

For example, when Hurricane Ivan ripped through Pittsburgh and some of us were sidelined Downtown, he turned it in to an opportunity to “play songs about water.” You’d be surprised how many there are. Our favorites included “When the Levee Breaks,” “Proud Mary” and “Smoke on the Water.”

The latter, of course, involved a light show. For those of you not familiar, Harry had a talent that involved coordinating a dimmer switch with the intro to Deep Purple’s magic.

He could also play air xylophone to Hall & Oates’ “Out of Touch.”

And none of us will forget the image of Jesus, with a wine glass in hand, dancing to the Bee Gees. “That’s the Jesus I know!” Harry said.

Those who knew Harry will tell you music was a huge part of his life--not only the trivia he accumulated but the way he shared the songs he loved.

I once had the privilege of singing backup vocals to his lead on The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” as his brother Freddy’s band P.U.B. Crawler played along. After that, Sir Harold
appointed me “an honorary Patterson.” It was a decree penned only on a cocktail napkin, but his brother still honors it today.

He could also occasionally be found singing “Eve of Destruction” with a band or keyboardist.

His love of music didn’t quite include everything though. After a raucous Point Park Thursday crew played too much “arena rock” (Journey, Styx, Kansas and Boston), Harry would threaten to skip ahead on the jukebox to “a double-extended, live version” of The Allman Brothers Band's “Whipping Post.”

But just as he chided some selections, he worked hard to convince us that our fist pumping through Journey’s “Separate Ways” was why the band’s “Don’t Stop Believin' " was selected as the final song in the final scene of the final Sopranos episode.

Sir Harold encouraged all of our endeavors, whether lame or lofty, from Lou and I rewriting “Desperado” to become “Onorato,” to Amanda taking on the world, to friends beating cancer, to watching us get married and have kids or to trying to move our noses independently of our faces. Even if he had to wipe his eyes with his wrists a few times while trying to process what we were saying, he cheered us on.

He also provided liquid therapy and a good ear through our trials of unrequited love, devastating mistakes, lost jobs, breaking news and bombed stories. And each time, regardless of how wrong we were or how much we needed to change, he’d give us a gentle bump along the chin and say, “Don’t change a thing.”

There was never anything “Mrs. Liquorsworth” and some Tom Petty couldn’t cure.

He had a knack for knowing what people needed--which was often a shot, beer and a laugh--and he had an arsenal of material.

How many of you learned Yinzer as a Second Language from Sir Harold? Gian Iggles, Ben Roffsburr, Victoria Secrets, Kmarts, Targets, Walmarts, Sheetzs, Red Lobsters, Pixburgh Storz, Ruth Chris’. You may also know that “Sidney Crosby: CAN’T BE YINZERIZED.”

He may have also helped you understand Yinzer geography.

“It’s always dahn the South Side, over the stadiums, up the arena and out the airport,” he said.

You may have even learned a little about Yinzer politics.

“Weeda taxpayers don’t wanna pay for no new stadiums. Yinz can’t tear down Three Rivers n’ at,” he said.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Harry’s ability to spot a jagoff:

1. He always asks, "Don’t you know who I am?”

2. He always says, “He said I had one comin’.”

3. He always pays for one draft beer with a debit card.

Occasionally the aforementioned jagoff may walk into a bar “palms up, slack jawed, wearing cutoff jeans and tennis shoes” asking “Hey, where is everybody?” Sir Harold would say.

Harry’s answer to such a question was always the same: “Obviously somewhere they didn’t want you to be.”

If someone was having a bad day, he could tell by their gait or a look on their face. “Was somebody being unreasonable?” he said.

If someone was a having a good day, he also instinctively knew that. “Are you bragging or complaining?” he said.

Harry was so proud to serve the bar that was home to one of America’s great newspapers and some of its greatest writers. He read all of their stories. He was impressed with Dan Majors not only for his craft but for being the first patron he ever served who actually ordered one bourbon, one scotch and one beer. He loved talking shop with Bob Dvorchak, Mike Fuoco and Bill Moushey, and it’s no surprise that some of their bylines were among clippings he stored between bottles of Crown Royal and old cocktail glasses.

And I think it says everything that a man who read the biggest newspapers in Pittsburgh and New York also made time to read Point Park’s student newspaper. I doubt he cared about what was going on in the student service center. He read our weekly publication because he cared about us.

A bust of Vladimir Lenin--a gift from one of his favorite writers--hung proudly on the River City Inn wall until the bar's ownership changed a year ago. It was common to see Lenin wearing a Steelers or Pirates cap, depending on the season.

Sir Harold treated home openers and halfway to St. Patrick’s Day like holidays. In the good ol’ days, The Globe editors were allowed to barter Chinese food for cocktails and Bobbleheads for beer--as long as they weren’t “fruity frou-frou drinks” or “John Cougar Mellonballs.”

And a special group of friends, those he dubbed The Fun People, had “window-tapping privileges.”

Part of the reason we became The Fun People was because we appreciated simplicity: Bacardi Limon and diet dew, pitchers of Yuengling, a vodka tonic, shots of Southern Comfort and draft beer and shots of Crown Royal. And those shots were often served in scotch glasses.

And we ordered several, especially when we only had to walk one block to get home. Spending time with him was so effortless.

Amanda and I once made a list there called “People who Don’t [Eff] Around: a Big Girl’s homage to people with intestinal fortitude.” On the list were favorite professors, favorite musicians, all songs involving a cowbell and people in photos we did not know (but you could tell they didn’t mess around).

Harry later countered with a list of his own: “10 Reasons She’s Not Leaving that ....”

He had a quick wit and a lot of patience.

A local architect once spent some time in the kitchen, working on a business deal. When he got off the call, he told Harry, “I just closed a $125,000 deal.”

Harry said, “And that’s not even the best thing that’s ever happened in that kitchen.”

To say that I will miss the witty banter and conversational tennis is an understatement. I am truly heartbroken and shocked by the loss of our dear friend.

It hurts more today than yesterday because when I woke up, I was sure it was real.

Conversations with my friends reveal that many of us are feeling the same way. How strange it will feel to not stop in there before or after dinner Downtown.

How strange it will feel to not walk by and see him pouring a pint, sitting in the corner with some newspapers or answering the phone with his token, “Rrriver City Inn!” How strange it will feel to not stop in before or after a game, or before or after a concert.

How strange it will feel to not have him pour the drinks at the next birthday party or journalism banquet or guild bash.

To not be in this year’s March Madness pool.

To not meet up for the home opener.

To not see our friend.

To not walk in and hear, “Well, hello there!”


Amanda Blu said...

What a great tribute, BG. As it turns out, he was the only man who could help me understand another language. While Spanish didn't stick -- I find myself constantly using the stuff he taught in his Yinzer as A Second Language course.

*Sigh* Miss him.

Scott Beveridge said...

I particularly liked his Obama melody. Candy - what a lovely tribute this is to a star of a stage who touched a lot of lives.