My dad bought a bar and turned it into our American dream
My father didn’t become himself until the age of 50. That’s when he became his own boss.
Ten years earlier, around the time I was born in 1973, my dad got a good job with the local county government, running a youth shelter. He had been a high-school football star and was voted class clown by his peers. He was a well-loved local guy. This made him the right person for a government job that seemed like a plum.
But it wasn’t all social work. There was politics involved.
My dad was a Democrat in a county run by Republicans, and he couldn’t help getting mixed up in personality conflicts and turf wars. Counseling teenagers at the shelter was nothing compared with the constant anxiety that some power-mad Little Napoleon was going to take my dad’s job away.
Eventually the inevitable happened. My dad rubbed the wrong person the wrong way and, according to his telling, was forced out just a few months shy of qualifying for a county pension. It was a dirty business, and happy-go-lucky as my dad was, he held a quiet grudge for the rest of his life.
Suddenly my parents were in a tight spot. With four children, and the oldest creeping up on college age, the wolf was at the door. The only income my dad could rely on was the moonlighting money he’d been picking up bartending once or twice a week at a little joint under the train trestle in our town of Morristown, NJ.
My dad needed a job, and not just any job. Whatever happened next would likely be his last chance to start over. It was a dramatic moment, of the sort that only happens once or twice in a person’s life.
When my parents sat me and my siblings down at the kitchen table in February 1983, I expected to hear the worst — they were splitting up or we were all getting shipped off to boarding school. The news was less dramatic: “We bought the bar.”
It seemed a momentous thing for our family. As I understood it, we were employees, hired hands and hourly workers. But now dad was going to be the boss. Even if I didn’t fully understand what it meant, I liked the sound of it. I think he did too.
It must have been a powerful feeling on that first day, unlocking the front door and stepping inside the bar — now christened Hennessey’s — as its new owner. In keeping with a long tradition, the first dollar spent by a paying customer wasn’t put in the cash register but was framed and hung in a visible location.
Every time you visit a dry cleaner, hardware store or bar and you see one of those dollar bills on the wall you are seeing a memorial to risk, a down payment on a dream fulfilled. The ones at Hennessey’s looked to me like the American flag that Armstrong and Aldrin left on the moon. They said, “Something happened here because somebody dared to make it so.”
The truth is my parents took the risk out of necessity. Given the choice, my father would have stayed in the county job until he retired, but he wasn’t given the choice. Sometimes people say that being fired was the best thing that ever happened to them. It always sounds great because what comes next is the story of unlikely success.
Often left out is the fear and desperation, the frightening reality of deciding to go all-in, to put all your chips on No. 1, to close your eyes and spin the wheel as hard as you can. My parents needed to place a big bet on themselves and the bar provided them the opportunity to do it.
Business didn’t take off right away, but as the ’80s wore on things started to shift. A younger crowd began to develop. In the ’90s, the big night of the week at Hennessey’s became every night.
The bar was a gathering place. People came to lift a glass in exultation after a softball game, a college graduation or a long week at work. Hennessey’s became a town square, a communal living room with my dad at the center, holding court, cracking wise, lifting spirits, and doing what he always wanted to do with his life — put a little light into a dark and dreary world.
The bar gave my dad the chance to become himself. It also turned into a real moneymaker. My parents had both grown up poor. The bar’s success pulled them solidly into the middle class. They had the means to send their kids to college and take relaxing vacations of the sort their own parents could never have dreamed possible.
The miracle of the market meant that my parents’ success contributed to the success of a constellation of other local businesses. The beer distributor, the jukebox man and the guy who came to sharpen the kitchen knives thrived when Hennessey’s did well. So did the landlord, the insurance company, and the taxman.
Eventually my parents sold their old house on a busy road and decamped for the tranquility of the countryside. My mother spent her final years puttering around in a biggish flower garden. My dad loved nothing more than to sit on his spacious and well-shaded deck with a book on his lap as he dozed to the sounds of the forest.
Only in hindsight can I see how their life’s work was accomplished, how they built a good thing and sustained it even as it sustained them and a great many people who came into contact with it. My parents owned a business but they didn’t consider themselves businesspeople.
Then again, everyone is in business, as legendary Wall Street Journal editor Barney Kilgore liked to say — the business of making a living.
Matthew Hennessey is the Wall Street Journal’s deputy op-ed editor and author of “Visible Hand: A Wealth of Notions on the Miracle of the Market,” from which this essay is adapted.