I spotted Bob the Mailman at the ballpark last weekend, and Tommy Hrim’s favorite expression this time of year screamed inside my head.
“Baseball, please,” I said to the graying gent who had plopped down two rows in front of my dear wife Karen and I at NBT Bank Stadium, scorecard in hand to better keep track of the hometeam Syracuse Chiefs as they did Triple-A battle against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders.
Bob Passamore turned and looked, and again, searching his memory banks for the name and the place. I took off my Mets cap and sunglasses, helping out without selling out, and the smile came along with a familiar offering of peace.
“Mark!” he exclaimed, reaching into his jacket pocket to fish out and offer a root beer-flavored hard candy. That’s what the guy known as Bob the Mailman — as not to be confused with fellow regular, Bob the Bus Driver — would do every time he saw me and many of my friends in that stretch of years in the mid-1980s when a batch of working folk ate our dinners and later on drank our beverages of choice at the N&H, just one block away from the building where we put out the big daily in downtown Syracuse.
Tommy Hrim was the man who handed over the plate filled with food and slid over the mug filled with beer and turned on the TV with the game, played by his beloved St. Louis Cardinals you could be sure if it was being televised. The N&H was owned by his family, father Nicholas and mother Jo, and she did the cooking and he did — well, by the time I moved to Syracuse in 1983 at the age of 25 to take the position of assistant sports editor and was indoctrinated by similar-aged newsroom denizens into the culture of the N&H, Nick sat on a stool in the corner of the bar and acted like he owned the joint.
Tommy, though, he worshipped Jo and honored his father and treated every customer in their as if you where his best friend. If he really liked you, you got a nickname. He’s the guy who gave KP, my golfing pal and my best friend still, that nickname, figuring him as the Kingpin. I became Wojo, after the Polish detective on popular TV comedy of that time “Barney Miller,” and only Tommy Hrim could call me that. At dinner time, if Jo made her chicken friccaisie and creamed corn with real mashed potatoes and gravy, we’d order that. To return the favor, KP and Bake and I gave the Chicky Fricky an even better nickname. We three would march in and tell Tommy we wanted the Yellow Plate Special. The breaded pork steak became the dreaded pork steak. And only we were allowed to get away with that one. We knew it was OK because when we’d cleaned our plates he’d
say, “Pie?” “Window cut?” he’d add, offering us the widest of slices.
At that point in Syracuse’s history, the cable company had not run its lines to that part of downtown. And Tommy needed more baseball than what any rabbit ears could pull in, and dang those high neighboring buildings sure messed with his reception anyway. So the N&H became the first joint I ever saw that bought satellite TV. When we’d run over after getting the paper to bed around midnight, giving us a couple hours to unwind and socialize amid ourselves, Tommy would have a West Coast baseball game on the TV above the bar. Even if Bob the Mailman and Bob the Bus Driver and Stella — his nickname for Judy, whom we all knew he was sweet on — had tired out and gone home by then, he’d be there by himself, waiting for the newspaper crew to arrive for our second shift of the day at the N&H. I think he was a tad leery of insulting the women other than Stella, though. In our newspaper crew, they were simply Sister Gloria, Sister Margaret, Sister Melinda …
Thursday nights started my weekend because the sports editor worked Monday to Friday and assigned me to supervise the Sunday shift. So I’d fish dimes out of my pocket, and push the keys for Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” and “The Kid Is Hot Tonight’ on the juke. At the first notes, “It’s the Weekend” was the shout, from me and my pals. If I was particularly worked up that night, I’d fashion a running start, and belly-flop a baseball slide across the barroom floor.
Oh, to be 25 years old.
“Baseball, please,” Tommy Hrim would say, old enough to be my father, wise enough to let me be silly when I needed to be, smart enough to sit there and offer serious suggestions when it wasn’t Thursday night. He came to my first wedding, when I was 30 years old, with Stella as his date, in June of the baseball season of 1988. I saw he and Bob the Mailman at the Chiefs’ new stadium when my terrific daughter Elisabeth was in the first April of life, when I was 32, at the start of baseball season 1990. His eyes sparkled when he saw me holding our little one dressed in a tiny Mets uniform.
He took care of us, his own, his gang. On Super Bowl Sunday, he knew I’d be busting butt getting an important Monday sports section looking the best it could be. When I limped over to the N&H with the paper to bed, knowing the joint had been open with special food for the biggest of games and I’d missed it all, Tommy would slide into the kitchen and return with a warm kielbasa and kraut sandwich he’d set aside for me.
Eventually, Tommy got tired of running the restaurant and the bar. They sold that spot to a biker who had a pretty good idea for a barbecue joint. Yup, the nationally famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que got its start where the Hrim family served up Chicky Fricky, window cut pie and draft beer. In fact, owner John Stage kept the simple N&H light sign on the bar room wall for years after his place became popular to pay tribute.
Tommy got cancer a couple years after that, and we all heard, of course. But he still worked some, at a place on Syracuse’s west side, and he and Stella and Bob the Mailman still went up to the ballpark.
Then came the awful news. At the start of the baseball season of 2004, on April 4, Tommy Hrim passed away at the age of 66. I cried at the calling hours, hoping his call of “Baseball, please,” was being answered up above.
Here’s the link to Tommy Hrim’s online obituary.
Have you experienced a corner joint where the proprietor treated the regulars like family, and if so, where and what was it called? Have you come up with a nickname for a favorite food dish, and if so, what is it? Is there a saying that an old friend had that’s stuck in your head for decades, and if so, who said it and what is it?