Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paul Schiffman

In my e-mail inbox this morning was the following message: "Paul Schiffman died last night in his apartment." I got to know Paul in the 1970s when he was a bartender at the Lion's Head and I was a young lawyer living in Greenwich Village. At the time, I was taking the waters at the Head, which was a few blocks from my apartment. I'd heard that Paul had been a captain in the Merchant Marine, so one night, after he'd gone off duty (Paul worked the early shift, from noon to eight in the evening) and taken a seat next to me at the bar, I told him of my four sea crossings of the Atlantic during my childhood and my continuing fascination with ships and the sea. After a while, he growled something about having made his living on the sea and not needing to hear about it from "landlubbers and bollard squatters." A few months later, I was once again sitting next to him and, undeterred by our previous encounter, I said I had read that the Liberté, on which I had crossed the Atlantic twice, had gone to the breakers. "When I read that I damn near cried," I said. "I loved that ship." He put an arm across my shoulders and said, "Claude, that's something you and I understand that landlubbers and bollard squatters never will."

Paul was emphatic in his likes and dislikes. Any drink with more than two ingredients was anathema. I was at the bar when four young men in suits came in. As one approached the bar, Paul said, "What can I get you, mate?" "Four tequila sunrises" was the answer. As Paul slammed four glasses down and was filling them with ice, the customer tried to make conversation, asking Paul what he thought about a scandal involving Bess Meyerson, a former Miss America who'd gotten involved in city politics. "None of my affair," Paul said, gruffly. "But did you see..." the man continued. "Look," Paul said, "I don't give a damn if they hang her or shoot her!" After the Head's owner installed TVs at each end of the bar, I was in one evening and got enthusiastic about a college basketball game. I noticed Paul glaring at me, and when our eyes met, he said, "We used to have a portable TV that we kept in the cabinet under the dry bar, and we brought it out once every year--for the Kentucky Derby!"

Over the years, Paul and I had many conversations. We never became close friends, but I came to cherish his company and his opinions. He was unsparing of any tendentiousness or bullshit. I last saw Paul about a year ago, at a reunion of Lion's Head alumni at the Kettle of Fish, the bar that now occupies the space formerly taken by the Head. As I was parting, I shook Paul's hand, and, sensing that it might be the last time, said something a bit awkward (I don't recall just what), and he gave me a sharp look. Just a few days ago, I was recalling this and wondering if I'd get the chance to see Paul again.

Update: there was a memorial gathering for Paul at the Kettle of Fish on Sunday, February 27. Read Dermot McEvoy's account of it here.


  1. Last times are like that, if you're not paying attention they can get by you. Sometimes they get by you anyway.

  2. Having done a bit of sailing in yachts, I once said something to Paul about "crossing the pond" to Europe. He slammed my Heineken down on the bar and snarled, "It's not a pond, it's the f***ing Atlantic Ocean!"

  3. With Wes and Mike and Tommy -- and now Paul -- gone (I'm sure I'm missing others), the Head's front line has passed. They were all formidable men and good friends. Thank you Claude for the soulful reminiscence.

  4. When I returned to the City in 1983 I went straight to the Head and discovered -- to my great delight -- I had not been made a stranger by an absence of nearly 13 years. Tommy was on the bar that night (30 March, also my birthday) and he welcomed me with "figured you'd be back eventually" and a big grin. A few days later, the ever-taciturn Paul surprised me by asking where I'd been and what I'd been doing, "The Pacific Northwest, mostly photography and journalism," I said, "including a damn fine alternative paper called The Seattle Sun." He merely nodded. But when I mentioned I'd spent a year as a commercial fisherman -- engineer on a 96-foot salmon seiner -- he rewarded me with one of his infinitely rare eye-to-eye smiles and muttered words I didn't quite catch -- sounded like "that makes you part of the brotherhood." Then as if embarrassed by his own display of emotion he looked away and hastened to serve someone else. Fair weather and following seas, Paul; may there be no U-boats in the waters of the hereafter.