Frank McCourt’s Wake

by Dennis Hudson, September 2, 2009

The crowd assembled Saturday afternoon at the Washington Square Bar & Grill in San Francisco to pay tribute to the fallen teacher and author of “Angela’s Ashes,” and “Teacher Man.” Most attendees were of an age, myself included. I didn’t know Frank personally, just through his writing.

Ed Moose, original owner of The Washbag, looked sharp in his black blazer as he came down the bar. He was the first person I spoke with. He told me the small but efficient space between the barstools and the railing that separates the bar from the dining area was measured precisely to let people pass — but only one at a time. It remains hard to traverse this alley without being taken into conversation by someone. I asked about Ed’s wife Marietta, and he said she was doing well with her new shoulder — the doctors did a good job. I said, “There were some good years here when you owned the Square.” He smiled, cuffed me on the shoulder and continued down the bar.

When I turned to the bartender to order drinks, she said, “The complimentary drinks are in the other room, sir.” So the other room it was. Drinks in hand, my wife and I started looking for a place to sit. Soon we were invited to join a table of four and were welcomed by the occupants. After the introductions they continued with their discourse.

The microphone clicked on and a white-haired personnage addressed the gathering. After the greetings, the Frank stories came. The speaker and Frank went to Carnegie Hall for a concert. When they got to their seats Frank looked down at the stage and said, “Do you think we can hear from up here?” The friend went on about the acoustic properties of the hall and how famous it was for its sound. Frank said, “What?”

Michael McCourt, who was giving the wake for his brother Frank, came to the microphone and told us about their younger brother Alfie, who never said much — in fact it was hard to get two words out of him. Michael said he had gone to see Angela when she was gravely ill in hospital. Alfie had been there before him that day. So Angela says to Michael, “Ya just missed old blabbermouth.”

After the stories, the microphone went to those who would sing — and sing they did. “Danny Boy” for starters, then on to other Irish songs. I was taken by the crowd, which fell absolutely silent when a singer began. At the conclusion of each song the room broke into wild conversation, as if the music had surrendered — the craic was good.

The food table had mulligans done up like I’d never seen. Handmade potato chips with a dab of potato salad on top. Delicious.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the crowd. He always gives off a serene feeling. He seemed even softer that day. The guy at Graffeo calls him Lorenzo the painter. Jack Hirschman sat with us for a moment. He said, “I’m looking for my wife.” He does that a lot. I know the feeling.

At our table we had gotten to know each other a bit. Mia Kelly the school teacher, Ron Turner the publisher and Warren Hinckle the gadfly. When asked where we came from, I gave the short answer: Boonville. Warren looked up and said, “Oh, Bruce Anderson’s turf.” A delightful remark, I thought. Mia told me the Irish say, the best thing you can do at a wake is to show up.

My wife stopped Michael McCourt as he passed our table. She told him that our wedding reception was in this very room, and he had been the bartender that day. He look up at me and said, “Have you forgiven me yet?”

At the end while the people started to spill out onto the sidewalk, I said to a girl, “It was a nice wake.” She said, “It was no Rosary.”

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