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Where heroes hang out

Medal of Honor recipients find their way to Mick’s Inn.

Gregg Flaherty (left) talks with Bill Senski whose daughter, Rita Sens, did all the framing for Flaherty's keepsakes that line the walls in the backroom of Micks Inn. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Gregg Flaherty (left) talks with Bill Senski whose daughter, Rita Sens, did all the framing for Flaherty's keepsakes that line the walls in the backroom of Micks Inn. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read more

In the back room of Mick's Inn are framed, autographed portraits of Medal of Honor recipients. And whenever the heroes are in town, they take to the stools of the dimly lit Port Richmond bar and sometimes buy a round.

Bellied up there last week was Jon Cavaiani. He received his medal after getting his platoon out of enemy fire and enduring two years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

He keeps a bottle of Jack Daniel's, his name taped to the label, in a special spot behind the bar, near the bust of JFK and the leprechaun doll.

"That's tradition," he said of the whiskey, which he takes on the rocks. "You have to have Jack Daniel's in your life. He's been my friend."

Cavaiani, his hair a regal silver, came east from his California home for a national drag-racing tournament. He stopped by Mick's to "have a couple of horns, and renew old friendships."

As longtime bartender Gregg Flaherty tells it, for more than a decade, the esteemed veterans have been coming to what some would describe as a dive bar in this blue-collar, heavily Irish neighborhood, where residents decorate their front porches with American flags and home-team colors.

The lure began when the bar sponsored a hole in a charity golf tournament to support James "Daddy Wags" Wagner. A former Marine and owner of South Philly's Cookies Tavern, Daddy Wags was raising money for the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation.

As a thank-you, he sent over a portrait of his friend "The Colonel": Harvey C. Barnum Jr., a Marine from Virginia who received the medal for valor in Vietnam.

Being an Army guy, Flaherty wanted an Army guy, so Daddy Wags sent him a picture of Cavaiani, followed by other Medal of Honor recipients from around the country: Ronald Ray, Robert O'Malley, and James Allen Taylor.

They are among the 3,400 service members who have received the nation's highest military honor since 1861.

Above the portraits is a sky-blue flag signed by dozens of them that Cavaiani donated a while back. "Even the president doesn't have one of these," Flaherty bragged.

"Now they all come here," he said of the visiting veterans. "They like it because people treat them like people. Usually they go to affairs where they can't let their hair down and be themselves. Here they can drop an F-word sometimes."

Aside from the national heroes who pop in a few times a year, the regulars are all veterans of something: folded Catholic schools, long-gone businesses, and a neighborhood that now includes hipsters and artists.

They're all from here and know everybody who counts, through family and fading traditions.

One quiet afternoon, a handful stared up at the TV as Flaherty popped open cans of beer. The Phils were tied 1-1 in the first.

The bar at Clearfield and Belgrade Streets, across from a Police Athletic League office and a Celtic shirt shop, has been a neighborhood fixture since 1962, Flaherty said.

It's a place that respects God (a no-parking sign from the 1979 papal visit sits by the TV), sports (Flyers and Phillies championship banners by the door), and its connection to the past.

"People grew up with North Catholic," said Flaherty, wearing a gray '66 NC Falcons polo shirt. "Now that's closing."

After Flaherty graduated, he was drafted and spent 15 months crawling through the thick grass and swamps of Vietnam.

After his discharge, he clerked at nearby supermarkets for more than a decade. When the last one shut down, the bar's owner, Joe Mick, told him not to worry, he'd take care of him. "And he did," Flaherty said.

Flaherty, a married father of four (including a set of triplets), tended the bar nights. When Mick died, he went to days. He's worked at Mick's about 30 years.

There used to be a shuffleboard league, and ones for softball, baseball, and football. On Saturday afternoons, "you couldn't get a seat in this place," he said.

A lottery machine has replaced the neighborhood bookie. Most of Flaherty's longtime customers have died. Toward week's end, a younger bartender - Flaherty guesses he's about 25 - takes command, drawing a different crowd.

"Now we just babysit and dog-sit," he said of the free time between him and the missus. Three of his children and their children, he said proudly, live in the neighborhood.

Before long, sunlight crept in. "Yo, there he is," Flaherty shouted. "Len!"

Len, small and wiry, with brown spots on his hands and a white visor on his balding head, pulled up to the back of the bar.

"Anything you want, pal. Draft's out. Bud?"

Len nodded and asked for some black pepper. He shook some into his glass before pouring in the beer. Pepper, he explained, "keeps the action going."

Jack Connors extended a hand, knotty from his years at Midvale Steel. He doesn't even drink. "I don't do anything anymore," he said. "Now we all just hang around and tell lies to each other."

Around 3:30, the owner of the new pizzeria across street, Nick Cassizzi, came in. Business has been slow.

"We didn't have anything like it in the neighborhood," he said. "We're hopeful it will survive."

Cassizzi, whose father drank at Mick's, grew up "on the Italian side of the neighborhood." He lived in Manhattan for a time and traveled the world playing classical clarinet. "It was a wonderful life," he said. He and his wife now live across the street from the house he was born in.

When his cell phone buzzed, he looked at it and sighed. It was his youngest son calling from college, where he majors in "monkey business."

"I know what he wants. Money. 'I want to see my girlfriend,' " Cassizzi whined in mimicry. " 'I want to see my buddies.' Really? Come sling some pizzas."

Glued to the game, "The Judge" was troubled by nothing.

Not even the Phils' slump.

"They'll be OK," said "The Judge," 73-year-old Dennis Hanratty, who spent his career working in the county courthouse. He munched on cheese crackers as he worked on yet another Coors Light.

"As soon as they get their act together," he continued, "and start doing some batting. Everybody goes through a slump."

Even him. He's not the regular he used to be.

He comes through Mick's "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday," he said and chuckled. "It used to be Saturday, too."

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