Rogue of the month: Long John Gallagher
The black Irish smoldered in his dark eyes, a scary sight indeed, and I braced myself for his coming over the bar. Instead, his eyes clouded over, his face went slack, and he collapsed to the floor.
Photo by Stacey Warde
Like a barnacle He worked the high seas and the docks when Morro Bay was a thriving fishing port, and hung out in Happy Jack’s Saloon with a crew of roughnecks.
Long John Gallagher: Beached pirate
By Dell Franklin
Long John Gallagher, who doesn’t wear a ring in his ear, and doesn’t carry a cutlass but looks like he should, worked as a deckhand for many a fishing captain in Morro Bay for many a year. He had, and still has, the aura of a crusty old sea dog, though the fishing industry that once employed him is all but dried up. He worked the high seas and the docks when Morro Bay was a thriving fishing port, and hung out in Happy Jack’s Saloon with a crew of roughnecks with names like “Dirty Ernie,” “Badass Van,” “Two-Beer,” and Ray “One-eyed Pitbull” Stanley, for whom he once worked.
Stanley’s policy and strategy with John, was to make sure he “lived” on the boat so he was assured John would be there in the morning to go back out to sea after a brutal binge during which close to a grand was blown, and his hangover was a death rattle. Stanley, who was usually hung over, too, and in Happy Jack’s with John, but slept in a nearby motel had no mercy for hung over deckhands.
Now, if the captain didn’t keep Long John on the boat, there was no telling where he might end up. On Pancho the Pool Player’s floor? In Sally the Sea Hag’s bed? On the floor of somebody else’s motel room?
Under an upside-down dingy on the beach? Or, goddammit, on the pool table in Happy Jack’s, where the owner, Dave Tope, found him when arriving at eight in the morning to count last night’s receipts?
“Get up, John, and make us some coffee!” Mr. Tope would say. “And try not to break anything back there.”
“You didn't kill anybody last night, did you, John?”
“No, boss. Not that I know of.”
“Did somebody try to kill you? You don’t look so hot.”
John, rubbing his teeth, checking his face, would usually say, “Maybe somebody tried, boss. Or maybe I tried.”
Later on, after checking his empty pockets, and serving Dave coffee in his office, he hit him up for a twenty, and Dave always gave it to him, because John was good for it, and a man had to eat.
I first met Mr. Gallagher as a bartender at Happy Jack’s—last of the Pier 6 fishermen’s dives on the West Coast. I worked there from 1991 until 1999. I met Mr. Gallagher in 1991, early on. He’d just come off a trip. It was very late of a weeknight. He and a fellow deckhand were very drunk. They wore pea coats, watch caps, dungarees, smelly boots. They held each other up. I’d been warned about Gallagher. He was built tall and lanky like Clint Eastwood, and had the facial intimidation of Jack Palance.
“Gimme a goddamn drink!” he demanded.
“I don't think so. You’ve been over-served, pal.”
“Over-served. Bullshit! I’ll come back there and kick your ass. Now gimme a goddamn drink!”
The black Irish smoldered in his dark eyes, a scary sight indeed, and I braced myself for his coming over the bar. Instead, his eyes clouded over, his face went slack, and he collapsed to the floor. I ran around the bar. His burly pal and I lifted him to his feet and settled him on a stool.
“You can’t fight me if you’re passed out,” I said.
“I didn’t pass out. I got a bum knee.”
“Bullshit. You blacked out, fell down.”
He tried to stand, but began listing, so we sat him back down. He flashed a mean, conniving grin. “I’d still like that drink.”
“OK, we’ll do one together.”
Gallagher was more than a regular. When he wasn’t fishing, Happy Jack’s was his home, central headquarters, his social life. He used the pay phone, ate his meals from various Mexican restaurants, a burger joint, and the nearby liquor store, in the bar. When he had money, he loaned it out liberally, and when he was broke, he borrowed. He had many friends and acquaintances in the fishing fraternity from Morro Bay to the Pacific Northwest. Fishermen take care of each other, and they quarrel. Gallagher kept getting in fights. I got weary of dealing with him. One night somebody blindsided him and cracked him up pretty good. The paramedics came, and then the police. Gallagher, who’d done serious prison time, and had the tattoos to show for it, is not a friend of cops, though he tried to be. He refused that night to go to the emergency room in San Luis Obispo for stitches and an X-ray to see if he had any brain cells left. And he wouldn’t press charges.
“But the guy hit you in the head with a pool cue and brained you with a pool ball,” the cop said. “That’s an attack with a deadly weapon, Mr. Gallagher.”
Gallagher shrugged while the paramedics worked on him. Finally, they all left. “Why didn’t you press charges?” I asked John. “The guy could’ve killed you.”
“Fisherman’s code,” he explained, matter-of-fact. “I’ll get the sonofabitch back, when he least expects it. I’ve done the same to guys, and got revenged back. Fisherman's code…hey, gimme a drink!”
I finally found the right solution to control Gallagher. I made him doorman on all my shifts. The sense of responsibility possessed him. I paid him off in beer and shots of Jack. I had to rein him in a little or he’d drink the bar dry. When I did so he acted like a little boy whose mother scolded him for failing to take out the trash.
“Look, John, if you do a good job, I promise to reward you at the end of the night.”
“What kind of reward?” he inquired suspiciously.
“I'll kiss you, honey.”
The mean grin, not so conniving. “OK, darlin’.”
One evening the bar was packed and we had Gallagher helping out washing glasses and serving draft beer. Both of us drunk. One thing led to another, and the next thing, we were fighting. During a lull, I said, “John, you’re too drunk to hurt me without a weapon, and I’m too drunk to hurt you without a weapon, so get the fuck out from be-hind this bar before I take the Galleano bottle to you.”
He was thoroughly understanding of the situation, as was the fleet of fishermen in the bar, and later, after closing, in the wee hours, everybody gone, we talked it over, I think, did some shots and brews, among other items, a final bonding of rogue outlaws. Both of us were unmarked from the fisticuffs.
John’s social skills as doorman were something to behold. Five years in prison for grand theft, burglary and possession gave him a keen insight into violent troublemakers, an ability to persuade instead of confront, a propensity to win the confidence of and make friends with the worst perpetrators. He could talk down a serial killer.
Fishermen from as far away as Washington came all the way to Happy Jack’s with the specific purpose of getting in a fight, perhaps going to jail, because they’d been in fights in every fisherman’s dive bar from San Diego to Alaska. He shook their hands, talked fishing, steered them to girls. John knew all the girls—the biker molls, sea hags, the occasional looker, the random hooker. He never paid. To the most woebegone and downtrodden of female, he was big brother buddy, shrink, sometime bunk-mate.
“What about marriage, John?”
“Nah. Tried it long ago. Didn’t work. Unfixed tomcats shouldn’t get married.”
“You never fight over the girls, do you?"
“Nah, they fight over me. Only time I fight over women is when somebody fucks with them.”
“A gentleman pirate, then?”
“Yeah, I like that.”
“You started out in a white neighborhood down south…then went to prison…how’d you survive as a twenty-year-old?”
“I hung with the right crowd. I didn’t necessarily agree with them, but it was a matter of race, and in prison, that’s protection.”
“You’ve come a long way from the white suburbs. Think, if you’d stuck around, you might be selling real estate and living in a faux mansion of sorts?”
The mean, conniving grin. “That would be boring.”
“Are you rehabilitated?”
“Hell no. I probably should’ve gone back to jail a few times, but I was lucky, and smart, and now I’m finished with the drinking and the other bullshit. I’m a gentleman ranch hand, living a quiet life in the back country of Morro Bay. Things are good.”
“What about your favorite bar, Happy Jack’s?”
“Too clean for me now. And all my buddies are gone. A whole bunch of them died at sea, or drank themselves to death. Me, I’m like a goddamn barnacle. They just can’t get rid of me.” §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com. Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here: