The John Gildea I Remember
by Richard Diem
As a young lad I often went to the wrestling matches at the Sunnyside Gardens Arena, Gildea’s Bar was years ahead, but of course I didn’t know this at the time. In those days, I had my wrestling heroes in good guy Tony Martinelli and bad guy Frank “Tarzan” Hewitt.
My biggest thrill was when the heavyweight boxing champion of the world Primo Carnera wrestled there in his retirement. I approached this giant of a man after a match for his autograph. Reaching down to me, he pinched my nose and said, “Sure, kid.” That pinch left a mark on my nose that I proudly showed my friends for at least a week afterward. Today, his autograph must be worth at least a few hundred dollars.
In the day, the neighborhood was more rough-and-tumble. There was a bar called Gildea’s around the corner where boxers and their fans would go after a fight. The old saying was that if you were too late for the fight card at the arena, you went there because the undercard would get started after the third round of drinks. One long time Sunnyside resident remembers steering clear of Gildea’s as a young man because “that place was a bucket of blood…The owner John was the scariest man in the neighborhood. He had meat hooks for hands and he was never shy about using them.”
Into my early twenties when this rough and tumble place was my hangout and I was drinking a bit too much, I came to know “the scariest man in the neighborhood,” and he knew me too. He even liked me. And as tough as he was, I came to know the kindness of his heart.
One particular evening as the hours rolled by, I began to feel bad hunger pains. Knowing there was a refrigerator in the back room, I sneaked back to look for some food. Not noticing that the trap door to the basement behind me was open, I carelessly stepped back. Down I went, and there I went to spend the night in the scary man’s basement. No one knew where I was, and the bar closed down for the night.
At around five in the morning, I woke up and made my way upstairs to the bar area. At that moment, the bar cleanup man was on his way to work and saw me through the window, and of course, he called the boss. The next thing I remember was John Gildea himself opening the front door. Fearing the worst, I was surprised to find his Irish eyes smiling at me with a big grin that said, “You again.” I kind of remember his meat hook hands pouring us a shot of whiskey along with, “Now get the hell out and go home.”