Fergie Carey Would Like to Make a Wee Toast

The man who made Fergie’s and Monk’s legendary saloons proves that in a city loaded with great characters, the best is the guy pouring the beer.

The first night Fergie’s opened, in 1994, there was a line out the door. Fergie’s father flew over from Dublin. The keg of Guinness was kicked within an hour. Fergie manned the bar along with his business partner, Wajih Abed, a Palestinian native who for years had tended bar at Bookbinder’s. It was a year until they hired a bartender. “It’s the most draining thing I’ve ever done,” Fergie says. “I could barely eat. Black coffee and single-malt scotch. I heard that single-malt scotch wouldn’t give you a hangover. I lost some weight, actually. The single-malt-scotch diet is better than the Master Cleanse. The Cluelessly-Open-a-Bar diet.”

Cluelessness notwithstanding, Fergie then opened Monk’s, with a partner named Tom Peters, and that was a success, too—and then so was Grace, and then the Belgian Cafe, another venture with Peters. Fergie never had a formal business plan, but he did have an instinctual sense that if you acted like you owned the place, eventually you could. And he was smart about picking partners. Most were longtime friends; he’d gotten to know Peters, a passionate student and promoter of Belgian beers, back when Peters managed the Copa Too, the bar next to McGlinchey’s. Fergie kept his inner circle free of assholes, which in the restaurant industry is saying a lot. And it turned out that Fergie’s niche in the industry—craft beer—was perfectly suited to his talent for making friends. “It’s a passion industry,” says Mat Falco, co-founder of the website Philly Beer Scene. “You’ve gotta be friends with brewers to get the beer. And Fergie’s really good at making friends.”

It’s hard to know how much of Fergie’s self-deprecation is genuine humility and how much is canny image management. “Most people think they’re smarter than they are,” says Fergie’s personal trainer, Mike Thau, who first met Fergie 25 years ago, when he was a Temple student frequenting the bars along 15th Street to drink and dance. Fergie called him Twinkle Toes. “He probably thinks he’s not as smart as he is,” Thau goes on. “Which is a huge advantage.”

I had asked Thau and Fergie if I could observe one of their training sessions. Fergie politely declined. When I have coffee with Thau in his Bella Vista apartment, I understand why. Thau used to teach philosophy at UCLA, and inside 10 minutes, we’re discussing Socrates, Tolstoy, the Bhagavad Gita, “the death of the self,” and how all of these things inform his work with Fergie. Fergie is a person who’s surrounded by other people at all times; the sessions with Thau give him a rare opportunity to be relatively alone, although not completely so. “He’s never alone,” says Suzanne O’Brien. “I think he’s afraid of being alone.”

As weird as this may seem, Fergie is actually “a very private person,” according to his wife. She went on her first date with Fergie in 2001, back when she was working at Haverford High School in the suburbs, teaching English. Chisholm usually went out with “tall, depressive, pensive” types, and when a friend set her up, she looked for pictures of Fergie on the Internet. She found one where he was wearing Braveheart makeup. “I thought, Can I really date a guy like that?” she says. “But I poured myself a stiff drink and went into the pub and introduced myself.”

Fergie had just come from a dinner where he had accepted an award from a professional association. He was dressed in a suit. He showed Chisholm a book that the association had given him, detailing his accomplishments. “He said to me, ‘So, did you bring any awards or trophies that you could show me?’” Chisholm had never met anyone like him. “He started talking about living by the Italian Market: ‘Everybody’s always talking about how great it is. I hate it. It smells bad.’” Eventually, they went to dinner at Pod, a swank Asian restaurant with fu­turistic decor—about the most un-Fergie spot in the city. At one point during the meal, Fergie told Chisholm the story about his father attending the opening of the pub. By the end of the story, he was weeping.

Before she met Fergie, Chisholm had been thinking about moving to San Francisco, to be near her sister. She didn’t like Philly; it seemed so unfriendly. But over the next couple years, as she spent more and more time with Fergie, she began to see the city differently. “It’s like being in a charmed place, right?” she says. “To be in his glow. Philadelphia feels like a completely different place to me because of Fergie.”

They married in 2003 and now have two children: a boy, Eamonn, eight, and a girl, Degitu, five, who’s adopted from Ethiopia. Fergie’s friends all say that becoming a father has changed him far more dramatically than mere aging has. “I think it was a huge transition for him,” Chisholm says. “I mean, he’s a professional reveler. It took a little while for him to find a balance.” When Chisholm and Fergie first met, he would come home at 3 a.m., and she’d go to work at 6 a.m. But now he often eats dinner at home, with her and the kids, instead of at one of his businesses.

“I keep telling him, this is what you spent your whole life working for,” Chisholm says. “You have arrived. This is the time when you just look around and see what you’ve built for yourself and your family.” She adds, “Sometimes he’s like that 18-year-old Irish kid: ‘I can’t believe.’ As if it all just fell into his lap.”

 

After Eternal Glamnation, Fergie and I call a cab, ride back to his pub, and wobble through the heavy oaken door. It’s about 10:30 p.m., and as we climb to the second floor, I try not to trip on the stairs. I weave through a crowd to the bar. Beers materialize, as if by magic. I drink them, and more appear. The bartender, a young woman in a sequined miniskirt, tells me she’s a musician; not long ago, she and her sister competed on the reality show The Voice, and Fergie gave them time off to travel to the tapings.

A band takes the stage and launches into a song with a tripped-out bayou vibe. The frontman wears a San Francisco 49ers ball cap. (“SF BALL CAP,” I scribble, “FUCKIN’ BRILLIANT.”) They are followed by a band whose drummer looks like Lurch from The Addams Family. It happens to be the lead singer’s birthday, and between songs, the bartender and her twin sister share a microphone and harmonize on “Happy Birthday.”

I check in with Fergie. He asks if I’ve ever seen 24 Hour Party People, the film about the Manchester, England, music scene in the ’80s—Joy Division, New Order. He’s thinking about a line from the film, spoken by the main character, the head of an influential record label. The label head was talking about the moment when his bands seemed to explode, and Manchester, this unlikely place, this gritty factory town, became the center of the music universe. “He says that suddenly, Manchester, England, is Renaissance Florence,” Fergie says.

Fergie looks around the pub. It’s loud. People are dancing. The band is locked into a groove. For a moment, no one seems to take any notice of the man who built it all, standing in their midst. “I mean, we could hit that,” Fergie says. “For five minutes! In Philly!” Then his face splits into a grin, and Fergie Carey spins and melts into the crowd.

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  • Kennedy

    Brilliant, wildly amusing piece.

  • Earl J

    He is caricature of himself. Supposed to be a traditional old school beer guy but his places won’t fill Growlers which is as traditional euro as it gets.