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.

I don’t have stories from the evening I spent with Fergus Carey so much as a series of drunken impressions. Fergie giving a toast. F­ergie singing about he­roin and cocaine. F­ergie seeing me talking to a short man in a paisley shirt and telling me, with a grin, “Don’t talk to this little fook.” Fergie clapping along to a singer in a white wig and a p­urple codpiece. Fergie raising up a whiskey glass and downing a shot—and another, and another.

Some of this stuff happened at the traditional Irish pub he owns, Fergie’s, on Sansom Street, and some of it happened at a theater space in the Loft District, where he went to see a show. My notes are only partly reliable. From about 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., they’re clear enough. After that, they’re just semi-random black marks on a page.

I do remember that Fergie, who is 49, was wearing a black leather jacket, a black t-shirt and jeans. He was lean and ropy; he said he’d lost 40 pounds in the past 18 months, mainly by drinking less beer and working with a personal trainer. His long hair was Gandalf-gray at the roots, slurring to white as it curled away from his head in wisps. His voice was thin and Irish-accented, and between words he uttered this low, sustained musical hum, which became like glue that he used to link one word to another. He conveyed a lot with hand gestures. At one point, in the pub, Fergie joked that I was like those reporters with the troops in Afghanistan, only instead of embedding with soldiers, I was embedded with him. At least, I think that’s what he was trying to say. I know he found the idea of someone shadowing him hilarious. When I first emailed him to ask if I could write about him, I included links to other profiles I’ve written about durable Philadelphia characters—Jerry Blavat, the deejay, and Schoolly D, the rapper. Fergie called me a few days later. “So you’ve exhausted all the other people,” he said. “You’re scccccraping the bottom of the barrel.” Inside the pub, he threw his arms out wide and looked around: “Afghanistan!” (The next day, presumably hungover like me, he sent an email, subject line “Afghanistan”: “It might be more fun than being embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan but it might be more dangerous too. Ouch.”)

Often during my night with Fergie, he was the center of attention. When he walked into the theater in the Loft District, a man came up to him and started playfully punching him in the ribs, saying, “You motherfucker, you motherfucker you, I’m gonna head-butt you.” At the pub, beautiful women approached and put their hands around his shoulders and started telling me stories about the old days, stories about the time before Fergie was a minor hospitality tycoon, when he was just a broke bartender with a dream of opening his own place and a reputation for hard partying. (One of my notes reads simply, “Naked party at the fountain.” The next note says, “Which one, Fergie?”) I lost track of Fergie for long stretches, times during the night when I couldn’t see his hair or hear his voice. He seemed to recede into the bustle and the noise. And then suddenly I’d swivel my neck and he’d be there, right there, the corners of his lips curled up, surveying the scene with pale blue eyes, pushing more beers in my direction.

 

It’s kind of hard to figure out what Fergie actually does. He’s a publican, obviously. He owns pubs, four of them, including Monk’s Cafe on 16th Street in Center City, the Belgian Cafe in the Art Museum neighborhood, and Grace Tavern in the Graduate Hospital area. (His wife, Christine Chisholm, is also part owner of the 13-year-old Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant, bringing the family’s Philly haul to five establishments.) But a lot of people own pubs. Fergie is different. Almost every night, Fergie is on the premises of one pub or another, sweeping the floor, hyping the band. He greets his repeat customers warmly, asking after their wives and parents and cats, and if he doesn’t know a person’s name, he makes sure to learn it. Other pub owners do that, too, but Fergie is just better at it. His mental Rolodex includes many hundreds of Philadelphia drinkers. And it’s reciprocal: Thousands of Philadelphia drinkers know who Fergus Carey is. He isn’t the most famous person in the city, but he may be the most uncomplicatedly beloved. When he walks in the city, it takes him 45 minutes to go two blocks, because people are always shouting his name, stopping him, telling him stories and jokes. It drives his two young kids nuts.

Much of this has to do with the remarkable longevity of his establishments. According to Suzanne O’Brien, a restaurant consultant and former platonic roommate of Fergie, when you open a new bar or restaurant, you’re supposed to stick to a five- or six-year plan. You pay your investors back in year three, start making money by year four. By year six, you either sell or change the concept. But Fergie’s has been open now for 18 years, and Monk’s, a mecca for Belgian beers, for 15. Grace Tavern is eight years old, and the Belgian Cafe is five. In the past decade, as many of Philly’s 20-something drinkers have pushed their way beyond Center City into new territories, pulling up bar stools in South Philly and Northern Liberties and Fishtown, Fergie’s properties have continued to thrive. Fergie, who gets around the city mainly by bicycle, has never considered opening anything in Northern Liberties or Fishtown, because “it’s a fuckin’ different landscape, really. I’m not cyclin’ over there, that’s all I’m saying.”

He also owns part of a beer bistro in Canada and an inn in Scotland, which his friends refer to, offhandedly, as “Fergie’s Scottish hotel.” Fergie lives in a handsome rowhouse off South Street and owns a tiny shack on cheesy little Lake Garrison in Jersey. But you’d never know he was prosperous. His bike is a Sears-model beater; his yellow Jeep dates to 2001. “Any fookin’ idiot can do this job,” he says with a mock sneer, adding, apologetically, “I’m just a lucky bartender, really.” Other public figures in Philly thrive by showing people how much effort it takes to be them. But Fergie thrives by concealing it. He makes the act of running a pub look like such a natural extension of his personality that it doesn’t even qualify as work, which, of course, is an illusion. “He has the same qualities as people I know who are incredibly talented community organizers and activists,” says Chisholm, a schoolteacher by training. “This ability to reach out and make things happen. I just feel like his cause is pleasure.”

Fergie grew up in Dublin, the second youngest of five children. His father was a civil servant, and his mother took care of the kids. Fergie never went to college. In his 20s, he ended up managing a fast-food restaurant called Burgerland in the center of Dublin.

In the mid-’80s, the economy tanked, and Fergie wanted a change of scenery. “The thought of going to England was like, Fuck, stick pins in me fingers. There was no way I was going to England, to the same drab climate.” So in 1987, he came to America instead. He brought little more than a suitcase—no money, no green card. He likes to say that he took advantage of “the Aer Lingus apprenticeship” to get himself here. “You know what that is?” he says. “You get on a plane in Dublin and you have no skills, and you get off the plane in New York and you’re a carpenter, a painter, whatever somebody’s lookin’ for. My Aer Lingus apprenticeship was a housepainter. I figured I couldn’t really kill anybody as a housepainter.”

He was 24. He went to Houston, where a friend from Ireland had moved a few years before, and slept on a sofa for two weeks. That didn’t work out so well. Fergie tried to get around Houston by walking instead of driving, which Houstonians interpret as a sign of mental illness. He walked to bars at night, across highways, and cars honked at him.

It wasn’t until Fergie made his way to Philly, in late 1987—a pen pal’s family lived here—that he found his place in America. He got a job at the food court in the Cherry Hill Mall and a room in a shared house. On his bike, he could get around the city—a big, dirty city that reminded him of Dublin. Fergie only made $4 an hour, but he could still afford to go out at night, especially if he went to a place called McGlinchey’s, on 15th Street, one of the city’s raunchier ­outposts—the kind of claustrophobic, smoke-filled space that always had a nasty vat of hot dogs boiling away in the kitchen. College students, artists, outright criminals and theater punks pounded 40-cent beers. Fergie’s first visit to McGlinchey’s was a revelation: He gave the bartender two bucks, threw back his beer, and told the guy to keep the change.

Fergie got to know all the regulars at McGlinchey’s. Then, before long, he squeezed behind the bar and started pouring drinks.

Emily Bittenbender, a patron from those days—she had just graduated from Moore College of Art & Design—remembers me­eting Fergie for the first time. “It was basically instantaneous love,” she says. “I was standing at the bar, trying to order a beer, and he told some guy who was sitting at a stool to get up, and the next day we went out for brunch, and we’ve been friends ever since.” Another former McGlinchey’s customer, Greg Giovanni, recalls, “I had an ulcer. He’s the only bartender who would give me a whiskey neat and a glass of milk. He wouldn’t blink an eye. I wouldn’t even have to say anything.”

Fergie seemed to know what you wanted before you did. And the party didn’t end at the bar. Fergie brought the party back to his place. For a time, he was living with a bunch of people in a big gray run-down house on Carlisle Street. Friends remember one party in particular where a transvestite in an Indian costume stopped by. Everyone thought he was weird, but they partied with him just the same. Everyone was poor, and there were no cops or hipsters. Fergie had a closet full of theater costumes, and by the end of a party, he might be dressed as a Mummer. At beach parties, he might take his clothes off entirely. (“I have seen his butt so many times,” says Suzanne O’Brien.) Sometimes he’d have his guests perform “party pieces,” little songs or dances to keep people entertained. When it came time for Fergie’s piece, he might stand and recite Yeats from memory. The room would get quiet. Then he’d break the silence: “FOOK YOU.”

Years passed. The college kids got jobs, the artists went to college. But Fergie was still Fergie. “People all seemed to have other things going on,” he says. “They were artists, students, whatever. I feel like I’m nothin’. I turned 30 and I’m like, Oh, fook, what am I gonna do?” He took classes at a community college, imagining he would write plays, but eventually stopped.

In 1994, Fergie saw a sign for an old bar on Sansom Street that was for lease, dirt cheap. Closed for years, it had once been a lesbian hangout. The block was one of the worst in the city; at night, transvestite hookers swerved past, and there was a brothel across the street. Fergie toured the building, an empty shell full of mirrors. He pulled down the mirrors and saw German writing inscribed beneath; before it was a lesbian bar, it had been a German restaurant.

If he was ever going to own a bar, this was his opportunity. Still, “I hemmed and hawed,” he says. He walked over to Caribou for a coffee and ran into a friend named Christy McKenna, who was then a manager at the now-defunct Pamplona. He confessed that he didn’t know what to do.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” McKenna asked him.

That’s when he realized: The worst that could happen wasn’t that bad.

Fergie knew he wanted the pub to incorporate elements of his favorite pub in Dublin, the Palace. When you walked into the Palace, you could tell it hadn’t changed in more than a hundred years. It had red-and-cream walls and a plaque behind the bar that said, “A bird is known by his song, a man by his conversation.” (This quote is now printed on the menu at Fergie’s.) It felt so warm, it almost glowed. Fergie wanted his place to glow. But he didn’t just want to copy the Palace. He wanted to make something new.

 

“He’s been set free! By glam rock!”

Fergie grins and points to a drunk man in a plaid shirt and glasses. The man is dancing laps around the darkened room at Underground Arts, a theater venue in the Loft District, his arms upraised in some private ecstasy. Onstage, a woman in a ’60s-­housewife dress and fake pearls sings “Do You Remember Walter?” by the Kinks: Walter, remember when the world was young/And all the girls knew Walter’s name? Fergie bounces up and down, clapping with the beat.

The show is Eternal Glamnation, a rock opera that tells the story of an American family awakened and released by the power of glam rock. Fergie has seen it five times already, but he’s thrilled to be seeing it again. “It’s glam rock, you know,” he tells me. “The songs are stuck in your head.” It’s the kind of theater he likes, raw and cheap and low to the ground, and there’s a bar. The actress in the dress and pearls, Jess Conda, is an employee of his. Conda tends bar upstairs at Fergie’s Pub a couple days a week, but she first got to know Fergie through the theater. She went to work for him after she lost a full-time job as a teacher. “I’m like, ‘Fergie, I’m fucked,’” Conda says to me. “He’s like, ‘Come to Fergie’s, you start tomorrow.’”

Fergie has never lost the connection with the theater community that he forged as a bartender at McGlinchey’s. The only difference is that he’s now in a position to really help. He’s been involved with the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe since its inception 16 years ago, when the Fringe folks would rent a warehouse to put on a show and Fergie would oversee the bar, cashing in chits with beer distributors to score deals on booze and then giving the proceeds to the festival. “It was quasi-legal back then, but Fergie was like, ‘Bring it on, man,’” says Nick Stuccio, the festival’s producing director. In addition, Fergie has served for years as chairman of the board of Brat Productions; Brat puts on shows in alternative venues for the price of a movie ticket. Fergie’s heroes tend to be artists, like the Irish playwrights Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. He regularly lends the second floor of his pub to theater troupes.

At Underground Arts, Conda is joined onstage by a man in a naval uniform and a woman with a long ponytail. The ensemble plows through tunes by Elton John and Adam Ant; one scene features a drag queen, a “glam alien” covered in glitter, and a shirtless dude with dark eye shadow and what looks like a cucumber wedged in his pants. From the audience, Fergie sings along to “Oh You Pretty Things,” by David Bowie: Oh you pretty things/Don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane. By the end of the show, we hear the drunk guy in the plaid shirt sighing orgiastically.

Afterward, the drag queen sits in a chair, texting, while the other actors circulate. Greg Giovanni, the one who had the ulcer and drank milk, is here; he assistant-directed the show and designed the lighting. “Theater people love Fergie,” he says. “He’s always asking, ‘What’s new, what’s next, what are you working on?’ That’s all we want to hear.”

It’s time to head back to the pub. On our way out of the building, Fergie stops to chat with an enormous guy in a hoodie sitting on the railing of the staircase. The bouncer.

“Did you take the guy in the plaid shirt out?” Fergie asks.

“Yeah.”

“Ah,” Fergie sighs.

“The bartenders were complaining,” the bouncer says. “And—”

“But it was just a little guy let out for the night!” Fergie interrupts. He throws his hands to the skies.

“I know, Ferg. It wasn’t my call.”

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.

  • 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.