Fergie Carey Would Like to Make a Wee Toast
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.”