Fergie Carey Would Like to Make a Wee Toast
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.
“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.”