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Local bartender is foundation of Washington Tavern

May 23, 2011

by Kayla Germain

While some might not know his name, many people recognize the “face” of the Washington Tavern. Mark Harris, whom many address him as “Mr. Harris,” has worked at the tavern for more than three decades.

Since 1980, Harris, 64, has been pouring pints and mixing martinis at the Washington

Harris tending bar at the Washington Tavern (Kayla Germain)

Tavern at 250 Western Ave. in Albany. He got his start tending bar at the Partridge Pub in 1975 and was approached five years later by Tavern owner Mike Byron to come work for him. Harris described his Irish-born boss as “a great family man with an equally hard working wife…their work ethic has never flagged over the years.”

Harris’ own work ethic has also remained steadfast. The tavern was the first bar he patronized in Albany while visiting his brother in the 1960s. As an employee, he has watched it grow. He has seen generations come and go, and children of those generations now come in to visit. He has trained hundreds of bartenders over the years and watched Albany evolve. Even with the bar now for sale and its future unknown, plans to retire are still “not on the horizon,” according to Harris.

The life of a bartender isn’t always easy. Harris would “absolutely not” recommend his own career to others. There aren’t benefits and the hours involve night and weekend shifts, which makes family life difficult. Harris makes a point to younger bartenders, “It’s fun on a short-term, you make money while you’re young,” but, “for the long-term,” he tells them, “find a career.”

Harris working at The Partridge Pub in the 70s, taken from a 1979 Saint Rose yearbook

A colleague of Harris’, Marc Perez,  has worked at the tavern for three years, and is taking his advice.  Perez has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University at Albany and is currently pursuing a paramedic degree from Hudson Valley Community College “I really like Mr. Harris, he’s one of the foundations of this place.” Perez knew Harris from when he was in school and was a tavern customer. Perez now works three nights a week as a bar back and bartender alongside Harris.

Many frequenters of the tavern associate Harris with the bar. “He’s a bartender who is really personable,” said Mike Del Piano, who has been coming to the tavern for five years. “It’s like a neighborhood bar,” he said. “It’s the Cheers of Albany.” Del Piano lived near the bar while attending school at UAlbany and now comes from Rensselaer. He is currently studying at Albany Law and noted that Harris takes a genuine interest in how he is doing with school.

The social aspect of being a bartender is a perk for Harris, and he enjoys the younger college crowd that comes in. “They’re more active, more fun,” said Harris.  The fellow employees he has gotten to know mean the most to Harris. “The biggest asset working here is the people I’ve worked with over the years,” said Harris. “I’m still very good friends with many of them.” Harris’ memory is sharp and he remembers most previous co-workers and patrons. Harris spoke of a time recently when a customer came in who had frequented the bar in the 1980s, “She didn’t think I would, but I totally remembered her. And now her son works here.”

Visitors to the bar often ask about Harris and if he is still working there. “People come back from years and years ago, just asking for Mr. Harris all the time,” said Herarto Gunopawiro, who was worked at the tavern for six years. “They’re so happy to see him. Almost every night of the week they’re like, ‘Is Mr. Harris working?,’” Gunopawiro said.

Harris in his early days at The Washington Tavern in the 1980s (Courtesy of Mark Harris)

The dedication that Harris has to the tavern is unwavering. Gunopawiro said that Harris never shuts the bar down before closing time. “Mr. Harris will always stay until the bitter end,” said Gunopawiro. “No matter how slow it is he will keep the bar open ‘til 4 a.m., just in case somebody wants to come by.” Harris does this because he believes that people expecting the tavern to be open should get what they are looking for. “People are driving from some place,” Harris said. “Shift workers, whomever, they make the effort to get here. You should be open.”

A typical night for Harris involves coming in at 7:30 p.m. and working until 5:30 or 6 a.m. He takes a break around 2:30, gets something to eat, then gets ready for last call. He works Tuesday through Friday at the tavern, and Monday night at The Ginger Man down the street. When Harris isn’t working, he watches hockey, sees shows at Proctor’s and spends time with his family. Harris has a daughter and son-in-law, and three grandchildren. His greatest enjoyment comes from his family.

At the bar, Harris said the busier he is, the happier he is. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” Harris said. “I enjoy working here.” He is not looking forward to the summer season because of the migration of many students, who are patrons and employees. “It’s bittersweet. It’s sad to see people you’ve formed relationships with leave.”

Over the years Harris admits he may have “slowed down a bit,” but it isn’t evident from watching him work. Even a glass of water is served uniquely, with the straw wrapper moistened to stick to the glass, a lemon squeezed and garnished on top. His overall health is good; standing long hours at the bar hasn’t brought him knee or back pain. “I’ve been lucky,” said Harris.

Even with the tavern now for sale, Harris is still loyal to whatever the future holds. As for future buyers, Harris acknowledged that “everyone has a different style” and that adjustments would likely be made. The only reason he would leave is if an owner was not as strict about the legal drinking age as the tavern currently is. The bar is not at all lenient with underage drinking, at times requiring two forms of picture identification to enter. Harris said that a license violation would put not only his own job at stake, but also other staff. “There are people involved. People rely on these jobs. Keeping the license is very important,” said Harris.

Harris is not considering taking tavern ownership on himself “because it’s a 24/7 job, seven days a week. It needs somebody that can devote to that time.” That being said, the pride that Harris takes in his work, the tavern, and the reputation it holds is evident. Harris said, “It’s the kind of bar other bartenders go to.”  -30-


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