At first, her comment sounded sacrilegious.
“The sign on the building might say ‘Manuel’s,’ but it’s ‘Bobby’s’ to us,” Patricia Kendall said, seated in a booth with a glass of beer.
She didn’t seem concerned that others could overhear – Atlantans are downright serious about their love for historic Manuel’s Tavern. Kendall and her husband Stephen have been dining there for 15 years. Regulars love the atmosphere and the home-style meals, but a certain bartender keeps the Kendalls coming back.
That bartender is Bobby Agee. He approached the booth, just as Kendall was saying how much she and her husband enjoyed his company. She repeated herself for Agee’s benefit.
“Oh,” he groaned, laughing, with a wave of his hand. The deflection only made him more endearing. “These are some of my favorite people,” he said, peering down at the Kendalls over his thin-rimmed eyeglasses. And then, he was off to another table, picking up plates and rushing behind the bar.
The Kendalls smiled fondly, watching him work. The feeling was mutual.
Beer Leads to Career
“I just hit 35 years,” Agee said, shaking his head. It’s not that he can’t believe so much time has passed. It’s more like the 63-year-old, white-haired, bearded bartender is thankful for every moment.
Agee moved to Atlanta from Charleston, West Virginia in 1973. “I came for a wedding and decided to stay.”
Charleston couldn’t compete with Atlanta for the 25-year-old’s attention. If a young man wasn’t interested in working the mines or in government, “there weren’t many other job options” up there.
His friends took him around Atlanta and after seeing the sights he was convinced. Following the wedding, he returned to Charleston only to pack up his bags.
He moved into the old Benning mansion on Oakdale Road, where he rented a cheap room. One afternoon, he and his roommate, Pat Glass, dropped into Manuel’s for a beer. Agee was unemployed after the latest stint of odd jobs that ranged from welding to carpet cleaning. Glass asked the bartender if they needed any help. They each walked in for a beer and both walked out with a job.
“Manuel intimidated me a little bit,” Agee recalled. “As soon as you’d see him, you’d get a rag in your hand and start wiping something down.”
One day, Manuel pointed at Agee and told him to wipe down the bottles – the old, glass collectibles that still sit on the upper right side of the bar. The young Agee climbed up with a wet rag, scared that he might drop one of those priceless pieces of glass. He took each bottle down, one by one, wiped it spotless and put each one back in its place. Nothing broke. Agee was relieved. More than anything, Manuel liked for things to be clean.
`“I doubt those old bottles have seen such a good cleaning since,” Agee said, laughing. “Sometimes I wish we still had him around – the way Manuel could get people moving, just by showing up.”
Time Marches On
A lot has happened in the 35 years since Agee walked into Manuel’s as a regular customer. Just two years into his job, he met his future wife, Cheryl, with whom he has three grown sons and five grandbabies. When Agee talks about his family, he seems to slow down – he settles in and doesn’t miss a detail. His granddaughter has finally developed a taste for ice cream, so he can take her out to get a scoop. He rattles off the years each of his sons were born and what they’re up to now. You’ve never seen a man look so proud.
And in the background of his family life, is a job he still loves, a place well known for it’s political history. Manuel’s has been a watering hole for generations of public officeholders and journalists with a left-leaning tilt. But ask Agee about any of the former presidents, senators or mayors who have dined there, and he has nothing to say. That’s not why he comes to work. He likes the hustle and bustle of a busy bar. He enjoys seeing his regulars. He just likes being at Manuel’s.
He has only two pet peeves: people who complain about the bar’s ceiling fan and instructions on mixing a drink. “That fan only has two settings: medium and off!” And to those customers who caution him to “make it strong”? Give the guy a break. “I just can’t stand it.”
The regulars always get the same charm and wit. If you misbehave, he will absolutely throw you out. He’s still got it, even if he is older. “I probably lost a step or two in the past few years,” he said, shrugging.
Just don’t ask him when he might retire. “That seems to be what everyone wants to know,” he said. “Actually, I don’t know, really.” A distant, wistful gaze came over his face. Will we have to cart him out of the bar? “Gosh, I hope it doesn’t come to that!” He might start off slowly, weaning himself away, shift-by-shift, the way some of his longtime co-workers have done – but not anytime soon.
For many customers, it’s hard to imagine there will eventually come a time when Bobby Agee isn’t standing behind that bar. He hopes that in the next 35 years, Manuel’s is still here — still a place where regulars are made out of new customers, still a destination for the offspring of people who came before, still a place where memories are shared.
The sign on the building says “Manuel’s Tavern” and that’s not changing. But one of Agee’s customers saw it fit to bestow the legendary bartender’s name on something special. “This little boy, one of my customer’s kids, comes in the other day. He says, ‘Bobby, guess what? I named my pet caterpillar after you!’” Agee was so tickled by this small acknowledgment, even in retelling the story he had to wipe his eyes from laughing.
It’s not such a bad idea, actually. A man who has brought so much joy to so many, ought to have his name on something. Definitely not on the building — that would be sacrilegious — and he probably wouldn’t allow it anyway. For now, Agee is in people’s hearts and he’s still pouring behind the bar. That’s enough. And thanks to one of his youngest patrons, floating around Atlanta somewhere, Bobby Agee is also a butterfly.