Welcome, pilgrim, to Sam’s Bar and Grill, a dive in Geneva, N.Y., where you’ll find neither a Sam nor a grill, though I vaguely recall being able to buy a prepackaged ham and cheese hero that could be heated in some fashion, probably over a Bunsen burner, and then you’d burn your fingers trying to get it out of its cellophane wrap when Cosie plunked it on the counter.
You could also score a long, soft pretzel, slathered with mustard. And there were two giant, grimy, old gallon jars, one of which was filled with enormous pickles and the other with hard-boiled eggs. But for sure, I never saw anyone so much as dare to dip a hand into either.
Not even Cosie.
Let me tell you about Cosie.
Pull up a barstool, kids, and I’ll tell you a story about the greatest bar on god’s earth and the wonderful man who owned and operated it. Not Sam, whoever he was. I’m here to tell you about Cosie. Here he is behind the bar, where he stood for half a century:
Photo by Doug Reilly
But first, we have to roll back the clock to 1969. And we have to deal with the pronunciation issue.
Cosie’s real name was Cosmo Fospero, and that’s why we pronounce Sam’s Bar and Grill “Cozzie’s,” which is how it was known to one and all. From what I can tell, Cosie was born in 1922, which means he was pushing 50 when I got to know him in 1969.
Cosie’s was off a side street in Geneva, a very long walk or a quick drive from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. It was a townie bar, but it was always filled with college students (New York’s drinking age was 18 then) and faculty — and the occasional street drunk.
I should note that there was another, more popular college bar in Geneva called The Oaks, and it was located just down Pulteney Street from the colleges, which meant you could walk there even in the worst weather, and you could stagger home without need of a car. The Oaks, owned and operated by the legendary Dutch Venuti, teemed with jocks and frat guys and gorgeous women. I was none of those.
The Oaks was Ringo. Cosie’s was John. The Oaks was Namath and Unitas. Cosie’s was Marx and Marcuse. The Oaks was Iron Butterfly. Cosie’s was Dylan. The Oaks was a pepperoni pizza, a burger and fries. Cosie’s was an old sandwich in a cellophane wrap.
Dutch kept a shotgun behind his bar; Cosie kept a beat-up old guitar behind his.
Who you were was in some ways defined by where you drank, and I was a Cosie’s kind of guy. I belonged in a place where you could sit in the back with a few dozen cold ones and solve all the problems of the world, one beer at a time.
I was at Cosie’s one night when a political science instructor named Jack Krause leaned across the table, looked me in the eye and told me, in a very serious tone:
“I am your faculty adviser, and I am advising you to have another beer.”
And so I did. Jack always had my best interests in mind.
The walls were tastefully decorated with yellowing clips of Cosie’s patrons that had appeared in the Geneva Times and the Hobart and William Smith Herald. You could walk around and count your pictures on the wall.
There was a large industrial standup fridge at the end of Cosie’s bar that was stocked with beer, and Cosie’s offered a great selection. True, you couldn’t get a Lite, but that was because Lite beer hadn’t been invented yet. Nor could you get a craft beer, for the same reason. And there was no Coors, either, but that was because Coors hadn’t yet found its way east of the Mississippi. Coors in 1969 was sort of like the Sasquatch of beers: We’d heard of it, but only a very few could claim they’d actually seen one.
But there was Schlitz, Miller, Bud, Genessee, Utica Club, Pabst, Schmidt’s, Rheingold, Schaefer, Rolling Rock, Molson’s, Labatt’s and a fancy-schmancy European import called Heineken in that stand-up fridge. And, really, what else did you need?
Well . . . for one thing, you needed to know how to get your hands on one.
Sure, Cosie was behind the bar, but he was way too busy to do something as mundane as get you a cold one. There were pretty young women to be flirted with, jokes to be told, stories to be shared and songs to be sung.
So if you want a beer, pal, go get it. Cosie’s fridge, located just behind the bar, over in the corner, next to the men’s room (where every beer fridge should be) was open to the public. Open the door and grab something cold. There’s a bottle opener under the bar, to your right.
Now, the beer wasn’t free, of course. You owed Cosie 35 cents. Or 45, if you were a rich kid drinking Heineken. But, c’mon . . . Cosie is way too busy to take your money. Like I said, there were stories to be shared and women to wink at, and that guitar behind the bar was going to come out before long and Cosie would be way too busy strumming it to bother collecting your coin. The night was finite, and Cosie had a lot to accomplish before 2 a.m., when the cops would drive by and flash their lamps to remind everyone to grab their coats and go home.
No . . . Cosie was way too busy for something as mundane as taking your money.
So here’s how you paid for a beer at Cosie’s:
You walked behind the bar, opened the cash register and put your money in.
If you had a five-dollar bill, you made change. If you had a ten-dollar bill . . . oh come on, who had a ten-dollar bill? If you needed dimes for the bowling machine, you did the same. No problem. Mi cash register es tu cash register at Cosie’s.
This seems as good a time as any to show you some more pictures of Cosie. Here he is doing something he loved, putting a cork with a toothpick jammed into it into a bottle with just a little bit of alcohol at the bottom, and heating it up just right, until that cork would explode out of the top and the toothpick would fly into the ceiling tiles. There were hundreds of toothpicks in that ceiling.
And here he is with the ladies. And if one of them happened to be with you that evening, he’d tell her what a great guy you were, and how she should never let you go. Maybe even go home with you.
Speaking of the ladies, let me tell you about the night Jerry Jeff Walker played at Hobart and William Smith. Jerry Jeff showed up on the Albright Auditorium stage with a guitar and a quart of whiskey and played that baby until the bottle went dry, which was around the time that Fire Commissioner Quigley announced that the concert was over and y’all have to go home now.
But Jerry Jeff was just getting started. I mean, he’d played Mr. Bojangles only four or five times, and that barely met his quota. This was no time to pack up and go home. So Jerry Jeff asked the audience if there was a place where his concert could continue, preferably one with another bottle of whiskey begging to be drained.
We knew just the place.
And so it was that a large group of us found our way to Cosie’s that night, and Jerry Jeff arrived with his guitar and sidled up to the bar, and found a young thang on his right and a young thang on his left, and put an arm around each of them and suddenly realized that he’d run out of arms and his guitar needed tending.
“Here,” Jerry Jeff told me, “take good care of this.”
And so it came to pass that I spent a few hours at a table in the back, playing Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitar till closing time, pausing on occasion only for as long as it took to have another beer. Nineteen years old and I’m playing 12-bar on Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitar. How sweet was that?
I have one more picture of Cosie. This is him with me, at my college reunion in 2007.
I went with my wife, Linda, and our longtime friends, Kenny and Rachel, in search of Cosie’s. We had trouble finding the joint . . . urban renewal has greatly changed the landscape of Geneva. But we finally succeeded in spotting the Sam’s Bar and Grill sign, and we walked inside.
Behind the bar was an 85-year-old man who didn’t look a day over 70. He looked up, grinned widely and said, “Where you been?”
I went to the fridge and pulled out a few Heinekens, because I couldn’t afford the extra dime in 1969 but I’m Heineken rich now.
“They still 45 cents?” I asked.
Cosie laughed heartily and gave me the 2007 price, and I walked over to the cash register and put my money in.
He put a toothpick in a cork, put the cork into a bottle, heated it up and shot the missile into the ceiling. He told some tales. He pulled out his guitar. He flirted with Linda and Rachel.
Turns out that you can go home again.
But not for long. Cosie closed the joint and retired a few months later. When last I heard, he was 91 years old and enjoying retirement in Geneva. Get that man a beer.
And, please, click here to listen to Cosie himself. And thanks to Jeff Hogue for saving Cosie’s song.
Cosie’s, once upon a time. That sign in front says Sam’s Bar and Grill.
And now it’s gone:
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