Jerry Bender has been called many things over his 30 years at McCarthy’s Irish Pub — dignitary, farceur, misanthropist, aficionado of 7-Eleven corndogs — but on Sunday, the town’s longest-serving doorman and bartender was simply described as “the legend.”
And with a 100-person tip of the glass, Bender served his last drink and officially threw in the bar towel after an epic career.
To the generations of patrons he’s entertained with a stale joke at the door or a raunchy anecdote at the bar, he’s the kind of wily old coot who would point out your bad haircut to your date.
But ask McCarthy’s regulars and they’ll tell you that Bender is true salt of the earth, honest to a fault, and embodies the McCarthy’s philosophy that what you see is what you get; that a bar should be a bar, where one can expect a well-poured drink and good conversation, and not pretend to be anything else.
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Perhaps a throwback to older times in an ever-increasingly politically correct world, Bender over the decades has become a staple of the thriving San Luis Obispo bar culture.
Whether it’s good or bad, Jerry makes a lasting impression, like a bite from a rabid raccoon.
Patty Kirby, McCarthy’s Irish Pub bartender
The Ohio native, 75, spent nine years with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and worked as a correctional deputy at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi before moving to San Luis Obispo in 1979.
In 1985, he was hired as the head doorman by the general manager for then-McCarthy’s Cocktail Lounge under its original owner, Joe McCarthy. The bar went through several reincarnations over the years, including a stint as Bull’s Tavern, under the management of Dan Connors and Timmy Williams, before it was sold to San Luis Obispo-based ASH Management in 2000.
In 2009, the bar relocated from its historic spot on Court Street — now a remodeled walkway that houses Thai Palace and Powell’s Sweet Shop, among others — to its current home at Marsh and Nipomo streets. But unlike other bars, McCarthy’s retained its old-school customer base through the relocation, and today it is one of the few establishments where the older and younger bar-goers still sit and share drinks and swap stories all night.
Bender is a big part of that.
He’s kept the old-school atmosphere alive and is touted lovingly as “the best doorman to walk this earth,” according to McCarthy’s manager Colin Wenzl, who was first hired by Bender. While most people associate the term “bouncer” with the person checking IDs outside a bar, Bender perfected the art of the doorman, Wenzl said. He’s also slung more than his share of Jameson Irish Whiskey, though he hasn’t indulged in several years.
“A bouncer is a somewhat antiquated term, but it’s more associated with security, breaking up fights,” Wenzl said. “But a doorman, he’s going to facilitate the whole bar experience, make people laugh as they wait in line. It’s using your charisma and charm more than your brawn, and Jerry’s very good at it.”
A man of infinite jest, Bender is renowned for decidedly cheesy one-liners, often at his own expense but more than likely at yours.
San Luis Obispo artist Joshua Jesse, a McCarthy’s regular, has known Bender for about 20 years.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said one nice thing to Jerry, and he’s never said one nice thing to me. But it’s true love,” Jesse said. “I guess if someone can’t take Jerry then they probably can’t take life.”
“I’ve heard the same jokes and comments out of that man’s mouth as long as I’ve known him,” agreed bartender Patty Kirby. “I know what’s coming but I love to hear it anyways.”
That sense of humor has made a lasting impact on people who have come and gone from the area, Kirby said, some of whom stop back in McCarthy’s after 10 or 15 years and ask about him.
“Anybody who has ever stepped foot in McCarthy’s knows who that man is,” Kirby said. “Whether it’s good or bad, Jerry makes a lasting impression, like a bite from a rabid raccoon.”
On Sunday, as the sun began to sink behind Cerro San Luis in the late afternoon sky, Bender stepped behind the bar to serve one last drink.
“Thirty years, that’s a lifetime. And I look back on all the people I’ve met, and all I’m glad I didn’t meet,” Bender told the crowd. “But you people, you’re all blessed because you’re drinking at the best bar in the city. Maybe the county, I don’t know.”
Following the party, Bill Hales, co-owner of ASH Management, said that Bender has been a beloved character in the city’s world-famous bar scene.
“He’s a dignitary, as we like to call him. An amazing man,” Hales said. “He’ll be missed around the bar, but I have a feeling he’ll still be around telling his sour, salty jokes for a long time.”
Cal Poly professor and New Times journalist Glen Starkey recalled when Bender was first hired at the bar.
“He quickly established himself as the resident crank, delivering one-liners that would make Don Rickles blush,” Starkey wrote in an email after the party. “The man’s forgotten more jokes than most of us will learn in a lifetime, and as cantankerous as his reputation has become, being ribbed by Jerry is to know you’ve become a member of the bar — an elite fraternity of BS artists, raconteurs, and honorary Irishmen and women, the latter of whom have a soft spot for Jerry, who saves all his charm for the softer sex.”
He added: “We’ll be telling stories about Jerry long into his retirement and beyond.”
And the man himself?
“The amount of people that showed up was kind of a feather in my cap. It was a special occasion for me,” Bender said. “Even though probably half of them are just glad I retired so they won’t have to listen to my jokes anymore.”