For years around Christmas at the Cabin Tavern, a few people would come in, looking to have a conversation with a very large man by the name of Tiny DeSapio.
If he knew you and he liked you, Tiny would help you out. Maybe you were in a bind and needed a small loan to buy presents for your kids. Or maybe you needed a battery for your old car. He'd buy you one. And when you tried to pay him back, he wouldn't take your money. He'd ask for two peach pies instead.
"Call it square," he'd say.
For the past 31 years, Tiny DeSapio co-owned The Cabin Tavern, the oldest bar in Anchorage, with his partner Danny Zivanich. One could usually find him in a particular chair at the bar, in his driving cap and gold-nugget watch, drinking coffee and staring at a crossword puzzle.
"He was kind of like a father/confessor in the neighborhood," said Tim Sullivan, who has lived or worked in Muldoon for last 35 years. The bar, he noted, was around long before they built St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
But this Christmas, Tiny's chair will be empty. And at the tavern Christmas party, he won't be reading his long rhyming poem about all the characters at the bar. Tiny passed away in October. He was 70 years old.
The Cabin Tavern is an out-of-the-way landmark. I used to make a habit of visiting the bar on Christmas Day, after all the presents were open and the dinner dishes were washed. It was always quiet then, lit up with lights, stockings hung for all the employees and the regulars. It's a worn-in kind of place, with a jukebox and a shelf full of take-one-leave-one paperbacks next to the fireplace. People say it's haunted with spirits that tease bartenders and scramble across the roof late at night. I can believe that. The place has its own kind of voodoo.
As the story goes, the building once belonged to a homesteader who owned most of the land that is now Muldoon. Legend has it the original structure is at least 100 years old, though its exact age can't be verified. (The liquor license dates to 1940. City property records say it was built in 1951.) Once it was a bar called Swiftie's Club 13, according to Danny. Then it became a pipeline-era nightspot called The Roadhouse. And then, in 1980, Danny and Tiny bought it and called it The Cabin Tavern. The pair bought F Street Station a few years later. Danny ran F Street. Tiny ran the Cabin.
Recently when I visited, I found Danny at the bar with Charly Stier, a longtime bartender, and her husband, Fred. I asked Danny when he and Tiny met. It was 1971, he said. Just after Tiny moved to Alaska from Honolulu. Tiny had been a knife and fire dancer in the Don Ho Show. Danny first saw Tiny at the Chef's Inn. Danny was tending bar. Tiny, who was in for a drink, tried to help him break up a bar fight.
"He looks at me and says, 'You want me to help?' " Danny said, and did an impression of himself looking up the way a person looks at a skyscraper. (Danny is 5 feet 8 inches tall. Tiny stood 6 feet 8 inches. His shoe size was 16 EEE. He weighed a lot.)
"I says no," Danny said. "You'll make things much worse."
They became fast friends after that even though they were opposites. Danny is a conservative. Tiny was a liberal. Danny isn't known for making speeches. Tiny should have been a politician. Danny isn't one to give away a dollar on the street. Tiny was generous to a fault. Both of them were natural storytellers.
"Somebody saw him streakin' one time, and that's how come they called him Tiny," Danny told me, prompting chuckles from around the bar. "That was his story."
Tiny came of age during wild times in the Anchorage bar scene. Before the Cabin Tavern, he used to run a nameless after-hours place frequented by the famous hustler Johnny Rich, who later became the subject of a book and a movie, Danny said. Tiny was, for a time, the best dart player in the state. (He was known to give free dart lessons, mostly to women.) Though he spent his life in the bar business, he wasn't much of a bartender.
"He was just too damn big," Danny told me.
The Cabin Tavern had its heyday in the '80s and '90s, Charly the bartender told me. They had lots of dancing and free burgers. Tiny loved a good crowd. He had rules. Patrons should be polite and refrain from using four-letter words. Anyone who carried out the trash got a drink on the house. Once Charly got spooked by a ghostly racket on the roof while closing up. She called Tiny, who lived just up the street, and he arrived with a shotgun. The ghostly noises ceased.
Over the last seven or eight years or so, things slowed down at the Cabin. Tiny got sick, first with one kind of cancer, and then another. He kept beating his illnesses, but he couldn't put as much energy into the bar. He spent more time in the back room. The first couple of weeks in October, he was in the hospital. Danny went to see him. They cracked jokes the whole time.
"The day he died, he was just smiling," Danny said. "Now I know why. ... He knows what he left me with."
Tiny's share of the bar went to his daughter in Salt Lake City, but Danny will be running it.
Tiny's wake brought between four and five hundred people through the old bar the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They had stories of his good (and bad) advice, his Christmastime loans, donated fishing poles, and car repairs he had paid for. Later on, Danny found himself on the roof of the bar, looking out over Muldoon Road, spreading his business partner's ashes. He tossed a little on a spruce tree in the parking lot. It kept getting run over for years but grew into a big old tree anyway. It kind of reminded him of Tiny, he said.
"Tough old son-of-a-bitch," he said.
And so, a big guy named Tiny took his place among the benevolent ghosts at the old Cabin Tavern. And this Christmas, I'm certain, more than one drink will be raised in his honor.