One friend of Harry Kelley's, who had been stung a few times by the bartender's get-rich schemes, said: "If owing people money and dying meant you could take it with you, then Kelley took it with him."
It was that kind of memorial service -- loud and irreverent -- when a lot of friends and acquaintances of Kelley's got together last Saturday at the National Press Club. Kelley passed away recently at the VA hospital.
Kelley was a popular guy around town who devoted a lot of energy and time to trying to find ways of turning over a quick buck. As one beer drinker said, "If he were here he would have taken up a collection for himself."
Lobbyist John Mahoney surveyed the crowd. Everyone was trying to catch the overworked bartender's eye. "I don't think there is any other place in the world that would have allowed this bunch to gather," said Mahoney.
Kelley came from Worcester, Mass. Somewhere along the way he went into the Army and served in Germany when the action was in Korea.
It is not clear how he ended up in D.C., since he followed his own prime rule, "Leave a smoke screen and don't look back."
His face was round and youthful and showed innocence, hurt or glee. It rested on a body that ranged from 220 to 270 pounds.
A friend who sat sipping a beer and missing Harry said, "He used Elizabethan vulgarity so often in the wrong context that at one point he began to call an imagined enemy a 'common person,' and this became his worse type of curse."
He knew every gambling game that existed, some better than others.
In his pursuit of the quick buck he wasn't beyond pulling off some unsavory caper that amused everyone but the victim.
He used these talents so often that he was barren of character witnesses, which he sorely needed from time to time.
One among his many outstanding adventures was the time he decided to go into the printing business and was forced out by a more capitalistic group.
A bartender friend recalled the afternoon when two of his business rivals came into the bar to ask Kelley to take a ride with them.
"They looked like juke boxes with sport coats," he said. "They had all the trappings, a black Cadillac out front, the works.
"It seemed that Harry was printing his own football cards without having consulted the people who were already paying their own rent, using the same game.
"When his rivals found out," he said, "Harry told them they could have 50 percent, but they wanted all the money and Harry came back two hours later out of the publishing business."
In one of many attempts to establish Kelley in the business community, some friends set him up with an investor for a bar that Harry wanted to buy. The table was well stacked in Kelley's favor -- a former State Department official, a former Jesuit priest -- and after several rounds of drinks, the investor, carefully plied with a few martinis, said, "I'm ready to give you $20,000 if you can match it."
Kelley was holding a kosher pickle in his fat fingers, and when he heard the amount he dropped it into the glass of water in front of him.
Without losing his aplomb he said, while fishing it out, "Of course I can match it."
Everyone at the table knew that he would go to someone else and tell them he had $20,000 if they could match it.
There is an old Chinese proverb that says if you save someone's life they belong to you.
This thought came to mind one evening while watching a World Series game with Kelley, who was eating shish kebab like a lollipop and misjudged a chunk of meat that lodged in his gullet.
He grasped his chest and thrashed around, trying to attract the attention of a few bar patrons, most of whom he had long ago alienated with his caustic tongue. They felt the game to be more important, and at least Harry was quiet for the first time in years.
He was finally assisted and taken off by the rescue squad. Back an hour later, looking pale, his belly pumped out, he berated everyone for not having saved his life quicker.
A few days later, in a more reflective mood, he thanked me for his rescue, invited me out to the track, and touted me on a sure winner that ran out.
I had known him for many years and agreed to meet him one day when he was showing his mother around town.
We sat in a booth and after exchanging early pleasantries I realized I was unable to tell this kind white-haired lady anything good about her son without feeling my nose would grow.
She must have known, for in the silence she said, "You know when I had the baby in the hospital," and she touched his hair in a motherly way, "I think they gave me the wrong baby."
Whomever he belonged to, and I knew she knew he was hers, he filled a need around a town flooded by the blandness of government or the sameness of politicians.
The stories about him were many, some amusing, others bizarre, but he always gave the less adventurous something to laugh and talk about. They were still talking on Saturday.