The Last Good Prank

"I THINK I'M READY for the priest," Tom Ryan says on the telephone.

"When should I bring him?" Mick McHugh asks on the other end.

"Tomorrow afternoon, maybe."

McHugh shows up the next day with Father Phil, who is 80, a Jesuit and an attorney who has taken a vow of poverty, having left much of his wealth to the servers at Vito's.

Phil, who has buried some of Seattle's finest Italian restaurateurs, goes into the bedroom to see the Irish Ryan, who, at 70, is a big tipper known to waiters as the patron saint of restaurant help, to his children as a sports-investment counselor, and to his customers as Ryan the Bookmaker.

His record is unblemished, the envy of bookies everywhere. In several decades of taking bets, he has never been arrested. He has kept his client list exclusive, settling up promptly, and has made everyone happy enough to not rat him off. "In public or private, no one talked about his, uh, career," says son Charlie. His customers have been some of Seattle's highest rollers. He was able to support three kids and several wives and take trips to Ireland where, fellow traveler McHugh remembers, they met a Ryan in every pub.

After a while, Phil comes out of the bedroom smiling.

"He's praying for one thing," the priest tells McHugh. "More time."

The best Phil—and cancer—can do is a few hours. Ryan, an ex-bartender, puts out the lights precisely at 2 a.m.

The funeral for the Boston Catholic is held on a Saturday. A few hundred people come up the church stairs and push inside, all looking puzzled. Above the door on South Main Street the sign says "Seattle Buddhist Temple."

"Maybe it has to do with his clients in Chinatown," someone says.

"No," someone else says. "He tended bar and hung out in the restaurants there. He came here for his friends' funerals and liked the services."

The Rev. Don Castro says the temple accommodates all comers. "At the altar, you can offer incense or you can cross yourself, whatever." He likes the photo of Ryan on the back of the funeral program, rear to the camera, dropping his shorts at the beach. Castro makes no judgments on a man's fondness for whiskey, women, late nights, and the morning line. Still, when Ryan opted for a chanting, gonging Buddhist send-off mixed with Jeffrey Smith's rendition of "Danny Boy," some temple members "were a little surprised," Castro says.

A few friends figure it to be Ryan's last good prank. "Personally," says McHugh, the owner of F.X. McRory's restaurant, who had got up near the gilded ornamental altar to offer his eulogy. "I think he was hedging his bet."

He and others speak of a typical Irish life, Ryan style: hustling pool and sometimes having to leave the hall through a back window; buying a pub in Ireland sight unseen; precipitating an international incident by copping a samovar in Gorbachev's Russia; his drive-by marriage to Barbara at a church window in Las Vegas; and his legendary success with the scratch sheet.

"This is a fine day," McHugh says at the altar. "The start of football season. And we all know how Tom loved football."

In the back of the room, three misty-eyed men sit nodding.

"Three bookies," says Ryan's friend R.W. Clay, who ought to know. "Paying their final respects." Best guess is they're taking heaven 8-5.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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