By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — After 44 years at the helm of his namesake Midtown bar, Jim Hickey was preparing to turn in his keys and close up for the last time last month when he collapsed. He was dead within weeks.
The 75-year-old had been clearing out the last of his belongings from his small pub on West 33rd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues on a cold January day when he had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, friends said. Hickey's Bar had been his life since 1967, but friends said he had to pack up because he couldn't afford another major spike in rent.
"Everyone thought he collapsed because [losing the place] just overwhelmed him," said James Donovan, 47, a long-time bartender at the Blarney Rock pub that had stood next door to Hickey's for more than 40 years. Friends and colleagues later learned that doctors found Hickey was suffering from late-stage colon cancer. He died on Feb. 7.
Matty Burke, 58, who said he had stopped by Hickey’s nearly every day for the past 20 years, said that, for Hickey, losing the bar meant losing everything.
"That killed him," said Burke, who has since relocated to the Blarney Rock along with a handful of other Hickey's regulars driven from the now-gutted space next door.
"It was his baby. That was his life," Burke added, "It would be the same as you lost your wife and you've been together 50 years and you died two weeks later."
Former regulars and friends said that Hickey was born in Cork, Ireland and moved to New York after he and his wife, Bridget, had married.
Hickey’s opened at 139 W. 33rd St. at a time when the area was popular with union workers who relied on the bars to cash their checks. Several years later, the Blarney Rock opened next door.
For decades, the two pubs stood side by side, serving union regulars, commuters heading to Penn Station and crowds from Madison Square Garden.
Hickey's was beloved by its regulars and celebrated by others who hailed its no-frills drink offerings, dark wood paneling, wooden fan ceilings and photos of old sports icons as a relic from another age.
The bar also survived the chaotic experience of the ARC train tunnel project, which threatened to raze Hickey's building to make way for an air shaft for a Penn Station extension. The plan was eventually reversed, after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug last year.
But once the tunnel project had been canceled, the building's owners allegedly tried to boost Hickey’s rent by $5,000 to $6,000 a month, he told his friends. He tried to hold on, but that would have left him with nothing, he complained.
Hickey was already ailing physically by the time the ARC tunnel plans emerged, Donovan said. Hickey walked so slowly with the help of a cane that it would take him ten minutes to travel less than a block from the exit of the Long Island Rail Road to the bar.
But that didn't stop him from arriving at the bar by 6:30 a.m. every morning, every day, seven days a week, friends and regulars said.
Hickey is survived by his wife and daughter. His wife, Bridget, declined to be interviewed from her home in Long Beach, Long Island. Their daughter, Carol Ann, did not return calls.
But on an online memorial page Carol Ann described her father as "silent, tough and by the books."
"No words can explain how heartbroken I am," she wrote.
Donovan said that shocked customers have been stopping by for weeks asking what happened to Hickey's bar, whose green-and-white sign was taken down early Monday. About 20 of the bar’s regulars have moved over to the Blarney Rock, he said.
"He was a great guy. He was a good owner," said one customer, John, 39, who declined to give his last name but said he had been a regular for 15 years.
Another regular, Martin Rieder, 51, said back when the bar was threatened by ARC that it would be a "crime" if the bar were forced to close.
"This is my version of Cheers in the city," he said.
As for the future of the space, it is set to be taken over by Salt & Pepper, the take-out restaurant next door.
Manager Mohammed Ilyas, 59, said he plans to expand his restaurant into the space, which will re-open on March 1 with burgers and pizza added to its eclectic mix of Spanish, American, Pakistani and Indian food.