I recently moved to a small beach town in the Los Angeles area, where they have last call at one-thirty and I’m the only one who seems to mind. Normally, it’s something I can live with. But not on my birthday.
I’m the kind of guy who needs the occasional blowout. Contemplating how I’ll announce to the world that I have indeed made it through another year, I can’t help but remember one of my favorite birthdays, my twenty-fourth. I celebrated it in true blowout style. It was in 1979.
I was living on West 103rd Street in New York City going to Columbia University a grad student killing time. My friend Rosie shared a loft downtown with three other dancers. She decided to fete me. About three hundred people I didn’t know showed up. Lots of dancers in black leotards, art-ists in black suits, faggots in black T-shirts. I drank vodka all night and didn’t feel any older. It was a good party. The cops stopped by only once. Bobby offered them some Stoley. They refused. I accepted. After polishing off the vodka, we had some topless beers and thin hamburgers across the street at the Baby Doll. I nodded out once or twice, but the girls were kind enough to wake me gently, dancing so close I could smell them in my dreams. By the time we returned to the party, Manny had arrived with some toot. I did four fat lines, found another bottle of vodka, and then set out in search of some cute straggler I could convince to fall in love with me for the night. I don’t know whether or not I ever found her.
The last thing I remember is dancing naked at dawn. When I woke up, wrapped in a plaid tablecloth in the middle of a pile of cigarette butts, what I needed more than anything else was a beer to take the edge off of the fact that I was another year older and the future was still nowhere in sight. I found my clothes, put on my sunglasses and climbed down the five flights of stairs. It was February in Manhattan, the air was crisp and bright, sunlight glinting off the crystals of snow piled against the curb. I could see my breath.
And the Mighty Samson Jr. Bar on Lafayette was closed. It’s a little place, about the size of a subway car. I am able to love this bar in name only. I’d gone five times and never once found it open. I was an uptown guy and, out of my neighborhood, I was a bit lost. I headed for a bodega to buy a quart of Old English 800 and join the winos in Chatham Square, but I ran into an old poker buddy who knew the Lower East Side and he directed me to 81 East Sixth Street. Painted on the plate-glass window, directly above Verchovyna Tavern, Inc., were the letters BEPXOBNHA. Not understanding Ukrainian, I couldn’t conjecture as to their meaning or pronunciation. But a bar is a bar is a bar in any language, and bowing to the dictates of thirst, I decided to start my twenty-fifth year in the company of new strangers. I took off my sunglasses and headed down the four steps into the cool darkness.
I can’t tell you about the atmosphere of the bar, because there really was none to speak of. This is what you would call a good drinkin’ bar. Translated, what you had here was a pool table, a black-and-white idiot box, and Piels on tap for forty-five cents a mug. This is 1979, remember? Two young blond guys drank Spaten and shot eight-ball. Two old guys sat in a booth and watched the baseball game. I wasn’t about to interrupt anyone’s concentration by playing the juke or the pinball machine.
Since the place was nearly empty, I had no trouble getting a seat at the bar. So why couldn’t I get served? Chalking it up to my lack of fluency in the native tongue, I waited patiently for fifteen minutes or so, my money on the bar. A gnome masquerading as a bartender seemed to notice my cash, but expressed no desire to acquire it. When I picked up the fiver and prepared to leave, one of the old men broke into a flurry of consonants at the bartender who finally ambled my way. I ordered a draft and turned my attention to the tube.
I was half in the bag by the time the game ended. But my hangover was gone. I stayed a while longer to watch Abbott and Costello putting the moves on two beautiful women they had absolutely no business sharing the screen with. On my left, a crisp with silver hair split some chips with Mike the bartender. A little old lady wearing a babushka came in and, without needing to be asked, Mike brought her a shot of vodka with a Coke wash. They talked about the day’s number neither of them had hit it. An elevator operator was sleeping in one of the booths. Mike yelled, “At least take off your shoes, for Chrissakes, so you won’t dirty someone’s clean pants!” The dude shifted in his sleep and mumbled, “Don’t worry about it, Mike. No one with clean pants would ever come into this joint.” I had another beer, one for the road, and then wandered outside.
This whole section of the East Village was bar intensive. I headed farther east, and the language on the street began to change from Ukrainian to Spanish. At 108 Avenue B was Al’s bar. I assume the bar was Al’s the boneless chicken dinners were his. “Al’s boneless chicken dinners” said the sign twenty cents for a hardboiled egg, which went down pretty good with a beef chew and a beer.
There was no real difference among any of the little dives in the neighborhood, although this one was a bit bigger than most of the others. We sat around the large oval bar, drinking beer and watching the tube. The ancient on my right had dried blood on his forehead. Incredibly drunk, he turned to me and slurred, “You know, I was goin’ home all alone last night, when this wall walked right into me.” Al, a big beefy man in a white turtleneck sweater, smiled at that remark and brought over two more beers.
I miss those little bars, the places you went when there was nowhere else to go, or when you’d just prefer not to go home.
A little kid came into Al’s, looking for his uncle. I watched day turn into night, somehow missing dusk, and had another beer. Then I wandered outside.
Between Avenue A and Avenue B was the East Sixth Street Corporation Bar Grill. It was at either 520 or 250 this was years ago, and I can’t be sure which it was. The room was always hung with Christmas decorations and flypaper. Dentist’s-office-music station WPAT oozed from a radio, but I didn’t mind. At least it wasn’t disco. The fine thing I remember about these bars was that you didn’t have to wait on a long line outside while some bozo who was just another victim of fashion deliberated half an hour before passing judgment on your qualifications to enter and drink. I watched an old man without teeth laugh as he blew cigar smoke into the coughing face of his younger companion. I had another beer, one more for wandering.
The inside of the building at the corner of Spring and Mulberry was painted brown and white. A six-foot plastic shark floated over the bar, staring at his mate on the near wall. She was waiting to devour the television set near the ceiling.
Joker Poker pinball was one reason I’d come to the Spring Lounge. The jukebox was another. Sam Cooke, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Fats Waller, Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Vale, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Ronnettes, the Shirelles, Freddie Fender, Blondie and Frankie Yankovich all ate my quarters. I fed in one more on my way out. The Five Satins began to croon In the Still of the Night, my donation to the new arrivals.
From the Spring Lounge I went on to a small room that was dominated by a jukebox and a pool table. Barnabus Rex, at 155 Duane Street, off West Broadway, was a shoebox crammed with dancing mice. In the center of all this, two of the rodents were involved in a game of skill, concentrating hard and, with long, thin, wooden sticks, doing their damndest to sink heavy colored balls into little felt pockets. While squeezing through the crowd on the dance floor on my way to the bar, I took time to admire their dedication. Later, easing out, I realized how accurate Jean Shepherd had been in defining man as, basically, just another herd animal, comfortable only when surrounded by other cud-chewers he barely knew.
Outside, I paused to stare at a silver Bentley with Jersey plates, wondering why it was parked in front of this vibrating honky-tonk. Another rich guy, out scoping young flesh. Ah, the seventies, the decade before AIDS, when casual sex was a goal we could all share, and when hope sprang eternal in the human groin.
The subway took me uptown to Nemo’s Hideaway, at 1 East 48th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Friday and Saturday nights the fish dinners disappeared and the place was quickly transformed into the Rocker Room. Many people came from miles around to see the hatcheck girl check hats and coats or to discuss modern dance with Bruce the Bouncer, but most arrived at this subterranean boogie bar at about eleven o’clock, when the bands began to play. Music ranged from blues to New Wave. And, good as the bands were, they couldn’t compete with the tapes. The Stranglers’ Walkin’ on the Beaches is still engraved on both my eardrums.
That night I sat at the copper-covered bar, got drunk, and then moved into one of the upholstered green booths and got drunker. The walls were lined with books that had been sawed in half to fit into the shelves. I was amazed that I’d now been twenty-four years on this sand-green globe. Soon, when I had put enough alcohol into my body to judge myself sufficiently lubricated, I went out upon the dance floor and danced.
At four in the morning I was still dancing. No one else was. I didn’t mind that at all, but the bar had closed down and I needed another drink. I headed back downtown to the Mudd Club, at 77 White Street. Mudd was best on weeknights, when the crowd was less touristy and fewer folk were there to see and be seen. Weeknights, the peons came simply to dance. I sat at the circular bar, drank Bud, and watched the mass bounce of the nouveau chic. It was a great place to pogo till you puked all by yourself, or with a friend or two, or with everyone.
Between five and six in the morning, the trendies usually went to Dave’s Cafeteria, on Canal, for egg creams or breakfast, while the hard core continued to hang and happen. I watched a crewcut blonde change from her drenched black blouse into a sleeveless white T-shirt. We exchanged smiles, but not phone numbers or even a word. Back then, “network” was still a noun, light years away from being transformed into a verb. I bummed a Lucky off some guy who was pretending to be a musician, and smoked it all the way down to my fingers. Then I split to investigate Club 220.
The unmarked door at 220 West Houston Street didn’t even open until four in the morning. The crowd was almost entirely male and roughly fifty percent transvestite. Five dollars covered admission and one beer. After an invigorating frisk at the door, I entered just as the show was shifting into high gear. An attractive “lady” was lip-synching a Cher song. She seemed oblivious as members of the audience reached out and stuffed dollar bills into her leotard. A cardboard Easter bunny romped across the backdrop.
When the show ended I went upstairs to the disco. A few people were dancing others were playing pool or pinball. Some, as in any bar, were there solely to drink. I looked at my watch. It was eight-thirty. It was already another day, the first day of the rest of my life. I had one last beer and then headed out into the daylight to see what the future held in store.