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Monthly Archive for June, 2009

AutoBARography 7: MY SHORT CAREER AS A GAY BARTENDER/PART FOUR

IS THAT REALLY BIANCA JAGGER?

So I’m tending bar in the newest, hippest club in the universe. Before the night is over I might even make cigarette change for a celebrity. But I’m still a scuffler who pays child support with crumpled tip money. Le jardin is dead and it looks like I’m going to get stiffed on a Saturday night.

A little after 11 o’clock a haggard dude with a gray ponytail bops out of the elevator. The word spreads– “the DJ is here–” and everybody drops to one knee like he’s Richard The Lionhearted home from the Crusades. He is followed by a hotel porter (this in the days before unpaid “interns”) pushing a hand truck loaded with .45′s and LPs.

“Gimme a Gorilla Flush,” he says.

I look to Jimmy for guidance. “OJ with Seven-up and Perrier, a shot of grenadine and about twenty cherries,” he says. “Washes down the downs.”

I stock the bar. It’s top shelf –Commemorativo Tequila, VSOP cognacs, Wyborova Vodka, which is the height of class, single malt Glens, which are very exotic. Speaking of grenadine, I see three bottles in the carton.

“In most bars one grenadine lasts ten years,” I say.

“This is Sweet Tooth City,” says Jimmy. “You’ll go through all three bottles in one night.”

Jimmy turns an ashtray upside down under the bar and lays a two lines of coke on it. In a few fluid motions he takes two pachyderm snorts, rubs the residue on his gums and lights a cigarette.

“You can give yourself a coming on board drink, man, they’re cool with that,” he says.

What the hell I’m a short timer. I pour myself a triple Martell Cordon Bleu. Jimmy is glittering. I’m glowing. We slap fives.

The DJ goes up on stage for a “sound check,” and suddenly music is blasting out of speakers all over the room. He starts out with a medley of the ’50′s oldies. Another triple and I’m getting goose pimples. With every song another episode from my yearning adolescence flashes before me.

The DJ must be the Pied Piper. People begin trickling in. This is before velvet ropes and snotty doormen take the fun out of the scene. Fifi is at the door collecting admission. Pay your ten bucks and you’re on your own. It’s an eclectic crowd. Some chorus boys from Pippin, which is playing down the street—”we can only stay for a few dances; ” a few tall, blonde foreigners, who tell Addison “you are already very famous in Amsterdam; ” three guys in leather jackets who look like off duty cops; two couples in tuxes and prom gowns–but a closer look reveals they’re all guys; a few red-faced drunks who look like bus drivers, but talk like high school music teachers; a suburban midlife crisis couple–she with the mahogany tan and the polished eyeballs, he with the floral shirt open on the Magen David glittering in the chest hair.

The DJ waits for critical dance mass to be reached and switches to disco. Motown, Stax, Chess and suddenly a Sinatra ballad or even an old tune like Earth Angel…The crowd is his instrument. They go from festive to funky to nostalgic at his command.

The bar is three deep and frantic. No beer drinkers here. Everybody wants an “innuendo”cocktail. A “Harvey Wallbanger” (vodka, OJ, a float of Galliano,) A “Sloe Comfortable Screw”(sloe gin, Southern Comfort, OJ with a splash of Grenadine.) A “Foxy Lady,” (Amaretteo, creme de cacao and heavy cream.) A “Golden Shower” (Galliano, white cream de cacao, Triple Sec, OJ and cream, grenadine optional). A “Comesicle” (vodka, rum, white mint, orange juice and cream.)

After a half hour my fingers are sticky from the grenadine and I’ve got cream all over my shorts. Ira comes back to check the register and looks at the stains. “I’m glad somebody’s having fun…”

There’s a commotion at the door. A blonde transsexual is borne through the crowd…”Candy’s gonna sing…”

“That’s Candy Darling,” Jimmy says.

The music stops and everybody quiets down. From out of the darkness comes a quavery contralto “Some day he’ll come along/The man I love…”

She gets a cheers “We love you, Candy…We won’t forget…”

“Candy’s got terminal cancer,” Jimmy says. “They give her three months, tops…”

For about two hours it’s so busy I can hardly look up.

Suddenly, I get a sane order.

“Two vodka martinis, straight up.”

They look like two kids viping cigarettes and looking wide-eyed at the crowd. But wait:

That’s Sal Mineo

It’s always a shock to see a celebrity. This is the kid from Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus… Curly hair, big nose, thick lips, baby face. It’s gotta be him.

That little skinny chick huddling next to him looks like Jill Haworth, his co star in Exodus. They were on the cover of Life Magazine together. Funny, the things you remember.

I grab Jimmy by the register. “Is that Sal Mineo?”

“Be cool,” he says. “He doesn’t like it when guys flirt…”

I get a queasy feeling. What did I do to make Jimmy think I was gay? Maybe I didn’t slap him five hard enough. I go back through my memory. Once I was running for a bus and a bunch of firemen in a passing engine truck jeered “Hurry up sweetie…” But I was wearing tight shoes that day and carrying two heavy bags of groceries.

I lay down the martinis with my eyes averted.

“That’s on me.” It’s Addison in the middle of the bar. Sal Mineo raises his glass. “Thanks, John…” He holds out a bill. “Here man, thanks…” I take it, eyes averted. It’s a twenty. Jimmy watches to make sure I put it in the cup.

“Hey,” Addison calls.

A girl is waving at me. I walk right past him like a man in a trance. Slim, dark, mocking eyes. A spangled dress. Great legs…”Cinzano and soda,” she says. Very familiar. Is that Bianca Jagger? She hands me the money, grazing my wrist with her nails. Gives me the chills.

“Hey,” Addison calls.

“Are you a basketball player?” she asks.

“I played in high school.”

“You have an athlete’s body,” she says.

I try to graze her wrist in return and drop the change in the sink.

“Is that Bianca Jagger?” I ask Jimmy.

“Where?” he asks. but she has already vanished in the smoke and left me a ten dollar bill.

Addison grabs me. “What’s the matter with you?” He has his arm around a bulky little man in a blue suit. “This is my attorney. Take good care of him.”

He’s got a bulbous nose, thick lips, angry pout like a thwarted baby.

It’s Roy Cohn.

This man was the villain of my childhood. He was one of DA’s who prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Soviet spies who went to the electric chair. He was counsel to the notorious witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy. He was absolute anathema to my left wing family. My aunt burst into tears every time she saw him on TV.

He sees it all on my face. The contempt, the revulsion.

“Cutty on the rocks,” he rasps.

I could make a gesture now. Refuse to serve him. Remind him of how he hounded innocent people, destroyed lives…

He’s with two bodybuilders in white tee shirts, who are knocking back 151 shooters with beer chasers. He puts the change back in his wallet with a pointed look at me. No tip for you, Commie.

People are screaming for drinks.The music is non-stop. The dance floor is a blur. I decide to write a poem called “Disco Dervish…”

Bianca has brought somebody to check me out. A lanky guy in a white dinner jacket over a hairless fish-white chest. He pushes a dank blonde lock out of his eyes.

“And vot do you do?” he asks with a German accent.

“Make drinks,” I say.

He waves impatiently. “Don’t you do somesing creative?”

“I’m a writer.”

“A writer,” he says and turns to Bianca. “Pearfect,” he says. ” And now Mr. Writer make me a tequila sunrise with extra grenadine…”

Jimmy comes up from under the bar so wired he’s woozy.

I try to discreetly point over my shoulder. “Look over there. Is that her?”

His hands shake as he lights a cigarette. “No…”

I turn back. She’s gone. But there’s a twenty under the ashtray…

It’s gotta be her.

 

NEXT: The End Of A Perfect Evening

AutoBARography 7: MY SHORT CAREER AS A GAY BARTENDER/PART THREE

DISCO FEVER

NEW YORK, July ’73… Discos have exploded out of the hard partying gay sub culture. Everybody wants to wear glitter…Get loaded…Dance with wild abandon…

Everybody but me. I want to get a pastrami sandwich and go to the James Cagney festival at the Bleecker Cinema.

It’s a drug culture. Booze is not a factor. Most places just serve juice to wash down the drugs. And the drugs are all about sex. “Poppers” (amyl nitrate inhalers) which were developed to treat angina, generate frenetic energy and explosive orgasms. Quaaludes, promoted as a malaria cure, produce relaxation, euphoria and what the doctors call “aphrodisia,” the desire and the capacity to have endless sex. Women and gay men report incredible results. Not me. I gulp a ‘lude one night and wake up in a chair six hours later. Cocaine, originally used as an anesthetic for eye surgery, is reputed to make the user fatally attractive and non-stop horny. People on cocaine spend a lot of time admiring the way they look and the wonderfully clever things they have to say.

Not me. After ten years of hallucinating and learning things about myself that I didn’t need to know I’m off psychedelics and back on the booze. I just want to get crocked and wake up the same person I was the night before.

Music drives the scene. The British Invasion, Motown, The Philly Sound and the first stirrings of Disco keep people on the dance floor as much as the drugs. There are no B- sides. One great song is replaced by another. Soul Makossa is played over and over with the dancers chanting “Mama-ko Mama-sa Maka Makossa.” DJ’s are the new celebrities. Cutting between two turntables they can extend a dance beyond the normal length of a record. They change clubs like ballplayers or Chinese chefs and take their followings with them. Songs are personal anthems– Everyday People, Papa Was A Rolling Stone. In two years Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive will become everybody’s life story.

But not mine. While Diana Ross and The Supremes are going platinum I’m sifting through the bins in Colony Records looking for old Lester Young sides.

Everybody participates in what one writer calls “the democracy of the dance.” Stockbrokers, drag queens, suburban couples, bikers—everybody’s out there “shaking their booty” on the dance floor.

The clubs intimidate me. The dancing is athletically demanding and everybody seems to know the steps. The girls are insanely supple, in hot pants and halter tops. The guys look like they could do triple pirouettes in the Dance of Theater of Harlem and then beat me one on one. The only klutzes are the silent partners–the scowling wiseguys in the Armani suits with the pinky rings. And they don’t dance.

I’m a poster boy for the space-time curve. I share a material world with these people, but I’m in another era. I hang out at the Blarney Castle on 72nd and Columbus—a buck for an ounce and a half shot; corned beef and cabbage with a boulder-sized boiled potato. The only dancing I see is the pas de deux as Tom the bartender rousts the geezers who have drunk up their Social Security checks.

I’m working at the Hotel Diplomat in a dance hall for Italian immigrants, downstairs from Le Jardin, the newest, hottest disco in town. The place has been open three weeks and already it’s in Page Six every day with a new celeb sighting. But up until a week ago I didn’t even know it existed.

One Saturday night I’m in the liquor room scraping rat hairs off the lemons when Lester, the night manager comes to the door. “You wanna work Le Jardin tonight?”

A dark guy in a white suit is standing at the door.

“This is Mr. Addison,” Lester says.

Addison looks me up and down and is not impressed. “At least he’s young,” Addison says. “You’re going to make a lot of money tonight,” he says. “Don’t be greedy…”

In the elevator Lester confides: “The Saturday bartender Dennis got beat up at Riis Beach. I told them you could handle it…”

A narrow vestibule opens onto a room decorated with palm trees and potted ferns. The interior is white—white banquettes, white tables. Waiters on roller skates are laying out bowls of fruit and cheese. A guy with with a gelled goatee stops counting the bottles behind the bar.

“You from downstairs? What’s your name?”

“Woody,” I say.

“I’ll be judge of that,” he says. “I’m Ira…”

Ira takes me into an office room. A muscular guy in jockeys is combing his hair. “This is Jimmy, your partner for the evening,” he says. He steps back, squinting like a tailor. “Do you mind showing your legs? The bartenders wear uniforms…” He gives me blue sleeveless basketball shirt and shorts. Pinches my biceps. “Did you ever hear of the Y?” Groans at my work boots. “You look like the Bus and Truck tour of the Village People…”

“Ira’s a snap,” Jimmy says, getting into his uniform. He seems straight, but I’ve been fooled before. “This is a cool job. They do all your prep, cut the twists, make the sour mix, even wash the glasses…” His voice drops. “They’re paranoid about stealing. Don’t buy drinks, they hate that. If a customer buys you a drink make sure to take his money. They’ll be watching so don’t get cute. I think they’re connected…”

We go outside. It’s nine-thirty and the place is empty. A skinny lady with wiry red hair looks at me with hostile surprise. “Where’s Dennis?”

“In a urinal at Riis Park,” Ira says.

“That’s Fifi,” Jimmy says. “She’s Addison’s wife or hag or something…”

Ira shows me a tupperware container full of twists and lime. “In case you want a fruit…” He opens a box of stirrers. “Do you have a sizzle stick or a fizzle stick?”

Now he’s all business. “Two dollars for speed rack, two-fifty for call, three for cocktails. Pour a good shot, John wants happy customers…”

I’m strictly a dive bartender. The thick goblets and the sharp edged glass tiles on the bar make me nervous. “You could kill somebody with one of these glasses,” I say.

“We don’t feature brawling here,” Ira says. “Everyone’s a friend of the house…”

It’s ten o’clock and nobody’s there.

“The place is dead,” I say to Jimmy.

He smiles. “It’s a late shot. It’ll pick up.”

NEXT: IS THAT REALLY BIANCA JAGGER?