Tag Archive for 'bars'



July ’73, Times Square, New York…There’s a recession on, but you can’t tell by me. I’ve got a bar job– twenty-seven bucks a night and all the goldfish I can eat. It’s at the Hotel Diplomat, an SRO on 43rd. St. and Sixth Ave. We call it “the Roach Motel” because once you check in you don’t check out. Half the tenants are seniors, shuffling around the mahogany chairs and sputtering lamps in the lobby until they find a spot on a lumpy sofa where they can lean on their walkers, muttering to the ghosts in the gloom. They stop breathing in rooms filled with fifty years of clutter, and lie forgotten until their stench signals their demise. The stronger ones make it to the hospital, bounced down the steps on a gurney, heads turning for one last dazed look around before they vanish into the ambulance of no return.

Hookers live in rooms rented by their pimps, who hang out in a bar off the lobby. They are hustled out, handcuffed and hysterical, by Vice Squad cops. New girls immediately take their places like there’s a waiting list. The seniors lean on their walkers and watch as they lead raucous sailors, nervous high school kids or furtive men in suits across the lobby.

Slouchy guys mutter in the phone booths by the elevators. Some of them are found with the needles still in their arms. Alerted by a trail of blood under the doors the maids enter to find the others tied, gagged and slashed in ransacked rooms. The seniors hobble down the hall as EMS workers wheel the bodies out, wrapped in their bloody sheets.

Rats the size of anteaters raid the liquor room, ripping open the bags of pretzels, unscrewing the tops of the maraschino cherry jars. We shout and sing to get them to scatter before we enter, but there are a few practical jokers in the pack. You don’t know what terror is until you’ve been startled by a giant rodent covered in Red Dye No. 2.

The Diplomat was once the hotel of the soft Left. The Socialist Party had its meetings and dances in its three ballrooms. Now promoters rent the spaces for dances and special events. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night the Crystal Room, so named for its chandeliers, is taken over by Alfredo, a twitchy middle-aged Neapolitan and Gerry, his blonde Brooklyn girlfriend. They put on dances for Italian immigrants. They charge ten dollars at the door and the hotel gets the bar. The room has a capacity of seven hundred and fifty. Every night begins with Alfredo pacing nervously as a few people straggle in. But by ten o’clock the place is jammed.

Three of us work a ninety foot bar. It’s Paul, a retired mailman from Harlem, Al, an angry butcher at Gristedes, who sells swag steaks out of the trunk of his car and me, a recently separated hack writer with a six year old son. We each have a bottle of Seagrams Seven, Highland Dew scotch, Gordon’s gin and Wolfschmidt’s vodka–and a soda gun. Seven and Seven is the cocktail du soir; we go through at least three cases of Seagrams a night. All drinks are $1.25 and served in plastic cups. No bottled beer; quarrels often erupt and the management doesn’t want any throwable glassware available.

The customers rush the bar, hundreds of them, shouting and shoving and clamoring for drinks for like they’ve been crawling on the Sahara for weeks. They pay in small change. “These greaseballs don’t go for spit,” Al says. By midnight, we have so many nickels in the register that Lester, the night manager dumps them in a huge sack. A quarter is considered a big tip and is presented with much pomp and ceremony. A few of the guys proffer a buck like it’s the papal crown on a plush pillow, but then they want free drinks for the friends and any stray girl who happens by. We do the math and figure that with people coming and going Alfredo is grossing ten thousand cash a night on Friday and Saturday and about five on Sunday– twenty-five G’s for low. Figuring an average crowd of twelve hundred, averaging three drinks at $1.25 per, that’s about $4500 for the hotel. For very low. “Everybody’s makin’ money and we get screwed,” Al says. We decide to charge the customers and steal from the till.

A quintet plays Top 40 and traditional Italian. Vito, the vocalist, a short kid with a gimpy leg and coke bottle glasses, is the ideal cover singer, doing Marvin Gay, Frankie Valli or Domenico Madugno with equal fidelity . Gerry rakes the dance floor with disco lighting, flashing, strobing, changing color, sweeping the room like a prison spotlight. The dancers do the same steps to a proto party list, going from Swear to God to Let’s Get It On to Volare.

There is a hard core of about a hundred regulars who show up every week. Among the men, an older group, smooth-shaven and slick-haired in wide-shouldered suits clusters at one end of the bar. They own pizza parlors all over Brooklyn and Staten Island, Vito explains. Another faction, young and modish in jeans and leather vests over sleeveless tees comes to my end. They work in “debt collection, you know what I mean?” Vito says flicking his nose. The two groups greet each other guardedly and never mix.

The females are either overdressed, heavily made up and deliriously sexy, at least to me, or mousy and awkward and giggling with each other. They arrive in groups like a bus tour and dance together for the first hour until the men join in. Everyone usually pairs off, but one night I spot a melancholy lady staring at me as she knocks back Seven and Sevens. At closing an invitation to coffee leads to a lurching clinch in the lobby and more stumbled kisses on the subway steps. But she sobers up on the long ride out to Brooklyn and by the time we get to Bensonhurst it’s life story time with lots of names and places, weddings, spiteful cousins, he saids, she saids… I find out she lives on 18th. Avenue with her parents and her “fiance” is a few doors down and I’m out of there. The next week she’s at the bar with one of the “debt collectors,” giving me a complicit smile like we’re having a mad affair.

The ’60′s had been a stressful time, what with psychedelics, army physicals and the shock of parenthood. Now, in the ’70′s I wake up broke, rejected and full of guilt on a mattress on the dusty floor of an empty apartment. But I’m not in school, I’m not in the army, I’m not married and I’m up for a job writing porno novels at ten dollars a page. Life is good.

One night I come to work to find a line a gleaming limos in front of the hotel.

“We doing weddings now?” I ask Lester.

“They’re havin’ a big party at Le Jardin tonight.”

He’s a black dude who’s been at the Diplomat for forty years, working his way up from porter. You’d think he had seen everything, but he shakes his head in amazement.

“They had Diana Ross and the Supremes up there the other night. They get just about everybody…”

I remember a few weeks ago when the place opened. “They got a fag joint on the roof,” Al had said.

Vito had gone up there one night and come back with a dismal report. “No live music…They got a DJ like on the radio. Two turntables goin’ back and forth…” He looked at me helplessly. “Everybody’s gonna do this now. We’re dead…”

It’s the beauty of narcissism. A seismic cultural phenomenon was erupting right under my nose and I didn’t even notice it.

For the first time I notice that the lobby has a new population. Young, stylish, flamboyant, pushing the seniors off their perches, interfering with the orderly process of prostitution, even sending the dope dealers into temporary retreat. They jam into the only elevator that goes to the roof, making so many trips that the motor burns out and they have to take the stairs.

“They wait on line like they’re givin’ out twenty dollar bills,” Lester says. “You oughta go up there. They got everything goin’ on…”



New York City, Christmas Eve, 1973…Global warming hadn’t become an A-list cause. Ozone layer sounded like something you inhaled at a party.

In Washington, the hottest present was a bootleg White House tape of President Nixon drunkenly ranting about the Watergate investigation to Attorney General John Mitchell. It was played at office parties all over town.

On Dec. 16, with the help of an Eagle Scout and a Brownie, Nixon, planted a 45 foot Colorado spruce, which was to be the first live White House Christmas tree. A few days earlier the North Vietnamese had rebuffed Kissinger’s peace plan. That day the Arab oil producers had announced they were lifting their oil embargo against every country but the US and Netherlands, who they said were being punished for giving aid to the Israelis during the recent October War with Egypt. As he delivered his greetings to the nation, promising to “maintain the integrity of the White House,” Nixon knew that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were running an espionage operation against the White House. Not only were the Democrats crying out for his impeachment, but his own military commanders were spying on him.

It had been a cruel month. On December 17, ice storms had delayed the opening of the Stock Exchange. Christmas Eve, a blizzard was dumping 30 inches of snow on Buffalo. In the city , a dark cloud settled like a wet blanket over the stars. Fluttering shreds of wrapping paper clung to my legs as I walked to the subway. Twin brothers in Santa hats marched outside the 72nd. St. station carrying signs reading “USEFUL IDIOTS FOR THE CIA.”

The energy shortage had curtailed the decorations on the tree in Rockefeller center. Fifth Avenue wasn’t its usual glittering self. The faltering economy, the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal had dampened the Christmas spirit.

Downtown, in Soho, the only way you could tell it was Christmas was that the galleries were closed and the sweatshops had sent their Hispanic ladies home early. The artists emerged from their lofts, hunched in fatigue jackets, with an occasional scarf as a gesture to the cold. Everything was closed. Only one light burned like a beacon in the night–Spring Street Bar.

We had no tree, no lights, no Christmas dinner. And we only had one customer: Kobe, the son of an Admiral in the Japanese Navy. Rumor was that he had been sent packing after he stabbed some guy with his father’s ceremonial sword. Earlier in the evening Mei, the Chinese busboy, had knocked over his drink It seemed like an accident, but then I saw Loq, the Chinese dishwasher giggling in the kitchen doorway. Kobe saw him, too. Now he was downing tequilas and glaring at Mei, visions of the Rape of Nanking dancing in his head.

Marisol was a famous Venezuelan artist, who was having an affair with Jack, my bar partner. She was known for her explosive temper. “Get ready for some shit, I stood her up today,” he had muttered as she lurched in, having fortified herself elsewhere for an epic confrontation.

I watched warily as he poured her a red wine, which she knocked back like a shot of whiskey, while glaring at him. Then thrust her empty glass at him for another…And another…

A couple came in out of the flurries. She was tall, graceful, wet snow glittering on her dark hair and cashmere coat, the kind of beauty who never buttoned her coat, even in bitter cold. He was shorter than she and softly fat. Biology hadn’t given him a break. His face was red and chapped by the cold, just as it would be red and blistered by the sun. He steered her to the bar and glared as I smiled at her. There was a lot of glaring going on tonight.

“What would you like?” he asked her with what sounded like a parody upper class drawl.

“I don’t know…anything.” Her indecision gave me an excuse to look at her. Dark eyes under thick, unplucked brows, were focused somewhere else.

“What was that crazy drink you loved in Venice?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t remember.”

Pousse cafe,” he said.. He threw down the challenge. “Can you make that here?”

I had never made one in my life. “I can make it anywhere,” I said, defiantly.

I rummaged in the office behind the bar and found a torn copy of Mr. Boston’s Bar Book. Pousse cafe had six ingredients floated on top of one another to produce what the author called “a striped rainbow of color.”

The liquors had to be floated in the right order, the heaviest down to the lightest. I would have to make the drink in front of her because if I carried it the colors might run.

First, I covered the bottom of a highball glass with Grenadine. Using the back of a mixing spoon I floated Yellow Chartreuse on top of that. Then… reddish Creme de Cassis…White Creme de Cacao…”

A stool scraped.

“Nobody move please,” I said. With a steady hand I floated Green Chartreuse and a final layer of Cognac.

I stepped back and contemplated a work of art, one layer of gorgeous color on top of another.

“This is probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I told Jack.

But the girl pushed it away with a sob. “I can’t.” The drink came apart, its colors sloshing and bleeding into one another. She got up.” I’ve got to go back there.”

“No…” He pushed her down and whispered vehemently. “We’re going to have a Christmas drink just like we said…Then, we’ll go uptown…”

You stand behind the bar and try to get the story straight. This looked like a long term relationship finally crumbling. He trying to hold it together. She desperate to escape.

Peggy, the waitress, sipped the ruined pousse cafe. “It tastes like poisoned candy,” she said.

The girl found a crumpled cigarette. He fumbled with his lighter. “What do you think they’re doing now?” he asked

She took a sucking drag and blew the smoke through her nose. “I don’t know what they do anymore.”

“Your Mom’s making her special egg nog like she always does, right? Well, we can have one, too.” He turned to me with a pleading look. “Bartender, two beautiful Christmas egg nogs…”

We made a classic egg nog at Spring Street. Three parts heavy cream, two parts cognac, one egg yolk and gomme syrup in a mixing glass (we didn’t use blenders back in the day.) Shake vigorously and pour in a tall glass. Sprinkle with nutmeg.

The beauty lit one cigarette off another. Not a good sign.

“Talk to me,” the fat kid said urgently. “What did you do on Christmas when you were a kid?”

“You know…”

“Tell me anyway…”

Another deep drag. “We’d spend a few days in town with Daddy…Skate at the Wallman rink…Then he’d put us on a plane to Aspen to meet Mom and Bart. Mom and Bart would go skiing and Francy and I would freeze in that dark chalet…When it was dark, they’d come back with their friends. Bart would try to get the fire going and everybody would laugh because he was so loaded. Mom would come out of the kitchen. Time for my special egg nog, she’d say…”

Almost on cue I laid the drinks in front of them. He took a tentative sip and brightened. “This is good…Just like your Mom used to make… “

She could hardly put it to her lips. When she did she shook her head…”No, it’s not like it at all …” And got up again. “I have to go back there…”

On second look I saw that her long, graceful fingers were yellow with nicotine. The face under that mass of dark hair was gray. The eyes had the panic of a trapped animal. “Let me go back there, please…”

What was “there?” A pile of coke? An abusive lover? Was this fat, red-faced kid trying desperately to save a tragic beauty he would hopelessly love forever? Suddenly, his face had a suffering nobility. His shoulders sagged and he stepped away. “I’ll get a taxi.”

He slid a twenty under the ashtray.

“Sorry about the egg nog,” I said.

He shrugged like it didn’t matter. “Merry Christmas.”

He stood arm raised in the middle of Spring Street where cabs never came, while she shivered in a doorway.

Peggy took a sip of my spurned masterpiece and made a face.

“More like ugh nog,” she said.


There were artist bars (the Cedar,) writer’s bars (the Lion’s Head,) newspaper hangouts (Bleecks or Costellos,) gay “clubs” (The Pink Poodle,) brawling butch bars (The Grapevine,) where lesbians bloodied each other with broken glasses and key rings.

The big hotels had commercial bars (Maude’s, The Jockey Club) where the traveling salesmen left nickel tips at the bottom of a water glasses filled with soggy cigarette butts and guffawed by the door as you fished them out.

There were discreet rendezvous for gigolos and wealthy widows (The Drake), cheater trysts (A Little Table in the Corner.) Bars that called themselves “Cocktail Lounges” and had music lovers in moth-eaten tuxedos plinking show tunes on scarred baby grands. The ones that said “Bar and Grill” featured oldsters drinking out their Social Security checks at a buck a shot and getting “bum-rushed” by the seats of their pants when they demanded “one on the house for a disabled veteran.”

There were dingy saloons where on-duty cops and off-duty crooks muttered in booths. There was even a bar for black people trying to pass as white.

It had been that way for fifty years when, suddenly, in the mid 1960′s, a pod opened and a new creature emerged, shucking its fetal membrane. It was known as the “Swinging Single.”

No one knew where it had come from. One theory was that the Sexual Revolution combined with the growing financial independence of young women had lengthened the marriage age from early to late ’20′s. Nubile females filled the high rises on the Upper East Side. The neighborhood became known as the “Girl Ghetto,” thousands living three or four to an apartment. Soon the scent of their Arpege wafted downtown and across the rivers to the outer boroughs. Males looked up, noses wrinkling, then dropped what they were doing and charged howling across the bridges.

Like penguins the singles needed a meeting place for their elaborate mating rituals. And so the singles bar was born.

The Persimmon (name changed to protect the guilty) opened in the spring of 1966 and became an instant institution. Everybody had a cute name for it–” the antique store from hell.”…”Marcel Proust’s bad acid trip.” It was a huge space done in Art Nouveau, Tiffany lamps, stained glass from floor to ceiling, ceramic animals. It originated the “bar food” menu, serving everything from burgers to “fine cuisine,” all equally inedible. It was the first bar to make a virtue out of bad food. Many more would follow.

I was working catering at the big hotels, 22 dollars an event, plus a meal, usually spaghetti and Sloppy Joe sauce, so I was ecstatic when a friend called and said there was an opening at the Persimmon.

At lunch the place was packed. The head bartender was a black dude named Noah who wore a vest and a derby like an old time barkeep. I would get a tryout in the service bar, he said, making drinks for the tables before they decided if I was ready to deal with “the public.”

The service bar motto was: “What the customers don’t see won’t hurt ‘em.” We had four bottles of rotgut– scotch, bourbon , rye and vodka. No matter what fancy brand they ordered, that’s what they got. Martinis were premixed in a Gilbey’s gin bottle. Vodka martinis got no vermouth. Whiskey sours were made with sweet vermouth and a sour mix, so sugary that the maddened fruit flies would find a way to bore through the glass for their mating rituals. All cream drinks, alexanders, grasshoppers, white russians were made with Yoo Hoo. The wine of choice was Lancer’s Rose. We made 27 dollars a shift, no tips. But the wait staff threw us a couple of bucks, or they’d never get their drinks orders.

I’ve never seen such a busy place, before or after. It was like working in the hold of a ship, shoveling coal into the furnace. The sweat poured off you. You were working so hard you didn’t look up, but you could hear the noise. It was a low roar from opening to last call.

After a few weeks I met Patty Nolan. He was in the process of becoming the first legendary bartender on the Upper East Side– still polishing the act. He was an ex Marine with tattoos on both brawny forearms, a black Irish New York newspaper intellectual, who read the sports pages, saw the latest Bergman and knew who Saul Bellow was, so he could make small talk with almost anyone. They had fired his partner and he had chosen me to replace him.

My first night I met the owner. He was Hollywood royalty, the grandson of a studio head, son of a famous director. A rotund little guy doing the flamboyant thing with plaid suits and loud ties, he had a constant parade of celebs moving through the joint. He was genial and welcoming, but gave me an appraising look when he thought I wasn’t watching. He was doing four million a month and didn’t want to share.

We worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday brunch, the prime shifts. At 8 when I came on the place would be hysterical. Every table taken, people willing to wait for hours until one opened up. Four deep at the bar, screaming for beverages like Legionnaires lost in the desert.

Sometimes a rumor would spread, “Warren Beatty is here.” And then you’d actually see Beatty or even Cary Grant and the owner at a table surrounded by women. In 1972 New York a movie star siting was huge.

The bartender as sex object hadn’t quite taken hold yet. Neither had the bartender as entrepreneur. I was making a hundred a night, which was a fortune for me and going home alone, which seemed only natural. But Patty wanted more. It was the first time I heard the expression “chump change.”

“This ain’t Con Ed,” he said.”We ain’t in this for thirty years and the gold watch.”

He had a motto for everything. “Swing in the cup, contract in the pocket.” The “swing” was what we stole through short ringing, short changing, stealing soft drinks, and that we shared. The “contract” was what we made from giving people free drinks and getting huge tips in return. And that we kept.

Patty was a local boy and had the “contracts”–cops and waiters, who came to see him. I was a West Sider and didn’t know anybody so he made more than me. But I was doing two hundred a night and at this rate would be able to quit and finish my Great American Novel.

It was strictly business between Patty and me. At closing he’d go off with his buddies. Drugs, especially cocaine, were still a secret passion in those days. I was never invited.

One Saturday night I noticed the owner at the end of the bar. He rarely came on the weekends, and when he did it was with a serious Hollywood crowd.

Patty came over to my sink. “They’ve got spotters on us tonight.”

The story came out while we were working. Somebody had gotten greedy. “Somebody’s killin’ the goose that lays the golden eggs,” he said. There had been shortages and now they were trying to catch the thieves.

Patty had spotted the spotters. It was a couple, man and woman, longhaired and tie-dyed up the gazoo. They came from an agency and, hard as they tried, they didn’t fit in.

“They have to work in pairs,” he said, “so they can both be witnesses in case there’s a criminal charge…They have to write down every time you do something for the same reason.”

It was scary. “Criminal charges?” I asked.

“I got a trick to beat it,” he said. “It’ll take balls, but it always works.”

Patty’s trick was simple. “Steal,” he said. “Steal right under their noses.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Steal blatantly from them,” he said. “Short ring their drinks, short change ‘em, buy drinks back after the first. Steal all around ‘em. Be flagrant, pack it all in the cup until the money is flowing out of it…”

“How’s that gonna work?” I asked.

“Trust me” he said.

So I stole. The spotters were down at my end. They got so excited they almost spilled the drinks I bought for them. I was swinging, contracting, almost picking customers’ pockets. They took turns writing frantically under the bar. The girl would watch me and whisper to the guy while he wrote. Then he would watch in amazement and whisper to her.

At the other end Patty was “contracting” the whole bar, dropping tens and twenties in the cup, which was like millions in those days.

Every hour or two he would make change from the register to the cup, which was a big no no, and jam some bills in his pocket.

At closing I was counting the tips when I saw the head bartender and two big guys in the mirror.

Patty saw them, too, and rushed over, full of righteous indignation.

“Noah, how long I know you?” he said. “I don’t appreciate you putting spotters on me.”

Noah’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“That couple of hooples at the other end,” he said. “I spotted them right away. I suppose now they’re gonna say we were stealin’ all night long, but we weren’t. We work clean, don”t we kid.”

“Clean,” I said, although you didn’t need a polygraph to see that I was lying.

Noah nodded to the two bruisers and they came behind the bar. “Those people were decoys, Patty. We knew you’d spot them. The real spotter was that Chinese chick, the one you kept buyin’ drinks for…”

“Hey, I’m allowed to get lucky, “Patty said.

“She’ll back up everything the other two say,” said Noah. “You’re out, Patty.”

They made us turn over our tip cup. The bruisers searched me up and down.

“Leave him cab fare,” Noah said.

Then we were out on the street. The Great American Novel was indefinitely postponed.

“That didn’t work,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Patty said.

He ducked into a doorway and slipped off his shoes. There were two piles of bills in his socks, one for me.

“Actually, I got a new job, managing at Spaldeens,” he said.

Spaldeens was a newer, hipper place in the ’70′s. Patty was stepping up.

“Tonight was my last night so I figured I’d make a killing anyway,” he said.

I counted my money. Two hundred, what I always made…

“Now that I’m out of work, can you give me a job?” I asked.

“You kiddin’?” Patty laughed. “You’re a thief.”