Tag Archive for 'spring street bar'

AutoBARography 9: Bohos Against The Mob

Part 1

FLASHBACK: One Million B.C. A tribe of starving Neanderthals is grunting in a cave, gnawing at whitened bones, fighting off shrieking pterodactyls. Suddenly, a herd of deer wanders by. It’s a new species, never saw them around here before. Bleating fawns wobble from nursing does to nibble the sweet grass by the water hole. Look at all this soft, yielding prey. The cave men blink at their good fortune, then attack with gleeful cries.

FLASH FORWARD: Soho,1974. Gray cast iron buildings, home to warehouses and small industry. In sweatshops  immigrant ladies hunch in clouds of dust, stitching piece work to the roar of sewing machines.  Skeletal Chinese, gasping in  metallic fumes, turn out miniature bronze Empire State Buildings for a bowl of noodles and a pellet of opium. 

A few blocks away In Little Italy minor mobsters grunt and squabble in their social clubs.  Soho is a place to extort from sweatshops, sell swag, run crap games and dump bodies. A risky living.

Suddenly,  the sweatshops are transformed into artist’s lofts. Guys from the midwest splatter paint or weld pieces of scrap metal into odd shapes. The novelty factories become galleries selling those splats and welds.

The neighborhood dives are hangouts for the midwestern guys and the art crowd that lives off them.  There’s a lot of drinking and bloodless brawling. New, glossy restaurants  offer brunch to the weekend art lovers. A theater group grows on Wooster Street. A jazz joint on Green Street. Famous galleries open Soho branches. Cool clothing stores, gourmet shops and real estate agents appear. Europeans with ski tans drink Chablis in the afternoon. 

Soho has gone from B&W to Disney color. Bambi Bohos wobble by on their way to the bank. They’re a new species. Soft, yielding prey. The mobsters blink at their good fortune, then attack.

Years later I will hear a wiseguy’s wistful reminiscence of the shakedown racket.

“You didn’t have to steal nothin’ or smack nobody around. You just sat in the club and the money came pourin’ in.”

It’s a Gigante operation. Very suave. An affable young man in a business suit offers a business card for “Sentry Security.” You pay a monthly fee plus a cash “surcharge” for extra services. For those who are slow to sign on  a scowling man appears in the salesman’s wake. He sits at the bar scaring the customers until the owners get the message. 

A Frenchman named Jean-Jacques, whose restaurant is a favorite with the fast-forming Soho elite, calls the police. When they are enigmatic he tries the FBI.  They descend in force, but the young salesman is gone and no one else in the neighborhood wants to talk.  A week later a carload of mice turn up in Jean-Jacques’ kitchen. A few nights after that an exiting patron is jostled and threatened on the sidewalk. Then, on a busy Saturday night the restaurant’s front window is blown out. Several people are injured by flying glass.  Soon afterward the FBI removes its mikes and cameras.

I’m working at the Spring Street Bar. The place is three deep, day and night, six days a week. (Tuesday is always slow.) They rush the bar like it’s the Fountain of Youth.  One of my bosses, B… is an architect with a red beard, a rock climber who has never been seen in public without a Heineken. The other, J… is  a former Woodrow Wilson scholar with a thick black beard who reads a book a day and does everything to avoid sleeping.  His wife paints pictures of cats with huge eyes. They sit at the bar, drinking pitchers of Commemorativo Margaritas with no apparent effect. 

The partners look down on the restaurant business with aristocratic disdain.  It’s fun to work for them because they hate the customers and are always cutting someone off, throwing someone out or tearing up a check with a “get out of my restaurant  and don’t come back.” 

The Mob controls every aspect  of restaurant supply. It sets prices and decides which family will service each restaurant. My bosses  bridle under its monopoly. They are dangerously snide to the seafood man whose company is in the Genovese-controlled Fulton Fish Market, snub  the table-cloth, cutlery, toilet paper guy who represents the notorious  Matty “The Horse” Ianello and insult Sam, the garbage man who works for the Gambino branch of the private carting cartel. 

“Garbage is a good metaphor for what you people are,” B… says to him one night. 

Sam is offended. “I’m a human being…”

“That’s stretching the definition.”

Sam takes a step toward B… “You pickin’ a fight ?”

“I don’t engage in physical violence,” says B…”I’m a Gandhian pacifist.”

Sam doesn’t get it. He looks at me. I shrug like I don’t get it either. “Sanitation Department won’t collect from businesses,” Sam says. “Somebody’s gotta get the garbage off the street…It’s a public service.”

“You could do a real public service by jumping into the landfill with the rest of the garbage,” B… says.

At 4 am Sam catches up to me in Dave’s Diner on Canal Street. “So who’s your boss with?” he asks.

“He’s not with anybody.”

“He’s tryin’ to get me to take a swing at him so he can get me off the route and go with his guy, right?”

“This is his first restaurant,” I say. “He doesn’t know that Soho is cut into territories.”

Sam still doesn’t buy it. “He wouldn’t talk that way to me if he didn’t have somebody behind him.”

I want to tell him that Mob logic doesn’t apply to my bosses. “There’s nobody behind him,” is all I can say.

Sam gets stubborn. “He wouldn’t let you in on it, anyway. It’s a power play.  Some big shot is backin’ him for sure…”

I’m not around when the amiable salesman from “Sentry Security” shows up, but I hear all about it when I come to work that night. The guy went into his spiel and J…cut him off. 

“We don’t need you. Our bartenders protect the place…So get out of my restaurant, I know who you are.” 

I am about to tender my resignation when a scowling man slides into a stool at the end of the bar. It’s a busy Thursday, people shoving and breathing down each other’s necks. But he puts up a force field and nobody intrudes on his space. He’s one of those little guys who doesn’t look like much at first glance. Lucky for me I’ve been decked by midgets; I’m not lulled. His ruby pinky ring glitters when he lights his Chesterfield with a gold Dunhill. He holds his outsized hands in front of him like paws. His knuckles are pounded smooth from the hundreds of jaws he’s broken–mine about to be next. I avoid eye contact, wary of the trick question “what are you lookin’ at?” for which there is no safe answer.

He orders a Dewars and milk, a throwback to Prohibition when steady drinkers took the antidote with the poison.  As the hours go by the customers recede like low tide. By midnight when it’s usually frantic  the joint is dead calm. Only a few regulars at the other end of the bar are watching with horrified fascination.

Finally, B… can stand it no longer. 

“Cut him off,” he says.

“He’s just here to intimidate people,” I say. “If you leave him alone he’ll go by himself…”

“You can blame it on me,” B…says. “Tell him I say he’s scaring the customers.”

The scowling man waggles his glass as I walk down to the end of the bar. “You run outta milk?”

“Boss says I can’t serve you,” I say.

He looks at me in puzzlement and I realize no one has ever said that to him before. “Whaddya mean?” 

My mouth goes dry. “He says you’re scaring the customers.”

He looks around. “I don’t see no customers.”

I have to lick my lips to get a word out.  “That’s ’cause you scared ‘em all away.”

He slides his glass to the edge of the bar. “Dewars and milk.”

He walks on the balls of his feet like a boxer.  B…looks down at him without flinching as he asks the trick question:

“What’s your problem?”

“You’re spoiling our fun,” says B…

The scowling man steps into punching range.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

B… stands his ground. “You have bad karma. You’re making everybody nervous.” 

“You want me to go?” The man shoves  him. “Throw me out…”

B… doesn’t stagger as far as expected. So the man shoves him harder against the bar. “C’mon tough guy, let’s see what you got.”

“I don’t use physical violence,” B… says.” I’m a Gandhian pacifist.”  

“Then how you gonna get me to leave?”

“I expect you to do the right thing.”

The scowling man turns and challenges me.

“You a pacifist?”

“I’m a punk,” I say.

“Then gimme a Dewars and milk.”

B…moves in front of him and warns me with a wink: “If you serve him you’re fired.”

The man kicks B…’s legs out from under him. B…falls forward,  his head thumping against the bar. He drops to his knees, blood pouring out of his nose.

“Now you’ve gone too far,” he says.. 

Once these gorillas get wound up there’s no stopping them. The next step is a hard kick to the ribs and then a few stomps to the head. Scared as I am, I can’t let that happen. 

“Wait a second,” I say. My arms buckle and I barely make it over the bar. 

“Wait for you to piss your pants?” the scowling man says.

B… searches through a puddle of blood for his glasses. “Don’t you know when you’re not wanted?” he says.

The scowling man stops and squints at me. “What the fuck are you guys up to, anyway?” He backs out of the door, as if he’s afraid we’re going to start shooting.  

B…feels along the bar for his Heineken.

“Well I guess we told him,” he says.

By closing B…has ingested every painkiller–legal and illegal–in the pharmacopeia. I’m heading down West Broadway toward Dave’s when the scowling man gets out of an El Dorado. “Hey you,  wait up, I wanna ask you something.” 

Every atom in my body is screaming: RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! Instead, I fold my arms and lean against a lamppost.

He is fooled by the casual pose.

“Tough guy, your boss. By not fightin’ back he puts  the onus on me.”

“He’s a Gandhian pacifist,” I say.

“He told me to do the right thing. What did he mean? What am I supposed to do?”

It’s a linguistic impasse. “Do the right thing” means something very different in Little Italy.

“Nothing,” I say. “Forget about it.”

“Forget about it “means something very different as well.

“Look, I don’t wanna step on nobody’s toes,” he says. “If somebody’s protectin’ the join then fine with me. I just work here, know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean.”

He moves in and drops his voice, getting positively collegial. “Somebody’s makin’  a move here, right? Who’s your boss with?”

I shake my head. Suddenly my voice is hoarse and confidential. “He’s not with nobody,” I say. “Forget about it. “

The scowling man nods with a knowing look. ” Yeah…That’s what I thought you’d say.”





From: Krissy@….com
To: hgould@heywoodgould.com
Subject:  is that really you???

Wow, look at you! Got your own web page. Is that old man really you? Picked up some dents since ’75, but still got that crinkly squint, laughing at the world. Glad you’re alive.

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com
To: Krissy@….com
re: is that really you???

Thanks. Me too. Today anyway. Laughing now, but in ’75 that “crinkly squint”  was probably a hangover.

From: Krissy@….com

Not liking yourself so much back in the day, huh? Well, join the club. I get a hot flush every time I think of some of my escapades…

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

Which were?

From: Krissy@….com

Vanity, Vanity, huh?  Thinking you’d remember me from a name after all these years. Krissie, the skinny blonde with overbite (since corrected.)  I used to come into Spring Street bar with my cousin, Charlene. We’d hang out and watch the show. Charlene was a big girl, loud laugh, really big drinker, never got drunk. “Here’s the lady with the hollow leg,” you would say. Charlene was really mortified the first time, but then she realized this was Soho, nobody judged. Anyway it kind of made her a celebrity, although she probably drank more because of it. 

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

Still drawing a blank.

From: Krissy@….com

There was a redheaded cop named Phil. You bet him fifty bucks one night that Charlene could drink more beer than he could. She matched him fourteen  big liter  cans of Foster’s lager. He wobbled out banging into the walls,  and you declared her the winner. But then he came back and wanted to keep going. “I  just went out to take a piss,” he said. And you said “house rules: you can’t leave the field and get  back into the game.”  He waved his gun and said he was going to kill us all. And he pointed it right at you behind the bar.  And you said: “That won’t get you out of the bet, Phil.  You’ll still  have to pay my heirs.” He opened and closed his mouth like a fish, then slammed some money on the bar and stumbled out.  And you said you knew he wasn’t going to shoot you because  you were supposed to leave one chamber empty in a revolver. And anyway a smart lush like Phil probably unloaded his gun when he went out drinking. You tried to be nonchalant, pouring yourself a big shot of Martell. And I said: “you’re scared out of your mind.” And you whispered “don’t tell anybody,” which was funny because everybody saw you shaking like a leaf. 

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

Doesn’t ring a bell. In those days weird things happened every night. 

From: Krissy@….com

I dug up a picture, maybe that’ll help. We were pretty friendly.  I came to NY to be a star. Remember you laughed when I said I’d played Juliet and Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in high school in Tulsa. I get a hot flush thinking of what a pathetic little diva I must have been, although I guess we would have said prima donna in those days. I was uptown studying at Stella Adler and you said “she’ll bury you, she only likes the male students.” So I came down to Neighborhood Playhouse and you said Sanford Meisner would be mean to me and he was. So I got a job taking care of kids in a pre school and you said “you’re doing God’s work.” There was this actor who hung out at the bar who was in a play with Diane Keaton. And he said he was infatuated with her, but she was ignoring him, wouldn’t even say hello. They had this scene where he was supposed to slap her and he’d been doing a stage slap. And you said “give her a real hard Brooklyn smack, that’ll get her attention…” And he came in a few nights later, drunk out of his mind. You always said: “beware the guy who gets a head start in another store.” (You guys always called bars “stores” for some reason) And he was screaming: “you sonofabitch bastard dirty motherfucker. I took your advice. I slapped her so hard her lip started bleeding on stage. And now they want to fire me and she’s making an Equity complaint against me, you sonofabitch bastard, motherfucker….” And he jumped over the bar and tried to choke you and your partner Richard had to pull him off you. Everybody was laughing. But  you ran out after him, saying: “I’m sorry man, can I buy you a drink…”

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

Is that one of those machine photos? It’s a little out of focus. 

From: Krissy@….com

Remember when your first novel came out? You  said  “I’m only writing books to tide me over until I  get a good bar job.” You were supposed to be very nonchalant about your art in those days. Not to take yourself seriously. You had three copies that night. I said I wanted one. “You’ll have to earn it,” you said. 

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

I think I’m about to get one of those hot flushes.

From: Krissy@….com

You poured  me a split of champagne with a couple of shakes of bitters. I never drank anything but beer and this was gooooood!   After closing we went to this diner across from Bellevue Hospital where the waiter gave you tons of free food for a twenty dollar tip. You had a room at the Martha Washington Hotel in the ’30′s.  It was like a horror movie, dark and creaky, old people in the lobby at 4 am. It was the smallest room I ever saw. The radiator was banging. As soon as the hot air hit me it all came up–the champagne, the eggs and bacon and rice pudding –everything. I was in this tiny bathroom and I knew you could hear me retching and shitting. Oh God, I just got another hot flush. I didn’t want to cry because everybody laughed everything off in Soho in those days. You said: “I know I’m not a great lover, but I never made a woman puke before.” You opened the window and the cold air came in. You had this Slippery Elm Bark tea, or something.  It put me out like a light. When I woke up you were watching the new cable station. “It’s a Cagney festival,” you said, really happy. We watched Cagney movies all day and then the basketball game came on. “James Cagney and the Knicks,” you said. “This is a day to remember…”

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

Not by me. Well, at least  I remember the room. It was a short crawl to the bathroom. You could reach the TV, radio, little refrigerator, toaster and  hot plate without getting out of bed. One of those old people left the hot plate on one night and that was the end of the Martha Washington.

From: Krissy@….com

Once at 8:30 I was waiting for the bus to take my kids up to the Museum of Natural History and you walked right by without seeing me. You were as gray as a tombstone, smoking a cigarette. So close I could see the white crust on your lips. But I didn’t want the principal to see me talking to you, I was such a little Miss Prim…

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

Gray as a tombstone. Think I’ll steal that.  

From: Krissy@….com

 There were these three Colombian guys, who had leather jackets and watches and jewelry.  You called them “los tres majos” like the Three Wise Men in the xmas story. You guys guessed they were drug dealers probably doing business with the mafia in Little Italy. “Chocolattes, amigo,” they would say. You poured  cognac, creme cacao and heavy cream over ice and sprinkled nutmeg.  They loved it. “Cheap Brandy Alexander,” you said. “They think I just invented it. Like the Connecticut Yankee in  King Arthur’s Court…” They were always sliding rolled up bills across the bar. You would go into the little wine closet behind the bar and come out all glassy-eyed and light up a cigarette. New Year’s 1976 the bar was like rush hour. People passing drinks and money like at a baseball game. At 4:30 in the morning the place was still jammed. You were at the door yelling: “party’s over, everybody back on their head,” which was the punch line of some old joke. Finally, you got everybody out. The Three Wise Men were piling mounds of coke right on the bar. You were laughing and shaking your head. “No podemos aqui. Felice anno, amigos y adios…” They were so loaded they dropped a full bill on the way out. This bartender Louie who was in Andy Warhol movies got a straw and started snorting the floor, getting dust and ashes up his nose. It was too much for me so I left. The Three Wise Men were jumping around in the snow. One of them grabbed me, but another guy said: “es la pequenita del barman…” They gave me a dollar bill: “Happy New Year flaquita.” You had already locked the door, but you let me in. I was pretty disgusted.  I put the dollar bill on the bar. Everybody gathered around as you opened it. “It’s the size of a golf ball,” Louie said. I just walked out. I  was sure you guys were all going to die.

From: hgould@heywoodgould.com

 Some of us did. I decided to wait for natural causes. I’m a grandpa now. Even cigarette smoke makes me nauseous. Happy New Year.

From: Krissy@….com

I’m a grandma. Happy New Year to you!



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.