ROUGHEST BAR IN TOWN
The Marine stepped out of Port Authority, his duffel bag under his arm, his hair slicked with brilliantine, his pant legs so creased they could almost have sliced butter. His eyes traced a wide arc, taking in the noise, the bustle of Eight Avenue.
It was summer, fifteen years ago, and the smell of gas and garbage caused his nose to wrinkle. He stood for a while, watching the crowds, trying to get a handle on what the people were doing. He was sure that this was going to be his city, at least for the weekend, and he didn't want to seem out of place. He drooped his shoulders, trying to seem nonchalant, and he lit a Camel. But anyone who cared enough to glance in his direction would have known that his too bright eyes, his studied cheerfulness, screamed "hick" through all the cacophony of a New York Saturday afternoon.
When he thought he was ready, he began to walk uptown. He was more sure of himself now that his eyes had adjusted to the sun, and he began to feel that he was no longer just a smalltown boy from Enfield, North Carolina, but a marine, and, as such, meant to be respected by man and beast all over these United States.
He walked as far as 50th Street, savoring the raucousness around him, and then he turned and retraced his steps. When he got back to Port Authority, he looked across the street and saw a steady flow of people going into the Terminal Bar. He walked over, peered in, saw the tawdriness of last year's tinsel dangling from the greenish walls, and pieces of dead flies clinging to flypaper that was nearly a decade old. He also saw photographs of forgotten boxers smiling through gapped teeth, their eyes bleary from yesterday's punishment and today's alcohol. He heard the blare of rhythm and blues, and he smiled as he saw heads thrown back in laughter and flashes of gold in black mouths.
It was a pole away from the pastoral honky-tonk of Enfield; he smoothed his slicked light-brown hair, adjusted his cap, and with the suggestion of a toothpick peeking out of the right corner of his mouth, he went into the bar. In ten minutes he was lying on the corner of 40th Street and Eigth Avenue, his duffel bag gone, his pockets empty, his head aching with an insistent throb he thought would never go away.
Tiny Mary remembers those old days, when the Terminal Bar was a place you went into only if you were brave or very foolish. She is a copper-brown woman, almost as wide as she is tall, and when she laughs her body shakes in short and viloent spasms. She doesn't ply her trade any longer. Age and weight have done her in, and she is contemptuous of her successors.
"These new girls don't know nothing. They just after money. We was experts in those days. We was professionals." She still gets presents from her "night men," either in celebration of things past or because she is without malice and always good for a laugh. "We used to call it bucket of blood," she says, happily munching on an Oh Henry! chocolate bar, "but you couldn't keep us out of there. I remember one night when the cops came and had to scrape up flesh off the avenue."
But all that was long ago. Long before Jersey came to work behind the bar, six days a week, for Murray Goldman. He's been there for fifteen years, and he has seen them come and go. "Only the faces change," says Jersey. "The need remains the same." And the need is for a dingy bar in which to sing silent songs laced with woe.
Three o' clock one tuesday afternoon. It is not a barhopping time, but the habitués of this bar have little regard for clocks, and so all twelve of the red and green stools are taken, and customers are standing two-deep in a miasma of smoke and rancid air. A disturbed man comes in, his hands describing circles, his conversation conducted with imaginary foes. Before he gets to the bar, Jersey has poured him his drink. He slobbers, nods his head, and walks out. Jersey throws the glass in the sink.Across the room, a junkie twitches. His head is almost in his beer, his fingers are stroking his chin in some long-lost rhythmic pattern.
Suddenly, Jersey moves center stage. "You're allowed to come in here," he says to an aging, grotesque tranvestite. "You're even allowed to look at the star. I'll give you my autograph if you plead hard enough. But you are not allowed to touch." The crowd howls, although they have heard all this before. They know that the bar is Jersey's stage and that he loves to work it. "Look at me," he says to no one in particular. "I'm one handsome mother. Haven't changed in years. They call Ali pretty. They should check me out. It's my mother's blood. Cherokee. With hair down to her ass."
For all his bravado, Jersey is a man in trouble - a cache of dynamite waiting for a fuse. He struts and barks and boasts, but claiming the edges of his mouth is a twitch of nervous expectation. It's almost as if, after fifteen years, he is still not sure that his job belongs to him. He drinks all day from a jar of Coke and ice cubes, and he knows on which side his bread is buttered. His boss, Murray Goldman, becomes a man of more than mythic sensibility, "someone who is also my buddy, employer, and my father. He knows more than anyone else I know, and when he bleeds, I bleed." The adulation stops an inch away from Uncle Tom's stomping ground as the subject of all that praise comes up from the basement storeroom.
Two operations have left Murray Goldman's face splotchy, and it is if his blood had chosen to surface only in special places. He is a fashion coordinator's dream: maroon suede jacket, maroon trousers, pink shirt, all topped with white straight hair. His fastidiousness seems as out of place as a tuxedo in a shooting gallery. "I've been in this business for 22 and a half years," he says. "I run one of the roughest bars in town. The element here is supposed to be the worst in the city, nothing but crooks, whores, pimps, and punks. But they all toe the line in here."
His tough-guy words come from a voice that is so low that one has to strain to catch them over the din of the jukebox. "I don't have no trouble with these people. Only with the cops who sometimes step out of line and want to make things rough for my customers. Everybody in this town says that the people who come in here are terrible, but to me they are good human beings. Suffering like all of us, and they consider me the Godfather, because when they are down and out, I help them, and they pay me back. They are sufferers. We are all sufferers," says Goldman.
Illness has made him vulnerable and broadened his love for mankind. "If only I could make more money here, I'd be satisfied," he says."Maybe if you painted," I say. "Perhaps you ought to get rid of those tacky blue curtains, put in new stools, put new tiles on the floor, get rid of all that flypaper. Maybe you'll get some new customers who'll spend some money." And Goldman recoils as if I had suggested some desecration of his temple of the maimed. "What! Are you crazy? Do you think my customers will come back if I go fancy? They like the shit as it is. They feel at home here. Why would I want them to feel unwanted?"
Eight O' Clock on a Friday evening in front of the Terminal Bar. The traffic is heavy. Theatergoers in cabs that are inching their way uptown stare at the stream of hustlers who have very little to sell. The air is alive. It is Friday, and this is the avenue! Sprawled in front of the bar are two bodies - white drunks who didn't make it to their single-room occupancy hotels in time. Most of the people coming into the bar give the drunks a little kick, as if to celebrate the fact that they have not yet reached their nadir.
Inside, the assorted wrecks nod their heads to the music, and some try little steps to the disco beat. Junior, the night bartender, is wiping the counter and serving three white construction workers who are sitting in the front of the bar. They are talking about the anatomy of women, and nothing they say is complimentary. After a moment of silent drinking, they turn and look at the parade of flotsam. The whores are prominantly on display. Painted and hard and scared. The men look at their young faces grown sour from abuse, and misogyny finds fertile ground among them.
"I'm getting to the state where i would rather gamble than fuck," says the biggest guy. "I won $500 last week in Atlantic City, but the place is being ruined by whores. This old black one was pushing 60, yet she was out there still thinking she could sell pussy." "Wherever money is, you'll find women ready to take it from you," says one in a red hunter's cap, as if he had found some new insight to sustain him all the rest of his days.
The complexion of the bar has changed over the past fifteen years. Once it was home to the Hell's Kitchen crowd - burly Irishmen looking for a brawl and some booze. Murray Goldman remembers. "If you think the crowd here is rough, you should have been here when we had the real street fighters. They would smash everything in sight, but the next day they would come back to say they were sorry, and they would pay for the damage. Now nobody has money to buy a drink, much less pay for what they break."
Two policemen come in. One goes to a room in the bar that has been partitioned off with unpainted plywood. The other to the men's room and is buzzed in. This room is always locked, while the ladies' room stays open but has a warning sign:
ONE PERSON AT A TIME
Every time the police come in, one goes directly to the john. Two beers are taken to the partitioned room, and soon the cops come out wiping their mouths with the back of their hands. They nod to the bartenders, and they leave by the side door.
Murray Goldman is still talking about the old days when a young Puerto Rican woman comes in. She is wearing a brown woolen coat, and she is 30 pounds overweight. She is pretty but unkempt, and as Goldman sees her, his eyes light up. She ignores the people with whom he is speaking, and kisses him full on the lips. She pulls him into a corner of the room and begins to speak animatedly. I strain to listen, but the music is too loud. Goldman chuckles, and his hand goes into his pocket. When it comes out, it is full of green, and he peels some off for the woman. She takes the money, nods, kisses him again, and leaves.
He comes back to me. "You see," he says, "they believe in me. A few years ago, she was on the street, but she pulled herself together and went to live in Jersey. She's broke now because she just lost her job, but she knows where to find the Godfather." And he chuckles again. I cannot tell whether in pleasure or in pain.
Thursday noon. A suggestion of rain and fog. A gray New York day, but the Terminal Bar is alive, and Jersey is already moving into high gear. "A woman is like a guitar," he announces to the world. "You should only play it when you want to."
"Pretty Boy" comes in - a tall mulatto with a twisted grin and scar marks across his chin and forehead. He must have been handsome once, but living has robbed his face of charm, and all that remains is a snarl. And as he recalls what he once was, his venom is poised and ready to flow at the least hint of insult. He is a walking menace.
"That dude's crazy," says a guy in a yellow trenchcoat sitting next to me. But the people do not seem to mind, and they fawn over him and call him "pretty" when only a suggestion of that remains. He sells coke and so always has money to buy booze for his sycophants. Symbiosis reaffirmed.
He begins to shadowbox, flexing his muscles, pretending that the body is finely tuned. But his swagger betrays him; the coke is still working, and he sits at the bar and scowls. "There's more of us out than in," says the trench coat again. "Us? Out where?" "I graduated from the Bronx high school of Science, then I went into nuclear physics." I look at my conter partner closely. His eyes are lost in the reminiscences of the mad.
Two young women are having a friendly conversation. Their work will only begin when the sun goes down. One is black, the other white. "You nothing more than a shady tuna. I should either can you or throw you back in the sea." "Hit the wind you ugly bag of neckbones." "You afterbirth!" Just when the bar begins to perk up in anticipation of a fight, the women put their arms around each other, and with bottles raised to their mouths they make their way through the door and onto the avenue of friends.
I look around that murky bar and something close to sadness rises in me, for there is no joy here, only exposed pain and a tempting edge of danger. Here, where sleaze is embraced, there is never a suggestion of fun. Slumming used to mean that there was an excitement in the air, a high that came from the anticipation of the bizarre.
Since nothing is now unexpected, nothing surprises. All is boredom in this cathedral of the fallen. And the people who come here exist not in America but in a world as desolate and as forbidding as the Valley of Bones in the Book of Ezekial.
But in that Old Testament story, when the despairing cried out, "Behold...our bones are dried and our hope is lost," the Lord heard them and rescued them. These days, in Times Square, no God listens to today's children of sorrow.