I used to hang out at a good bar. It had everything: a long history, ambient despair, determined alcoholism people seemed to truly enjoy, disturbingly beautiful women roaming through a comfortable distance, queer birds with queerer histories, regulars who suddenly die from third world ailments, and a fantastic bartender who treated regulars like royalty and strangers with amusing disdain. It was a place where I felt loved even as I was toppled to the floor.
Then new management fired the beloved bartender to get rid of the unsightly regulars on the floor. Tourists came in ever-larger flocks, taking photos of themselves being gouged in a landmark establishment and dominating the scene like gulls at Fresh Kills. The grubby entertainment of sour discontent was replaced by the merry tinkle of cell phones, and tiny eyeglasses you need glasses to see. A twenty-dollar drunk became a sixty-dollar drunk.
I had a backup joint when that one went bad. It’s a place run by and for Eastern Europeans, with a sprinkling of Americans. Daytime is dominated by the older generation who lift their vodka and say, “Cheers, it’s only gonna get worse,” and “Never get old.” Nighttime is dominated by younger people learning these phrases. I avoid the younger, happier ilk; I’m a quick study, and picked up these terms effortlessly, so I prefer the daytime crowd. And I get dissonant pleasure from older foreigners, and I fit in nicely, being able to maintain a sullen depression rivaling that of your average Russian. It’s just unfortunate that I was born into a happy, nurturing culture where opportunity is so heartbreakingly limitless. For me, this place fills a hole like a gravedigger.
The daytime treats the regulars with happy deference, which, given who we are, may be a case of unrealistic expectations oddly met. But they are met nevertheless, and we love our bartender. She’s worth soaking in and getting soaked for, even every day. Then she suddenly gets a new job and leaves. I’m feeling hounded now. I’m growing bitter; it takes a long time to cultivate a good hangout, to convince a bartender that they’ll enjoy treating me special despite all evidence to the contrary. They just don’t know how grimly regular I can be, what a cash cow I am.
The replacement bartender is an immediate problem. She’s all wrong. She doesn’t put the TV on the proper channel-the daily Wall Street investment show is the preferred fare, complete with excited people talking money and stock prices and scrolling busily by as we inertly watch; we are people who plan for the future. Instead, the new bartender watches women’s movies on Lifetime. She won’t turn the TV volume down if the jukebox is on, or vice versa. She doesn’t know how to open the pool table to get stuck balls out, and doesn’t want to know. Turning the lights on seems like a pointlessly optimistic gesture to her. She’s never been a bartender before, but I figure, with my usual enraged patience, that she’ll get it after a while. It’s just a shot-and-beer joint after all; order a margarita and the process seems to have all the baffling complexity of making aspirin from scratch, and the result tasted as Mexican as liquid pierogis. How hard can it be to open beer bottles and give a buyback on occasion?
Fairly hard apparently. She never buys anyone a drink, which infuriates me. It’s a glove to my face. But I accept the challenge to duel. I stay for hours on hours, consuming drink after drink, waiting for my buyback. It never comes, and I lay bleeding in the dust. She’s like Aaron Burr, this woman.
It’s all looking pretty bleak, but for a while I enjoy just watching her. She enjoys this much less than I do, however: “I do not like the way you look at me,” she says, the phrase like a gust of Siberian wind. “Sorry,” I murmur, and light a cigarette for warmth. But I can’t stop looking at her. She’s slim, with a face that’s both handsome and pretty. She has strong, straight teeth perfect for severing limbs, dark powerful hair, delicate hands with thin, stabbing fingers. She speaks English some, but not enough to make talking comfortable for me, not that it is even without a language barrier. In fact, I find language barriers strangely apposite; the term itself is an oxymoron. I do notice that she treats me a bit better than the others, which isn’t at all difficult to do. It seems she has a big problem with young, quiet drunks like myself. But even I with my demure, unassuming charm can’t establish an acquaintanceship with her. Soon I realize, with wonderment, that it almost seems like she HATES us!
With her arrival, the bar becomes a bomb. Her name is the first big sticking point, because no one can pronounce it. It’s something like “Helen,” but it makes her furious to be called that. But when she tells you her proper name, it’s so garbled and strange that even those who speak the language don’t seem to understand. This is a no-one-can-pronounce-your-name kind of place.
Soon everyone is terrified to ask her what her name is, fearing one of her icy glares, so when she’s not working, we sit around and try to figure it out:
“Isn’t it Helena?”
“No, it’s Halnya!”
“I thought it was Halalya.”
“No, it’s Nanynya!”
“It’s not Helen?”
The name issue is just the tip of the iceberg. Soon there’s a massive power struggle between her and the regulars. The major battle is with Johnny the King. He’s middle-aged, portly, an excellent pool player, a snappy dresser who drinks blackberry brandy neat with a Budweiser back while holding his pinky out like a knobby fetus. He does magic tricks with strings, and likes to play Klezmer-type tunes on the liquor bottles with pencils, a happy event which brings a lot of jovial energy to the place. But not for Helen. When he goes behind the bar with his pencils, Helen looks ready to leap on him and claw his face open.
Finally, he has a duel with her, and you have to know the way Johnny talks; his voice is a bit gravely but mild, polite, with a touch of accent that gives him a curious dignity:
“Excuse me, miss. It’s a bit chilly in here, do you think you could turn the air conditioner down?” says Johnny.
“If you are cold, why don’t you go to the hospital? Maybe you are sick,” Helen says, concern knitted into her brow.
“I don’t wanna go to the hospital, what do I wanna go to the hospital for?! I just want you to turn the air conditioner down, it’s freezing in here!”
“I am not cold.”
“Well, you’re not the only one in here! I’m the customer, that’s supposed to count for something! Can’t you turn it down just a little?”
“I don’t know how.”
“Whattaya mean you don’t know how? You turned it on didn’t you?”
“It was like that when I get here.”
“Well, I’ll turn it down then! Can I turn it down?”
“Do what you want. I don’t care. It’s your place.”
So Johnny is offended, and won’t come in if she’s working.
Craig is next. He’s big, unassuming, and a sweetheart of a guy, who clearly doesn’t know who he’s dealing with:
“Excuse me miss, could you turn the TV up a little?” he says.
Helen looks up from the Daily News, which she reads down at the end of the bar hunched over and peering closely at it, despite it being all pictures. She sighs, stalks down the bar, grabs the remote, and flings it at him.
“Here,” she says grimly, and goes back to the Daily News.
Craig blushes. He can’t believe he’s being treated like this. He looks around with consternation, his dignity shattered. We look baffled, and slurp at our bottles as a gesture of commiseration. We’re paralyzed, being a timid group that doesn’t want any trouble. Craig says nothing. And doesn’t come back.
One by one, Helen picks off the regulars like a social sniper. Some simply defect with Johnny. Others exist in a pallid underworld of ambivalence, not able to tear themselves away from the place, but not able to survive the climate either.
Two people remain loyal to the establishment. One is Donny. He’s a nice guy, American, single, retired, and sweet. He’s shown me a few deadly pool shots which have allowed me to win a game every decade or so. It took a while, mostly because of my own freezing awkwardness, but eventually we establish a certain intimacy.
“Hey,” Donny says to me one day. “I’m sorry, ya know, and I don’t blame ya if ya don’t want to tell me, ya know, I hate to pry into your life, ’cause I know ya like your privacy, so if ya don’t wanna say nothin’, dat’s fine, I respect dat, ’cause I don’t mean no offense, but, ah…where do you live?”
“Around the corner.”
“Oh okay! I thought so, I just wasn’t sure. Thanks!”
And as if that weren’t intimate enough, it turns out we share a certain discomfort with holidays.
“How was your Christmas, Donny?” I say.
“Ah, it was okay. I stayed home. Had Chinese food.”
“No family, huh?”
“Nah, I gotta brudda, I coulda seen him. But, ya know, he hates to pick me up at the train station, so I didn’t go. I didn’t wanna bodder him, you know, make ’em come an’ get me an’ everyting…he’s got family to take care of. And I hate to travel on the holidays. Too crowded.”
“Yeah.” I say, “I know what you mean. I hate to travel on the holidays, too. The train stations suck. And you see all those poor fools at the airport? It’s awful. Where’s your brother live?”
“Ah, he’s out in Flatbush.”
“Yeah. I coulda gone out dere I guess, but I don’t like to make a big deal over Christmas, you know? Ya gotta pack, there’s people everywhere, I don’t need it. I just want it to be over, get back to normal.”
“Right on,” I say.
Helen’s other loyalist is Warren. He’s a short, stocky older guy who cleans the bar. His English is poor, and is worsened by a huge, contorted lump on his cheek; he looks like he has an orange stuffed in there. His speech is a hoarse, incomprehensible pile of sound because of these two drawbacks.
He’s also difficult to look at because of the deformity, and he doesn’t clean very well so the bathrooms stink. As the owner said once, in a fit of pique, “Fuckin’ guy’s been a janitor for thirty fuckin’ years, and he still sucks at it.”
I’m with Warren on this one though; frankly, it if was my job to clean the bar, I’d be a bit recalcitrant as well. And I mean, hell, if I was actually deformed to go along with the feeling of being so, you’d never get me out of the house. This guy has courage.
Warren apparently got the lump soon after he arrived in this country when, while working as a maintenance man, he suffered some kind of stroke that ruined his face. Things apparently peaked right there, and his upward American trajectory flattened out some. His chance for advancement came one day, as it annoyingly does for all of us, when the owner was toying with the idea of making Warren the day bartender. This caused some consternation among the regulars:
“Nah, don’t do that!” says Margie to the owner. “He’s too scary for me!”
“Hey, what do you think?” the owner says to me. “Does Warren scare you?”
“Uh. Scared isn’t the word, I don’t think,” I reply. “It’s more like heart-wrenching sympathy.”
Margie can be a little scary after she’s had a few, however. She’s a nice woman, I like her, and she’s got an edge, a kind of New York savvy and suspicion. She had a short conversation with my girlfriend once:
“What do you do?” Margie says to her.
“Oh, I’m a grant writer. I’m raising money for public schools in Brooklyn to help rehabilitate their curriculum,” she replies.
Sensing a scam, that the public is about to be gouged for new SUVs for the Board of Ed members, Margie says, “Oh yeah? Well. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. I’ll look into it.” She turns her hard eyes on my unsuspecting friend.
“But if I find out you’re lying, I’ll have you killed, okay?”
That exchange made me think that one of the sadder casualties of gentrification is neighborhood people that know guys that’ll whack someone for cheap. I suppose they’re being replaced by newer, shinier types who know hackers that’ll gut a rival’s portfolio for you.
Anyway, Warren is passed over for the promotion, in favor of Helen. I thought he’d be resentful about having a rung on his ladder cut like that, but he doesn’t seem to be. Seems like if he’d gotten the job, the bar might still have a happy hour.
All this action takes time to go down, and reach its currently perfect state. Now the place is often totally deserted. The only people who go in are the uninitiated, who are amusing to watch: Guy comes in for a drink. Maybe he notices right off that the place is dead still and empty, gets a fright, and hurries out. Maybe he sits down anyway, feeling soothed by the leaden silence. Helen notes that there is a customer. She sighs. She makes him sit there for a bit, just enough to cause some unease. She doesn’t pretend that she’s busy with something else, because she’s refreshingly unpretentious. She just ignores him. He becomes confused. He raises his hand as a sort of uncertain signal, which she doesn’t see. But he’s perplexed, disquieted. It can’t be necessary to speak to her, they’re all alone.
Finally, she comes down, looks at him stonily and says, “Yes?”
“A bottle of Bud, please.” Helen grimaces, gives him the beer, takes the money, wordlessly makes change. It’s amazing how full this woman’s attitude can make an empty room. He looks at the TV, trying to plunge into it, escape, but it’s a women’s movie—Deadly Demeanor with Farrah Fawcett. He feels this odd, low-level panic. He feels somehow poisoned and luckless, as if he’s been plunged into a Poe story. His world grows increasingly dark, anxiety-ridden and incomprehensible. His beer goes down fast and he is gone, probably to shower and catch a Cheers rerun.
After a few bruising rounds of intense reflection, I understand what my attraction to Helen is; she’s an awful lot like me! She sees absolutely no need to conceal her current misery, and I have a deep appreciation for that particular brand of embarrassing authenticity. Her life has gone to shit, and she sees no reason to deny that. She was a doctor in the old country, and she liked that job, because she was always thinking. But she can’t be a doctor here without going through an excruciating and demeaning process for which she feels herself to be too old. She’s starting over, and she seems to lack the typical new immigrant’s happy appreciation for the opportunity to be an American. She came here to BECOME wretched refuse. Her son likes it here, thought, and doesn’t want to go back, so she stays so he’ll have his world of opportunity. She lives in a tiny apartment with, brace yourself, her parents. She’s poor. She hates being a bartender, which is worsened by her replacing someone who was so adored. And bartending evidently lacks the challenge of practicing medicine, although I’ve tried to point out that that is what being a bartender entails. She’s in that awful state of having no idea what to do with her life.
When she tells me all of this, I’m gushing with empathy. Trapped, are you?! Bored, you say?! No good life to be led, eh? The land of opportunity a bit grating on the soul, is it? Sadly, I’ve no advice to give her, other than “bottoms up!,” because when she describes her circumstances, I can only agree that she’s fucked. But it turns out she doesn’t like to drink, won’t taste her own medicine. And to my bewilderment, she doesn’t understand people who like to sit around and drink for hours, day after day. There’s almost a certain contempt there. My empathy for her flounders at that point.
But it was nice to discover that she doesn’t actually hate me, or everyone else, she just hates her life with unforgiving severity, and we all just happen to be in it. And I was happy with myself that I didn’t simply hate her back and let it go at that, as is my habit. No, I got her to talk, using that special knack I have for getting people to confide in me; I stare silently at them for years until they crack and blurt something out. That’s why I’m a crack reporter.
And so I became cheered by her company; there’s just nothing like spending time with the bad-off to give you a little lift. Hilariously, I felt duty-bound to welcome her to America, to help her expand her life and become a part of this new and fascinating culture. This feeling is deeply foreign to me, but it’s not so bad. But then I had to admit that I had no idea how to expand her life. “Try and get out more,” I advise her gravely.
Then I started to get this warm, oozing feeling that also seems totally novel. I’m thinking it’s pity. Soon I’m finding her situation difficult to stand. It’s getting a little depressing. She’s becoming a real downer, you know? All doom and gloom, helplessness, barely-controlled rage, every day a Monday, who needs it? And even worse, she’s taking over my terrain, challenging me for the crown of discontent. Soon we’re having these great little verbal battles over whose life sucks worse; You hate YOUR job?! Well, let me tell you about MY job! We become miserists, who cheer each other up, and generate a toasty sense of community.
Now the regulars have shifted their allegiance to the bar down the street. They pass by her place with a dignified stride on the way to the other. I would feel terribly disloyal doing that, though, so I continue to go in. I walk over and there she is, sitting in the dark, sometimes with the door locked. I tap on the glass, feeling that delicious, illicit edge a speakeasy might have. She comes over, peers out at me, and lets me in.
And we sit there together, slowly building her clientele.