Allow me to list the many ways for which we thank the deity (or agnostics thank "goodness," a safe but pointless exercise, pretty much like being agnostic in the first place), or don't allow me and go on to the used RVs ads. I'm thinking of my years as a bartender, mostly in New York, when Fridays for me might well fall on a Monday or Wednesday. As in foxholes, there are no atheists or agnostics behind the stick, and gratitude is a given at the end of four or five shifts that may not end until five a.m. Gratitude, as an emotion, will surface if for no other reason than at that point -- the analogous Friday night -- one can come around the other side of the bar, sit on a barstool, and drink oneself stupid. I got the job in August of 1974, the day Nixon resigned. The bar, at the corner of 68th Street and Columbus Avenue, had for years been a bookie's joint called Maloney's or Mahoney's. A bank of phone booths against the south wall attested to this. Before the place was limply renamed Dazzel's by the German owner's gay boyfriend, Mahoney's (or Maloney's) was a 28-foot-long, cigarette-scored oak bar lined with ash- trays, shots and beers, and snap-brimmed hats. When Walter Feist took over, he brought in hanging ferns and put quiche on the menu. The snap-brimmed hats disappeared in a smoky, lingering grumble. The phone booths were torn out, and a sidewalk café was installed, the first along what became Restaurant Row on Columbus.
My singer's record company went bankrupt and I was out of a job. I lied and got hired as a waiter. It lasted for a day. I was the world's worst waiter, and my career ended in a fistfight with a kid from New Jersey who stiffed me. Feist followed me out to the curb, where the kid laid between two parked cars, and fired me on the spot. On the same spot he hired me as a bartender. If I'm making myself out to be a tough guy, this was far from the case. The kid was the size of my little sister, with a mouth like Roseanne Barr, and I had all the restraint and sensibilities of a 23-year-old rock musician from Chicago.
I was taken under the wing of a 31-year-old bartender named Steve Carabin, who would die a year later from cirrhosis of the liver. I did well and was accepted in the Upper West Side neighborhood, which at that time was mostly actors and Puerto Rican families. I did well for the same reasons I failed at that line of work later in California: I was surly, fast, and impersonal unless I genuinely liked you. I liked the Puerto Rican guys and the grips from the soap operas across the street: All My Children and One Life to Live -- many of whom were the same people. The actors, some of them famous, tended to be neurotic and in some cases funny. It never became a stone gay bar but evolved into a spot for diehard street gamblers who couldn't adjust to off-track betting and for soap-opera employees during the day, Lincoln Center theater attendees in the evening, after-theater customers, and, between midnight and two, pretty much gay. Between two and four in the morning the clientele was cab drivers, hookers (a lot of transvestites), pimps, off-duty and undercover cops.
The first time it happened was with a guy also named John, a translator at the U.N. (several dialects of Chinese, though he was not Asian), and an unhappy, intellectual, frustrated writer and miserable closet case who refused to broach the subject head-on. A few times I had to shut him down when he launched into fag cracks. I liked John and still feel bad about what happened to him; I wonder if there was something I might have said that would have changed it. Or was there something I did say that contributed to his suicide? He called me his "whiskey priest" and my regulars "the beleaguered Babbitts of my parish."
The last time I saw him we were sitting in a back booth after five in the morning, slowly draining the weight out of a green bottle of Remy-Martin. We were talking about coulrophobia, which is, I think, the fear of clowns. "I wanted to be a priest when I was little; not a priest like you, though."
"But then I had this vision, maybe it was a dream, of God as a sadistic ringmaster and me an evil clown. I still can't get past that. It's why I can't go back to the Church."
That was basically all I remember from the conversation except that I suggested (too flippantly, as the sun was coming up and I remembered I had a pregnant wife at home) that he get laid. "Aleesha seems nice." She was a hooker who was probably a guy. But she was nice, and John seemed to like her. I said it for laughs, I think.
Anyway, John dated her. He took her to Avery Fisher Hall for Mozart. I heard they had stopped back at Dazzel's for a Remy (hers with Coke) afterward, but I was off.
It was maybe two weeks later that I heard he had jumped off the roof of his building on 72nd Street, right next door to where John Lennon was shot. Two other people, actors who were regulars of mine, killed themselves. Once in a while I still see them in old TV shows or movies from the '70s and think back on being called "Kiss o' Death Brizz" and the joint, "Kiss o' Death Dazzel's."
I ascribe much of my antisociability to my on-and-off ten years behind the bar. My last shift was about 14 years ago, when I was fired from the Old Town Mexican Café. If it wasn't a Friday, it should have been, and I say thank God.