I miss going into bars. I am not recovering. They’re just not my habitat any longer. Perhaps, it’s clear time I don’t have. Or, stamina. To touch a line from Will Rogers, I never entered a bar I didn’t like. There were a few that didn’t like me, where no one wanted to know my name. I was too dressed up, not dressed well enough, or I represented the kind of scrutiny patrons were there to escape. You can tell pretty quickly if you’re simply being left to finish your drink, or they’d rather you didn’t. I popped into an Irish pub in Santa Monica and imprudently asked for a “black and tan”. In a cliché take, everyone stopped. The bartender with a brogue said, “You mean a half and half.” I was not clued into the cultural reference of the British constabulary sent into Ireland in the 20’s nicknamed the Black and Tans. This is rare, however, as most establishments are truly public houses, be they a seedy, side street bucket of blood or a legendary literary haunt. You can step inside.
The snow fell a couple of days before Christmas but had worn out leaving everything dank. The dark sky, the puddles, the streets of the working class neighborhood, all the same shiny charcoal, reflected the holiday colors of stop lights at intersections. A nondescript bar, its door recessed into the building’s corner, seemed to be a good spot to thaw. Inside it was just as grey as it was out. A single string of blinking lights looped over some bottles, a couple of commercial neon’s, and a few dim hanging bulbs provided the sole illumination. A man, his forearms around his drink like parentheses, sat at the bar. A pallid, thick couple, heads close, occupied a table. I put my ass on a stool and looked around for the bartender who was just coming through a door of an idle kitchen or a storeroom. He was tall, gaunt, with slick-backed hair the color of cigarette smoke. He poured my Jack on the rocks and leaned near the register to gaze out the windows at the silent street. Ella sang of mistletoe, Bing of white, and Elvis of blue. I suckled my drink and waved for another. I was getting warm. Other than the murmur of the couple, no one spoke. The bartender took up my cash, hit the keys of the register like an organist, and the bells rang.
Who mourns a middle-aged bartender who asphyxiated on his own vomit? I do, I guess. I mourn because every time I remember Fanelli’s Cafe at the corner of Prince and Mercer, a place more like my living room than a bar, the image of his last gasps has to be cleared away. He used to be “on the stick” there – Larry - jovial, efficient, pleasant and gruff, as much of a fixture as the carved and spindled cherry wood bar with its splotchy beveled mirror. The barroom, among the few NYC bars you can imagine with spittoons on the floor, fills with artists, families, women in black, and guys who shanghaied enough change cleaning windshields on Houston Street to score a drink. Bentwood chairs wobble and squeak on the old wood floor, cracks of laughter ricochet off the tin ceiling, the crumbling brick walls, and the unchecked downtown light expresses the time of day through the hoop high glass windows.
I’m trying to think of a smaller bar than Harry’s in Venice. Maybe the Blue Bar off the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. Find the narrow double doors down an alley passage, step into a wood paneled room, windows onto the Grand Canal, a bar with six stools, a handful of tables covered in butter yellow linen. It feels like a salon on a small yacht. Off season, midday, if we weren’t the only two in there, I can’t recall. Intending to have a Bellini, invented there, I saw a bowl of lemons sitting on the zinc near a hand cranked juicer. Olive oil, vinegar, fruit in Italy has colors that bring me to tears. The barman squeezes juice of two lemons, adds it to bulbous glass pitcher with a flip of sugar, a pour of whiskey, some chunks of ice, swirls it in his hand like a brandy snifter, strains it into a straight sided glass.