Thursday, September 21, 2006

the god of new york

I lived in New York City for 10 years, from 1986 to 1996. I have not been back. I have no plans to go back. (rationally, I know it is better now - murder and aids and crack have all gone down - human tragedy that wears on the soul) I have about ten short stories - all true, as is this one, about my time there. They are hard to write. (thanks to Walt Curtis and Ben Fisher for edits and criticism)

the god of new york


When I first lived in Manhattan I used to hang out at a bar on the lower east side or the east village or whatever you want to call it. The place was on First Avenue, between 9th and 10th street, and was called Downtown Beirut. It was a dump, it was a dive, a hole in the wall, a long and narrow shotgun shack, just wide enough for the bar, bathroom in the back, one Pinball machine, a video game, and a jukebox.

Looming over the patrons, attached to the ceiling, was a huge papier-mâché effigy, six foot head, with hands extended; a grey apparition flying through the bar. Every one called it “god.”

Downtown Beirut was owned by a neighborhood Polish family. The matriarch of the family, in her 70’s, would on occasion show up and look as strange as everyone else, conferring with the bartenders, counting receipts in the backroom. I don’t think they trusted their staff.

When I first started going there against the back of the bar was a classic liquor rack, from lower tier to upper tier, from bottom shelf to top shelf. A panorama of bottles backed by a wall to wall mirror. It had been a display of Bukowskian beauty, but the owners, believing the bartenders had been dispensing a too liberal supply of buy backs, had purchased a machine that hooked every bottle up into a glass and plastic computerized octopus. The tubes snaked from the bottles to a liquor dispenser, like the IV drips in Frankenstein’s hospital.

Downtown Beirut was next door to the Village Idiot, which had a clientele worthy of its name. You’d open the door and you would see a crowd of people standing in a circle around a big curly haired, wild eyed hippy, who had a quart to his lips. They would be chanting “chug, chug, chug.” I never went there.

Beirut had a better class of customers. The regulars were an interesting mix of lower east side characters. There was an old painter who came in and locked himself to the pinball machine and was said to have studied under Hans Hoffman. There was a tall creature from Belize who was a nurse, and nursed her drinks silently at the bar. I always thought she really was a woman, but everyone said she was a he. No matter. She never spoke much, smiled into her drink. When I got my ear pierced she noticed. Smiling, without saying anything, she gave me one of her earrings.

There was a midget named Mannie who fell in love with every woman who came into the bar. There was musician from Texas who was heading his way downhill, who made a living walking in front of cars. Every time I saw him, he limped more and more. He caught AIDS, ended up infecting his girlfriend. Two Satanist auto mechanics, one who was most proud that the lines in his hand made a natural pentagram. He would tell the story of how he showed his hand to a fortune teller. Her jaw dropped in shock. One of the bartenders, moustached and tough, played in a rockabilly band, Carolyn, the chief bartender, had green hair, and played in a punk band. GG Allin had covered her band’s song “Beer Picnic.” She was smart, had been on Jeopardy, but came in second. There was a tough cute girl from Brooklyn named Sherry, a couple of artists from Canada, musicians, painters, losers, lovers, squatters, a yuppie or two, an occasional tourist, lots more. I was a regular.

I usually hung out at the front of the bar, on the ledge on top of the radiator. You could look out the window at the street life passing by. With the drug dealers on the corner and the cold winter wind blowing, outside it could be a war zone. The dealers kept up their chants, the litany of pharmaceutical possibility. “loose joints, loose joints.” Methadone, tuinal, Methadone, tuinal.” But inside it was warm, sitting on the radiator.

One night I had gone out to make a collect call from the corner. The operator said “we can’t do collect calls from your location.” “My screen indicates you are calling from a prison” “All long distance calls through the phone are blocked” I held up the phone. “Listen,” I said. “I am on a street corner in New York.” “I am not in a prison.” She finally let the call through.

Everyone came through there. There was this scary tall east side woman who would mask or veil her face and was emaciated - anorexic. I would always see her looking masked and haunted like an omen , a silent apparition walking the streets alone. You could only see her eyes. She came in once, with a big, brown paper wrapped package. She sat down and unwrapped the brown paper and string. Her family must have sent it to her. She unwrapped it, went through it, and said, in the only words I ever heard her speak. “it’s nothing but food.” I made up a story about her, that her family knew how fucked up she was, anorexic and lost and haunted, and loved her and wanted to help but they couldn’t and didn’t know what to do and sent her this food.

So they pretended it was an artist bar, and every month or so they had a new art show. They gave the painter two free drinks a day, as long as their show was up. That was the story with god. The looming sculpture had been installed for just a short time, as part of an art show, but they kept it up there until the bar closed. They just needed to spray it with insecticide once in a while. It had become infested. It had been created by an artist from Toronto. He had been getting his two free drinks everyday for years, as his payment for creating god. Eventually he became an alcoholic. He moved back to Toronto. I wondered to myself. “Is that the price you pay for the creation of god?”

Sometimes we had wild times. Once an artist friend and I were cajoled out to Long Island by two women offering us Jack Daniels and a good time, which was had by all. They drove us out there, but in the morning we woke up, in Long Island, trying to figure out how to get the heck back into Manhattan. They just laughed. The bus, to the LIRR, to the subway. It took us two hours to get back.

But mostly I hung out there for the companionship, to cut the loneliness, to act like I had a place to go and reason to be there.

I would sometimes sit at the bar, and read my stupid poetry, and try to get someone to listen to it. Sometimes they did. I still remember a skinny black woman with dreads named pebbles. I read her my desperately bad poetry. I think it was about a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks people in to die. I think she got it. She sang a song to me, quietly, sitting next to me on a bar stool, looking into my eyes. For a moment it seemed the world had stopped.

So one day I was hanging out at the bar and Sherry shouts down the bar “My wallet is gone. That bitch grabbed my wallet.” The girl who had stolen the money was slight, dark haired and spoke with an accent. Sherry followed the thief back to the bathroom, kicked in the door. Sherry pulled her out and started pushing at the girl, and a crowd gathered, and they stripped off all of her clothes, looking for the stolen money. So she is standing there, naked, cowering, being pushed, hit, screamed at. All of a sudden someone noticed that her body was covered with purple patches. “Karposi’s Sarcoma.” “That’s AIDS.” Someone shouted. “Don’t touch her.” “You could catch it.”

The crowd went through the girl’s knapsack , and threw the contents on the floor. I noticed a French English dictionary. She had been living in New York long enough to catch AIDS and be a junky, but she still needed work on her English. Sherry never found her money. She said, “The junky must have passed it off.”

If you ever are stuck in New York and need to steal, if you are infected with AIDS and need to get drugs to cut the pain, get a friend in on the deal. Pass off the money quickly, that’s the way it is done.

The crowd kept humiliating her, spitting at her standing naked, shaking in the back of the bar. I said “isn’t this enough?” Finally they let her go. She pulled her scattered possessions together, got her clothes back on, went outside, and to the corner. I followed her out. I think this is the part of the story where you have to say that the person who was humiliated had dignity about her and that she was smiling, laughing with a dealer, She had passed the money off, and was probably going to buy crack or dope. I just looked at her, with her story going through my head. She looked straight at me. It wasn’t exactly like a smile. She said something. It sounded like mercy.

I guess this young woman had come to New York, capital of the world, from France, expecting to find love or sophistication or art, came in following the beacon into JFK International like a moth, took the wrong path, got infected with AIDS, ended up with dirt junkies and crackheads, stealing purses, and eventually would die alone in delirium in a hospital bed for indigents.

They eventually closed the bar, moved it down to Houston Street, started having live bands. But I never hung out at the new one, and after too long left New York for good. But I wrote this story about the old place. It ends like this.

The god of new york hangs over the ceiling of a lower east side bar, it is made of papier-mâché and chicken wire, and at night its dreams are the rats and cockroaches that scuttle through its skull.

james honzik


While you are here, if you want, you could look at my best work.
Experimental Portraits (Visual Art)
Epistemic Purchase (A poem)
Borges: The Golem (My translation)
Eagle Creek (A hiking essay)
The Time Factory -SF story and video

18 comments :

  1. great story, you really have an excellent writing style, thanks for sharing.

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  2. Anonymous11:59 AM

    I really enjoyed this. Thank you very much.

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  3. Anonymous1:19 PM

    Shoot, I live on 9th st. and 1st ave. Too bad the bar is gone...

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  4. Anonymous1:35 PM

    Nice work , are the other 9 stories buried somewhere around here?

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  5. Anonymous1:41 PM

    Great story my man, keep it up.

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  6. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Thanks, good read, very vivid.

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  7. Anonymous2:51 PM

    very well written.

    thank you!

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  8. Anonymous3:03 PM

    She didn't say mercy, she said merci... thank you in French

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  9. Anonymous4:02 PM

    Enjoyed the story. It really puts the reader into the writer's eyes. Really made me understand why you wouldn't want to go back to New York City.

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  10. Anonymous4:32 PM

    Really good writing, grit and life and art. Thanx for putting this up here for us all.

    Peace.

    dancestoblue
    Austin Texas

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  11. Anonymous11:04 PM

    Has much potential. Watch the capitalization and such at times. Atmospheric.

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  12. brilliant work. after reading, i could almost swear I smelled of cheap liquor and stale cigarettes.

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  13. Anonymous4:27 PM

    I like your story. I must have seen you as I also hung out there, All the time ! I was one of those "artists" that had two "shows". Mine were Black & white collages blown up.
    Many tried to claim the window seats. It was a great mix of characters. One of my favorite moments was when a regular peddler of flowers came in trying to sell some but on this special night he was offering Roses OR boxes of Bullets. Nice combination.
    The Village Idiot bar owner Tommy was a BIG guy & loved to chug & see others chug. As a matter of fact the movie Coyote Ugly should have been about him since he was the seed. He hired the bar maid Liliana who opened her own bar across the street & called it Coyote Ugly and the movie was actually made about her bar as one of her barmaids wrote the story. Now Liliana has a chain of Coyote Uglys as well as selling the franchise.
    Back to Beirut...I think I only went to the New Beirut twice. It wasn’t the same.

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  14. Anonymous12:49 PM

    I used to hang out there often when I lived on 2nd street and 2nd Ave.

    I remember the papier-mâché head and hands. There was also a parachute that draped the ceiling.

    A microwave oven that I never saw used and a map of Beirut, Lebanon.

    I remember many characters as well and the bartender that was on Jeopardy. She showed us a tape of her appearance on the show. I also remember she used to often wear a "SPAM" t-shirt.

    I also saw lives implode and waste away there, but I also remember having many drunken fun nights there as well.

    I also remember they had a great jukebox, and unlike you I used to go next door to the Village Idiot also.

    One of the main bartenders at the Village Idiot would eventually become the owner of Coyote Ugly (the movie and chain of bars). I think that the original Coyote Ugly is still across the street from where Downtown Beirut used to be. I know that's not saying much since both the movie and her bars suck.

    Anyway, your story brought back a lot of memories of wasted nights and bitter sweetness.

    Thanks,

    Gus

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  15. Wow! I was just googling random stuff and I found your blog. I was in NYC '84-'88 and spent alot of time in the neighborhood. Specifically DB and Aztec Lounge. Your story paints a very accurate and colorful picture just as I remember it.

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  16. Anonymous9:00 AM

    I always motivated by you, your views and way of thinking, again, appreciate for this nice post.

    - Murk

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  17. Anonymous4:55 AM

    It was great to read this since I came over from London to live New York from 1991 to 1993. I remember Carolyn and a guy who used to climb up and remain on top of the Jukebox all night. There was also a man who had branches attached to his back so he looked like a tree. He was often outside since I think getting through doors with all the branches was a bit of a problem. I hear New York has lost most of it's character and characters since I left, as has London, and I am now living in Brighton in the UK which still retains a few. It feels like a blanket of blandness has covered the world but I am glad I experienced New York when I did.

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  18. Rings true. A NY'er most of my life, born in Brooklyn and lived in Manhattan as a baby, after high school I moved back, & have never left for long since. It breaks my heart that sinkholes like LES & other areas call out to outsiders. These are not places to live. The reasons why you don't return to NYC are the same reasons that born NY'ers do not willingly live in such neighborhoods. All is cleaner & safer now, city-wide. The city hasn't lost its flavor - it's just grown up enough to be a little more responsible & caring towards residents & visitors. If you are ever in the mood to check it out again, it won't wrench your spirit as it did then. It is more subdued. Subdued is not the antithesis of beauty. It is just as beautiful in so many ways.

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