Dark Bar

Dark Bars are a phenomenon known to very few.  I know this, because every Dark Bar I’ve ever entered and spent time in has been almost empty of customers.  Maybe one guy splitting his time between watching the TV and checking the ponies in the Daily News, all the while ignoring his beer, that last being no more than the receipt for his rental of the stool.  There’s the barmaid, of course.  Dark Bar barmaids are always beautiful, full-figured and dressed in such a way as to tell you it’s all really there and none of it’s for you.  Downtown and midtown they’re aspiring actresses and spend all their time on the phone to someone they claim is their agent.   If they don’t have the body, they do the New York Times crossword and in that way let you know that none of whatever they do have is for you.   Uptown they are tough and beautiful and full-figured, with eyebrows that could cut out your heart.  They’re usually back in the corner on the phone to their  girlfriends or babysitters (who are usually their mothers or girlfriends) to find out about who’s been doing it with whom and what’s up for the weekend and shit.  In the Spanish Language Dark Bars their only allowed English is ” Un otro?”

Bartenders don’t work the day shift in Dark Bars unless the owner or manager have better places to be during the day.  If they are there, there’s no need of additional muscle.  The owner is usually in the back, usually surrounded by paperwork.  He’ll come out periodically to look around, greet a newcomer and to make sure nobody’s drinking for free.  Owners and managers have both diplomacy and the ability to command the fear that keeps all ultimately peaceful.  They go to school for it.  If push comes to shove, they will be backed up by the porter, a small, youngish Mexican man eager to please his boss, a young man who knows what must be done and is always ready to do so.

Dark Bars, by the way, aren’t really all that dark.  When a sanitation truck pulls up, there’s always enough light to shoot a coupla games of pool for beers or even to do the crossword in the Post.   It’s just that it takes a while for your eyes to get used to the difference between the blinding light on the street and the gentle neon of the interior.  Dark Bars always feel friendly, if only because they’re quiet as well as dark.  The voice of the TV is nothing compared to the horns on the street or the voices of the women with cleavage who know what each others’ boyfriends were doing when they were supposed to be somewhere or whatever and the loud crowd in the evening between the time when everyone’s just chilling and when they’re getting really pissed off.  In Dark Bars, if you’re lucky, the TV’ll be in a language you don’t speak.  If the owner is up front, he’ll welcome you and tell the barmaid–in hushed tones that sound endearing–to get the fuck off the phone and get you a drink.

It’s only as your eyes adjust to the dark that you’ll start to see signs that peace is not the only possibility.  While it’s good to be reassured that

The drinks are bigger in my nest

it is less comforting to know that you are in a place where it must be posted that 

If you are not consuming, stay away from this business

and do you really need to be informed in writing that

The men’s room is for one person at a time

and is kept locked?

*   *   *

I went for a walk today, a hot day that left me with my armpits sliding down my sides and a thirst that wouldn’t answer to water.  I was in a part of the city I knew not, so all options looked equal.  Not really.  It’d been decades since my last entry into a Dark Bar, and there one was–visible a block away.  The sign above it simply said “Tavern.”  That was enough.  Down the block, through the newish glass door into the old brick building, out of the heat into the cool that came without the need of air conditioning and smelled like beer.  So dark I couldn’t see the bar stools, but had to find them by touch.

The friendly welcome from the owner, the creak of the chair at the dark end of the bar where the moment before I’d seen only the glow of a cellphone and the almost unheard steps of the barmaid along the catwalk to a position in front of me.

Order a beer, sit back and watch the battle between my senses adjusting to the dark and the flood of memories: the ghosts of  bars called The Annex on Avenue B between 10th and 11th in the year 1965, the Tap-a-Keg on Amsterdam Avenue between 75th and 76th in 1974, Stanley’s, Old Stanley’s, The Old Reliable, The P & G, The All State…  Images of men both dead and alive, of events that did and didn’t happen, of dreams no more than dreams pushing against the one bottle of Coors Light down the bar from me, the red glow of the Budweiser sign and the silhouettes of two men–better dressed than expected–sitting up front and not drinking.  Beyond them the light of midday August in New York City.

Not a bad place to be.

Published in: on August 7, 2011 at 7:37 pm  Comments (10)