Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
I knew it was over when the bartenders stopped telling jokes. It happened gradually and then suddenly. But don't misunderstand me, the West Side bartenders didn't wake up one morning and as one have their sense of humor drained out of them like blood by leeches. No, it was more that the personnel behind the bars changed. It used to be you'd go into a bar once or twice, and if the bartender even dimly recognized you, he'd find a minute to pass on a joke or two. Short ones to begin, before he really knew you, then the longer, more elaborate ones. They did it as a matter of course, a natural courtesy, and after you got comfortable, you'd trade jokes with them. Bartenders heard so many jokes from so many customers, it presented a challenge to tell them one they hadn't heard.
Then more and more women started appearing behind the bars. Women as a rule don't tell jokes, and with the exception of a few hardened pros, the new women bartenders were hired chiefly to dress up the restaurants. They had trouble enough keeping up with making drinks and cleaning the glasses. Jokes were the farthest thing from their minds. But the owners and managers didn't mind the change at all. If anything, they were relieved the regulars began to lose interest in hanging around and weren't putting down roots as they used to. The prevailing sentiment among the owners and managers was the new bartenders were an improvement, less inclined to become friendly with the customers and therefore less inclined to give away liquor.
If one event marked the change more than any other, it was the firing of Andy Mack (sometimes called Big Mack) from the Planetarium Grill. All of Columbus Avenue seemed to shudder as the news made the rounds that Saturday afternoon. No one could believe it. Andy had been a fixture at the Grill for all those years when the Grill was the hub of the action, a renovated pioneer among bar-restaurants on the Avenue. None of us will forget that day. It lives in infamy for anybody still around.
A couple of Andy's regulars came to find me while it was all happening. I was the second-chef at Ella's Cellar, a boutique bistro on West 70th Street. (The owners called the place Ella's Cellar because the property came with a cabaret license, which allowed them to offer jazz with dinner.) Finch and Tori tracked me down there early, about 4:30, while I was prepping the Chef's inept duck breast cassis. They told me Andy was giving away drinks to everyone at the Grill bar.
"He started doing it at twelve," Tori said. "I didn't even notice for two hours."
"Nobody could leave," Finch added, "it was all buy-backs." He was a sardonic, thick-boned, red-haired Irish giant, an all-day drinker. They were both all-day drinkers, but nobody ever saw them drunk drunk, just more conversational. They nursed their alcoholism from bar to bar all day long, starting at dingy, end-of-the-candle places with 6:00 AM opening-licenses and working their way up to the Grill.
Like every other bartender before the Avenue changed, Andy had quite a few of these all-day drinkers. He treated them well and got fastidious loyalty in return.
I put the duck breast in a mixing bowl and covered it. "Doesn't make any sense, Finch," I said. "How can they all be buy-backs? What's going on?"
Finch said, "Don't get feckin' technical, Maro. He's givin' away the store. That's what's goin' on."
"But why? Why today all of a sudden?"
"Because Andy heard he was getting fired," Tori said.
"Andy? Fired? That's impossible—"
"Yeah, it is," Finch broke in, getting belligerent. "Greta heard that fat faggot Louis talkin' to Howie Eisler on the phone."
"Heard what? I don't believe it." I really didn't believe it, but I started to take off my apron anyway. This was going to require a walk up the Avenue.
"She did. She heard Louis talking to Eisler about exactly when to tell Andy he was fired," Tori said. "She was eavesdropping and shouldn't have told Andy. But you know how Greta is. And Louis should've closed the door if he wanted to keep it a secret."
"That fat faggot," Finch added.
Tori went tumbling on, "And as soon as she told Andy what she heard, he changed. Like, you could see it in his face. All of a sudden, abracadabra, he looked hard-eyed and—I don't know—friendly at the same time. It was weird. And from then on nobody paid a cent."
"Nice drinks, too," Finch said, "no more liquor from the rack. He's usin' only the top shelf, and the Grill's got a beautiful lineup of top-shelf booze. You should see him twirlin' those bottles, Maro. He's slidin' up and down the bar like a ballet dancer."
"I was mesmerized," Tori said, "before I caught on to the money thing. Then I kind of woke up with a jolt."
"Andy's always got élan behind the bar," Finch said, "but today he's charismatic. There's a difference." Finch wasn't exactly showing off. He was just better educated and more articulate than most of us. They used to say he had a degree from Trinity College, Dublin—not that it meant anything to me at the time, though it made him a more entertaining all-day drinker than the bulk of them.
The rain had stopped when we came up from the Cellar. It was cool for August, less humid after the shower. The West Side locals were starting to repeople the Avenue, but they looked strange, like cavedwellers blinded by the sudden sun. We walked uptown toward the Grill. Finch was storming ahead, and Tori and I were having trouble matching his elephant strides. He always became more physical the later it got in the day, the more alcohol he had in his system. Now he was in a hurry to get back and join the dénouement at the Grill bar. Dénouement was the kind of word Finch would use.
It was too late, though. From three or four streets away, we spotted the slow-turning roof lights on the squad car. Finch started moving differently. He might have called it running, his slow thighs and preposterously powerful limbs shuddering and thrusting forward. Tori started to follow him, then stopped short and muttered, "Oh, fuck that." We let Finch storm on ahead, not that it made any difference to anything. Tori and I got to the corner across from the Grill just as a second blue-and-white pulled up, this one driving north on southbound Columbus Avenue, as if there'd been a bank robbery or shooting attack. Blue uniforms were crowding around everywhere, more bodies than could have come in the squad cars. Tori looked scared, which gave me a chill. I didn't think anything scared Tori.
They brought Andy Mack out in handcuffs, marched him across the sidewalk, and put him in the backseat of the first patrol car. Andy knew most of the cops from the precinct. They drank with him after their shifts, always gratis, before going home to their wives and kids in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. It must have been weird for them, arresting Andy like that. They must've felt a little bit treasonous after the way Andy treated them at the Grill. Or maybe not. I didn't really know what cops felt. Maybe they turned on their friends all the time.
I broke away heroically and shouldered my way through the crowd around the patrol car until I was crouching beside Andy's face in the backseat window. He was looking straight ahead, hands cuffed in front, stiffnecked, a stoic fixity in his pale eyes. When he caught sight of me, he twisted his head. But the engine revved up, and Andy just had time to mouth a phrase before the cruiser pulled away from the curb
"Don't think twice, man," he said soundlessly through the window. "It's all right."
"What?" I shouted, but the car was gone.
I stood on my toes and looked for Finch and Tori in the crowd. It seemed necessary, just at that moment, to tell them Andy spoke to me, without making a sound, through the back window. It was important to repeat the famous phrase for them. It was a puzzle, too, because nothing looked all right to me. I wanted to tell them, Finch in particular, that it looked like Andy was in real trouble even if he still had enough stage presence to say goodbye with the old élan.
Andy's arrest kept the Avenue buzzing for weeks. There was really no lesson in it, no matter how much we rehashed the day. Greta probably should have kept her mouth shut, that was about all you could learn. Then again, she was just a waitress who overheard a phone call and who, like everybody else, owed Andy a thousand favors.
No one saw Andy Mack again that year. I ran into Finch on the Avenue one chilly afternoon about six months after the event. He was between bars, and I was between jobs, a parallel which amused Finch no end. It was raining, and we stepped back under an awning.
"What happened? They canned you because you got no talent?" he chuckled. Finch was a jazz nut, and Ella's Cellar was often on his route later in the evening. "You gotta be the only Wop who can't sing, Maro, or at least play the accordion. No wonder they fired your ass."
"Who says I can't play the accordion?" I said.
"Ah, I see, you choose silence, is that it? 'Exile, silence, and cunning,'" he said. "That's the ticket, fits you down to the ground." He was displaying his education again, and again I had no idea.
"Do you want to get a cup of coffee?" I asked. We were half a block from the Opera Café, a dark, downstairs Italian place wallpapered with old photos of divas and deceased tenors. This was before the viral invasion of the West Side by smug coffee shops crammed with baby strollers and young women in gym clothes. And before the era of unspeakably slow service.
"I need a Cinzano. Let's get a vermouth somewhere."
"It's too early for a drink."
"That's what I said, for feck's sake. Come on, I'll buy you a Cinzano."
We ended up at O'Neill's Balloon, and Finch ordered the vermouths. Not for the first time, I wondered where his money came from.
"Louis at the Grill told me Andy got locked up," I said.
"You talked to Louis? When?"
"A couple of weeks ago."
"Valentine's Day? Lovely." He signaled the bartender telepathically and two more vermouths appeared. "You're a sly one, Maro."
"He said Eisler pressed charges and Andy got sent to Rikers."
Finch shook his massive head and concentrated on the glass in his hand.
"I can't believe you don't know how to play the accordion. That's a real scandal, man, a real, gen-u-ine scandal. Does anybody else know this?"
"It's my secret. And, by the way, I didn't get fired. I quit."
This wakened a sluggish interest, and Finch rotated on his barstool. Majestically.
"You quit Ella's? Why? I heard Mitch Rooney was good to work for."
"Heard from who?"
"That waitress you got, I don't remember her name, the tall raven-haired lass. Preternaturally well-endowed."
"What the fuck does 'preternaturally' mean, Finch?"
"She likes it over at Ella's, says Mitch keeps his hands to himself."
"Yeah, Mitch is okay. Knows the business. He's got another place uptown."
"Amsterdam and 127th Street. James Baldwin's brother's the night bartender."
"That's right. Mitch dragged me up there one night when his cook didn't show. He's easy to work for too, a pro, never panics. His wife's another thing, though. Kitchen control freak, gets in the way in the rush. But she's not why I quit. I got an offer to be the chef at Harrell & Bach over on the East Side."
"The Yankee hangout?" Finch had Talmudic knowledge of the Manhattan saloons.
"Is it? They didn't say anything about that."
"Yeah, that's where the team goes after home games. Followed by hoors and private coke dealers." He looked up the bar, then added, "And the criminally useless Rangers show up in hockey season. Man, that's quite a job you got there, Maro, very vogue. You surprise me."
"They're renovating, so I start next week."
"Congratulations are in order. Medals will be cast."
Two flutes of champagne materialized in front of us. We drank to Harrell & Bach, to our mutual hatred of Hollandaise sauce, and to the Yankees' future Series hopes, which, according to Finch, was like waiting for Godot. I was starting to feel a lift from the wine, that first bright emboldening.
"So when does Andy get out," I asked. "I can't believe he's even in that place."
"Who? What place?"
"Rikers. Andy, Andy Mack. Remember? Come on, Finch, we were just talking about him."
"Avanti." He put down his empty glass, stood up, and unwrapped two 20s from a neatly folded wad. "Strike camp," he said, "Fresh woods and pastures new, Maro. This place reminds me of my dashed hopes of singing bel canto."
The Balloon was across the street from Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. As we were leaving, I tried to thank Finch for the drinks.
"Don't be an ijit, Maro. I been eatin' your food all over the West Side for years, haven't I? You're a feckin' star, and I never bought you a drink till now."
"Who said I'm a star?"
"The thing I don't get is how you can be so good in the back of the store and still be such a gawping ijit you'd listen to a word fat Louis told you. He's a parasite, a creepin' flatterer, smarmin' about for a pat on the fanny from Prince Howard." Finch took a breath, apparently as surprised as I was by his sudden vehemence. "Louis couldn't tell you where Andy Mack was if you hung him up by his thumbs over the mesquite grill. Trust me."
"But Greta told me the same thing. She said Andy was locked up."
"Greta! Now you're listenin' to Greta? Jesus wept, Maro, soon you'll be askin' Bertha Mason for information."
"Andy's out in Arkansas right now, or maybe North Texas. He bought a Harley and started crossin' the country on it. I got a terrifying postcard from him at Christmas. Reindeer in a trailer camp. He said one of the Hells Angels chapters was allowin' him to ride with them. Like that's supposed to be some kind of privilege."
"I'm glad he's out of jail. Texas sounds nice in the winter."
"Christ. He was never in jail, Maro. Wake the feck up."
"I saw him in the squad car. They had him handcuffed."
Finch stopped and, without sarcasm, articulated every syllable the way he would with a foreigner.
"They removed the handcuffs as soon as they turned off Columbus. They never even went near the precinct house, man. It was all just a goof. They drove Andy up to 96th Street where two carloads of cops piled into Hanratty's for drinks-all-around. I talked to Andy on the phone the next day. He said all the cops were in stitches just thinkin' about the whole pantomime on the sidewalk."
"You mean they let him go. I thought Eisler pressed charges."
Finch sighed and resumed normal dialogue.
"Forget Eisler. Of course they let him go, they never really had him. It was all show, nothin' to trouble your delicate heart about. The handcuffs were just a prop to mollify the managers. None of those cops could arrest Andy Mack. No way."
"I knew he knew the cops. It was weird to see them arresting their friend."
"Friend? Andy wasn't their friend, that isn't why they let him go."
"They all drank at the Grill, I saw them."
"Exactly. They drank at the Grill with their girlfriends when they were off duty. Not their wives, get it, their girlfriends. As Andy always said, he never knew a cop who didn't keep a squeeze on the side." Finch was getting bored explaining and started to move away. "It had nothin' to do with friendship, Maro, nothin' at all. It was the other thing entirely. Andy had them by the short ones. He knew what feckin' cheats they were, and they knew he knew. They had no choice, the bastards, they had to let him go."
I stood there watching Finch walk away under the dark sky and rain. It was a bad night to be alone, and I couldn't help thinking that ten years ago I owned a motorcycle, too, just like Andy Mack, except mine was a Triumph Bonneville. It was a beautiful bike, brand-new from a dealer in Hackensack, and I was full of freedom. But I never rode the Triumph to Arkansas or Texas or any place like that. In the distance, Finch's form had disappeared in the mist of rain. Another bar had probably swallowed him up. I nearly smiled, then that cold familiar shame washed over my skin, and I remembered things would have turned out better for me if I had had the root courage to ride away out west.