June 6, 2010

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn


You can never tell which way holiday weekends are gonna cut in any given bar. They’re either packed or dead, and there’s no telling which until you step through the door.

            An old friend from the Philly days was in town, so we met for lunch. After that I wanted to stop by my home bar. The fact that Suzanne was in town gave me an excuse to leave the apartment, and as long as I was out, I thought I’d swing by and check in with Mike the bartender. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, and was starting to get antsy. That bar and Mike are both touchstones for me, and if I don’t stop by for awhile I start to get a little shaky. Plus with the World Cup coming up soon, I knew I wouldn’t be able to step foot in the place for at least a month until all those phony soccer poseurs skittered back to their brownstones, taking their fucking kids with them.

            I was relieved when we walked in to find the place pleasantly quiet. Somebody was in my usual seat, but I didn’t let it get to me. We grabbed a couple of stools at the corner and settled in.

            The bar was the same as ever, which is a comfort. The same regulars were at the other end, and Mike set a pint in front of me without my asking. We shook hands, chatted a second, and I introduced Suzanne.

            As he walked away she commented, “So you haven’t been here in awhile, huh?” There was a mild, maternal accusation in her voice.


            “But they all know you.”

            “Guess so.” I took a drink.

            Suzanne lives in Detroit now, so she told me about her life there, and then we caught up on some of the people we used to know in Philly, when we both wrote for a weekly paper called The Welcomat.

            At some point she asked me—and Mike, who was standing there—what well-known writers lived in the neighborhood. Well, where do you start? Throw a rock in this neighborhood and you’ll hit one (which is why I wish more people would start throwing rocks). So Mike ticked off a few. Then I ticked off a few more, trying to avoid using words like “asshole,” “pansy,” and “fucker.”

            This had gone on for awhile when the guy sitting in my usual seat decided to join in.

            “Jimmy . . . Breslin,” he slurred. “He knew Brooklyn . . . He knew what he was talking about. Born and raised in Brooklyn, just like me.”

            He was a squat, burly man with thick black hair. His eyes were downcast, a half-empty bottle of Coors Lite in front of him. He’d been in there a few times before, usually with friends, and usually at the other end of the bar. Now he was alone, and in my seat. Half an hour earlier he’d been happily chatting Mets baseball with Mike. Now he had something else on his mind.

            “Pete Hamill, too. Born and raised here. He knew what he was talking about. Wrote about Brooklyn and knew what he was talking about.”

            “Yup,” I offered.

            “I was born and raised in Brooklyn, too, and I love it here. You ain’t from here, you’ll never get it. It’s somethin’ inside, somethin’ you’re born with. “

            His voice was starting to rise, both in pitch and volume. His whole body started to shake. His head snapped up and he glared at us.

            “YOU don’t know NOTHIN’!”

            “I, ah, never claimed to, ah . . . ” I began. It was immediately evident where this was headed.

            “’Cause I bet you ain’t FROM Brooklyn, are ya?  . . . Hey—where you from?”

            “Me?” I asked.

            “I mean ORI-GI-NAL-LY,” he enunciated each syllable. “Where you from?”

            “I’m from Wisconsin,” I confessed.

            “SEE?” He snapped. “You don’t know NOTHIN’ about Brooklyn!” He turned his attention to Suzanne, who was just visiting New York for a few days. “And where are YOU from?”

            “Detroit,” she told him.

            “Detroit, MICHIGAN? You don’t know NOTHIN’ about Brooklyn, either—I was BORN here, and I LOVE it here. That’s why I stay. You know that Brooklyn’s the third largest city in the country?”

            I wondered how wise it would be to point out to him that Brooklyn would actually be the fifth largest, not the third—and then only if it was still a city, which it’s not. Then I decided that it wouldn’t be very wise at all. I could see and appreciate where this swarthy little fellow was coming from—I just wasn’t sure why he decided to direct all his anti-carpetbagger ferocity at me. Or maybe I was. In any case, he was growing more furious and twitchy with each word, transmogrifying into Joe Pesci before our eyes.

            Mike, sensing things were getting out of hand, leaned across the bar toward him. “Just take it easy,” he said in a calm voice.


            “Just take it easy.”

            “Take it EASY?”

            “Yeah. Just take it easy.”

            The little man turned back to me. “I was in Vietnam,” he said. “That matter to you?”

            He honestly did not look nearly old enough to have been in Vietnam, but I figured he was on a roll.

            “Yeah, I said.

            His face tightened. “No, it doesn’t,” he snarled. “You don’t care. You don’t give a DAMN about Vietnam.”

            “What, now?”

            “You heard me—you don’t give a DAMN about Vietnam.”

            “My dad was in Vietnam,” I told him.

            “And my brother never came back from Vietnam,” Mike said. “Yeah, and YOU don’t care! YOU don’t give a damn! I don’t care! I WAS IN VIETNAM!”

            I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about anymore, but Mike had had enough.

            “That’s it,” he said, jerking his thumb toward the door. “Just get outta here.”

            I’d never seen Mike eighty-six someone before. I’d seen it at plenty of other bars—and I’d seen other bartenders do it at this bar—but people usually behaved around Mike.

            “You’re throwin’ me out?” the guy asked, sounding contrite and hurt.

            “Yeah. Just go home.”

            The guy turned to me, disbelieving. “He’s throwin’ me out.”


            He hopped down off his stool, and Mike headed for the other end of the bar to take care of the well-behaved drunks down there. Suddenly with Mike on the other side of the room, all contrition and shame fled the little bulldog.

            “Is that your hat?” he asked, pointing at the hat sitting next to me on the bar.

            “Yup,” I said.

            “Is THAT . . . YOUR . . . HAT?” he bellowed, still pointing.

            “Umm . . . yup.”

            I was waiting for him to knock it to the floor and stomp on it, but instead he muttered something I didn’t catch—though I’m guessing he wasn’t complimenting my choice in headwear. Then he snorted and headed for the door.

            Once he was gone, the bar was silent for a long time. Nobody said a thing, waiting for the whole scene to pass so they could get back to the ballgame on the TV. Then a small voice popped up from the other end of the bar.

            “I like Jim’s hat.”


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