May 15, 2011

Pleading the Fifth


It was about ten minutes before two on a bright Tuesday afternoon, and my friend Daniel and I had a bit of business to transact. He lives across the street from my former apartment, so we agreed to meet at my old home bar just a few blocks away. I hadn’t been back there in awhile, so it would be good to see some of the regulars again. Given that we were supposed to meet at two, those few extra minutes would give me a chance to settle in and get caught up with the bartender.

            I got off the train, tapped my way up and over to the bar, and found the front door. I was surprised to find the door closed—normally it would be open on a day like this. I grabbed the handle and pulled. Nothing happened. I pulled again, and still nothing happened. I didn’t know what the hell was wrong. Then I heard a voice behind me:

            “They don’t open until—” he said. The words weren’t even out of his mouth yet, but I knew what he was telling me.


            The man paused, turned, and pulled the earphones out of his ears. “You say something?”

            “I said ‘dammit.’”

            I’d forgotten it was a weekday. On weekdays they open at three. On weekends they open at one. I’ve been losing track of days, and the meanings of days, for the past few months. I lit a smoke, leaned against the building and waited for Daniel. I had no real interest in standing out there for an hour waiting for the place to open.

            There were plenty of other bars in the neighborhood and I knew most of their schedules, so I began ticking them off in search of an alternative. That one opened at four. That one opened at four, too. That one opened at three. This one down here didn’t open until six.

            Man this neighborhood really does suck, I thought. What’s wrong with these people?

            When Daniel showed up, I was still balancing options. There weren’t many.

            We walked a block to a place that was more restaurant than bar, but still had a bar on the premises. They were always open for lunch.

            “They’re closed,” Daniel said as we stood outside the front door. “Sign says they’re closed for lunch on Tuesdays.”

            “Jesus.” I was about ready to give up.

            “There’s always Jackie’s,” he suggested. “Jackie’s’ll be open.”

            “Jackie’s is always open.”

            If over a long course of years you find that you spend a lot of time in assorted bars, you learn a few things. The first thing you learn, one way or another, is to respect the spirit of a bar. If you don’t, you may well end up with a boot in your skull.

            You don’t, for example, go into a sports bar and ask them to change the channel from the Mets game to PBS. You don’t go into a cop bar and ask the guy next to you what he thinks of Kierkegaard. And you don’t go into a gay S&M bar unless you’re, y’know, the curious type.

            Although I had lived two blocks away from it for twenty years, I had never stepped foot in Jackie’s Fifth Amendment. Fear wasn’t the issue—the issue was respect. There were times I desperately wanted to stop in. Heading to work at the Guggenheim at eight in the morning and passing that open door, seeing four or five guys sitting at that bar—it was just called The Fifth Amendment back then—it was mighty tempting.

            With all the changes and all the money that flooded into that neighborhood, I’m amazed Jackie’s has survived, but I’m glad it did. Bars like Jackie’s are an increasingly rare animal, not just in Park Slope but across the city. It’s funnier in Park Slope though, where Jackie’s is legendary, a kind of free-standing cautionary tale, and an affront to the delicate sensibilities of all the righteous, upstanding citizens who live there. (“We must shield our children’s eyes from this depravity!”)

            People have different names for places like that—“dive bar,” “old man bar,” “lifer bar,” “morning bar.” It all adds up to one thing: the assholes, hipsters, and ninnies haven’t infiltrated and ruined it yet. And somehow I get the feeling that the regular crew at Jackie’s would never let that happen.

            Many years ago when I was working for a newspaper, one of the other writers started hanging out at Jackie’s for a few hours every morning in order to get a story. He met all the regulars who were there at eight or nine, earned their trust, pretended to be one of them, pretended to be a friend. All the while he was secretly transcribing their conversations and jotting down notes on everything that happened. When he had enough material he wrote what I considered a cheap and cruel story, the only purpose of which was to make fun of a bunch of drunken losers. After it ran, he knew damn well he could never show his face on that block again.

            That’s why I stayed away. It was a culture unto itself in there. They had their own standards, their own rules. You had to earn yourself a spot along the bar, the way they all had. Jackie’s might well represent the last safe haven still open to them, the only place available where they could find a little peace and security. I respected that, and that’s why I always let them be. At the moment, however, it was my last refuge, too.

            “Let’s go to Jackie’s,” I told Daniel.

            It must be said that the place doesn’t offer much by way of atmosphere, but the people who go there aren’t looking for “atmosphere.” The dead plants in the windows have been warning outsiders as much for years. There are a couple of tables, a bathroom in the back, little by way of decoration. The tinny, non-descript music comes from a radio behind the bar, and the volume is kept low. I don’t know if there's a television in there or not. If there is, it wasn’t on. Taken as a whole, it probably works as an effective hipster deterrent. They’d probably find it too depressing.

            There was a small cluster of regulars around the front of the bar, so Daniel and I moved to the back. They let us be, and I figured they would continue to do so as long as we weren’t assholes.

            “We couldn’t find anyplace in the neighborhood that was open,” Daniel told the bartender when she showed up.

            “Well somebody has to be open for people who work the night shift and want to stop for a drink on their way home, right?” she said. “Medical students, things like that.”

            I wasn’t sure if she dropped in the reference to medical students after sizing us up, or if there really were a bunch of hardcore drunks doing their residencies at the hospital up the street. I was willing to believe either. Then she offered me a bucket of beer.

            For all the years and all the bars, no one had ever once offered me a bucket of beer before—six bottles in a bucket of ice. It saved her work, certainly, so I accepted, oddly touched by this.

            After finishing the first bucket, we ordered another.

            Daniel and I kept our voices as low as the voices at the other end of the bar. At least I hope we did. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. In a way, and in spite of all my efforts, I still felt like a spy in there, but a spy with no mission, no ulterior motive beyond finding an open bar early on a Tuesday afternoon. I might have been intruding on their hard-earned territory, but I was there for the same reason they were, and I meant no harm. The more I sat there, in fact, the more it felt like I belonged there.

            We left after a couple of hours, and I was glad to have finally stopped in. My guess is I will continue to leave them be out of the same respect that kept me out of there for so many years. The challenge facing me now is finding a lifer bar that won’t require a train ride. I’m going to be needing one.


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