It is an armpit-drenching Thursday night, the sort of swampy eve that makes you seriously consider making love to an ice cube.
“I know what you need,” my pal Justin says on the phone.
“A hand job from a snowman?”
“No, a scary bar. Fifteen seconds from my house. With air conditioning.”
“It’s thirsty times,” I say, trundling to deep Bushwick, long past the lofts housing art-school undergrads. It is dark, and buildings are sagging. Utz chips wrappers flutter like leaves. “That’s the mayor of the block,” Justin says, motioning to a passed-out man, his radio whispering news. “It feels like grimy old New York.”
New Yorkers always yearn for a seedier era. Hell, I pine for my bygone Laundromat frequented by a panty-sniffing crackhead. It’s misguided longing that mistakes despair for authenticity. But Justin grew up in tumbleweed ’80s Williamsburg. For my friend, seediness is as comforting as a lover’s kiss.
“Here we are,” Justin says at the sign-less corner spot sporting a brown awning (241 Harman St. betw. Knickerbocker & Myrtle Aves., B’klyn). A bouncer built from cinderblocks thwarts our progress.
“Open your bags,” he commands. Since his biceps are as big as subway rats, we obey. He holds my plastic Nalgene bottle. “What’s this?”
“Hmmph,” he replies, which is Cro-Magnon for pussy. I’m frisked with a probing thoroughness that would impress a proctologist. Justin and I are pronounced clean. We enter a dark, spacious room. There’s a pool table occupied by stout men and women wearing low-cut shirts. The jukebox pours salsa. Beside the long, room-length bar—seemingly constructed from wooden bowling-alley lanes—a closed-circuit TV keeps tabs on outdoors goings-on. The crackling screen displays flies.
“Usually I watch fights,” jokes the bartender, a woman of ample charm and bosom.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “It was much worse 20 years ago. Now, we keep the riff-raff outside.”
“Two Jacks on the rocks, please,” I order. The anxiety-calming liquid is served in a small plastic cup, the sort a dentist provides for swishing. Six dollars. Is there a surcharge to watch televised insects?
“People don’t come to Latin-American bars to get rip-roaring drunk for really cheap,” Justin explains. “The idea’s to impress.”
“What’s the fun?” I wonder.
We turn to the bartender for small talk. I inquire about the bar’s moniker.
“It doesn’t have a name. The owner will put up an awning, maybe in the next couple months.”
“How do people know where to go?”
She looks at me like I’ve asked her how to breathe. “We’ve always been here.” She flits away to flirt with thick-muscled men.
“I’ve lived here a year,” Justin says, whispering conspiratorially into my ear, “and they’ve never had an awning. I think she’s lying.”
Calling your bartender a liar is a bad idea. We order another round and then we are tapped out: $24 for four whiskeys is a king’s ransom. Why pay East Village prices in Bushwick? There’s nothing scary about this bar save for the damage it’ll wreak upon my wallet.
“Nightcap at my place?” Justin wonders.
After checking the closed-circuit TV for fisticuffs, we head toward Justin’s railroad apartment. The bathroom sink sits on the floor (“My friend accidentally used it as a chair”), but my attention is on the table: two bottles of Evan Williams bourbon.
“Only $16 for both,” Justin says. “It was on sale.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Drink it with ice.”
Justin pours a healthy dose of amber serum. Served on rocks, it’s a delicious steal. A hearty vanilla scent leads to nuances of berries and smooth oak. My heavens, it mops the floor with Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam.
“Surprisingly delicious, eh?” Justin says, topping my glass again.
“It certainly is.” Life rule No. 442: Always agree with the host.
What’s the thin, precarious line separating good ideas from bad? One glass of whiskey is fine. Two or more, and personalities mutate. Mild-mannered men become braggarts; mean men become meaner. And my best friend Andrew’s girlfriend, Rachel, wrestles lushes and punches them in the solar plexus. I enunciate words like my incisors have turned to pebbles.
“What’d you say?” Justin asks, depositing Mr. Williams into my glass.
“I shaid, I’ve had sho much to drink.”
“No such thing.”
“Yesh, yesh, you can. I can. Cab,” I command, heading into the noisy Bushwick night. The block’s mayor has awoken. Justin gives him a sailor’s salute. I hail a car service. My cabbie takes me home to the promised land of my bedroom, where I discover more easily pronounced words like whiskey dick.