Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Eddies of the Civilized World

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Having left one conked-out compatriot in a gay bar in Greenwich Village where they had a cult and shrine to Rihanna, I led my charge on an expedition to meet another such in deepest Brooklyn. His impression of New York was something of a tourist’s itinerary and damned if I wasn’t going to jostle him out of that, even if it meant braving the hordes of stupified zombies throwing themselves at every yellow cab that happened to come by. Half an hour later, it became obvious that all my tricks about moving upstream and waiting for cabs in odd directions were for naught, but no worries, the gypsy cabs aren’t yet a dead tradition in this burg. The experience prompted the man in my care to reflect that this act was tantamount to kidnapping oneself back in his home country.

Not so here! Bloomberg’s made his indelible mark even in our gloriously illegal street hail of an unmarked car: The hack is identified and registered on an official roll and there’s even a Passenger Bill of Rights should we wish to blow the whistle on ourselves. Never mind, he’s willing to take us to Brooklyn, that foreign country, and therefore he’s already a saint in my book. How do you describe Brooklyn, consequently, to a drunk and somewhat confused Colombian who was forced to down sake and watch skinny white men gyrate to Black pop stars? You don’t, because you didn’t explain anything else that night anyway.

We ended up somewhere in the “South Slope” (really, Windsor Terrace, much in the same way that “East Williamsburg” creeps further into Bushwick and “North Williamsburg” is taking over Greenpoint) in order to celebrate the birthday of a man who himself a walking good-humored mystery, a gregarious sort who would be at home just about anywhere. In this case, he chose a heavy metal go-go bar. It was, on the whole, an inspired choice. It was a glorious revelry in the affirmative rejection of the absurd contortions that society – that is to say, the people outside the bar – puts itself in by selecting a equally absurd contortion and laughing at itself.

Our crew perched between a biker gang on our left, and marines on our right. A mutual friend, a southern gent obsessed with class, wanted to change the jukebox from Iron Maiden to Rihanna, which we had to discourage him from lest we pretend not to know him come the inevitable backlash – assuming, of course, a place like this would ever have Rihanna or Ke$ha or Nicki Minaj on the jukebox. Some people gotta learn that when in Rome…

Over a cheap domestic lager and under the blaring screen of a 70s B roadhouse movie that featured Japanese gangsters doing horrible yet softcore things to American nuns, before having horrible and definitely hardcore things done to them in turn, I asked the fellow closest to me how he had spent his last deployment. He said that he had spent it in Japan, and that it was pretty fun “up until the rape,” at which point they confined everybody to the base. One wonders whether it was to save the locals from the soldiers, or the soldiers from the locals.

One of the go-go dancers, a trio of tattooed women of various colors who could all have been and may yet actually be models from SuicideGirls – that social networking and modeling site specializing in those with a predilection to piercings and the punk motif – knocked over my drink across the length of the bar, which caught the attention of one of the bikers to my crew. The man inquired as to which of us he would have to rip the sleeve off of to wipe up the mess. I observed that, as he was wearing cut-offs, this scenario must have happened for him twice. He retorted that he was a gentleman and it was our turn.

This exchange comforted me, as it reminded me of the circumstances I had spent a great deal of my twenties in when looking to run away from the world: The diviest of dive bars, the late Mars Bar (now a TD Bank in a glass condo, natch). Back then, a representative night would be having a midget and a viking to my right openly rolling a spliff and fussing over the Arc of the Covenant – the viking would offer passersby to open it for a few bucks, and the midget would pop out – a firebreathing Marxist organizer for the TWU Local 100 to my left, and a middle-aged couple from a SoHo loft to my compatriot’s left looking to slum it for a bit and possibly find a third for a threesome. The kinds of people you can’t imagine leading day lives, in a place you can’t imagine exists during daylight. A real hole in the wall.

I haven’t found a real hole in the wall since Mars Bar was booted out of a newly sanitized East Village. Sure, there were places that had most of the aesthetics and about eighty percent of the vibe in the Lower East Side – there’s something to be said for sharing a barstool with a pitbull in the late Motor City Bar (now place that sells “gourmet wraps,” natch) – but the dives either started catering to a more “discerning” clientele or just died altogether. Indeed, to celebrate this discovery of a new honest-to-god dive, I complimented a biker chick in the arms of what looked like the Mexican Mad Max that the studded hoop earrings she was wearing looked like they could double as brass knuckles. She immediately high-fived me.

The bartender, a green-haired woman in bra, denim hotpants and, with a clunk on the bar to show off to the marine next to me, seven inch platforms, turned out to be the owner of the joint altogether. Truly I had found a live countercultural bastion the likes of which I had almost written off as dead in the city of my birth. I could barely contain my enthusiasm. None of this, of course, served to alleviate my Colombian friend’s confusion – we had in effect, after all, switched between polar opposites in one night, and god knows what his eyes saw even as we both took it all in for the first time – but he took it in stride. Alcohol loosens barriers, which is arguably why New York is so enamored with it. One can indeed hope it never forgets.

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