The Bar That Almost Closed

In the Fall, we ran a bar series during which a group of writers shared stories and memories of a particular bar. Although the series has technically run its course, we are always happy to feature work by our contributors that’s related to our blog.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Helene Stapinski wrote a piece about Max Fish, a Lower East Side bar that was scheduled  to close at the end of January. In her article, The Max Fish Magic: Will It Travel Well? Stapinski recounts her history as a regular at the 21-year-old establishment, and what specifically makes it such a special place.

“Will Max Fish still be Max Fish if it moves?” she writes. “Can the magic be recreated in another space? Is it the people and bartenders, or the walls and the windows and the tin ceiling, that make the place cool — or some mystical combination of them all?”

Read Helene Stapinski’s posts for Drinking Diaries here.

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“I Partied My Life Away at the Goodtimes Café!”

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For our bar story series, we have invited some of our contributors to share a story, an episode, an experience that took place at a particular bar–a place that they hold in their memory for one reason or another. We hope you will enjoy reading these stories as they appear each Monday.

by Christina Gombar

Freshman year in college, when Saturday Night Fever came to the tiny, provincial Pennsylvania town of my small, private, pseudo-elite college, my friends contemptuously declared that no one could possibly look and act like the people in that film. It had to be a gross exaggeration.

They were wrong.

Since the age of 14, I’d frequented a number of “theme” bars along the Post Road in Fairfield County, Connecticut, which catered to a disco clientele: a place where every table had a telephone, another with tiger-patterned rugs on the walls, a different one that sponsored dance contests. These discos were full of young men with driven-back hair, polyester shirts and flared designer jeans with contrasting threads and platform shoes. Girls donned “precision” blow-dry hair cuts, glittering green eye shadow, boob-baring Danskins, and heels hanging off their wooden Candies.

Goodtimes Café in Norwalk–located in the bottom half of the back of a strip mall far down the Post Road, at least forty minutes from my home town–inexplicably became an instant hit with people from New Haven to Brooklyn, mixing everyone from Bronx street kids to millionaires’ sons from Greenwich.

It was expensive, with a two dollar cover and $1.25 bar drinks, and you always had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, to get in. When you did, it was a nightmare of flashing lights, over-made up girls and scary men–the aura of Weimar Berlin with the added trauma of disco music blaring from speakers, or loud metal from a live band.

I only went because my friends wanted to go. I never actually met anyone I liked there, but I loved to dance. The few times I was persuaded to go out with one of the Tom, Jerry, or Elvises who accosted me, the dates were duds. Men who looked glamorous under the mirrored disco ball turned out to be policemen, factory workers or rich dull college boys-all wanting a real girlfriend.

I was there a minimum of three nights a week, every week, during the summer of 1979, arriving to stand in line as early as 7:00 p.m., and generally staying until it shut its doors to the strains of  My Sharona at 3:00 a.m.

Goodtimes wound down sometime in the mid-1980s and is now a fitness club, but it lives on in cumulative memory. Searching in vain for an historical Google image, I came upon a Facebook page titled, “I Partied My Single Life away at Goodtimes Café in Norwalk, CT.

Thursday, 25-cent drinks. Wednesday-male stripper night. Closed Goodtimes and then it was off to Portchester NY ,to continue. Does anyone remember the X-rated hypnotist?

Ah, yes, I remember it well.

I think commentor Glen Keith’s experience best reflects my own: I was there so much, my parents had my mail forwarded. I remember such great times, and probably forgot even better ones.


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The Boiceville Inn

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For our bar story series, we have invited some of our contributors to share a story, an episode, an experience that took place at a particular bar–a place that they hold in their memory for one reason or another. We hope you will enjoy reading these stories as they appear each Monday.

by Martha Frankel

Later the story would take on a life of its own— Didja hear that Martha punched a state trooper at the Boiceville Inn and knocked him out? Everyone saw it!

But it wasn’t like that at all.  Although I did shove a cop.  And he did fall.  And there were at least 60 people standing around, watching.

But history first.  The Boiceville Inn was next door to where we lived (in the back of my boyfriend’’s furniture store). We were hippies in a town that proudly wore its redneck tan, but we found our place at the B.I., as we called it.  It was cavernous and dark, and everyone went there–bikers and conservatives, cops and perps, young and old.  Donna Summer would be dimming all the lights, sweet darling, and people would crowd the dance floor, knocking back shots, dancing till they were slick with sweat, making out with their boyfriends and girlfriends, or with complete strangers.  It was that magic time between the Pill and AIDS, when anything could go, and at the B.I., everything did.

I remember that it was hot that night, and we had been at a party.  It was late, but not too late to stop for one more drink.  When Steve stopped to talk to someone outside, I told him I would meet him at the bar.  I knew from the amount of cars in the parking lot that the place was jammed, and although I didn’t expect the air-conditioning to freeze me out, I knew that blast of cold air was gonna feel great.

When I walked in, people at the bar turned my way.  Everyone seemed to smile.  I walked slowly down the 40-foot bar, hugging this one or that, saying hello to friends, shaking hands with people I had never seen.  I ordered a shot of Rock & Rye.  This was how new I was to drinking; I ordered that liquor because the bartender had told me one night that I should.  So I did.  I had never drank before and had no idea that you shouldn’’t have to hold your nose and gulp a shot.  So I held my nose, threw it back, and immediately  someone offered to buy me another.

The buyer was a local guy, whose three brothers were sitting on either side of him.  His hair was long and unkempt, his clothes stained with chainsaw oil.  I looked from brother to brother, trying to remember if this one was Greg or Hank, Billy or Todd.  He handed me the shot, I held my nose, and just like that the music throbbed within me and I started to dance.  Greg or Hank or Billy or Todd leaned forward and I kissed him square on the lips.  The other brothers started to clap.

That’s when someone grabbed my arm.  “Gimme a kiss,” the guy slurred.  I tried to walk around him.  “C’mon, kiss me,” he said again, this time pressing his face too close to mine.  What the hell was his name?  All I could think of was his wife, who I had seen with a big bruise on her chin once, and a handprint on her upper arm at the local pool one day.  Was her name Heather?  What was his?  He stank of sweat and booze.  “Ya kissed Greg, now kiss me,” he demanded.

I heard people saying hi to Steve, so I knew he was right behind me.  I wanted to turn but was afraid to take my eyes off the guy, who I suddenly realized was a local cop.  I wondered if he really terrorized his wife, and if she needed help.  I thought that I would call her the next day, but what to say:  “Your husband’s a jerk, and you can come stay with me”?

I felt a rage boiling up inside me, and when he leaned in the next time, I put both of my forearms up in front of me. He grabbed at my shirt and again begged for a kiss.  I leaned in close.  “I could blow every guy in this bar, but still I wouldn’t kiss you,” I  hissed. Only somehow the jukebox had stopped and my words reverberated off the walls.   Everything was deathly silent, then it exploded with noise.

I heard Steve say, “Omigod.” And then I pushed forward with my forearms at the same moment that the cop stepped forward, and somehow those two opposing elements sent him careening away from me.  He staggered back and landed with a loud thunk in front of the huge stone fireplace.

People bought me shots for the rest of the month.

Martha Frankel is the author of Hats and Eyeglasses: A Memoir, the co-author of Brazilian Sexy, and the executive director of the Woodstock Writers Fest. You can read the Drinking Diaries interview with Martha here.

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Alias Smith & Jones

3961706532_0237c44c2cFor our bar story series, we have invited some of our contributors to share a story, an episode, an experience that took place at a particular bar–a place that they hold in their memory for one reason or another. We hope you will enjoy reading these stories as they appear each Monday.

by Ann Hood

The psychic looked at me and said: “You will go to a bar with sawdust on the floor. Someone will tap you on the shoulder and when you turn around you’ll find a man you knew in high school. He has dark hair and a mustache and will have on a very thin gold chain. You’re going to marry that man.”

I was 25 years old and had no interest in getting married. But a few months later, I was visiting my parents back in Rhode Island when my old friend Jane invited me to meet her at a bar called Alias Smith & Jones in East Greenwich, a small picturesque town on the bay.

It was a summer night, warm with a star studded sky. We sat at the bar and drank cold pints of beer. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around to find myself looking right at a guy I’d dated in high school. I’d really liked this guy back then. We’d gone dancing one night at a place near the beach, and afterward kissed in his convertible. But summer was ending and we’d gone off to different colleges. Now here he was, grinning at me from beneath his bushy mustache, the slightest glint of a gold chain showing through the hair on his chest.

I didn’t think of the psychic or his prediction right then. I was too caught up in how giddy this guy made me feel. We danced that night on the sawdust floor in that little bar in East Greenwich, and spent the next week catching up on the almost decade since we’d last kissed each other. Only after he was gone did I remember. I shivered. Surely he would come back, I thought. The prediction was too accurate to not come completely true.

In a fairy tale, or even some novels, he would return to that bar, to me, and we would indeed end up together. But in this story, we each married other people. It was winter when I saw him again 30 years later, but by then Alias Smith & Jones had long since closed.

Ann Hood is the author of 8 novels, including the bestsellers The Knitting Circle and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine; two memoirs and a collection of short stories. Her most recent memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, was a NY Times Editor’s Choice and one of the top 10 non-fiction books of 2009 by Entertainment Weekly. Her new novel, The Red Thread, was published on May 1st.

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Ode to the Ludlow Street Café

Ludlow0004For our bar story series, we have invited some of our contributors to share a story, an episode, an experience that took place at a particular bar–a place that they hold in their memory for one reason or another. We hope you will enjoy reading these stories as they appear each Monday.

by Sari Botton

Bars and I didn’t get off to such a good start. The first time I went to one – the Buckboard in Baldwin, Long Island, in 1981 – I had to sit outside in a jappy classmate’s car the whole night while the other girls tossed back pitchers of kamikaze, thanks to my baby face and unconvincing fake I.D.

Weeks afterward, I managed to sneak into Speaks, a nightclub in my hometown of Island Park, only to be fished out half an hour later by a bouncer who knew my father, then a fifth grade teacher at the local elementary school.  With the drinking age repeatedly being raised every single time I became legal – 18, then 19, then 21, and with no grandfather clause – going out in college naturally became fraught with anxiety.

It wasn’t until I was 27 and going through a divorce that I found a watering hole I felt comfortable in, the Ludlow Street Café. I went to that Lower East Side dive for the first time in the early nineties, and kept going until the night it closed, in the summer of 1996, when I covered its shuttering for The New York Times.

The first time I went was in the final months of that first marriage. I dragged my husband on the LIRR from Long Beach to see an old camp friend of mine play with his band. It was just one more awkward step toward an uncomfortable but crucial awakening: my suburban life didn’t fit me, and, most painfully, neither did the college sweetheart I’d married too young.

Something about stepping inside the Ludlow Street Café that night button-holed it, and I don’t think it was just my growing fascination with my cute, womanizing musician friend, who often played – and drank too much – there.

Within the bar’s messy, poster-strewn walls, I felt instantly at ease in a way I’d never felt at college bars. The place was well worn like a favorite pair of shoes or faded denim. It had a classic old mahogany bar with an antique cash register, a beat-up floor and scratched-up wooden benches. There was something authentic about its shabbiness that somehow made me feel as if I could be authentic, too; so far I hadn’t felt authentic in my adult life. There didn’t seem to be any pretension in the mostly acoustic bands that played, like the country-rock act Beat Rodeo, nor in the grunge-chic crowd. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t much of a drinker, either; I still felt as if I belonged.

I have many fond memories of the place, even though I endured some painful evenings there with the musician. The worst was the snowy winter weeknight when only three other women showed up for a solo acoustic set, plus a couple of regulars at the bar.

I arrived late and ordered a Corona.

“How’d you like to play a round of my favorite game, ‘Guess who he’s fucking?’” asked one of the guys at the bar. I looked to both sides to make sure he was talking to me.

“It’s the only way I know how to tolerate singer-songwriter types like Mr. Sincerity over there,” he said, laughing. Mr. Game Show Host paid for my beer before I could. “Come on, let’s play,” he begged. “It’s easy – a dead-give away. These guys are all the same. They’ve got at least three women in every audience that they’re fucking, and often, those women are the only ones who show up, like right now. So, I’d say it’s safe to say he’s doing all three, but we could play to figure out which one’s the understanding girlfriend with low self-esteem and who just fits into his weekly rotation.”

I blanched, wondering how I might gracefully go over and sit down near the stage without that guy knowing I was one of the ones. “Thanks for the beer, and good luck with your game,” I said, as I slinked away.

It helped knowing that at the end of the show, the musician would drive me home and stay there with me. That’s what he’d done for the few months we’d been seeing each other. I had the distinction of being The One He Goes Home With After The Solo Shows, which made me officially less pathetic.

But then, at 11:30, he lifted the newish one, a tall, young blonde called Jessica, into his beat up van before helping me in with just a friendly hand. We’ll drop her off first, I thought.

No. That night, for the first time, my apartment was the first stop. Then the musician and Jessica were on their happy way. It took a little while before I could go back to the Ludlow Street Café, but I did, again and again.

Sari Botton’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, The Village Voice, MORE, Marie Claire, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and many other publications, as well as on WAMC radio and NPR. Her website is saribotton.com and she blogs at www.rosendaleramblings.com

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