There were artist bars (the Cedar,) writer's bars (the Lion's Head,) newspaper hangouts (Bleecks or Costellos,) gay "clubs" (The Pink Poodle,) brawling butch bars (The Grapevine,) where lesbians bloodied each other with broken glasses and key rings.
The big hotels had commercial bars (Maude's, The Jockey Club) where the traveling salesmen left nickel tips at the bottom of a water glasses filled with soggy cigarette butts and guffawed by the door as you fished them out.
There were discreet rendezvous for gigolos and wealthy widows (The Drake), cheater trysts (A Little Table in the Corner.) Bars that called themselves "Cocktail Lounges" and had music lovers in moth-eaten tuxedos plinking show tunes on scarred baby grands. The ones that said "Bar and Grill" featured oldsters drinking out their Social Security checks at a buck a shot and getting "bum-rushed" by the seats of their pants when they demanded "one on the house for a disabled veteran."
There were dingy saloons where on-duty cops and off-duty crooks muttered in booths. There was even a bar for black people trying to pass as white. It had been that way for fifty years when, suddenly, in the mid 1960's, a pod opened and a new creature emerged, shucking its fetal membrane. It was known as the "Swinging Single."
No one knew where it had come from. One theory was that the Sexual Revolution combined with the growing financial independence of young women had lengthened the marriage age from early to late '20's. Nubile females filled the high rises on the Upper East Side. The neighborhood became known as the "Girl Ghetto," thousands living three or four to an apartment. Soon the scent of their Arpege wafted downtown and across the rivers to the outer boroughs. Males looked up, noses wrinkling, then dropped what they were doing and charged howling across the bridges.
Like penguins the singles needed a meeting place for their elaborate mating rituals. And so the singles bar was born.
The Persimmon (name changed to protect the guilty) opened in the spring of 1966 and became an instant institution. Everybody had a cute name for it--" the antique store from hell."..."Marcel Proust's bad acid trip." It was a huge space done in Art Nouveau, Tiffany lamps, stained glass from floor to ceiling, ceramic animals. It originated the "bar food" menu, serving everything from burgers to "fine cuisine," all equally inedible. It was the first bar to make a virtue out of bad food. Many more would follow.
I was working catering at the big hotels, 22 dollars an event, plus a meal, usually spaghetti and Sloppy Joe sauce, so I was ecstatic when a friend called and said there was an opening at the Persimmon.
At lunch the place was packed. The head bartender was a black dude named Noah who wore a vest and a derby like an old time barkeep. I would get a tryout in the service bar, he said, making drinks for the tables before they decided if I was ready to deal with "the public."
The service bar motto was: "What the customers don't see won't hurt 'em." We had four bottles of rotgut-- scotch, bourbon , rye and vodka. No matter what fancy brand they ordered, that's what they got. Martinis were premixed in a Gilbey's gin bottle. Vodka martinis got no vermouth. Whiskey sours were made with sweet vermouth and a sour mix, so sugary that the maddened fruit flies would find a way to bore through the glass for their mating rituals. All cream drinks, alexanders, grasshoppers, white russians were made with Yoo Hoo. The wine of choice was Lancer's Rose. We made 27 dollars a shift, no tips. But the wait staff threw us a couple of bucks, or they'd never get their drinks orders.
I've never seen such a busy place, before or after. It was like working in the hold of a ship, shoveling coal into the furnace. The sweat poured off you. You were working so hard you didn't look up, but you could hear the noise. It was a low roar from opening to last call.
After a few weeks I met Patty Nolan. He was in the process of becoming the first legendary bartender on the Upper East Side-- still polishing the act. He was an ex Marine with tattoos on both brawny forearms, a black Irish New York newspaper intellectual, who read the sports pages, saw the latest Bergman and knew who Saul Bellow was, so he could make small talk with almost anyone. They had fired his partner and he had chosen me to replace him.
My first night I met the owner. He was Hollywood royalty, the grandson of a studio head, son of a famous director. A rotund little guy doing the flamboyant thing with plaid suits and loud ties, he had a constant parade of celebs moving through the joint. He was genial and welcoming, but gave me an appraising look when he thought I wasn't watching. He was doing four million a month and didn't want to share.
We worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday brunch, the prime shifts. At 8 when I came on the place would be hysterical. Every table taken, people willing to wait for hours until one opened up. Four deep at the bar, screaming for beverages like Legionnaires lost in the desert.
Sometimes a rumor would spread, "Warren Beatty is here." And then you'd actually see Beatty or even Cary Grant and the owner at a table surrounded by women. In 1972 New York a movie star siting was huge.
The bartender as sex object hadn't quite taken hold yet. Neither had the bartender as entrepreneur. I was making a hundred a night, which was a fortune for me and going home alone, which seemed only natural. But Patty wanted more. It was the first time I heard the expression "chump change."
"This ain't Con Ed," he said."We ain't in this for thirty years and the gold watch."
He had a motto for everything. "Swing in the cup, contract in the pocket." The "swing" was what we stole through short ringing, short changing, stealing soft drinks, and that we shared. The "contract" was what we made from giving people free drinks and getting huge tips in return. And that we kept.
Patty was a local boy and had the "contracts"--cops and waiters, who came to see him. I was a West Sider and didn't know anybody so he made more than me. But I was doing two hundred a night and at this rate would be able to quit and finish my Great American Novel.
It was strictly business between Patty and me. At closing he'd go off with his buddies. Drugs, especially cocaine, were still a secret passion in those days.
I was never invited. One Saturday night I noticed the owner at the end of the bar. He rarely came on the weekends, and when he did it was with a serious Hollywood crowd.
Patty came over to my sink. "They've got spotters on us tonight."
The story came out while we were working. Somebody had gotten greedy. "Somebody's killin' the goose that lays the golden eggs," he said. There had been shortages and now they were trying to catch the thieves.
Patty had spotted the spotters. It was a couple, man and woman, longhaired and tie-dyed up the gazoo. They came from an agency and, hard as they tried, they didn't fit in.
"They have to work in pairs," he said, "so they can both be witnesses in case there's a criminal charge...They have to write down every time you do something for the same reason."
It was scary. "Criminal charges?" I asked.
"I got a trick to beat it," he said. "It'll take balls, but it always works."
Patty's trick was simple. "Steal," he said. "Steal right under their noses."
"I don't get it," I said.
"Steal blatantly from them," he said. "Short ring their drinks, short change 'em, buy drinks back after the first. Steal all around 'em. Be flagrant, pack it all in the cup until the money is flowing out of it..."
"How's that gonna work?" I asked.
"Trust me" he said.
So I stole. The spotters were down at my end. They got so excited they almost spilled the drinks I bought for them. I was swinging, contracting, almost picking customers' pockets. They took turns writing frantically under the bar. The girl would watch me and whisper to the guy while he wrote. Then he would watch in amazement and whisper to her.
At the other end Patty was "contracting" the whole bar, dropping tens and twenties in the cup, which was like millions in those days.
Every hour or two he would make change from the register to the cup, which was a big no no, and jam some bills in his pocket.
At closing I was counting the tips when I saw the head bartender and two big guys in the mirror.
Patty saw them, too, and rushed over, full of righteous indignation.
"Noah, how long I know you?" he said. "I don't appreciate you putting spotters on me."
Noah's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"That couple of hooples at the other end," he said. "I spotted them right away. I suppose now they're gonna say we were stealin' all night long, but we weren't. We work clean, don''t we kid."
"Clean," I said, although you didn't need a polygraph to see that I was lying.
Noah nodded to the two bruisers and they came behind the bar. "Those people were decoys, Patty. We knew you'd spot them. The real spotter was that Chinese chick, the one you kept buyin' drinks for..."
"Hey, I'm allowed to get lucky, "Patty said.
"She'll back up everything the other two say," said Noah. "You're out, Patty."
They made us turn over our tip cup. The bruisers searched me up and down.
"Leave him cab fare," Noah said.
Then we were out on the street. The Great American Novel was indefinitely postponed.
"That didn't work," I said.
"Don't worry about it," Patty said.
He ducked into a doorway and slipped off his shoes. There were two piles of bills in his socks, one for me.
"Actually, I got a new job, managing at Spaldeens," he said. Spaldeens was a newer, hipper place in the '70's. Patty was stepping up.
"Tonight was my last night so I figured I'd make a killing anyway," he said.
I counted my money. Two hundred, what I always made...
"Now that I'm out of work, can you give me a job?" I asked.
"You kiddin'?" Patty laughed. "You're a thief."
Causes Heywood Gould Supports
Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
American Cancer Society
St. Jude's Children Research Hospital