What is it about the good old days that makes us wish we could turn back the hands of time? To the Sixties for example. For if you look at the trend on television these days and see what’s been going on, the only theme not covered thus far is hippies. You’ve got Mad Men, a major hit for the past few years careening through the world of advertising, which has spawned a return of the classic drink the Old Fashioned, and now there’s the soon to be aired Pan Am and The Playboy Club. Which means “stewardesses” and Playboy bunnies will be scampering across our screens. And while I’m not in the least complaining about this (in fact I’m looking forward to it), I’m simply saying the 60’s are back in vogue. And who knows why?
So while discussing this very same topic last week, the 60’s with my good friend Jimmy, Jimmy who had stopped by the bar for a nice cold Budweiser, I asked him about the bar scene during that decade. Here in New York. Not being a New York native I was curious.
“It had to be really wild,” I said, before he could answer my question, “I mean with free love, drugs and rock and roll the bar scene had to be a ball, my man, am I right?” And after he answered my leading query, confirming what I had suspected, he added this amazing story that wasn’t “a ball”. Check this out.
Back in the late sixties, pre-Serpico as you shall see, this school teacher guy decided to go into the bar business. As an owner. The glamor of owning a bar, he figured, (let’s call this guy Tommy) somehow seemed more attractive than the clamor of students. And more lucrative! So with seed money given by his father, a bookmaker down on Wall Street Street at the time (how’s that for New York color?), he opened a joint and prepared for a whole new life. And an exciting one.
But about a month into his tenure, a successful tenure from what I gathered, while sitting downstairs in the office going over the books, a waitress arrived at the door with her voice in a panic. “The cops are here, the cops are here,” she tremolo-ed through the door, “and they want to see you, Tommy, so you better get up here!”
“They want to see me?” he replied. “What the hell for?”
“I have no idea but they want to see you right now. And they look serious!”
Holy shit, he thought to himself, what the hell could’ve happened last night to warrant this? So he closed his books, locked the office door and walked up the stairs to the bar where awaited two men. Both in policeman’s blue and looking very “serious”
“What can I do for you, officers?” Tommy said, extending his hand for a shake, speaking in his very best upstanding citizen’s voice. One guy was sitting at the bar and the other was standing. The man who was standing reached out his hand and spoke.
“Here’s exactly what you do,” he said, while shaking Tommy’s hand, “I’m police captain (so-and-so) and this here is sergeant (such-and-such), and every month you can give us a case of scotch. That’s what you can do. See the sergeant here is my driver and he’s who you give it to. Also… every week when my sergeant stops by you give him a hundred and fifty, a hundred dollars goes to me and the fifty’s for him. Any questions?”
Tommy couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d heard of the mob doing stuff like this but the cops? C’mon, man!
“Yeah, I have a question,” Tommy said, “what the hell’s in it for me if I do this?”
“Good question,” said the captain, “and here’s what you get. You can stay open as late as you want and no one’s ever gonna’ bother you, we also won’t ticket any double parked cars parked in front of your joint, and any kind of trouble from the health inspectors you call me. How does that sound?”
“Do I have a choice?” asked Tommy, semi-rhetorically.
“Not really,” said the captain, shaking Tommy’s hand again. “And I’ll expect that case of scotch this coming Monday!” And with that he tapped his sergeant on the arm, who quick polished off his free beer, and out the two of them strode to go fight crime. Pretty amazing, huh?
And how did this all turn out for the former school teacher? Well, as much as Tommy hated the fact that he had no choice in the matter… the fact that this captain muscled him into doing this (Why am I picturing Sterling Hayden in The Godfather?), he had to admit the deal worked out pretty well. Financially that is. For where other bars had to close at four Tommy could go til dawn, which not only kept his regulars drinking but attracted the people in the business after they got off. Who really spent! And as far as the double parking perk went, that was a boon as well, as it attracted the bridge and tunnel crowd which is Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, who wouldn’t have to worry about finding a precious parking spot. They could stack up out front. So for all concerned this deal was a win, win, win. Albeit an illegal one.
But of course when the Serpico thing actually did go down and the Knapp Commission held its hearings, most of this stuff went away including Tommy’s pressure. From then on he ran his place without any pay-offs. Which he preferred, in spite of the gift he had had of an all night club. And he also never regretted his decision to leave the classroom to do this, for his dream ran for almost fifteen years with thrills and spills along the way, til eventually he decided to sell the place and move on. But he walked away with more I’m sure than just the price of a bar, he walked away with a trove full of colorful memories. He could probably write a book!
“But what gets me,” I said to Jimmy, after he told me that story, “is the outright fucking hypocrisy on display here. I mean here’s Tommy’s dad, the bookmaker, technically breaking the law I guess if you count taking bets from the suits down on Wall Street a crime, and here are these guys, upholders of the law, putting the fucking squeeze on the bookmaker’s son. If that’s not irony O. Henry never wrote a short story.”
“Hey, I’m with ya’,” said Jimmy, draining off his Bud, “but that’s how it was in some places back in the 60’s! One big gang bang!” So I bought him another beer in return for that story.
And that ends my story!
See you next week-end, dear reader, and “Peace”, all you love children.
Geez, I just had a thought. With all this 60’s nostalgia going on maybe the next fertile well to be tapped by the geniuses over at the networks, is a series set in a bar in the 1960’s. I smell a hit! Ya’ got cocktail waitresses in very short skirts and… ah, damn, wait a minute, that’s The Playboy Club… never mind!