Three misspent years of my youth were sqandered as chronicled in this autobiographical snippet which also was an entry on another of my blog sites:
|Not Tinker's ... but close|
The neighborhood bar … the altar upon which so many lives and livers have been sacrificed. There is a visceral and universal appeal to the neighborhood bat cave ... a place where one can get crocked in the company of like-minded sots ... a place where one can go to erase the chalk-board tally of one’s misspent life ... a place where anonymous trysts begin and end ... a place where comfort trumps aesthetics ... a place where struck-up friendships are as shallow as the conversation ... a place to flee to when life needs to be relished under a whiskey haze. A place where "everyone knows your name." Once, I too had a neighborhood bar. It was called Tinker’s.
It was a rather nondescript 1960’s singles’ bar, easily missed unless you were looking for it. If you were, it was on the southwest corner of 74th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. It had two large windows with green-and-white striped awnings facing Second Avenue, framing a dark entrance, and had another large window on 74th street, around the corner to the right. A red neon sign hung at the corner. It said simply “Tinker’s” and, after my hike up from 63rd Street and York Avenue, it always gave me a Pavlovian thirst. As you entered, on your left was a large mahogany bar which began perpendicular to a brick wall and then curved around to run about twenty feet parallel to the back-bar shelves and mirror.
The five-foot space that remained between the front window and the bar was filled with the stools of the regulars. Looking out the front window, you could watch the world saunter by. However, because of the low light levels inside Tinker’s, the world couldn’t watch you unless they stopped to peer in. The tap room to the right of the bar was filled with small tables and spindle chairs ... except for the far back right corner which had Naugahyde-covered benches and some more tables. That is where you sat if you didn’t want to be noticed or if the rest of the tables were occupied. The well-worn wooden bar floor had fresh sawdust spread on it weekly for that old-world charm, usually on late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
The aisle that was formed between the bar and the tables led directly to a small rear hallway where there was the public dial telephone on the left and, on the right and rear, were the camphor-caked rest rooms with cigarette-filled plumbing fixtures. The small kitchen was located in the left-rear corner, off the bar and enclosed by this rest-room alley and the service bar. It contained an old cast-iron grill (on which were made some of the best hamburgers on the upper East Side), a French-fryer, a tiny refrigerator, and a paucity of other equipment (such as a glass-washer-steamer that look like it came right out of a doll house). Tinker’s was a study in minimalism.
The jukebox, next to the service bar, was one of Tinker’s best features. It generally was playing softly in the background ... usually the latest pop hits ... but also opera, Gregorian chants, jazz, and many, many old classics (such as Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and even Billy Holiday). If the bar patrons weren’t playing a song, then the bartender or waitress would pluck a quarter from the till and play six favorites. Without looking up, you could often tell who was serving drinks by their selection of their music A goodly amount of baraphernalia festooned the walls and ceiling -- some hats, a few pictures of sports teams, a few odd banners, and a bat (which served dual purpose of decoration and protection). Ashtrays were sprinkled everywhere since smoking was still a favored pastime. In warm weather, some tables were also set out on the sidewalk. The window to the right of the entrance was somehow opened which connected the inside and outside patrons ... like in a Parisian cafe.
After I was separated from my first wife in 1964, Tinker’s became my regular hangout for about three squandered years. There, I escaped the failure of my marriage and my lack of career progress. (What did T.S. Eliot say? “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s way to man.”) I used Tinker’s as the center of my meager social life. There, I was accepted but not embraced as a regular. This was fine with me as long as I could do my own thing. Occasionally I would go to other bars such as Dick Edward’s (where I took my second wife on our first date), the Green Derby (I usually went there just for lunch), P.J. Clark's (where my second wife and I spent the evening before our wedding), TGI Friday’s (the bar most convenient to my apartment), etc. But it was Tinker’s that was my “home turf”. I often went there to get together with old college buddies and tell war stories. But, I would usually go there right after work, have a burger and a beer, smoke some cigarettes, and then try to get lucky. Sometimes, I was even successful. But, if by ten o’clock nothing seemed to be developing, I would use the back wall phone to call a female from my “little black book” and shamelessly ask her to meet me at Tinker’s. Then, for the price of a few drinks, I could often find comfort for the night.
It took me a while to notice an important social-psychological phenomenon of the single bar scene at that time (I assume it still holds.) It was that unattached women would not go into such a bar until after the sun was down. Not being female, I can’t explain this pathology. But I did eventually learn to take advantage of it. This meant that early-on I wasted a lot of bar time between 6:00 PM and 9:00 PM in the summer time. Things were generally dead at Tinker’s during this twilight period. But there was a trade-off. If you didn’t get there early enough, you didn’t get a bar stool by the front window ... which then made it a little harder to get noticed. But if you got there late, the only seats left were the Naugahyde benches ... which were the equivalent of being banished to Coventry. However, in the winter, when the sun set early, the bar was usually crowded with eager young women, often by 6:30 PM, and so one’s entrance timing became a much simpler calculus.
“Tinker” Ward ran the bar. (I never knew his Christian name.) He was about five-foot-six, slightly built, even a little effeminate. Rumor had it that Tinker’s father actually owned the bar and occasionally he would come in to check on things. But it was Tinker who handled the money. Once a night he used to plunder the cash register for a wad of bills which went right into his wallet. Bar talk had it that Tinker’s grossed about $30,000 per week which, in turn, suggested that it netted about a half a million dollars a year. This was a considerable about of money at that time ... particularly since so much of it appeared to be tax-free. (I figure I contributed about $3,000 a year to that largess ... much too much for someone paying child support on a meager banker’s salary.) Tinker also had two brothers who appeared from time to time to taste the bar’s various potables. I also believe he had one somewhat attractive sister who, like many Irish woman of the day, drifted through life as a shadow. I never met or even saw Tinker’s mother.
Tinker managed the bar in a no-nonsense fashion. He issued crisp orders like a drill-sergeant and seemed to be on top of everything. But he also knew how to make his patrons feel welcome. He let his regulars run bar tabs. But he never let you reach into his pocket too deeply. He kept a clipboard of these tabs and you had to settle things every week or two at the most. I spent so much money there that sometimes I even had to pay my tab in installments. But as compensation for your loyal patronage, about every third drink was bought by the bartenders. They did this by rapping on the bar twice quickly while serving you your next refreshment. And they always poured drinks with a heavy hand. The bartenders and waitresses, be they male or female, were universally good-looking and of loose morals. I never hit pay dirt with any of the female employees, but it was pretty clear others did. The male barkeepers usually ended up the evening with the most nubile of the besotted females. Tinker himself would sometimes cut out an awestruck heifer.
At this time of my life I was suffering from a slipped disk in my lower back. I suspect it arose from the emotional turmoil in my life that surrounded my separation and impending divorce. I had been advised to have an operation where the two vertebrae surrounding the offending disks would be fused with some bone splinters taken from my hip. I resisted this medical suggestion, but was forced to wear a back brace for about a year. In the morning I would strap on this contraption under my pinstripes and go to work, sweating profusely on my walk to the Lexington Avenue subway near Bloomingdale’s. I would have to stop every few blocks to lean against a lamp post to ease the incessant pain. When I got to work, I could sit and earn my keep without discomfort. It was standing and moving around that was difficult. But, there was some solice from this affliction ... it kept me out of the draft and Viet Nam.
A little over a year after my wife and I had separated and I had moved to New York City from Scarsdale ... and after it became clear that there was no possible reconciliation ... I got a notice from the draft board telling me to report for active duty. (I suspect that my father-in-law ratted me out.) When I informed the Selective Service of my bad back and sent them my doctor’s note and X-rays, they were quite skeptical and ordered me to report promptly to Fort Jay, on Governor’s Island, off the lower end of Manhattan, for a battery of neurological tests. One crisp fall morning, I took a short ferry ride there and made my leafy way to their medical center, full of dread for my military future and my predictable (and likely bloody) tour in the Far East. When one of the Army’s frowning white-coated majors found no reflexes in my left leg and also measured significant muscle atrophy in this same leg, I was told I could leave without further testing. I had my life back! I got my 4-F rating in the mail a few weeks later.
Despite this malady, I still made my painful trek up to Tinker’s most week nights. There, with each drink, the pain in my back abated. After about four libations, I was again hale and hearty and I was back in grace. It was as though I had no ailment at all! At the end of the evening, if I had no companionship for the night, my pain-free walk home became my only solace for all that money and time ill-spent. I would amble down Second Avenue, then east on Seventy-Second Street, and then right on First. There I would often stop at Dorian’s Red Hand, a slightly more elegant Irish bar, a few doors down from Seventy-second, for a quick once over of its remaining female talent. This of course was a desperate move, but for the price of one beer I occasionally met a female who was as desperate as myself and I would spend the night with some nameless and faceless female. But, most often the chickens had already been plucked, so I would continue my trip down First Avenue to my favorite pizza parlor around Sixty-fifth. There for fifty cents I would wolf down a couple of steaming cheesy slices to line my stomach for my boozy slumber. Next, I turned left down Sixty-third, past the original TGI Friday’s, and hung another left to end up at the York River House at Sixty-third and York. I would usually exchange a few jokes with the doorman and then went to bed ... dreading my next morning’s walk to the subway.
Copyright © George W. Potts