Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ode to the Cedar Tavern

I was a long-time regular at the upstairs bar of the Cedar Tavern. A lot of people didn't even know it existed, but there was and still is no other bar like it in the city. I liked to refer to it as the Scotch of bars: an acquired taste which did not appeal to everyone, but if you had the palate for it, then watching the building across the street glow red in a summer sunset or seeing a blizzard whip down University Place left a warmer glow in you than a shot of Tallisker.

I wrote something every time I was there. I completed seven plays at that bar, one of which was performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, and jotted down enough ideas to keep me busy for the next ten years. One of the things I’ve started and still not completed is the diary I began after I got word that the Cedar was closing. I’ve typed up all the entries except the last two: the final Saturday night and the closing party on Sunday. I’m convinced that somewhere in the back of my mind I have this idea that, if I keep this diary unfinished, I can keep the place from closing for a little while longer. We all do what we can, right?

Everybody asks me “Where are you going these days? Have you found a new place yet?” And when I shake my head and tell them no, I want to say that there are some things you can’t replace. You can always go to a bar and write, or relax, or watch a game on TV. It’s another thing entirely to go somewhere because you want to be with friends. That was why I went to the Cedar. And of all my years of doing the skylight shift, that one fact –- the way the Cedar staff always treated me like family -- is what I miss and cherish most of all.

If the Cedar Tavern had been a boy born in 1866

Conceived a good two years before his birth
And named after the street where he was born,
He grew up serving whiskey in tall glasses
To veterans of Gettysburg, the stunned
Survivors of the ’63 Draft Riots,
And Wall Street types who had not yet become
Clichés of selfish greed and lousy tipping,
And kept them all away from Table 5,
Where Herman Melville spent his afternoons
With Billy Budd and Bartleby the scrivener.

He learned at a young age how to read people,
Their little ticks and traits his daily specials.
This guy will pick a fight because that’s how
He justifies his day; this girl will have
That one too many ‘cause she can’t say no;
And that young punk with the Rasputin eyes
Won’t leave until he’s found and hypnotized
Some trusting soul to buy him tonight’s drinks.

He moved up to the Village in his 80’s,
And fell in with some wild Bohemians.
Too broke to buy their own Pall Malls or Camels,
They picked through ashtrays till they found a snipe
(And all left tabs behind that were paid off
By Fame, a woman in a long black dress
Who had her own stool by the service bar).

The drinks he bought their girlfriends got them laid,
And when they swore they’d never leave his place,
He smiled and shook his head, because he knew
That he was just a station on the road
And not their destination –- just the friend
You cling to like a life preserver when
One of your parents dies, then in a year
Or so you wake up one day and you feel
Held back instead of up, and know the time
Has come to get on with your life, and leave.
He’d seen it happen far too many times
Not to expect it every time he heard
Some innocent cry: “I’ll be here forever.”
Nothing’s forever. Not the price of drinks,
Not customs of address, not courtesy,
Not loyalty, and certainly not taverns.

He moved up to his last home at a hundred,
And never bothered to correct the rubes
When they sat down at Table 105
And said “This is where Ginsberg took his meals!”
He let Fame drink for free, and looked away
Whenever she told stories of the days
When Pollack and O’Hara ran up tabs.
He knew the sober truth, but no one cares –-
It’s three-drink truth that people want to hear.

He lived to see three dozen presidents,
And outlived almost all his generation,
But at the funeral for young McHale’s
He felt a premonition like a house
Feels termites chewing at its two-by-fours.
So no, it wasn’t really a surprise
When they told him “I’m sorry; here’s your tab.”

And when at last he finally passed away,
His wake was packed with people who kept saying
“Who are these people?” and drank up until
His liquor cabinet was just as empty
As all his mourners felt. Fame was there, too.
She had the last pour from a fifth of Jack
That Joan Baez had bought for Bobby Dylan
One sodden night in summer ’63.

His tombstone is a tall apartment building.
Fame has the co-op on the second floor,
The one that used to be the upstairs bar.
They say that in her living room, a ghost
Sits in mid-air and leans on nothing as
He writes into a nonexistent notebook
With one hand, while the other now and then
Raises a never-empty pint of Guinness
Up to his phantom lips. They also say
That when you stand outside at 4 AM,
The downstairs bar shines like a gold mirage.

As for his epitaph, there was a great
Debate about that just before he died.
“Taken before his time” got the most votes,
“Another one bites the dust” took second place,
“No bottle left behind!” a solid third.
But in the end, it was decided that
The best way to commemorate his passing
Was to re-number University
So that it now says on the street floor door:

-- Matthew Wells
6/6 - 6/12/07


Anonymous said...

Great Blog, Matthew.

I was only at the Cedar twice, but I loved it there, at least from what I remember (HA!)

xxoo, Mon

This is an ongoing project said...

This is a fantastic poem, one that I think NY publications would really like in their magazines.

It also brought tears to my eyes. I think you should put your name on it, even though it is your blog. You could be incorporating someone's else's words and no one would know.

Horvendile said...

Excellent idea about putting my name to it; thanks. And I'm glad you liked it.

Glynnis said...

this deserves a comment. It's amazing Matthew!

Madeline said...