Thursday, October 27, 2016

Wild Night This Morning: The Last Days Of The Naughty Pine - Prologue

“So how’s the old gang?” asked Ned Shay last night. He and Nancy had come up from Trowe Hill to file an absentee ballot; given where they live, they use my address for all their mundane civic requirements. “The old gang is older,” I said, “unlike you two.” They had the decency to blush. 

I started ticking off all the Naughty Pinecones I was still in touch with. “Let’s see. Ally and Matt have a little Lambertini, Mauri is married, Dominic's in LA, Maddie’s daughter just started first grade, and Jynah is an office manager for Be My Guest.” “Remind me not to eat at any of their restaurants,” said Ned. “Who else? Ketel Mike is still yelling at his mother, Lara’s teaching yoga, Joey’s at Barcade, Bernie’s married in Florida, Doug got married again—” (“Doug was married?” Nancy cried) “—Kenny just quit Toad Hall, Dave’s at the Knickerbocker, Steve’s at the Knickerbocker, Elijah’s got a band, Marita’s still not married as far as I know, but Sarah is—” (Sarah’s married?” said Ned) “—plus she’s been sober for the last five years—” (“Shut up,” said Nancy) “—Aaron has a son—” (“Shut. UP!” screamed Nancy) “—and Glynnis is an InPurse.” “InPurse?” they asked in unison. “Internet personality.”

Nancy put a hand on my shoulder. “What about Sunday?” “Lives in Austin. Dating a musician.” “And Emma Lee?” asked Ned. Emma Lee; now there’s a name I haven’t heard in years. “I haven’t kept in touch with her,” I said. “And you swore you would,” said Nancy. I nodded. “I swore I would. But I knew I wouldn’t. It was the smart move, at the time. Now, I’m not so sure.” Nancy made a “Pffft!” noise. “Who is it who said smart moves always look dumb ten years later?” she asked. “You just did,” I said.  “And Randi?” asked Ned. Nancy gave him an elbow. “Wha-at?” he said. I laughed and shook my head. “Randi is Randi,” I drawled, and when Ned said, “Randier than the horniest drunk on both floors,” it was like no time at all had passed since the bar closed.

And then, “Ten years,” said Nancy—and all the years before that rushed back like a runaway train, with moments whizzing by like empty stations along the way—nights with DJ, nights with Georgia—long talks with all the randoms, tall tales with Ned and Fingersbirthday parties back when friends who are now married to other people were all happy couples—the night Dominic fell through the skylight, the Professor talking about when he drank Auden and Isherwood under the table, the night Salma Hayek was such a bitch that every server spat in her drinks before they made it to her table. So many nights; so much history. For the next two hours we killed three bottles of wine trading Naughty Pine stories, and the laughter made me feel as young as Ned and Nancy looked. “Jesus, the days that we have seen,” Ned said, raising his glass. I clinked it with mine. “We have checked the tires with Angelina,” I replied, which is the Naughty Pine version of Falstaff’s chimes at midnight.  

“And that last month,” Nancy said, “that last month was Looney Tunes. The moment the closing was official, it was like reverse Halloween—like everybody who worked there and drank there had been dressing up as someone else for all those years, but now—with the place closing?—now they could be themselves.” “Too bad nobody documented it,” Ned said casually. Nancy shot him a look. “You mean somebody documented it?” she asked. “No, I said I wish somebody had.” “So somebody did?” “I didn’t say that.” “Yes you did,” Nancy insisted. “No I didn’t,” Ned said defensively, “I just made a comment.” “And I know those comments,” Nancy shot back. “So who documented it?” I raised my hand. “Me,” I said.

Ned smiled. Nancy looked at me like I had just betrayed one of her secrets. (One of the big ones; she has a ton of them, and I know them all.) “You wrote everything down?” she asked, in a tone of voice that said she was praying I would say something like “Hell no!” or “Not a single word.”  I nodded. “Everything?” she asked, with a tinge of fear in her voice. I nodded again. “And what are you going to do with it?” “Funny you should ask,” I said. “I’m planning to post it online. Entry by entry, day by day.” “Good for you,” Ned said. “I hope it goes virile.” “It’s viral,” said Nancy, and the two of us cracked up while Ned gave us his best “What did I say?” look, which he’s been practicing since the Fillmore Administration. [Note to self: make a comic graphic for a book entitled: “Fillmore: The Man, The Music Venue.”]  “And you’re really going to tell it exactly the way it happened?” Nancy asked. I nodded and said, “I am. It’s history. It needs to be preserved. That bar took a two centuries of history with it when it closed. Not just my history, or yours—the city’s history. Two hundred plus years of Manhattan. Replaced by a tanning parlor.” “This is why we don’t come out that often,” said Nancy, “it’s not the same any more.” “But that’s the point about sameness,” Ned said, “it never stays still, it always changes—sometimes fast, sometimes slow—but always different, even though it may not look that way. Sameness is an illusion. Change is reality. Everything changes. Even the past. I should know.” No argument there, I thought.  “And me,” I said, “I want to change the future. I want people to remember the Naughty Pine—people who’ve never been there, people who never knew about it. I want to make somebody who never walked through that door ache for it like a phantom limb.” “Phantom bar syndrome,” said Nancy, and we all laughed, because we all suffer from it. “A reverse exorcism,” I said, “one where you GET possessed.” “An in-sorcism?” Ned suggested, and Nancy elbowed him again. “So do you have a copy of this epic?” she asked.  “Sure do,” I said, “wanna read it?”

Nancy looked at me as if I had just spit on the floor. (She hates guys who spit; it’s why she has two ex-husbands.) “No, we don’t want to READ it—we want YOU to read it.” “Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll read you the introduction.”


Back in the 1920’s, there was a Greenwich Village version of the Algonquin Round Table called the Mohican Round Table. It held regular meetings at a local bar, and it had only one membership requirement: writers and artists who wouldn’t be caught dead above 14th Street. One of the founding members, Hamilton “Millie” Burr, who told everyone that she was a direct descendant of both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, was the Mohican’s answer to Dorothy Parker. After an exceptionally sodden night in her cups, Millie Burr woke up to find this verse in her notebook, with no memory of ever having written it:

Wine reveals God’s hidden plan.
Beer brings out the hockey fan.
Whiskey says you’re always right.
Tequila makes you pick a fight.
Vodka makes you dance and yell.
Gin will get you sick as hell.
Absinthe goes straight to your crotch.
They’re all evil. Stick with Scotch.

This is the story of the bar where Millie Burr wrote that poem—a tavern that began its life on Pine Street as The Knotty Pine, spent the majority of its years on Bleecker Street, became The Naughty Pine during Prohibition, and ended its days on University Place in 2006.

It is not the story of one man’s battle with demon alcohol, or one woman’s voyage from shitfaced to shinola-souled, or the cautionary talk of how Jack and Jill went up the marriage hill drunk and tumbled down sober, divorced, and better off. It is the story of people who like to drink and one of the places that served them—strangers and regulars who agree with the poet Vera Främling that

 . . . the three most beautiful words in the English language are: “What’ll it be?” Admit it—the moment you read those words, you knew exactly where you were—a bar, maybe your favorite bar; or a party, maybe with a friend playing bartender. Either way, it’s a place where someone is not just offering you a drink, but a choice. A haven where someone is pointing to a row of doors. One of them says The Usual; the rest of them are blank. You can walk through any one of them; you can even walk through them all, one at a time. And behind every one of those doors is a mirror, which will show you a side of yourself that will only be revealed when you answer that question honestly. What’ll it be? Love it or hate it, it will always be you. Love it or hate it, alcohol is a lie in liquid form. Sometimes it’s a great lie, sometimes it’s a sad lie; but a lie forever and always. And like Cyrano says: “Call it a lie, if you like; but a lie is a kind of a myth,  and a myth is a piece of the truth.” Which is why alcohol is also the truth in liquid form. Drink reveals the soul, as a mirror reveals the features. It is a window, and sometimes the person who jumps through is someone we don’t recognize, or don’t want to recognize. And who is not secretly afraid of seeing that?

Främling, a member of the New York School and an upstairs Naughty Pine regular, is regularly trotted out as both an advocate for and an activist against drinking, because she always made sure that, in her prose and poetry, she gave equal weight to both sides of the argument. But the scales get tipped when you remember that her most famous quote (“I’m someone who prefers to sleep with hard questions rather than marry an easy answer.”) was delivered two days before she died of liver failure at the age of 39.

One of her other quotes (“If it happens to me, it’s fair game.”) has been my mantra over the years whenever I write about myself. I’ve said it so often that, during my (good Lord) two decades of writing at the upstairs bar of the Naughty Pine, every waitress without exception has turned to me at one point or another and said, in exactly the same tone of voice: “You better not be writing about ME in that notebook.”  And I would always say, “Don’t worry. I don’t do that.” And I never did. Until that last month, when I took down everything.

So here it is. The last days of The Naughty Pine. The final twenty-nine windows—broken, frosted, boarded up, open—in a house that saw two centuries of traffic before its family was kicked out onto the street. Twenty-nine bottles up on the shelf, and me behind the bar for once.

What’ll it be?

A story about New York, and the non-blood family that our lives and passions marry us into. The story of a bar that no longer exists, and some of the people who called it home when they worked and drank there. A story whose introduction ends with the second most beautiful three-word phrase in the English language.

It’s on me.

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

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