Saturday, October 29, 2016

Wild Night This Morning: The Last Days of The Naughty Pine - 2

The old Von Steuben Hotel bar

               The Naughty Pine: A Brief History

The Knotty Pine was established at 69 Pine Street in 1784 by Amos Vanderlynn, on the site of his father’s bar, which was called The Dutch Courage. The Vanderlynn family retained ownership of the bar and the building until 1898, when Charity Vanderlynn’s husband Michael John Whitehead bought up the building and both adjacent lots, with the intention of constructing an office building on the site. The demolition of 69 Pine Street was only prevented when Charity’s cousin, Civil War veteran Adrian Vander, hired a team of Irish laborers and on Christmas Day, 1899, dismantled the building completely, loaded it up onto twelve carts, and delivered it to the back yard of 309 Bleecker Street, on the site of Tom Paine’s old living quarters, where it was reconstructed exactly as it had been at Pine Street, booth by booth and table by table, and reopened on January 5, 1900. For the next eight years, the only way to get to the bar was by way of a small three-foot-wide passage between 309 Bleecker and 311 Bleecker. When 311 Bleecker was demolished and rebuilt over this passageway in 1908, Jonathan Vander had a special buzzer marked “Apt 3A” installed in the 309 lobby, a buzzer which automatically opened the building door. From there, patrons could walk through the lobby to the back door of the building, which opened up directly into the Knotty Pine’s bar. This was especially convenient during Prohibition, when Bat Masterson first called the place by the name it’s known today, The Naughty Pine.

The bar moved to its current location during the evening of November 5th, 1933, when between midnight and dawn the entire building was lifted onto a load truck, customers, staff and all, and deposited across the street from the Von Steuben Hotel, which was scheduled for demolition at the end of the year. Samuel Vander’s last act as owner, before he turned the bar over to his son Solomon, was to purchase the hand-carved Von Steuben bar for $5,000 and install it against the north wall of the Naughty Pine. Since then, the outer structure of the original Pine Street building has undergone three separate renovations, the latest of which was in 1954, when the famous upstairs bar, with its landmark skylight designed by Mies van der Rohe, was added to the structure. This renovation was totally financed by Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac, who put up the money on one condition—that they would never once be banned from the Naughty Pine the way they had been continually banned from the Cedar Tavern. Solomon Vander, the owner at the time, agreed in principle, as long as Kerouac, Pollack and their crew didn’t do any of the things that the Cedar banished them for, such as kicking down the men’s room door (Pollack) and peeing in an ashtray (Kerouac).

And since the truth is always less streamlined than the story, like an ugly oily engine beneath a sleek shiny chassis, it should be pointed out that when I say the skylight was “designed” by Mies van der Rohe, I mean “scribbled on a napkin while he was three sheets, two pillows and a comforter to the wind.” “This fucking box needs a skylight!” van der Rohe cried one night while he and Kerouac and Neal Cassady were arguing about Melville with a visiting Charles Olson in the upstairs Pine. The architect pulled out a pencil, slashed at his napkin like he was Jack The Ripper and it was Mary Jane Kelly, and handed it to Kerouac with the words “Forge it!” It took a woodworker and a glassmaker six months to transfer van der Rohe’s jagged drawing into a filigreed half-globe with a distinct bulge in the middle, like wooden struts preventing a glass balloon from rising up from the roof. “It’s the Earth!” van der Rohe is said to have explained. “It bulges in the middle, so the skylight has to bulge in the middle.” It also appears to have a different shape depending on where you look up at it. One night in 1963, comic book artist Steve Ditko got falling down drunk at the upstairs Pine—literally; he fell flat on the floor—and when he looked up at the skylight and its curving wooden ribs and its oddly-shaped glass panels, he perceived a design which he later used as the window of Stephen Strange’s Bleecker Street sanctum sanctorum.

Pretend you're looking up at it from the floor.

                       P.S. My cat is dead.

Sunday, 10/29/06. And sure enough, I’m wide awake at 7:30 and out the door before 9. I do a little coffee shop writing, and then see Clint Eastwood’s Spielberg war movie, Flags of Our Fathers (eh: Spielberg has a lot to answer for—every WWII movie these days looks like Saving Private Ryan). I take a nap and head into town around 5. I don’t usually go into the Pine on Sundays; I did it off and on when Bernie and Mike Wells were behind the bar, but since I have to be in work at 6:30 every morning, and Monday is without question the busiest morning of the week, I tend to keep myself sober and go to bed early, just to get the week off right. Not this week. I come in around 6ish. The Jets are playing the Browns. Dominic is behind the bar, and serves me like I'm a health inspector until he's sneaked his third shot of Jamie, after which he serves me like his long-lost brother. The Professor is explaining the Lincoln County War to a pretty strawberry blonde who looks a little like Allison the artist. (But then all strawberry blondes look a little like Allison the artist.) And Richie is closing out his day receipts, because he’s not the night manager any more—Sarah is—and the difference in atmosphere is like the difference between sticking your hand in an electric socket and sticking your hand in a bag of Dove Dark Chocolates. And I like Richie; I’ve always gotten along with him. (But then again, as my friend Ava says, “Wells, you could get along with a school of piranha.”) But I’ve also been a manager in my day, and because I tried to be everybody’s friend, I got no respect. Richie swings in the opposite direction. I can’t say whether or not he wants anyone who works here to like him, or even if he cares. What I can say is that his manager persona cares about the job first, and everything else takes second place, in much the same way that my manager persona treated co-workers as people first and subordinates second. To my mind, that makes Richie the better manager.

And Sarah? Her management persona is a cross between Randi’s and Richie’s. Randi, like all stunning-looking people, uses her looks to get over; it’s an automatic reflex with her, as it is with all natural beauties male and female. If Life is an exclusive after-hours club, the breathtaking only have to show up to get waved in by the bouncer, and led to an exclusive banquette with free bottle service, where they will vehemently deny that they received anything approaching a special privilege. Which makes them all fatales, whether they’re femme or homme. Sarah could get past the same bouncer, but she’d do it with her warmth and her eyes, which are an arresting ice-blue, like frozen glacier water. It’s that combination of thaw and chill which creates her style—she projects both conviviality and poise; she can make you think she’s fooling and say “Death to fools!” at the same time. Which makes her the kind of manager with whom the staff can kid around without taking advantage of her, and obey without feeling like they’re being given marching orders by a martinet.

She’s also this kind of manager: because Alexandra is incredibly hung over from last night’s weird Cola/Wine drink, Sarah is helping her wait tables, and is not very happy about it.

(Flashback to last night, Sarah behind the bar:)
SARAH: She’s so nice. Don’t you just hate her?
(Slam cut to tonight, Sarah bussing food to the three packed tables who have Alexandra as their waitress:)
SARAH: She’s so hung over.
ME: Don’t you just hate her?

Richie meanwhile is obviously depressed, and says so.

RICHIE: I’m really depressed right now.
ME: No wonder.
RICHIE: No, not this place. Not that. I’m fine with that. I’ve seen this coming for a long time. I had to put one of my cats to sleep this weekend.

He gives me the story. It’s not a happy one. The cat was old, she had been suffering lately, and like he always did when she got this way, Richie took her to the vet for a check-up, this time because she had been listless and hadn’t eaten anything in the last two days. “I walked in there telling her and telling myself that everything would be all right,” Richie says, “and then the vet took one look at her and shook his head and said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’” Richie’s face as he says those words winces with an I’ve Just Been Kicked In The Teeth look that is so naked, I’m embarrassed to see it. I can only imagine that it was ten times more devastating in the doctor’s office, where something ongoing and everyday turned into something final and irrevocable, and a man who fully expected to bring his sick cat home suddenly found himself saying goodbye to her.

RICHIE: It’s like a sudden death. But worse. If she’d been failing, instead of just ill, I would have had an inkling, you know? And now I wonder, did I miss something? Was it something I didn’t do? I’m feeling guilty about that, and I’m feeling guilty that I didn’t have enough time to spend with her at the end, to make her comfortable. Now there’s this big empty space in my life, you know?

“I’m so sorry,” I say. But what I really want to say is, “I know,” because it’s not just his cat that’s going to leave this big empty space.

              Billy The Kid meets Margaret Sanger:
               An American International Release

By the time I’m on my final Guinness of the night, Sarah has replaced Dominic, who is off to meet Randi for dinner; Alexandra has been joined by Jynah—“joined” being the polite synonym for “passive-aggressively put in her place,” which is what happens when Jynah is in a good mood; and the Professor and his pretty companion have adjourned to Table 107, where the Prof is following up his epic explanation of the Lincoln County War by talking about Billy The Kid. Why? Because in 1873, 14-year-old Henry McCarty (also known as Henry Antrim, William Antrim, Kid Antrim, Billy The Kid, and William H. Bonney) got into an argument at Table 107 with an old barfly named Septimus Kane, during which he stuck a knife in Kane’s neck, killing him instantly.  This murder has long been cited as the reason why he and his mother packed up and moved all the way to Silver City, New Mexico, rather than, say, Bushwick, three days after the killing. The strawberry blonde’s eyes are wide as she runs a hand over the graffiti-etched wood of the table. I can tell what she’s thinking. She’s thinking: Is that a W, an H and a B that she can feel with her fingertips? And I’m thinking: It fucking better be; Keith Moon and Oliver Reed spent two hours digging them into the wood one night in March of 1976.

I catch the Professor’s eye. He gives me a tight little grin; he knows that Keith Moon story too, and whenever he tells it, he usually says he was sitting one table over watching them do it. Which is entirely possible; he’s about five years older than I am, so he would have been almost 30 in ’76. But the Prof has a tendency to always put himself into whatever story he’s telling, which results in hilarious anachronisms whenever he talks about things like the Great Frank O’Hara Imitation Contest of 1960, or the Wall Street Bombing of 1920. 

I’m tempted to walk over there with my Guinness and try to charm the Prof’s date away from him with another piece of Table 107 history. I run through the details in my mind, because I’m at that point where the stout is weighing heavily against the doors of my memory. On October 26, 1916 (1917?) (No, 1916.) (I think.), Margaret Sanger was eating beef stew and drinking a cup of tea at Booth 107 when she was arrested for obscenity by the New York police. Ten days before, she had opened a birth control clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, which was raided by the police on October 25th. Sanger served 30 days in jail, and the first thing she did when she was released was return to the Knotty Pine to finish her interrupted meal. For the rest of her life (she died in 1966) her dinner checks were picked up by the management. There's an apocryphal story that, the year before her death, Sanger was taken to lunch at 107 by the 22-year-old Billie Jean King, but King has always denied it. The kicker is that, right above the Professor’s head is a picture of Sanger in her youth, which was put in the booth after Sanger died. Most everybody thinks it’s a portrait of the current owner’s grandmother. Including, alas, a lot of women under 30.

I review the Sanger story in my head—this is going to be SO COOL!—jotting down the dates in my notebook, because if I write it down, then I remember it. I turn the bar chair towards the professor’s table, ease off it, and as my feet hit the floor, a little voice inside me says “Do NOT!” like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. Because, really, going over there to fuck with the Professor and his current cutie is a dick move. So I ease myself back into the chair, stare at the sign over the bar that reads WE ARE POISONSTICK WITH SCOTCH, order a Talisker, and start making notes for a play about Margaret Sanger in my notebook. Thinking to myself, SINBAD. See? I’m not being a dick. 

Alcohol: Guinness (4) Talisker (1)

Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells

Day 3

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