The Death Of Fun

07.17.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | Urban Affairs | 2 Comments

Crossing 1st Street on my way home from an interview with Whiskey Ward owner Sandee Wright, I ran across about four very drunk patrons of Mars Bar, an utterly degenerate Lower East Side dive, shouting at a woman passerby, “Show us your ass!” Always septic, it’s refreshing (and disgusting) to see that the smoking ban hasn’t altered its clients’ caliber one wit. I once saw a gentleman, particularly Neanderthal in appearance—so much so I thought they were holding auditions for a “The Quest for Fire” remake—standing atop the bar sporting a dress made of the finest faux leather and looking for… a mate. Adding to the ambiance is an ancient and equally defunct condom machine on which is written in felt marker an arrow pointing to the coin slot with instructions which read: “For refund, insert fetus.”  While its never aspired to family values, at least Mars Bar patrons have kept their bad behavior within its blighted confines. Up until now, that is.

Simply closing seedy joints down will not solve the problem; in fact the Giuliani administration leaned heavily on Mars Bar for nearly a decade to no avail. But Bloomberg’s pet project (never once mentioned, by the way, when he was running for office) has exacerbated the number of quality of life crimes that his predecessor sought to weed out. At the outset there were casualties, most famously bouncer Dana Blake, who was stabbed to death by an irate customer while enforcing the ban at Guernica, a bar on the Lower East Side. Granting that public policy can’t be held hostage to violence, the smoking ban places bartenders in violent situations. One West Village bartender I spoke to mentioned having to square off against a biker who didn’t take kindly to Mayor Mike’s efforts to save him from cancer. The malcontent only extinguished his cigarette when the barkeep threatened to jab him in the eye with the stem of a broken wine glass. Not a fun way to spend a Saturday night, and hardly conducive to safe working condition for employees.

Projectiles are also coming into play: paint, light bulbs and eggs. One of the latter even nailed a member of the mayor’s staff in the smoking garden of Houston Street’s Madame X. Such incidents, while not as newsworthy as Blake’s death, are proof of how irate its neighbors are, and for good reason. The garden, a 20 x 10 foot space enclosed on three sides by apartment buildings, is packed nightly with patrons smoking until 4am each and every night. This wasn’t always the case. Once beloved by its neighbors, the smoking garden would close in the evening, but to make up for dangerously sagging profits (the week after 9/11 saw more profits than this past one) the bar is forced to keep it open until the wee hours.

This is according to Amy McCloskey, jittery part owner of Madame X. As she sat down to the interview she spied potential customers debating whether or not to come in. “Come in people” she muttered with a twinge of desperation in her voice “Come in, make a commitment.” The crowd, seeing the empty bar, kept walking. Dripping in soft crimson lights and velvet throughout its two floors, its upscale Edwardian whorehouse décor (an atmospheric holdover from the earlier tenants, an actual brothel that fronted as a nail salon) should have no problem getting attention. But since the ban took effect, she says she has lost 50% of her customers.  

The bar was the brain child of Mimi Dimur, a long time friend of Amy’s, who passed away in 2001 just shy of 50 and who Amy describes as “Stubborn and opinionated as fuck-all,” traits which could easily be applied to Amy. Amy described her former job as an events organizer for Playboy as a “logistical detail oriented nightmare” and the perfect training for her current occupation, one she didn’t even know she wanted at first. Serendipity continued to contribute to the bar’s creation more prosaically, with the discovery of a preexisting heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, saving her thousands. “It was as though a tidal wave was behind us,” she recalls of the fat years behind her, when the bar boasted a thriving bridge and tunnel trade and received 15 to 20 calls nightly asking for driving directions there, some from as far away as Connecticut.

But “people bring people,” as the saying goes, and when New Jersey customers would just rather stay local and smoke without harassment the momentum, the appearance of filled barstools, is lost and nearly impossible to retrieve. This forced her to consider some unsavory choices, for instance an offer of $10,000 to put a strip club upstairs. If worse comes to worse, says McCloskey, “Madame X is going to have to be a whore to survive.” Sacrifices such as this may be necessary. She’s already spent $8,000 out of pocket to cover bills and confessed that the rent has yet been paid.

Yes, smoking is very, very bad for you. But do we really want a city where small business owners like Amy McCloskey and Sandee Wright are squeezed out of business and their employees who depend on tips to make a living, are compelled to berate their smoking customers? Where the institutions that knit communities together and the city to the surrounding regions are bled and replaced by chain restaurants and the perennial demon Starbucks while inebriated weekend crowds are chased out of the bars and into streets where they harass passerby?

In the next part of this series we’ll talk to the other side and give them a chance to answer these and other questions.

At the start of the article, the Mars Bar types are salty characters, all fetus jokes and old school rough neckery. By the end of the article, when they're no longer establishing character but supporting the author's half-bakd contention, these same drunkards have evolved into members of "the institutions that knit communities together." Most convenient for the author, whose argument seems as sloppy as his grammar.
07.17.2004 | Harold Walker
At no point do I say that these obnoxious drunks are the glue that holds communities together. But I do think small businesses are.

A law that squeezes those same small businesses and at the same time shoves bar patrons into the street isn't good for any community
07.17.2004 | Rich O'Keeffe

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