Sophie’s is a wannabe divebar on E. 5th St. between Avenues A and B in New York City. You can go there if you want. But if you want to know what Sophie’s’ fame is about, you’ll have a better chance here. I don’t know if I can truly convey what Sophie’s was, but I can try, and you may get a sense of it. Or if you were there, we will have nostalgia, and it will be nice, as long as I don’t dwell on certain things.
Well, I’m kind of an ersatz wiseman, and I am vulnerable to thinking I know what things are about for other people. But that almost always ends up in a cul de sac of bullshit; people go wherever they will for different reasons which might not be apparent. Nonetheless, I think I am not alone in believing that even when Sophie’s was a true divebar, that wasn’t what it was really about. Many, not just the regulars, came for a certain heart Sophie’s had to it that was older than almost anyone there, except for Eddy and Brigid, perhaps. Eddy was the old man who built the found-object sculpture tower in the 6th St. Gardens and was allowed to go shirtless and shoeless in the bar, and Brigid came in for whiskey once or twice a week in the afternoon.
This heart, of course, had a lot to do with cheap beer, but the grimy cement was a plus too. Whether consciously or not, people came to Sophie’s to say fuck you to the system: We don’t need no stinkin’ amenities, and we don’t need a bunch of other shit either, including shit jobs that drain the soul and put no love in the world.
Both Eddy and Brigid were well over 70 and interested in sex. Eddy’s mouth was disgustingly wet and toothless, and several times I had to fend him off with his ever-fresh string of Mardi Gras beads. Brigid enjoyed a belly laugh when she estimated her sexual services at approximately 15 cents per hour, but then reconsidered and thought 10 cents was probably closer to true value. I cannot say I searched my pockets for change right at that moment, but was thrilled, lost to words, perhaps a little bashful, with the amazing character at my countenance. The barman, Howard, who was nearly fluent in self-taught Gaelic and would later die rapidly of cancer, treated her with great tenderness, as if she were the irreplaceable repository of a deep clan history. I think he was right. Brigid made her three or four block pilgrimage to and from Sophie’s by cab.
Back when I was a beginning regular at Sophie’s, Howard used to steal my change, but then we got to know each other better. Years later, when cocaine and drink had weakened my bowel, I left him a present in the women’s room (because the men’s door has no latch), and now I would say our karma together is complete. I had tried to clean up after myself, but after a dozen or more years of continuous escalating hangovers, I guess I was what I might call autonomically drunk; too much to accurately observe my own labor. Those were the end times for me, with both Sophie’s and the greater hellhole known as New York City. Now I’m in another strange place, a town in Vermont called Brattleboro.
I regret the unpleasantness of the preceding paragraph, but as much as I want to give you the most direct possible sense of Sophie’s, I also want to be clear about the personal destruction and degradation I experienced. I promise not to burden you with gratuitous graphic detail.
It’s pointless to wonder how many times I crossed Sophie’s treadworn steel threshold that had Chic Choc, a former name of the place, soldered onto it in a rude script. The glass doors were usually cracked from the reluctant departure of a truculent customer, which happened often enough there wasn’t much reason to get them repaired. So I think of my time at Sophie’s in periods marked by certain events: Caveman’s death, or when the Serbian bartender Vladi finally stopped throwing me out as soon as his shift started at 8pm on Thursdays. That guy really hated me, and I can’t say I didn’t feel the same about him.
I wasn’t famous for much, except taking too long to shoot at pool, and for being even more annoying by doing a little yoga right before my game. My shot process became a strong peeve for a certain constituency, but they were largely tolerant since they knew they were going to have to live with me. Vladi, however, was not in the toleration business. Once when I was really drunk and trying to aim precisely in a tight game, all of a sudden this single enraged shouting voice from behind the crowd at the bar penetrated the alcoholic muffler around my attention, and it turned out to be Vladi, who had decided what was happening could not continue. Shit, it was his job to get me drunk and he had succeeded, what was I supposed to do, not try to win?
I don’t really remember how that panned out. Maybe he made me forfeit the game. I’m sure he put a big damper on my night, and that later I indulged my ongoing fantasy of violent retribution against him. It would be more interesting if I told you the details of the fantasy, but then I might end up like someone who had left their pet in the car while shopping, or shown a little nipple on facebook just before a job interview, and then their predicament went viral. Suffice it to say Vladi was an aggressive bastard who offended many people, starting more fights himself than all the other bartenders broke up. He had a sort of misleadingly boyish face with a huge mole. Mean fucker, whose continued employment was a paradox to me. I kept hoping my Thursdays would suddenly improve. And then imagine the hotel management textbook that would describe Sophie’s as a destination in the hospitality industry. Yet, that’s where I wanted to be.
This incident with Vladi is the sort of thing that makes it hard to be committed to peace, which I must here say I am in case the dicks at NSA are reading this and thinking impure thoughts. In another post I’ll tell the actual substantive reasons I have for this fear and you can judge the sanity of my paranoia for yourself. Anyway, I never got into a fight at Sophie’s, or anywhere else since 1981 (although there were a couple of close calls), and I brokered peace a couple of times between others. Shane, a bartender with a passion for long vacations in Thailand, once rewarded me with an entire half pint of a beer I didn’t like. That was his equivalent of the Nobel. I think he comped me three times in fifteen years.
Anyone who looks at my record will see that I have been arrested twice, once for a DUI that was dismissed after the breathalyzer, and once for a traffic ticket fine I had mailed off a week before but the check payment hadn’t registered yet in the computer system. The traffic ticket arrest was at a quasi-Stasi post-9/11 checkpoint on a Saturday night at St. Mark’s Place and 2nd Ave. The cops said I would be in jail for 6-8 hours but it was three days and all but two of the meals were peanut butter, to which I am allergic. Thank God my Dad is such a noodge about some stuff I learned to get 90 cent postmarked mailing receipts for things like that check. The public defender looked at me with respect and the public prosecutor actually had the decency to seem ashamed when I produced it. I think my brother Pres came to New York from Stamford just to get that receipt out of the car while I was in The Tombs. Sometimes my family deserves a lot of credit.
I don’t think the cops thought the checkpoint was a good use of their time. They appeared to not really want to arrest me by asking such questions as did I have a relative in the military, which didn’t seem to augur for fulfillment of their bust quota. Stupid me, I could’ve said my Dad enlisted for Korea, but my dumbass honesty made me say no since the cop spoke in the present tense. It was such a New York experience, as well as a cheap boost to my counterculture cred, I’m kind of glad it happened, except now that so much unsane police brutality has come to light I have to think how different it might’ve been if I were black. There was another time my race got me out of what could’ve been huge trouble in the subway. Anyone who thinks racism doesn’t exist is living in their head and because exceptionalism.
Just cause this is a blog and I can do what I want, when I got arrested on St. Mark’s I had the most bitchin’ beat ass old sky blue Volvo station wagon. I got it from one of my fellow WASP homies in Park Slope, who wanted $500, but said aw fuck it and gave it to me for the $200 I had offered as a deposit and more to follow. That car would not fuckin die, til it did. I christened it That Doughty Swedish Snowsled, THE VOLVO DAUNTLESS. Well, I was a drunk stuck in a line of work I hated, I needed to imagine things that made me feel a little better. 5 shades of Dudley Dooright and no Nell to save. Oh by the way of nothing, @#$% Manny, that huge psycho ex-special forces guy who got me started using cocaine the second and last time. The dealers cut it with benzene, i.e. jet fuel, which, while it will not topple a large steel skyscraper doused with it, does precipitate leukemia if ingested, which I now have. Thanks dude. I still remember him with affection, which says I don’t quite know what about me, except that maybe I am really committed to peace despite being angry all the time. Whoopee.
I constantly read a lot of political material, and once I ran across an article about a special forces unit called the Tigers, who got up to a lot of really evil shit in Vietnam. I asked Manny if he knew about them, and he responded by giggling crazily and sliding his t-shirt sleeve up to his shoulder to reveal one of a pair of the most stunning beautiful purely clear Tiger tattoos you’ll ever see. Each one covered nearly a foot of Manny’s sequoia-thick upper arm. I guess that answers that question. Manny told me how many confirmed kills he has, I think I’ll not say just in case. I think I’ll also stick with my own karma, whatever it may be, thank you. I hope Manny can stay sane and somehow make amends for what he has done. I’ll just add that he is not old enough to have served in Vietnam.
And then on the night of the breathalyzer-dismissed DUI allegation several years earlier, the State of New Hampshire had to satisfy its impugned dignity by convicting me of possession of 1/10,000 of a gram of THC. No one will believe this, but I never smoked that pipe. I hate waste and someone had given it to me instead of throwing it away. I put it in my fanny pack and forgot about it until the cops found it.
With all the fights and stupid inebriated behavior, I never really understood how a woman could be a successful bartender at Sophie’s, but Jen W., a superb pencil artist and a sweet person, started maybe in 2005 and I think she’s still there today. Well, I just got home from dialysis and if I don’t exercise and stuff soon I’ll get too hungry to not eat. Once I eat after dialysis, I lose all my energy and have to crash.
My friend Caveman ended up on dialysis too, except the VA wouldn’t give him as much as he needed, and maybe that’s what killed him. Joseph Naphthale Gonzalez, Caveman. A man of uncommon girth and more common couth. And a lot of hair. He used to put on holiday dinners in the bar, big catering pans of ziti and a turkey. To me, this was a huge part of what made Sophie’s a community.
In a quirky way that defied the stereotype of the big man, Caveman was a little possessive of his food service. Once when I brought in a dessert I had baked, a very light thing with couscous and apple juice from back in my natural food cookery days, it wasn’t very well liked and Caveman’s expressions of sympathy rang completely hollow. Geez, sorry no one liked it, man. Take it to the park. I was a little sad to not be appreciated, but that’s what beer and vodka are for and fuck Caveman anyway.
Caveman had a black friend named Randy, a genial guy not quite as bright as his own scalp after a fresh shave. On one occasion several of us, including the dear and also departed Laura Fink, were hanging around early with Caveman and Randy, who had just had his shave refreshed. His scalp shone brightly with the reflected fluorescent bulbs that hung over the pool table, and someone table scratched, meaning the cue ball flew off the baize, banging loudly as it bounced then rolled on the cement floor right up to our table. Everyone sucked in their breath as the race was on for a cue ball joke on Randy, and I won easily by addressing the ball directly, “Aww Mrs. Randy, are you all right?!” Jokes with a black and white contrast in a mixed race crowd are always an uncertain prospect (for the uninitiated, cue balls are white), but everyone including Randy had a big laugh and I felt great about it.
Memories like that are what stick with me. Randy had a great heart. Has a great heart, hopefully. I don’t know what has become of him. He got fired as Caveman’s assistant superintendent over on 13th Street. This is a great example of how the culture of exploitation and competition is actually very inefficient. Randy was a gem, and who knows if he’s alive, no one except Caveman ever took too much trouble on his behalf. I’ll never forget the appreciation he expressed for the respect I showed him, when all I ever did was be real with him. That says a lot about how he got treated elsewhere. And then there was Slima (pron. “Slimma”) who deserves a post of his own, except I never knew that much about him. What a unique and generous person surviving on the slimmest of margins (pun embraced). And Hafeez, who first designed my website for little or nothing. Carmine and Vernon must have done half the superintending on the block, and that says almost nothing about them. Freddy the Puerto Rican guy in the year-round lenseless ski goggles, whose speech I could not understand even during daylight hours. MacLean, the openly fascist tuxedoed bike messenger. What a list and I could never complete it. Sophie’s was rich with opportunities to expand my understanding and relationships.
Then another time it was early, Eddie N. and Benno and some other guys and I were sitting around Caveman’s table (who wasn’t there). The mood was kind of somber, it was too early to be drunk and people were just beginning to come into the bar. Conversation was lagging, so I figured I’d make an offering, as I had just been fired. “I got fired today.”
The apathy was very thick, and it must have taken 20 seconds for anyone to say something. Eddie, more out of obligation than interest, stepped into the breach with “What did you get fired for?” Well, this was not the first or even the second termination for me, and as you can tell, I wasn’t that hyped up about it myself. Lawyers who are dicks are hard not to come by, and I worked for lawyers. Plus I was only trying to fill the space a little, I didn’t really feel like talking. So it took me about 10 seconds to say, “For bein’ a dick.” I had my reasons for being a dick, but I didn’t think anyone would really be interested, so I left it at that. Would anybody not know that I had my reasons? After another 10 seconds of silence, Eddie broke, squinting and pinching his nose to keep its contents from exploding onto his lap, and finally we all started laughing a little.
That was another reason we were at Sophie’s: to care just a little, but not too much, and if any effort started to be required, there was always the bathroom, the pool list, or another drink, or a girl. So in a sense, that was a moment of intense camaraderie, and I remember it with pride always. Man, I GOTTA start doin’ stuff NOW.
ASIDE ON RACISM
What’s kind of amazing to me is how many black people I knew before I realized how bad the racism is. What I don’t know is whether it was their pride that kept them from telling me, or if I just exhibited some kind of attitude that made them think it wouldn’t be worth it to try. Or perhaps there was some big metaphysical public blinder that just got lifted by the obscene amount of police brutality on black people that’s been all over the media recently. I like to think of myself as generally more aware, but on the other hand, I have to admit I find myself in violation of my own Don’t Be a Douche rule so often I have to ask the question.