Photo by dennis crowley
The painting of a luxury building marked one of the walls of Mars Bar. It was in grey and black and in dull city lights it looked like a building out of a Batman comic. Above the door a sign read “Thank you for the memories.” It was the Friday before Fourth of July weekend. The bar had been having its “last weekend” for about three months.
I got a beer, walked into a corner and rested against a broken office chair. The Lower East Side looked like a bunch of moving lights from the opaque glass in the windows. The ceiling used to be white at some point but had now turned brownish grey. Words and shapes were drawn all over it. It looked like a used piece of paper that had been flying out in the wind for too long, from one garbage heap to the other. Behind the bartender, the wall was filled with all sorts of stickers and tags: some ironic, some radical and some obscene. The bar was packed. Every stool around the bar table was taken. Those standing made a parallel line near the glass windows, leaving hardly a foot’s space to walk between them and the people sitting. But no one was doing too much walking that night. Everyone just drank and talked to their companions. Every once in a while, someone started talking to the group next to them and formed another group.
A middle-aged woman sat across from me and sipped her drink. Someone came from behind her and spanked her hard on her large buttocks. The slap made her rise up a little from her stool. She looked at the person behind her, recognized him and gave him an affectionate hug. They must have held each other for at least a minute, after which he spanked her again a few times and then went across the bar to meet other people. A few minutes later an older man walked in and caressed the woman’s hair. She kissed him. They sat together and made out for the next hour or so.
A few skateboarders stood against the wall next to me. Their group kept changing as new people came in and some people left. A beautiful black woman with a mohawk sat on a windowsill, her arms wrapped around a girlfriend, as she chatted with the skateboarders.
I sipped my beer and talked to the woman standing on the other side of me. She was a music journalist from San Francisco and told me that it was hard for her believe New York had legalized gay marriage before California. She was at Mars Bar because she wanted to sit somewhere and think things through. She didn’t want to say which things. As we talked more she told me about finding a broken flip phone in the middle of road. Who uses a flip phone these days?, she asked me. And how would a phone be in the middle of the road like that? “Maybe some stupid hipster thought it was ironic to still use a flip phone and dropped it while speeding on his fixie?” I said. “I have a fixie.” she said. A few minutes later she left and I got my second beer.
Seven years ago, my first year in New York, I tried to go to CBGB one Friday night. It was the last sign of the edgy punk days of the Lower East Side, I had heard. When I got to the door they asked me for a twenty-five-buck cover. The neighborhood had gentrified so much, apparently, that even the temple of un-gentrified times was charging heavy money. I didn’t pay it. CBGB closed down and was replaced by a John Varvatos store, where you can pay a lot of money to buy clothes that remind you of artists that didn’t have a lot of money. A very fitting tribute, I feel.
East Village and Lower East Side dive bars weren’t like that. They remained cheap and they remained dirty even as the neighborhood around them cleaned up. Mars Bar had been one of those places. But instead of being dirty, relaxed, and lazy like some others, say Holiday Cocktail Lounge, it was dirty, edgy and alive.
On a New Year’s Eve, six years ago, I sat there and sipped my last whiskey of the night. It was about 3:30 in the morning. The man in the next seat had flopped down on the bar table and was snoring. He woke up, grabbed my shoulder and said, “You think this is cold? Vermont is cold.” I wished him a Happy New Year and he went back to sleep.
During my first four years in the city I went to Mars Bar quite often for their four-buck shots of Jack Daniels. It reminded me of another time: not of New York City — I didn’t live here in that another time — but of bars, when bars were simply places you went to meet people you knew and drink or to hide away from people you knew and drink. No big-screen TVs, no bouncers. There was also the beauty of my own hypocrisy; I loved to be around a rough-edged group of young semi-punks and older crusties, drink cheap drinks, and then take a cab back to my luxury apartment 10 minutes away. As time passed, Mars Bar got into more tourist guidebooks, blogs and best-of lists. Slowly more people like me started showing up. They were happy to be in a seedy dive bar like they would have been in a zoo. I stopped going.
When I heard it was closing, I wanted to go there at least once more. So there I was. There was a constant flow of people coming in. Some stayed- but most came in, took a look, and left. A couple wearing small backpacks walked in. The woman had a New York tourist guidebook in her hand. They discussed, deliberated for a moment and decided to stay. He went to the bar to get drinks and she put their backpacks in a corner.
A few minutes later, a man from the other side of the bar decided to walk on the bar table. People cheered and clapped. He put his hands up and touched the ceiling and walked a couple of times back and forth while pushing up against the ceiling. The crowd shook their beer bottles and sprayed them on him as he strutted past them. He looked around the crowd as if for a signal. The crowd cheered. He unzipped his trousers and shook his penis around. Then he proceeded to do a few pushups on the bar table before zipping himself back up and going back to the corner he had come from. People went back to their conversation. I looked for the couple with the guidebook. They had left.
I left after one more drink. That stretch of Second Avenue was bustling. Beefed-up gay dudes in yuppie clothes stood outside Urge Bar, and a few guys in tight undies and wife-beaters stood outside Cock Bar. A flock of pretty girls in short black dresses shuffled around on the road and tried to flag down cabs that were off duty or taken. I walked towards the Pak Punjab deli for a samosa chaat, got it to go, and jumped in a livery cab.
Mars Bar closed down this week, for good.