When we were kids, starting at about 15-years old, there was a bar we’d frequent on Fifth Street east of Avenue A, just past the Con Edison substation. It was called the Chic Choc, but we knew it either as Chic’s or Mrs. C’s. Customers addressed the woman behind the bar who owned the place as Mrs. C. Patrons who had known her a long time sometimes called her Virginia. There’s a bar called Sophie’s at the same location today.
Chic’s was nothing special to look at--a narrow storefront bar with a few tables along the wall, and a pool table and jukebox in the back. Virginia was a short, middle-aged, no-nonsense lady. The regulars were mainly older Ukrainian men, Puerto Ricans, a few blacks and Jews, and the occasional stray bohemian. And then there was me, my brother, and a half dozen of our friends, or “the boys” as Mrs. C called us. It was a rough block, and you had to be buzzed into the bar to gain admittance. Drinks were served in floral patterned glasses that had previously contained sour cream.
For some reason, despite being underage, the boys passed muster with the proprietor. We kept our mouths shut, paid for our drinks, played pool, and listened to the men at the bar go on about work, their wives, the Russians, and the Mets and Yankees. The jukebox had polkas and waltzes and pop hits from yesteryear. I spent much of my 16th birthday there with several friends. We were all crappy pool players, and Mrs. C’s warning to us on that day, and many others, was that we not put our drinks on the lip of pool table. A strange memory is of my friend Anthony playing a schmaltzy Sophie Tucker number on the jukebox and singing along with her, “My yiddishe momme I need her more than ever now/my yiddishe momme I'd like to kiss that wrinkled brow.”
A few years before my friends and I discovered it, Mrs. C’s had been Charlie Mingus’ favorite bar. During the late 60s, when he was down-and-out and battling depression, the great jazz composer and bandleader spent much of his time there. During this period, Mingus’ apartment, which was on the block, was broken into several times and his belongings were repeatedly stolen. In an interview, he remembered that during those years he slept with a baseball bat by his side. Chic’s became his refuge. He remembered his companions there as “a house painter, a tailor, the woman who owned the bar, her bartender, and a maintenance man, who says, ‘I’ll walk you home if you get drunk tonight. And if I get drunk, you walk me home.’”
It’s not clear what happened if both men got drunk at the same time, or what Mingus thought about the jukebox.
Mingus emerged from those dark days and would record a number of albums before dying of ALS in 1979 at age 56. He would remember Mrs. C and his drinking comrades as his salvation, saying “I don’t know if I could have come out of the graveyard if it hadn’t been for them.”
In the early 80s, shortly before the bar changed hands, I found myself back in the old neighborhood. I was staying at an apartment on the corner of 6th and A, taking care of the cat of friends who were out of town. Bill Pickett, a friend of mine from college, had just returned from working in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and was staying with me. Pickett had grown up in Somerville, Massachusetts, and had a distinct Boston accent. He had spent the past two years teaching Africans how to grow their crops in a more productive way. What a kid from Somerville would know about cultivating rice seemed questionable, but Bill assured me that prior to his departure for Africa he had received two weeks of training from the U.S. government. In college, Pickett had been the captain of the baseball team and was always up for a good time. It seemed he’d made lots of friends in Sierra Leone, and famine was averted during his years there. But on his return, Pickett appeared to be transformed. He’d lost forty pounds and was sporting an overgrown and disheveled beard. The young man had left the United States looking like the All-American kid and returned looking like a cross between Jesus Christ and a resident of the Salvation Army shelter on the Bowery. On seeing him, an acquaintance of ours began referring to him as Pickett in the Thicket.
Over the course of the next few days, Mr. Pickett and I found ourselves spending a considerable amount of time at Mrs. C’s. You no longer had to be buzzed in to gain entrance. Virginia was looking considerably older than she had eight years earlier, but otherwise the place was unchanged. One evening we were joined by Paul, a Peace Corps friend of Bill, who was passing through New York on his way back from Africa. He also looked disheveled and dissipated.
At some point that night, a twitchy guy in a polyester blend three-piece suit sidled up to where we were sitting. He was a sweaty, herky-jerky, bouncy type. After we declined his offer to sell us cocaine, he asked if anyone wanted to play a game of pool. Paul, who didn’t talk much at all, said yes, and they collected quarters and headed off to the table. It turned out Bill’s friend, on that night, was a very good pool player. The aspiring drug dealer didn’t take losing well. For some reason, he kept referring to his opponent as Apostle Paul or Paul the Apostle, as in “Apostle Paul, you can talk a good game, but let’s see how you play.”
Bill and I headed over to the bar. Seated on a stool, there was a gaunt elderly man in an ill-fitting suit. He looked like an Eastern European William Burroughs. It is quite likely he had been at the bar since morning time. Bill, who was wearing a Celtics t-shirt, asked him, “What’s with the suit?” The man looked suspiciously at Bill and asked him in heavily accented English about the Celtics. After a minute it became clear that he was talking about a soccer team from Glasgow. The two of them carried on a conversation. Bill would say something about Bird and McHale, and the old man thought he was talking about Scottish midfielders.
As this went on, I ordered a round. Mrs. C looked at me and sighed. As the Eastern European Burroughs was talking to Pickett in the Thicket about goal scoring and she was getting our drinks, I wondered about the old lady. How often did she have to throw someone out of her bar? How many times had she been robbed? How many lonely people had found comfort as she listened to their stories? Did she have children?
Mrs. C brought over the round of drinks I’d ordered and looked over at the pool table, casting a disapproving eye at the aspiring drug dealer and Paul the Apostle.
“Do you know those two,” she asked.
“No. Not really. Not at all,” I told her.
“Do me a favor anyway,” she said. “Tell them to keep their drinks away from the pool table. I don’t want anyone spilling beer on my pool table.”
Jacob Margolies is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York.