Back-story on the Guy Who Started the Bjork Brawl

by

01/02/2002

5 Spring St New York, NY 10012-4222

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

One night the owner of Sweet and Vicious, Hakan, hurled a block of ice the size of a softball and hit me in the temple. I was in the middle of pouring another drunk girl a Cosmopolitan. It was a Saturday night, and the bar was absolutely packed. Her mouth flew open, revealing a piece of well-chewed gum. I froze, torn between the impulses to murder and a quick exit. Hakan had good aim — he had been standing at the other end of the bar from me, a distance of two parked delivery vans. I stormed the length of it, slamming the Martini shaker in the sink as I went. I slapped Hakan in the face. I didn’t slap him very hard, because I knew he’d hit me back if I did. I was furious, so I don’t remember what he said in response. Probably he made a joke about how much he wanted to fuck me, because by this point in the game it was pretty much all he ever said to me anymore.

I should have slapped him harder, walked out, and dreamed of suing. Instead, I went back to making drinks. The other bartenders fixed me colorful shots, and then we poured Patron. I stayed.

The truth is, I liked Hakan. I had considered him a friend for years. Maybe I had even always been a little bit in love with him. When I had worked for him and his girlfriend several years before, I had been a little bit in love with them both. He went kind of crazy after she left, and I felt sorry for him. She was the love of his life, and I like to think I can identify with what such a loss necessitates. Passion sits well in some people.

Hakan is capable of kindness, beauty, and occasionally, remorse. He is intelligent. He reads. He owns a very successful business at a relatively young age; he travels alone across the world but returns unhappy. He hates Australia, despises Malaysia. He gave me a few breaks, did me favors. He’s met my entire family. He bought me an expensive Italian shirt for Christmas — white with large orange flowers in the front, the back and sleeves entirely see-through, with minute Middle Eastern brocade at the elbows — designed, of course, so its wearer could wear nothing beneath it. The shirt’s delicacy surprised me, as did the fact that it was a perfect fit. But then Hakan does know a few things about women.

When I quit the first time around, it was because I had hurt my leg running, and had to go on crutches. It was an easy excuse. I remember sitting down on one of the benches in the bar to tell him; he joked that he would hire me to have sex with him once a week, and more, if I needed the money. I thought that was pretty funny, even though I suspected he was partly serious.

I’d like to know what would have happened if I had called Hakan on his own game. If the guy whistling and shouting “Hey baby” from his car really expects an answer. What would he do if one day a woman did something more than say “Fuck you?” If she got in his car, would he keep the comments coming? Would he be able to get it up?

That night, after the crowd thinned out and I was finally inebriated, Hakan walked toward me, sheepish, as if to apologize. I had been ignoring him since he almost killed me, but I looked at him as he sidled up to see what he would say. He opened his mouth, moaned my name, and let a white liquid tremble in long viscous streams from his lips. He was far too drunk, and mannish, to be drinking Bailey’s, the only thing about the episode that surprised me. I walked away. I probably yelled at him. I probably drank more. And then I forgave him.

Like all good marriages, a job will lose its luster. I began to loathe mine for several reasons. Bush really did become President. My longtime boyfriend left me. I went home with a customer. The smell of the place became appealing — cigarettes and alcohol and I were getting too chummy. I moved into a new apartment. The manager tried to kiss me. My grandfather died. My unemployment checks were about to run out. Hakan became a terror. My friends threatened to kill him if I didn’t quit. I decided to quit.

It was early April, a Tuesday. I called everyone I knew and told them to stop by — I wanted to give away as many drinks as I could before I left. My brother, who is younger than I, was the first to arrive. It was six o’clock. I had a beer with him. He left. I kept drinking. All my favorite regulars tried to talk me out of leaving. One of them persuaded me to talk to Hakan and tell him how I felt, give him the good old American chance. I was having a lot of fun. I didn’t do it; after ten hours of drinking, I had become a coward.

That Saturday, I went in to my 10-4 shift wearing tight jeans and a very scant shirt, sports-car red, with little straps, that I had bought in Ecuador for fifteen dollars. It’s the sort of shirt I would normally never wear, but I was feeling masochistic. Hakan wove in around midnight with some of his friends. We all slumped over when we saw him; one girl rolled her eyes; “Great,” I said. He was raging — so drunk that he could not hold his eyes steady on my face when I said Hello. He looked as if he’d popped ten Ecstasy, though he swore it was only whiskey. He started throwing ice again, but this time out into the crowd. Then he threw CDs — one of them hit a girl in the face. She started crying. He took his shirt off. He kept changing the music, leaving loud spaces of silence while he stumbled around, searching for something else. People were yelling at his choices. Often he would stop a song in its middle. He kept dropping the CDs onto the floor, and they got muddy with dirt and beer; then he would put them on again and they would skip. He got into a fight with a customer, who threatened to call the police. He got into a fight with the manager. I stepped out from behind the bar, and everyone else did too — the two men were shouting, pacing around each other in that small space like animals, spewing Turkish insults. I tried to convince his friends to take him somewhere, smoke some dope, maybe, to calm him down. One of them slapped my ass. They thought Hakan’s antics were amusing. They told me they liked my shirt.

Hakan liked my shirt, too. Later, he came up to me and pulled the fabric down between my breasts with his index finger; it had been low enough already, so my breasts spilled into view. No one threw dollar bills. He left to smoke some dope. He came back. I was making drinks, so I didn’t notice when he sneaked up behind me and did it again. “I want to fuck those titties so hard,” he said.

My brother and two of his friends came to visit me at the bar about 2:00 a.m. the following Saturday night. Hakan came in about three o’clock. He was sober. The bar was fairly empty by then. At four, we were the only people left. One regular straggled in. The bouncer locked the door. We rolled a joint. I coerced Hakan into making shots. He asked me to go to the other end of the bar and get the Jagermeister. As I walked away, I heard him telling my brother what a “sweet ass” I had, and how much he wanted to fuck it. I came back and set the bottle of liquor down on the bar with a loud crack. Hakan didn’t seem to notice. My brother looked traumatized. Hakan kept it up. “I wanna fuck those titties so hard,” he said.

On Tuesday, Hakan came in at 4:00 in the afternoon to get his mail. He sat down at the bar and read to me from a magazine. I sat cross-legged next to the cash register and smoked a cigarette. When silence came, I said, “Hakan, this is my last night. I’m sorry. I’ve got another job.” This was only a partial lie — I could step up the freelance work I’d already been doing if I wanted to. He was nice about it. He said he’d miss me. “What, I don’t get two weeks’ notice?” he joked.

When I told the manager, his eyes dropped to his shoes. “Are you telling me the truth?” he said. “Is it because of the job or because of that crazy bastard?” I smiled at him. “Both,” I lied, even though I knew my bare admittance would make him angry. He liked me, and, because Hakan bullied him too, he’d long wanted to quit himself.

Hakan came in again later with his best friend. They sat at the end of the bar and drank beer for a while. I drank with them. It was all going well until Hakan starting pelting my chest with folded bits of postcard launched with a rubberband. “I want to fuck those titties so hard,” he said. I showed the manager the little red welts they made; he fixed me a drink.

Alcohol is the balm of all injury, and love never dies. Sure. I do believe everything happens for a reason. Or maybe I’m just one of those people others like to say is never satisfied. I’ve been told since I quit that I should not be bothered by my experience; this happens in every bar, according to New Yorkers who try not to be moved by much. I’m sure they’re right — the good side of human nature has a hard time holding up under so many of night’s handmaids.

It is interesting to me, however, that it took my brother’s jaw-dropping revulsion to revile Hakan’s behavior for me. Maybe it was the fact that his lack of respect did not waver when he was sober; having nothing else to blame it on, I was forced upon the truth. But I wonder why I never told Hakan the truth. I had probably decided he wasn’t worth saving. Maybe the idea of saving people had lost its luster, too.

I suppose I knew he would never actually hurt me. My broken heart and ego didn’t mind the attention either. Mostly, I waited; I do that, waiting for people to live up to themselves. I hate being wrong — what if people actually turn out to be the assholes you’ve chosen to believe they aren’t? It’s better sometimes just to walk away.

I haven’t been back to the bar, or seen Hakan, since the night I quit. I do not miss him, but I still think fondly of him, as fucked up as that is. But Spring street ends for me now at Mulberry, and I don’t mind — I am in love with the trees on that street.

***

When I first worked at Sweet & Vicious two summers ago, there were two owners, partners in every sort of way, both in their late twenties. The woman, one of the most lovely and wistfully sincere people I’ve met in this city, had two cats, one sweet, one vicious. The man, Turkish, who takes pride in his reputation but is really just sweet, loved her, and thus the name came to be. It’s a great name for a bar, particularly for this one, which is large and cavernous, and feels somewhat like a cross between an elegant French winery and a stage set for the Inquisition. Brick walls bare of decorations (except for a pistol in a glass case by the door) and long wood floorboards that creak underfoot. Colossal iron circles line the ceiling from the back courtyard to the front door; suspended around each one are 20 or more blown-glass light fixtures which look imposing and possibly religious but also slightly comical, like thick, drooping condoms full of hot air.

“Sweet and vicious,” it seems obligatory to point out but entirely obvious, is also an appropriate description for the effects or even the point of consuming what people come here to consume. Think of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats — what would drunken euphoria or clarity or letting all your secrets slip be without the many stages you go through to get there, without the aftereffect, waking up and knocking your head against the wall? Anyway, the woman owner is not around anymore but the name and the butterflies were hers, and if you look closely at the postcards and matchbooks it’s her ass you’ll see, a nice ass, pressed up against a sink and mirror through which she took the photograph. Some things last longer than others, I guess.

I became a bartender at Sweet & Vicious in summer of 1999. I worked Thursdays through Sundays to support an unpaid position I had five days a week at a magazine. Sundays, for obvious reasons, were the longest: few people are serious Sunday drinkers, so I worked alone, spending the better part of the 12-hour shift sitting at the end of the bar cross-legged, smoking cigarettes.

When the last customers had straggled out by midnight or 1 a.m., I’d always put on Bob Dylan, the acoustic part of the Live 1966 album, loud enough that it consumed and echoed and swelled around me off the walls. Usually I’d make myself a drink and smoke more cigarettes. One such evening a Japanese guy about my age came in; I served him a glass of Pinot Grigio and saw he was reading Camus in Japanese, delicate characters on parchment paper bound in cloth — I noticed because he was reading back to front. As we were the only people there, he found out which magazine I worked for and I found out he was a model. An hour or two later, he gave me his number in case I ever wanted to call him. (I didn’t.) After that he came in frequently; he always read a book and drank two glasses of Pinot Grigio. Eventually I gave in and let him take me out to dinner, though I’d already learned it was a bad idea to date customers. We went to Chinatown; he brought his portfolio. We drank tea and ate rice and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves. At the end of the night he kissed me awkwardly on the side of my neck and confessed he wasn’t interested in me anymore; when I was behind the bar, he said, I was like a beautiful bird in a cage, exotic and unattainable; now that I was “free” the excitement had gone out of it for him. Trust a model who knows something of being on display, of runways, which is exactly what being behind a bar is like.

Tuesday, November 7.

It’s my first day back. The magazine that had eventually promoted and paid me and thus put an end to my bartending career two summers ago has now folded. Full circle, I guess you could say. This time around, I am perfectly content to be a night watchman, a cultural nomad. The city is quiet tonight, and I’m having a hard time believing it’s because everyone is sitting at home watching the elections. We are, though, on a large TV hidden high up in a cabinet, myself and the other eight or so people in the bar; the sound’s off on the TV but we groan and shout as the count rises in Bush’s favor. Around nine-thirty the bar’s getting crowded — everyone’s so animated you would think the Mets were still hoping to beat the Yankees. But the Bush people are quiet, swilling the ice in their scotches thoughtfully, and I pick out the only three that come in all night with a knowing eye (I’m wrong about a possible fraternizing fourth, and insult him by asking). At some point, Gore’s finally leading by thirty electoral votes. We all cheer. Ten minutes later he loses them, and people are outraged. Since the sound’s off, one person after another asks me, as if I would know, what happened, so I call my boyfriend, who actually is watching this at home. “The networks made a mistake,” I relay the message. “They’ve pulled Florida.” I’m grateful for this distraction, since I’ve forgotten how trying it is to come up with conversation, befitting of this strange upper-handed position, that doesn’t bore you or them.

By 2 a.m. there are only 5 people left, all sitting at the bar. Two of them nearest the TV are Bush supporters; they’re older, drunk by now, and stare hard and lazy, alternatively at me and the TV screen; I try to ignore it but can’t suppress a smirk when I overhear them discussing their latest investments. The other three had come in a few hours ago from MSNBC, or so I gather, which is holed up in a theatre a few blocks away. The woman sits on the farthest chair from the Bush camp, a blond man in the middle, and next a dark-haired man — they’re in their late twenties, early thirties, constantly laughing, leaning across the bar towards each other like old friends.

The blond guy, who ordered a Glenfiddich and looks like he works at the Post, knows Katie Couric and wants to call her; the others urge him to do so, but he doesn’t. The woman, sipping a Fernet Branca that came from a dusty bottle no one has touched for years, has very short-cropped dark hair and crinkly eyes and she’s apparently a lesbian — the guys keep needling her about stealing their prospects. The third guy, a Makers-Mark-on-ice guy, is attractive; something in his demeanor reminds me of a man I used to know, so I keep looking at him. They’ve been nursing the same drinks since they got here, but they seem to be drunk too. Around 2:30 the moment arrives; the image of the White House appears; George W.’s face swings around to the center of it and there he is, the 43rd American President.

There is a horrible moment of silence. I bite my lip. The Bush supporters put on their jackets and leave. Suddenly, at the other end of the bar, the blond guy turns to his female friend and shouts “Drink up! Because tomorrow your reproductive rights will be taken away!” She laughs, protests, and finally lifts the small glass to her lips. Setting it back down her hand slips and she spills the dark liquid across the bar and into his lap.

Tuesday, November 14.

The manager informs me that he forgot to go to the bank and we’re out of quarters, so all beer, normally $4.50, is $4.00 tonight. I think this is funny and then wish I could be the beneficiary of such a mistake. For the first three hours, everyone who comes in is meeting someone else. “Have you seen a girl with long curly hair who looked like she was looking for someone?” he asks. “What time is it? Do you think it’s better to be late or early?” They all drink quickly, make cell phone calls, look towards the door every time they hear a sound.

The bar is filling up with these nervous men when a woman walks in. She seems out of place, wearing an old-fashioned black corduroy overall dress and white blouse. Dark curly hair, no makeup. She sits on one of the far benches by the courtyard and reads the paper, drinks first a Cabernet Sauvignon, and then two glasses of C?tes du Rh?nes; I use a French accent reciting the wines for her and like most everyone else she squints at me and asks me to repeat “C?tes du Rh?nes.”

As the evening progresses I remember that I am actually good at this. Last week, despite the political diversions, I was too conscious of myself moving behind the watchful eyes of the bar and its patrons; today the bar and I are not at odds but are having fun. I have been here by myself since 4 o’clock and have chosen the music, so the room is filled with my persona (because it’s mine to fill); I play an old Dire Straits album, Radiohead’s The Bends, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, the sexy, playful Mano Chow, then a trance-overlaid Caf/ del Mar — an audible progression of drinking and its moody interludes again, it occurs to me, like Steinbeck’s own.

“I haven’t had sex in a really long time,” a woman at the bar says. Her friend isn’t as good-looking as she is but she has a regal nose and an expensive light-blue suit and she’s listening sympathetically. The speaker is pretty in an expected sort of way, big penny eyes and long curly hair, though her profile, like her voice, is grating. She’s quite drunk (her friend rolls her eyes at me when she weaves her way to the bathroom), and I laugh under my breath when she says this. She’s talking loudly and everyone within ten feet of her overhears, yet no one flinches but me. (Odd; I wonder again if women are each other’s harshest judges, or if in truth we are the kindest. I suppose the former but only because, and here it swings towards the latter, we are acutely aware of our own shortcomings and thus perceive them in others — as in all things, compassion has many sides.) My brother, sitting within earshot, smiles and turns to me and says ruefully, “Would you like to make the introductions?”

It’s nearing 2:00 a.m. I pour myself a Guinness, though I’m already drunk on the surroundings. Osmosis: the hard, polished wood seeps into my skin and blood and I into it, and I catch myself, sitting there, wanting to lean back into the iron butterflies and the rows of bottles against the wall; I imagine all the Glenlivets and Macallans and Laphroaigs crashing around me. I listen to the conversation of the remaining three customers at the bar — they’re English, two girls and one guy, and the girl in the middle is shouting above her teasing friends

“My parents bought me a bottle of Pernod — at sixteen! They would’ve been happy to know I was drunk off half a sip of cider!”

I realize I probably should have carded them. This line of conversation somehow metamorphoses into a debate about circumcision; I go over to ask if they want another round and they ask me if it’s really true and most of the men in the U.S. “have been cut.” I say I suppose it is, and we agree there’s no good scientific or sensual reason for it. The guy, who has a gentle, feminine air, pink lips, says “Think of all the time wasted in this country, all your poor women looking at their watches — “Jesus, aren’t you done yet?” We laugh; facetiousness and innocence, I think, sit well in youth. Time drags. The manager turns on the TV — another badly-coifed anchorwoman in a teal suit talks mutely about the Florida recount. I get deja vu. The kids drink slowly. I pass the last hour deliberating whether or not to make a Ketel One martini for myself, dry, very dirty, with olives. I give in and have two. I pour them perfectly, a shade above the brim.

November, 2000

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