When I was 19 years old, I got a job working at a bar on the Lower East Side in New York City. You would’ve thought I had gotten into Harvard by how happy I was. The place, The Village Idiot, was a popular hole in the wall on 1st Avenue and 10th Street - far from Harvard.
The owner, Tommy, was a giant Irish guy with an afro. Tommy was from Queens, and his success came from the authenticity of the bar he opened. Everyone loved him and his bar. There was nothing self-conscious about The Village Idiot, or Tommy, for that matter. He was a generous, kind man who loved to party and everybody loved him for it.
So that was Tommy - he was the brand and the bar was his product. Just like any great product, it was honest. It was honest because it was exactly the kind of place Tommy would have hung out had he not opened it himself. It was not a concept, and the people that came there intuitively knew that, so they came back, and they always brought a friend.
The Idiot, as it was lovingly referred to, was a narrow, dank “box car,” but not as big. There was a juke box up front that was on from the moment we opened at 10:00 am until the time we closed - sometimes 4:00 am, sometimes 2:00 am. This was dependent on how drunk Tommy got that night. One of his “tells” was if he came in licking his lips, hide the money. If his lips were dry, you were probably going to be okay.
The juke box was stocked with a collection of country music that was vast, impressive, and perfect. “The Box” had to be full blast at all times. Tommy lived above the bar – and he would call down, “Turn the box up! I can’t hear it.” We sold Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can for a dollar, and Tommy would occasionally bite the middle out of a can of beer to thrill his patrons if things seemed a little slow.
All of the bartenders were women, and were encouraged to drink with the customers. I started making fake pitchers of kamikaze shots because I would get so drunk I couldn’t do my job. Literally - I could not function. I’d pour you a real shot and I’d drink watered down kamikaze mix. No one ever caught me or cared. We were not allowed to wear hats behind the bar because Tommy said that was bad luck.
I have a million Tommy stories. But, the one that stands out in my memory the most was the time I went to Vegas with him, sort of.
I was by far his favorite. He just thought I was the greatest thing since canned beer. We became fast friends and he said I brought him good luck. I got away with murder at the bar. So while I had “job security,” I was not popular among the other girls. It was my first experience with "office politics."
Tommy had been missing for a few days, which was not abnormal. Because of his absence, the top girl, Lily, had kicked me down to day shifts, which was hell. While the Village Idiot was a cash cow, it pulled in all that cash between the hours of 8:00 pm and 4:00 am. So, just as I was getting off from a day of babysitting shaky alcoholics, the fun starts to happen. It was the meanest thing she could’ve done to me.
On this particular sunny summer day, it was me and Flat Ed - a regular who had to sip his first few shots of cheap vodka through a straw - and Stuttering Dave, a very sweet but very paranoid skinhead with one hell of an imagination. He liked to drink schnapps and send me ESP messages.
“Di-i-i-id-Did Did you get it yet B?”
“No Dave, not yet”
“Sh-sh-sh-shshit they arrrrrrrre bloooock-k-k-k-king my s-s-sssignal”
It was a complete mental house. Luckily, I was still such a kid when you think about it. I was only 19, and all I knew about was fun things. Everything was “I’m having fun” or “I’m not having fun.” I didn’t know about misery and alcoholism, missed opportunities, regrets, and suffering. I didn’t know that the words in the country songs I was having beat into my brain day in and day out had actual meaning. I just assumed everyone was having fun. I had no clue I was surrounded by some seriously depressing shit.
So, there I am with Dave and Ed when the phone rings. I answer it and it's Tommy! Thank god!
“Tommy, where are you? Lily put me on all days and I’m bored. Blah Blah Blah.”
Tommy was in Vegas.
“How much money is in the register?”
I told him there was a few hundred there, and couple grand in the safe. So he had me take all the money. Close the bar and go to the airport and buy a ticket and meet him in Vegas.
That’s exactly what I did. I kicked old Stuttering Dave and Flat Ed out, grabbed the cash, pulled the gates, and locked the place up. I remember as I was walking away I had forgotten to turn off the juke box. “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” was following me down the block.
Back then, you could buy a one-way plane ticket with cash, smoke cigarettes anywhere you wanted, and no one ever asked you for an ID. It was wild!
I got to the airport, got my ticket, and went to the gate. I had a couple hours to kill, and with this new false sense of adult independence, I decided to get a beer, in an airport bar. That’s where the trouble started.
I got wasted. I somehow got to my flight. I have no recollection of that flight. I just remember the next few hours in pieces.
Get a cab.
Tommy I’m here!
Yeah. 6th. Room 6009.
Get out. Stumble down hallway, look for open door, find it, go in. No Tommy. It never occurred to me that I was in the wrong room. It never occurred to me to call down to the front desk and ask. It only occurred to me at that moment to lay down on the bed and pass out cold. So, with my jean shorts stuffed full of cash, that’s exactly what I did.
Who knows how long I was there for, until a maid gently woke me up asking me what I was doing. I’m sure she had walked in on worse.
Long story short: I never found Tommy in Vegas. I think I hung around a little while, and then just went back to airport and came home.
Tommy was mad at me for a while and didn’t talk to me. I was banished to day shifts until one day he came down and drank a pint of Guinness for breakfast with me. He pushed $3,000 across the bar.
“Here. That’s your cut.”
“From Vegas, you brought me good luck, so that’s your cut.”
Being a smart kid, I didn’t ask any questions. I took the money and pretty much immediately blew it on a muscle car - a dark green 1967 Camaro.
But that’s another story.
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