I was in a slump, thinking about moving back to Kansas City. Nightlife had begun to suck. Even though there were 25 parties a night, every one of them was to promote some new liquor, restaurant, store or perfume. I spent lots of time in the bathtub. I watched Ken Burns’ 19-hour Jazz documentary and asked myself, “Why did I have to miss so much of the 20th century and get stuck in the New York of now? Why didn’t I get to see Billie Holiday sing?”
Soon I found myself in complete agreement with that breed of New Yorker who complains about how the city’s changed for the worse: Where are the drag queens, the pimps, the prostitutes, the muggers, the drug dealers, the porn theaters, the sleaze, the boom boxes?
On Jan. 2, I read an article in The New York Times in which New Yorkers had been asked “to nominate an era of New York’s history as its golden age.” Novelist Caleb Carr lamented a city “sterilized by the Giuliani years” and longed for the 1890′s, “a decade that was almost as filthy, violent and degenerate as its predecessors …. ” Actor John Leguizamo missed the 1970′s: “New York was funky and gritty and showed the world how a metropolis could be dark and apocalyptic and yet fecund.” Writer Fran Lebowitz also cited the 70′s: “It was a city for city dwellers, not tourists, the way it is now.”
I nodded. Why can’t it be 1977 again?
During the next few weeks, I found the New York of the 1970′s. The whole era, in all its danger and dirt and degeneracy, is still alive, in one bar on the corner of Second Avenue and First Street, as if a time portal had opened up on that intersection, sucking all who dared enter it back into a time when a night out didn’t guarantee you’d be waking up in your own bed-or even your own borough-the next morning.
Meet the Mars Bar. The windows are broken, graffiti is everywhere, the place stinks of urine and worse. The unisex bathrooms look 100 years old. Hallelujah, I thought when I walked inside late one night. Here was the antidote.
The patrons were unfriendly. I needed a beer right away before I had the nerve to speak to anyone. On my third beer, the door swung open and in walked a man covered in tattoos, wearing a red baseball cap turned sideways and a filthy, gray hooded sweatshirt. He jumped on the bar and began to sing along to the jukebox. “People are ignorant cocksuckers!” he sang, before pulling his pants down and shaking his stuff around. Then he did a 180 and squatted onto a beer bottle. He’s a regular.
Outside, he told me his name was Gerry Price and that he’s a steam fitter and artist and sings in a band called Two Minutes Hate. Above the bar is a portrait he made depicting a penis ejaculating into a woman’s face.
“I’m known for being naked, known for beating the crap out of people, I’m known for not taking shit,” he said. “I’m known for having sex with any girl who will have sex with me-fat girls, skinny girls. If you can’t get laid in New York, you’re either gay or … actually, even gay guys get pussy in this city. But you know what, the city kind of sucks. One time, these yuppies came into the Mars Bar, and I took a swig of beer and spit it in their face. It’s called a ‘whammy.’ I go, ‘Get the fuck out of my bar! There’s 4,000 other bars that want you!’ They were just there like it was Hogs and Heifers.”
He talked about a recent night at Mars.
“I’m sitting here, this girl walks up to me, grabs my ass and gives me a bag of crack,” he said. “So I turned to Jake-who’s a Calvin Klein model-and I’m like, ‘Jake, you want to smoke some crack?’ And he’s like, ‘No.’ So this Italian model-Picassio or some shit-she’s like, ‘I’ll smoke crack with you.’ So I’m in the bathroom getting high with her. She leaves with Jake.”
Another night: “This girl comes up to me and goes, ‘You remember me?’, and I’m like, ‘No.’ She goes, ‘Your lips drive me crazy,’ and she starts making out with me there. So she drags me into the bathroom, takes off her Sassoon jeans and starts riding me, and I’ve got her jeans in my right hand. And she keeps going, ‘Don’t let my jeans touch the floor!’ So I take her jeans and I throw them in the toilet. She gets up and starts stomping on me with her high heels.”
What was so great about the Mars Bar?
“There’s no more hard-core partying anymore. There’s no more smoking crack, doing dope. I’m fucking 42 years old, I got two bags of dope right here, gonna do a little right here on the street corner. I’m a fucking animal. My ex-girlfriend lives on St. Marks and she hears everything that I do here, and she’s fucking losing it, bro! ‘Why’s he living his life like this?’ You know, women want to find an exciting guy who’s also responsible. There is no such person. You got your husband, and then there’s me.”
He said he was up to 15 bags of heroin a day until last June, when he landed in detox after the owner of Mars Bar, Hank Penza, took charge of him.
He stopped his story and pointed back inside the bar: “Look at this.”
A cute blonde was simulating cunnilingus with two fingers.
“There’s everything, bro,” he said. “There’s lesbians, there’s fucking sex-a guy just got stabbed the other night. This is the last party, because there has to be a last party. Young kids today don’t know how to do anything right. I feel I’m from one of the last great generations.”
Back inside, I sat down with the cute blonde, Miss Eliesha Grant, an artist who puts on underground art parties.
She admitted that nightlife was leaving her cold. “It’s just not fun anymore,” she said. “I fucking wind up in here all the time lately, and I used to go out all the time, go dancing, have fun, run around. Everything is all sterilized. It’s all a bunch of douchebags with no personality.”
Ms. Grant said she grew up in a Long Island town in the oldest house on Main Street. At Nassau Community College, she was an honors student before transferring to a small college in North Carolina, where she studied English lit. She moved to New York and worked as a bartender, seamstress and waitress. For a while, she worked as a go-go dancer at a nightclub.
“Now it’s called Plaid or some bullshit,” she said. “It was so bad. One of the girls was go-go dancing with me, and we’re both up on the platform. And she went to go change into a different bikini and smoke a bowl. When she was in there, they fucking threw her out. Fucking give me a break. It’s like, you can’t party anymore?”
She looked around.
“I always have fun here, but there’s a fine line sometimes when you’re at Mars Bar-it can be really, really horrible. You’re like, ‘O.K., I didn’t need it to be that punk rock.’ The first time I brought my friend here, this guy was walking around naked with no shoes on. And we were like, ‘You know what, you can have your dick hanging out, but could you fucking put some shoes on? Because you’re gonna give me a heart attack. I’m scared for your well-being.’”
Kathy, a dark-haired jewelry designer and the wife of another Mars regular, an artist named Jiggers Turner, was wearing all black, drinking red wine and keeping an eye on her husband.
“Mars is a lot of fun,” she said with a Spanish accent. “Trust me, I’m not a Mars regular, because they’re all drunks-but if somebody touch my husband, I’m gonna punch the shit out of them. I love Mars Bar. It’s really fun. But if somebody messes up with my husband, I’m gonna stand up and I’m gonna punch whatever fucking drunk is punching him.”
After a few nights at the Mars Bar, I decided I had to speak to its owner, Hank Penza. We met for dinner at a Spanish restaurant on Bowery.
At 72, he walks with a cane-his left foot was recently amputated after he got a staph infection-but he’s 6-foot-3 and looks like an Indian chief you don’t want to mess with. He was wearing a black leather jacket, a jump suit by Hugo Boss, Lands End sneakers and a diamond pinkie ring with a Caesar’s head on it. Also meeting him there was a young Asian woman in a black cleavage-and-tummy-revealing top. Mr. Penza told her she looked “absolutely gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” Fimiko replied, then went to freshen up.
“My life, it used to be …. I used to love black ladies,” Mr. Penza said, sitting down. “I only went out with black women. Now I’m into Oriental ladies.” He said he’s had a steady girlfriend for 30 years who lets him stray from time to time.
He told his story: His father came to New York from Italy as a boy and worked on the Brooklyn Bridge before serving in World War I. He was, said Mr. Penza, a “great provider” and a “stark-raving-mad right-winger” who hated Franklin Roosevelt and the smell of perfume.
Young Hank started working early. He and his pals in Corona, Queens, would go “junking”: loading up a horse and wagon with milk bottles and stuff to sell.
Soon he was helping out at crap games, doing what were called “mopey pinches”: Whenever the bookmakers got busted, they’d pay Hank $50 to go to court, and he’d be back on the street in hours.
He was a good-looking kid, into nice clothes. At 16, he was walking down the street when a woman pulled over to ask if he went by “Georgie the Gorilla.”
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Mr. Penza recalled. “She says, ‘I know you; these people, they know you.’ She asked me to buy her beer and a pizza. She was in a LaSalle! I said, ‘I’ve got enough money to buy you a beer-you’ve got to come up with the pizza.’ Now-listen very closely now, no bullshit, you gotta listen. So I get in the car. I look at her, she was gorgeous. So we go buy pizza and a beer-it was like $1.75 for a pizza and a beer. She says, ‘Do you wanna come up to my house?’
“I go to her apartment. I gotta be frank: My big thing is underwear, I love women’s underwear. That’s me. So we’re in the house. She came out of her bedroom in this black bra and a garter belt. Oh my God, I’m 16, I couldn’t breathe. She gave it to me like I owned it, you know what I mean?”
He went home and packed his belongings.
“My sainted mother-may she rest in peace-she was so good to me,” he said. “She says, ‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘Mind your business!’”
He lived with the woman in the LaSalle for two years. He used to take her car for long drives. But after his mother approved of the woman, he had to let her go.
“As soon as my mother got to like her, I hated her,” he said.
At 19, he got a $200-a-week job at the “21″ Club. He wore a tux, took reservations and ran errands. If a man dining with his wife needed to make contact with his mistress at the Stork Club, he’d deliver the message.
He joined a crew called the 40 Thieves and started making money by “cleaning up” bars (i.e., getting rid of undesirables). Once they spent two weeks getting rid of some ruffians from a bar by sending them to another one across the street. A month later, they paid the ruffians $3 each to return to the first bar so the 40 Thieves could get the job back.
But he said he declined offers to join the Mafia.
“Nobody can make me, man,” he said. “I’m a made man. My name is Penza-we’re made, period. We don’t need that shit. That’s all movie stuff.”
His reputation grew. Two British guys gave him $1,500 to clean up their bar on lower Fifth Avenue, which had been overrun by pimps.
In 1957, he bought a bar at 12 Bowery and renamed it Henry’s.
“First year, I worked seven days a week, I never left the building,” he said. “I used to get fucked in the building, showered there.” Unfortunately, there was a regular who liked the song “Splish Splash (I Was Taking a Bath).”
“He’d take a roll of quarters every day and he would play that on the jukebox,” he said. “There were five plays for a quarter-and that’s all he played. I’d sit in a chair and listen to that and go crazy. When I paid off the place, I took the record out and I threw it across the street.”
He bought a brand-new Cadillac.
“And that was it,” he said. “I never worked since.”
Over the next three decades, he owned several more bars on the Bowery: Hank’s Crystal Palace, Willie’s, the Penthouse. He said Judy Garland and Truman Capote were customers and that Lee Marvin practically moved into one of the bars, Bowery East.
There were fights. Mr. Penza has stab wounds and has been shot twice. In the 1970′s, he traveled, partied at Regine’s and Studio 54, was a bit of a playboy.
He said his secret was being tall.
“If I was short, you wouldn’t even look at me,” he told Fimiko when she’d returned to the table. “If I was short, I’d look like a pizza man, a guy who makes pizza pies. Being that I’m tall, if I walk into a restaurant they pull me in, treat me like a king. That’s another thing: I never wait. Right or wrong, baby?”
“We never wait,” she said.
“No bullshit,” he said, eating off her plate.
“I wish this fucking music would stop,” he said. “Music makes me nauseous.”
He turned to Fimiko.
“You look very beautiful, by the way,” he said. ” Thank you for looking so beautiful.”
Fimiko said she had to go to D.C. She kissed him and put on her mink coat.
“Bye, baby,” he said as she walked away. “I love her. Bye-bye! Fucking psycho. I haven’t got her yet. I’ll get her. I told her, ‘Victoria’s Secret, buy some clothing, I’ll pay for it.’ Why not?”
He opened Mars Bar in 1982.
“I have to keep it open for my mind,” he said. “Where am I going to go at my age? It’s the last bar. It’s hard to explain. People go there with their children, their wives-you only see the psychos at night. Lovely ladies come in there. I had two girls yesterday, they looked like movie actresses. I don’t fuck the customers. I don’t like to have any sex or anything to do with the customers-that gets you in trouble. When you own a bar and you go out with the girls at the bar-that’s no good. All of a sudden, they become the boss. If you have a barmaid that you’re having an affair with, she owns the bar the next day-she’ll tell you what to do.”
Why is Mars Bar an institution?
“I’ll tell you why: The bathrooms are like a hundred years old. You piss on the floor, you piss in the bowl-it doesn’t matter. People come in from all over the world-Japan, Germany, Finland, Iceland. Icelandics are beautiful people, especially the ladies.”
Who doesn’t he want there?
“Stockbrokers, investment brokers, lawyers,” he said. “They’re all phonies. Stockbrokers, they wouldn’t care if you were 80 years old and senile-they’ll take your money from you. They’re worse than used-car dealers. I don’t like people who use the N-word in the bar, I don’t allow that, or referring to Hispanics as slang terms. I don’t want Italian-Americans who want to be wiseguys and they’re not. They think they’re gangsters and they probably work in pizza shops.”
We needed fresh air. We got into his banged-up Oldsmobile and drove uptown. “I’m a very bad driver,” he said.
He parked outside the W hotel. He knew Jayna, the Filipino-American bartender.
“You’ll never ever speak to anyone more interesting than Hank,” said Jayna. “Friends of mine who have met him, they say the same thing: big pimping. This is old-school to the core-he is big pimping. I’ve seen him roll in with these Japanese girls who are almost like anime characters: styled-out hair, funky boots, tattoos. He’s met a lot of them here and left with them.”
Mr. Penza told her he wanted to buy her a house in Florida and she laughed.
A few nights later, Mr. Penza gave me a tour of his spacious bachelor pad near Union Square, where he’s lived for 22 years. There were pictures of him in front of his various saloons with colorful characters; a portrait of him looking suave in a denim shirt circa 1975; two antique pistols on a wall, not far from some bullet holes that missed rats.
We got in his car. He acknowledged that he sometimes missed the way his neighborhood, and New York, used to be.
“I miss the action, I miss the laughter, I miss the sadness,” he said. “It’s a different feeling. We have to remember that the men on the Bowery were not bums. Ninety percent were workers, they all had jobs. You know, we kept guys in the bar-we called them ‘blotters.’ They’d sit there and guys would buy them drinks. Philadelphia Joe sat with me for 30 years in the bar and he got drunk every day for nothing.”
Still, he said, even now, New York is the only place to be. “I love it,” he said. “It’s the greatest place in the fucking world. There’s no place like this, man, and I’ve been all over the world. I love this city because they make me somebody. When I go somewhere else, they don’t treat me as well as they do. Here, they treat me with elegance. In Florida, I’m a little fucking scumbag.”
He pointed to the skyline. “Take a look, man,” he said. “Who the fuck wants to destroy this beautiful place? Take a look at that. Now isn’t that a bitch? And they want to knock us out-why the fuck, man? Because we don’t believe in Allah?”
I changed topics: Is the East Village better off than it was in the 1970′s?
“Absolutely-for people like me who don’t want to get stabbed and shot. When I came here, if you didn’t have a gun, you were dead. You don’t know what used to go on here.”
We arrived at the Park Side restaurant in Corona, Queens. On the way to his table, we passed a photograph of his mother on the wall. He stopped to chat with Tony the manager.
“When I was a boy, Henry was the older guy who was watching out for everyone,” said Tony. “There was one bully in the neighborhood, and Henry sort of straightened him out. Everyone looked up to him. He was always smart in school-Henry would pull up in his big red convertible with a beautiful blonde. He was about 16, and we were always hoping that, some day, we were going to be like that.”