“YEAH, POP THAT COLLAR, YOU YUPPIE FUCK,” we heard upon walking into Mars Bar last Thursday, supposedly the dive’s last night serving. The man then grabbed the top of The Observer’s polo shirt and thrust it inward, folding it into our chest.
“There,” he beamed. “Much better.”
We had come to Mars Bar, the only spot putrid and rank enough to still evoke the East Village of the mythically gritty 1970s, in advance of its destruction this August to make way for—what else?—luxury apartments. It’s tiny, infested with rust, blood, disease and worse. For many, it’s the only good bar left in the city, and its passing is an occasion to lament.
“Fuck you!” an intoxicated regular yelled at a man with a camera around his neck. “GOLDMAN SACHS KILL EMPLOYEES” read the graffiti on the wall. “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
The bartender broke it up with a weary pose—tired, perhaps, of figuring out whom to side with: the crusty assailant hanging onto the attitudes of a bygone era or the hapless tourist.
We finished our Budweiser, and when a 30-something couple asked if we could snap a picture with their iPhone 4, we obliged. This time, the graffiti in the background said, “WHITEY HEARTS BRUNCH.”
“What’s with this shit—it’s like Bridge and Tunnel,” said one guy by the door. Behind the bar, on one of the many illustrations someone had scribbled, “MARS BAR 25 EAST 1ST STREET 1985-2011.”
“What the fuck happened to it?” he said.
THE END OF MARS BAR has been discussed quite a bit of late, but rumors of its death turned out to be a tad premature—there are four to six more weeks, folks!—so we returned to the lushing den on Independence Day, in the afternoon. Outside there was a man in a Joy Division shirt listening to Joy Division on a tiny speaker. Tawnya, a bartendress with high-waisted ’90s jeans and a slew of floral tattoos, has served on and off for years and she’s kind enough to lend her iPhone charger to battery-deprived customers.
“A few guys came in at 12 noon today and said they left last night’s after-party early,” Tawnya explained as she poured a few fingers of scotch into a jam jar doubling as a tumbler. “They were like, ‘There were all these hookers there! Mars Bar’s much better than that!’ Thanks! So we’re better than a hooker den!”
As the afternoon wore on, the holiday brought in more revelers.
“Another guy came out of the bathroom yelling, ‘That was some shitty blow! All I wanna do is spend my money on drugs! Drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs!’”
She stopped; the phone was ringing.
“George, it’s Hank!” she yelled at a man with a dusty blue oxford untucked and flowing down almost to his knees. George, a regular, had walked in a few minutes earlier with a brown paper bag and strolled right into the cellblock bathroom. The man on the other end of the ancient, white, plastic phone, Hank Penza, has owned Mars Bar since it opened.
“Oh, no, Hank won’t talk to you,” Tawnya said to The Observer, emptying a bottle’s dregs into the bar’s only wine glass. “That’s just his style.”
Many patrons, we found, had adopted that same reticent style. “Go fuck yourself and get the fuck away from me,” George growled after we bade him hello.
“They’re gonna tear the whole place down so what the fuck are you asking me about shit for?” said a rock-faced gentleman named Ray, who lounged dozily at one end of the saloon. “Just go away.”
Others were more talkative. One demanded we share our cocaine and, when we informed him we had none, then asked for meth—though he took that request back, at once, after remembering that “meth makes you gay.”
“Falling down, throwing up, shit like that—they serve mean drinks here,” said Billy Bruce, a 20-year old-timer with two lazy eyes. “There’ll never be another Mars Bar. Ever.”
Conversation turned to the Leroux Rock & Rye, a decade-old bottle of railroad rot-gut shit with green phlegm bubbling out its top, black gunk at the bottom and chunks of decayed fruit bobbing in its tide. Just yesterday George grabbed the thing and pulled a tough swig. We told Tawnya that we had to leave, perhaps for good, but she said we really needed to talk to someone named Joel. The leathered cheek of Ray the Drunk dipped in jerks toward the wood.
“Ray is asleep at the bar!” the bartendress sang as we pushed open the front door to piercing daylight. Others joined. “Ray is asleep at the bar, Ray is asleep at the bar, Ray is asleep at the bar!”
LATER THAT NIGHT, the bar was crowded, and the bartender (not Tawnya, this time) dutifully told us to go fuck ourselves. Someone directed us to a dignified beer-gut standing next to those beautiful bathrooms. It was Joel, the aforementioned regular.
“I think the wildest thing I ever saw, these guys were having a poetry writing contest, and this guy stopped and took his pencil and fwwwop!”—Joel rammed a palm toward my eye socket—“just missed the cornea. That was pretty fuckin’ violent.”
He pointed out the Mars Bar stalwarts, but they were hard to find among the steady flow of kids in tight pants and nice shoes, accessorized with iPhones. “Manhattan is dead, but Mars Bar isn’t dead until they close the door,” he said. “Mars Bar will close, there’s no question about that. I never thought it was gonna happen.”
Joel checked the jukebox. The song, a country tune, had stopped playing. He wistfully acknowledged the appropriateness of the bar’s closing with an apt metaphor.
“No one wants to go to rehab, but sometimes you need to.”
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