It was a Wednesday afternoon at the Emerald Lounge, a small word-of-mouth watering hole on the Upper East Side, and there wasn’t a customer in sight. Joseph Smith–a handsome, wiry 81-year-old with a shock of white hair–stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and listening to a Patti Page record playing faintly in the background.
About 45 minutes later, the first customer of the day was wheeled into the lounge. Rochelle Leight ordered a “pony” of red wine, and Mr. Smith poured her the house specialty, Glen Ellen. “That’s great, keep going,” Ms. Leight said.
Soon after, an elderly gentleman arrived and greeted Ms. Leight with a frisky wink. “How’s it going, kiddo?” he said. The man nodded toward Mr. Smith, who was by then pouring him a drink. “Hello, Joseph,” he said.
Joseph Smith knows his customers like a pro, but he isn’t a real bartender. He’s a volunteer. And the Emerald Lounge is not a
real bar; it’s the name bestowed on a basement corner of the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home, a 362-bed facility on York Avenue run by the Archdiocese and staffed by the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm.
That’s right. Bingo is one thing, a movie night is another, but a cocktail bar is a rare perk for nursing-home residents. And the one at Mary Manning is dirt cheap. Mixed drinks at the Emerald Lounge cost only a dollar, and a beer is just 75 cents (though in the name of restraint, the powers that be have instituted a two-drink maximum ).
“I’ve never had a problem with anyone getting out of hand,” said Mr. Smith, who added that in 20 years of serving at the Emerald Lounge he has never had to remove a rowdy patron.
Mr. Smith’s daytime crowd is generally small, usually drawing no more than a half-dozen regulars. At night and on weekends, however, the numbers can swell to nearly 30.
“You should see it on Tuesday night after bingo,” Mr. Smith said. “That’s when you get a flood of people who come in and spend their winnings.”
The nursing home does take care to avoid any booze-related problems. There’s a continuously updated list of those who are prohibited from drinking, mostly to avoid a potentially dangerous mix of prescription drugs and alcohol. Residents caught trying to sneak a drink are routinely rebuffed.
Mr. Smith, who previously worked for an insurance company, said he loves his job. He brings in his collection of big band and Irish pub music (favorites include Paddy Noonan and Richie O’Shea) and chats up his customers throughout the day. Like a lot of men and women in his trade, Mr. Smith acknowledged he wasn’t much for “hard-luck stories,” preferring “general chitchat and conversations about family.”
And he pours drinks. The booze served at the Emerald Lounge isn’t necessarily top-shelf, though there are brands like Jack Daniels and Absolut on hand. Scotch and cream sherry are among the top requests, Mr. Smith said. Many customers have family who pay the lounge in advance, to make sure Mom or Dad’s tab is always settled.
“Oh yes, this is most enjoyable,” Ms. Leight said that afternoon as she sipped her Glen Ellen. “I’m not used to taking orders, all those rules and regulations. I’m here every day; it’s my only relaxation.”
A few moments later, Sister Michael Mary, Mary Manning’s director of volunteers, entered the room. The nun grew concerned when she learned that a reporter was there, asking questions. She approached the reporter and politely asked about the nature of his story.
“All story requests require a letter on publication stationery,” Sister Michael said. “We don’t want to focus on the Emerald Lounge.” She then escorted the reporter out of the building and onto the corner of York Avenue and 72nd Street.
But what’s to be ashamed of? The Carmelite Sisters, who run 24 nursing homes around the country, are known to be tolerant of alcoholic beverages in their facilities–and God bless ’em. “The elderly should be able to still enjoy the world and preserve their dignity,” said a Massachusetts-based Carmelite sister, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Alcohol has always been a part of the Carmelite homes.”
Mary Manning’s liquor license is called a “hospital permit” and allows the nursing home to “purchase liquor, wine or beer for medicinal use only, in the treatment of bona fide patients ….” A spokesperson at the State Department of Health said, “It’s a major responsibility, and they’ve done a fantastic job of it.”
And Joseph Smith, in his own little way, felt he was quietly doing good work, ounce by precious ounce. “I feel I’m performing a bit of a service,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m contributing necessarily to their well-being, but I am contributing to the conviviality of the residence–and the residents.”
The Real Bed
Joe, a 24-year-old Brazilian man with long curly hair and a large silver chain around his neck, stood outside a small building in Greenwich Village on a recent Saturday afternoon. Tapping his motorcycle boots, Joe futzed anxiously with the chain linking his wallet to a belt loop on his black leather pants. He was sweating.
Joe had come downtown to be interviewed by Anthoula, a 30-year-old filmmaker who had recently placed an advertisement in The Village Voice seeking a single male to share her bed (and rent) for the summer. Anthoula was hoping to turn the arrangement into a documentary film or a network television program. In a few days, she had received more than 150 replies.
“Why are you here?” Anthoula asked Joe when it was his time to be screened. The two sat on a king-sized mattress in a red-painted room. Besides Joe, there were four other men in the apartment–colleagues of Anthoula’s on hand to tape the interviews and get the candidates to sign release forms–as well as Anthoula’s black Labrador retriever, Zolli.
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “I’m bored. And I just split from my wife this morning.” Joe, who was from Brooklyn, said he hadn’t been to Manhattan by himself in five years. “It’s just one of those things.”
Anthoula, a curvy Greek woman with olive skin and thick, well-arched eyebrows, cocked her head to the side and ran her hand through her dyed-red hair. Joe continued rambling, about his wife, whom he called “jealous”; about his efforts to become a freelance photographer. He said he had no idea where he was going to sleep that night.
When Joe left the room, Anthoula took her hand and swirled a circle next to her ear with her index finger. “He’s crazy, but what a hottie,” she said. “A beautiful boy. I’ll have to call him back for a second interview.”
Over the course of the afternoon, it became abundantly clear how far some people will go to find a living arrangement in New York. An overweight accountant from Cuba didn’t flinch when Anthoula asked him how large his penis was, and how often he masturbated (5-1/4 inches; two times a week). Anthoula also asked each subject to say something nice about her. One candidate said she had “great lips” that he would “love to kiss.” Another complimented her “amazing eyebrows.”
“They all wanted to be picked,” Anthoula said. “Really. It’s amazing. Maybe it was because they were attracted to me or because they were explorative. Most of them had places to live, jobs, but they still wanted to be picked.”
And though some of her bedside candidates may have had other ideas in mind, Anthoula said the prospective arrangement was not about sex.
“I want to explore the dynamics between two strangers living together, sharing the same bed, what could evolve,” she said. “This is not Survivor . And I’m not looking for a boyfriend–or sex. But I’m sure through this experience, I’ll learn a lot about myself. I just think it will be interesting to document reality-based issues. No scripts. No preconceived notions. Just capturing the synergy between two people.” She then took a bite of honeydew and rubbed Zolli’s belly.
A Current Book Review by Bartholomew, the New York World Wonder Kitty
Fame: Ain’t It a Bitch: Confessions of a Reformed Gossip Columnist. By A.J. Benza. 256 pages. Talk Miramax Books. $22.95.
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