I’ve just finished a first read-through of the first half of the new book, which has involved slashing lots of stuff out because I write too long. It reminded me of last time I did this, two and a half years ago. I had to cut about 40,000 words from the first draft of Three Sheets, and some good stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. I fought to keep the following scene in because it’s one of my favourites, but I lost. It makes me laugh whenever I think of it, and I hope it raises a smile for you too. I’m just east of Greenwich Village, New York. It’s late afternoon during a long day of pub crawling, when I still have a couple of hours to kill before meeting Garret Oliver for the first time…
An hour later, walking again when the rain has slackened fractionally, I spot a bar painted all black outside, with red curtains pulled closed across the windows. Through the door, all I can see is a dull red glow. The smell of a university gig venue wafts out.
A stag’s head perches above the bar, almost hidden under a collection of lacy red, black and pink bras draped from its antlers. A sign taped on the mirror behind the bar reads, “Do not touch the bartenders.”
I order a Sam Adams. The guy leaning on the bar next to me, bulging T-shirt and wispy ponytail, snorts with derision when I speak. All the guys perched at the bar are drinking bottles of Bud, apart from one who is nursing a Pabst Blue Ribbon. I didn’t think they even made this stuff any more. I find out later that there is a growing market for ‘relic beers’, the brands that disappeared in the Beer Wars. Now brewed under licence as budget brands, they sell for nostalgic reasons, but also benefit from the protest against globalisation and saturation marketing. In Portland’s one anarchist bar Pabst outsells Miller Lite.
Something tells me that my friend here is not drinking it to demonstrate solidarity with the anti-capitalists. I’m at the corner of the bar, and the guy who sneered at my Sam Adams is talking across me to another guy whose arms are covered in tattoos. “Yeah, when I was doin’ time, I used to do a lot of painting. Guys would come up to me all the time and ask me to do tattoos. The whole thing – they had the needles and ink ready to go. I’m like, no, no, I don’t work on skin. But they just kept on and on.” He shakes his head and takes a long pull from his bottle.
“So… did you do ‘em?” asks the tattooed guy.
“Well, no. I told you, I don’t work on skin.”
They go back to contemplating their beers in silence.
I become acutely aware that I’m carrying a Saks Fifth Avenue bag. This is only because I always buy underwear whenever I come to New York because it’s half the price it is at home, but these guys don’t know that, and my poncey craft beer has just arrived (in a Bud Light glass, admittedly – maybe the barmaid is trying to protect me.) Suddenly, with overwhelming certainty, I realise I am Niles Crane.
There’s one vacant stool at the bar, between the Sam-Adams-hating Prison Artist and the – really rather large – tattooed man. I decide to head for a table instead. This means I stand no chance of being able to strike up a conversation, but maybe that’s for the best.
I can choose between two tables: one right by the exit, the other by the jukebox. The only other seating in the place is a long bench running around two walls. A pool table dominates the centre of the room, a Galaxian video game and a pinball machine the remaining wall. I take the jukebox table, to prove (to myself) that I’m not totally chicken.
Someone has scrawled above the juke box in pink chalk, “Play 4202 and Jamie will dance.” I wonder if Jamie is the barmaid on duty. She looks like she might dance, if the music was suitably industrial: tall, stick-thin, dressed head-to-toe in black with lace, rips and piercings throughout. Or maybe Jamie is a boy’s name. He might be one of my new friends at the bar.
A couple of guys go outside for a fag (sorry, I really should say ‘cigarette’ while we’re in here). Even here the no smoking rule is observed. They come back in, and now the barmaid goes out. Then the guys all follow her back out to chat to her while she smokes. Suddenly I’m entirely alone in the bar, with a big bunch of guys outside blocking the exit.
The bar is called 2 by 4 because it’s on the corner of 2nd Street at 4th Avenue. (You can visit next time you’re in town). But now the name suggests a piece of two-by-four; a hefty chunk of wood, such as you might use to beat someone to death. Once you’ve broken all the pool cues.
Perhaps now I could go and check out what 4202 is, but I really, really don’t want them to think I’m about to put on some music in their pub. I waver too long, and they drift back in. My exit clear, I dart out and head west, carrying my Saks bag low.