We spent the second half of 1996 flat broke, working entry-level internships and retail gigs. We shared one enamel pan and one aluminum pot which we used daily on our two-burner hotplate. Most of the time we ate half-cooked pasta and some sort of sauce. One of my four roommates eventually got a job assisting on photoshoots and he traded a week of work for a full-bore, six-burner gas stove. We then began to roast a chicken nearly every night which we got for under two dollars from the bodega down the block. Sometimes we’d light all six burners just to watch the flames. Luxury.
For fun after dinner we’d drive around Manhattan, packed into a two-door worn-out Ford Bronco looking for obscure doorways that led to less-traveled pubs and underground parties. We’d cruise down Broadway from the Upper West Side all the way to City Hall, the air through the windows cooler than the thick static air of our hot warehouse home.
In the Spring of 1997 we each had somewhat stable jobs, allowing us the treat of a chicken and rice dinner sitting at the bar at The Hat or a few beers at Sonny’s. On most night we’d take the train into the city and pick a neighborhood, walk to a spot we heard about through friends at our jobs, and see what happened after our money ran out.
It must have been April or May of 1997 when we went to The Village Idiot over on west 14th street, which was a good place to get a cheap pitcher of Koch’s beer. I think it was $3 a pitcher, I can’t remember. We’d scrape our quarters and dollars together. That night we had enough for two pitchers. There were five of us living at the warehouse then. Sometimes there’d be six people, sometimes four, but there was a core three of us who lived there for at least two years at a time. I moved out in 2000.
The five of us sipped our heavy glass mugs of cheap beer, gazing out the windows, talking loudly about nonsense. It was a warm night, we were wearing t-shirts. I went to the bar to order our second and final pitcher when a lone person sitting at the window edge of the bar, an equally rough-edged guy about our age, turned to me and asked, “How do you like this place?”
“It’s fine.” I said, “It’s cheap enough for us.”
“Right,” he said, drinking his half mug down in one gulp. “Mind if I join you guys?”
“Not at all,” I said. As the bartended returned the filled pitcher to me and pushed over an additional mug, he winked at me and said, “Watch out for that one, he’s more than you think he is.”
I don’t think he ever told us his name though he shook our hands furiously. The first thing he said as he sat down at our table was, “The next pitcher is on me.”
After we finished the fifth pitcher, our new friend having picked up the next three, he said, “Hey, I know a cool place, want to check it out?” The roommates all silently checked with each other by looking into each others eyes, seeing if anyone would object.
“No,” we all said in near unison, “let’s go.”
We half-stumbled out of The Village Idiot and across 14th street and into the Meat Packing District. In 1997 it wasn’t the neighborhood you think of now. It was closer to the 1988 version of the Meat Packing District with dark corners, rotten smells and teenage prostitutes.
We turned a few corners, laughing at some jokes and giddy at our adventure walked face-first into a crowded jumble of people pushing their way up short steps and into some bar. Our new friend walked in first and the crowd parted, creating a clear lane for us to enter. My friend Chris elbowed me hard in the chest, “Check that out.”
As we entered the bar all the faces turned to us to see who we were. We were a ragged looking bunch, up way too late on a workday night, with work dirt on our hands and cheap sneakers. Suddenly there were six opens seats at the bar. Our new friend sat down first, I sat down second. The bartender, a skinny blond lady with a pug nose, tank-top, and trucker cap turns to me, leans across the bar, grabs my face in her bitten-nail hands and yells over the louder-than-hell country music, “I fucked your father!”
Six shots of something clear are placed in front of us with another three for the bartenders. We all raise our glasses and drink. The bartender reaches for my shoulder, pulling my t-shirt halfway to her and yells, “Who let you out of the shit-hole you must be living in?” I turn to our new friend at my right and he looks back at me with a wide grin, “Welcome to Hogs and Heifers.” He makes a swirling gesture with his finger and another round of shots show up. With that the three bartenders jump on the bar and stomp-dance to the music while the packed house cheers them on. Patrons jump on the bar, some get pushed off, some fall, but many remain and throw articles of clothing backwards towards the wall behind the bar. It was loud, and hot, and there was a lot of bare skin in that narrow wedge of a former biker bar that was soon to be discovered by the hip crowd.
I don’t recall when we left, but we didn’t close down the place, we had to be up early enough in the morning to get to our jobs. I looked for our new friend as we left, to thank him, but he had disappeared.
About a month later I was at work at the Strand Bookstore, running the registers. During some downtime I would do the crossword puzzle in the Daily News which I’d buy with a hot tea at the now-gone diner on Broadway just south of 12th street. As I flipped through the pages I saw a small thumbnail picture of our new friend from a month before. It was an obituary.
As I read the obit my heart sank. He was a generous person who wanted to spend time with giddy folks. He liked to drink. It turned out our new friend was Allan Dell, the owner of Hogs and Heifers. He had never let on who he was, though we suspected he was someone important to that place. Later that night I showed the smudged grey-paper page to my roommates. We huddled around our rough dining table, in the near dark of a single light-bulb.
“What a shame,” one of us said.
“What a nice guy, ” said another. We all nodded. I closed the paper.
About five years later I went back to Hogs and Heifers. It was crowded with tourists and people with clean clothes and button-down shirts. I stood by the bar, listening to the voices talk about work and friends and vacations. The crowd pushed at the bar, waving twenty-dollar bills at the tank-topped lady bartenders who stood with their backs to the eager and smirking faces. I finished my beer and left.