Well, I’ve really slacked off on this blog. The book is finally finished and I’m looking for an agent, but other than bar shifts that’s all I’ve been working on. So for this post, I figured I’d put up the first chapter of the book . . . for free.
The strangest part is none of it should have happened. I never meant to stay, and certainly didn’t expect to work in a pub beside an old-timer named Johnny La La. Bored and a little stoned after dropping out of college, I left Cortland, NY with a duffel bag over my shoulder–headed for Boston and new horizons, but the Greyhound bus took a route through my sister’s city. “Come hang out for a couple of weeks,” she said on the phone. After that, everything in Albany became a blindfolded carnival ride.
First I extended the visit with a rundown apartment where I’d live broke and alone, then a short while later I was hiding from a bunch of punks who rode with a motorcycle gang. I stopped for a beer at a local bar and somehow spent three years making drinks there. “How did you wind up here?” a sassy little brunette wanted to know. “You’d be amazed,” I answered while pouring her second glass of wine.
Evening shifts at The Lark Tavern kept me busy. On a row of high seats, politicians and gangsters, college kids, local deadbeats and even the delinquent housewives waved their hands for attention. I immediately screwed up with Brenda, a married woman . . . and then met Jill, a teasing, seventeen-year-old virgin. Kristin was a tall, mysterious blonde who loved to be tied up and spanked. “Would you mind walking me home?” she asked the first night we chatted.
Sonny Capozzi, the undercover narcotics cop, waltzed into the bar shifty and grinning. He quickly made a point to show a young man how things work. Meanwhile, my sister’s ex-convict boyfriend lurked around the corner just waiting for a chance to get even. And an old tavern veteran everyone called ‘George the Polack’ watched from his barstool, quietly shaking his head.
I decided to laugh and keep on slogging. As customers settled onto the seats, it was easy to call up a smile, mix their drinks, and with a jukebox playing in the background become their friend. I fell in love with some and hid from others, but rest assured I heard from every single one of them; some of them changed my life.
And I’d only been looking for a cold beer on a regular summer day.
Everything started off calm and quiet. During the second week of visiting my sister, I walked past The Lark Tavern at the corner of Lark Street and Madison. Under a lazy blue sky, I glanced up and saw the gold lettering–Est. In 1933–inscribed at the bottom of a wooden sign hanging over the front door. I thought, “Plenty of time for just one!” Inside, an old-school barman stood behind the taps dressed in a white shirt and red bow tie, his worn black pants pulled high on his waist. Short and moon-faced, thinning hair neatly combed, he leaned through a fog of cigarette smoke as he hobnobbed with the regulars seated in front of him.
Later, I’d learn this man was known as Johnny La La. He walked in early each morning to set up The Lark. He’d polish the bar, restock plenty of cocktail napkins and straws, then haul out buckets filled with ice from the machine in the back. Arriving at dawn, anyone else might have considered a legitimate breakfast made in the small side kitchen, perhaps two poached eggs on toast. For Johnny La La, the first thing touching his lips each day was a good stiff drink, a healthy pour of Seagram’s Seven whiskey mixed with Seven-up. More morning drinks followed. This was how Johnny La La put his world in order.
Most of the daytime regulars now sitting peacefully with their beers had been coming to The Lark since they were young men. Over the years, they’d met the folks who became friends and in some cases their wives, and they still stopped by as their kids were growing up. Finally retired, either widowed or divorced, these patrons appeared early in the morning as though this was their living room. Waiting to greet them stood Johnny La La, the professionally cranky bartender who for the last thirty years was the one thing in their lives that hadn’t changed.
George the Polack lived around the corner. He’d remained a large man beneath his flannel shirt. George never said much. His back straight on his stool, he didn’t take anyone’s side nor seek their support, sitting content as a monarch in the forever cherished spot next to the front window. “It’s a beautiful day out there,” George occasionally informed everyone.
No one knew where Johnny La La got his name, maybe it had to do with his attitude toward life. After thirty years behind these taps, Johnny lived the way he wanted and worked the way he wanted. For one thing, he’d never go past halfway on the bar if the basement trapdoor at the other end lay open. Although the bar stretched for thirty feet, if the trapdoor was up, Johnny went halfway and stopped. Did he think if he went any further he might fall into that dark hole in the floor, fifteen feet away? Customers by the sunlit window called out: “What the hell, Johnny! Get down here and give us a beer.”
“Not while the trapdoor is open!” Johnny always yelled back. “You’ll just have to wait. Maybe you shouldn’t have another beer anyway.”
Of course, I only learned the details once I began working at The Lark. But even on that first glance, I probably could have guessed half of it with the way things looked. On this particular afternoon I took an empty stool, settling a respectable distance from the old-timers. The bar itself was handcrafted, maybe made from mahogany, with a pattern of fancy wooden inlays across the top; it was the kind of bar you don’t see anymore.
I waited patiently as the bartender talked with his customers. At one point he scowled in my direction as though I had silently interrupted him, then he returned to the conversation and puffed out another cloud of smoke. I continued to sit alone, looking around. A row of tap handles displayed the selection of draft beers. In one corner sat an old Wurlitzer jukebox, but no music played. Ten minutes must have passed, and nothing changed. Finally I lifted my hand, “Excuse me.”
The bartender gestured to his companions with an exasperated air and said, “Hey, come on, pal. I’m talking to my friends!” It seemed like another five minutes but when he finished talking, Johnny La La came down to where I sat. “Well,” he asked, “what do you want?” I ordered a pint of draft beer, and the journey was about to begin.