Better Bars and Gardens

by E.J. Cullen

So then what happens is: There's nothing. And I mean nothing. Tending bar Friday nights at Bellucci's across the way from the college; trying to get the Honda started in the ice; watching the Knicks on Channel Nine.

I said to Bellucci, not that there was anything in it for me, but I said to Bellucci something like: "Why don't you change the name of this broke-dick place and get some college kids in here to drink beer? Put some music in the box instead of that Jerry Vale shit. Put a pin game in the corner. They got nine thousand kids across the street looking for a pitcher of beer and a Springsteen record and you got this dopey broad in the corner with a fifty-dollar piano and a Blossom Dearie voice."

So then, when Bellucci hears enough, he goes: "Take a hike," which means get gone and don't come back. When you know Bellucci three minutes, you know how to read between the lines.

"Pack it in your kazoo," is my reply as I unhook my poncho from the nub and hit the door. With Bellucci, it's safer to read insults from long distance or refrain altogether. Big as he is, you can't tell where the fat leaves off and the muscles begin.

"I'm leavin'," I said as I stopped by the open door.

He turned. His face fell slack. His jaw dropped and his mouth sunk open in mock surprise. "T'row a party for yourself."

That was the last time I saw him until later when I had to ask him for the job back.

Weinrhoder got rich somehow, trading fat-backs and rat-tails on the commodity exchange. He'd buy them when nobody wanted them and sell the rights when the scarcity set in. He sits around the bar a lot and sucks on limes that I float for him in a glass of gin. He says this is the only country in the world where you can get on a train and leave town without checking in with the authorities. "It's still possible to become a millionaire here," he says, "as long as you don't file any taxes." He bores the shit out of me really, except that I figure if a dumb fart like him can make it, there's still some room for me.

Zeidel is a weight lifter for Barbell City, down three blocks. He'll show you how to ride the stationary bicycle and how to row on the rowing machine. They pay him for this with a cardboard, computerized check from the home office, which I take from him on Friday nights and turn it into about twenty bottles of Lite beer from Miller, and then I give him the change. He told me how, although he is Jewish himself, he questions the Jew. "Too much emphasis on the affairs of the mind," he says, "to the neglect of the body. A healthy body and a healthy mind are one and the same. To neglect the body is to squander a valuable inheritance. Kill the body and you kill the head."

He told me the only thing he hates more than a phony intellectual is an underdeveloped pair of biceps or a man who didn't know where his next meal was coming from.

"Straight As," I told him. "I think you touched on something there. He tries to be friendly but on Friday nights, I started wearing long-sleeved shirts.

"What some of these stick-necked intellectuals need is a good beating," he said to me one night. I'm not an intellectual but when I'm working behind the bar, and everybody gets really drunko, I could be mistaken for one, and I'm truly on the cusp of being a stick-neck, so now I hang down the other end of the mahogany when he comes in, visiting only when he bangs his empties on the hardwood.

Craven owns the lamp store across the street. "I'm sick of dealing with the public," he says. "I'm sick of all the mealy-mouthed mutts who want something for nothing. One day I'll set a match to the whole frieken' thing. I don't care if the whole goddamned block burns down."

Loughlin drives one of those beverage trucks. One night when Jesse Jackson comes on TV, Loughlin takes his hi-ball glass and heaves it at the screen and cracks the goddamned thing. Everybody ducks like it was a bullet until they realize it's Loughlin again. "I hate that sonofabitch," he says. "Don't worry, I'll pay for the damages."

Mr. Gwynne is a banker. Branch manager. Steps in, has a few. Brings in a girl friend from the bank now and then because nobody in here gives a shit. Told me his wife goes to Colorado in the winter and Miami in the summer because she loves the intensity of the seasons. I used to give him a lot of buy-backs, like on the house, when Bellucci was gone. We talked politics: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazilian monetary policy, third world stuff. Softening him up, letting him sound important. Then I bang on him for a loan. All I wanted was car, not eighteen rooms in Trump Tower.

"You think I could get me a car loan?" I ask him. "I can get it anywhere, but I figure, you're a customer, I'll throw you the business."

"Oh, no, no," he says. "I don't handle that stuff, I don't do anything under half a million, and even then, only to corporations, business loans."

I told him, "Loan me half a million, I'll give you back four hundred ninety-five right there at the table." I only need a used shit-box that starts up in the winter.

"Wish I could, my boy," he says. "It's just not my balliwick."

Later, I see him downtown one day, squeezing his fat ass out of an eight-year-old Chevvie and I realize he's broker than I am. From then on, he pays for his own drinks and I give him the cold shoulder. One Friday night when Zeidel is good and drunked-up, I'll whisper in this ear that the guy Gwynne down the end of the bar thinks you're a fag.

Stephen floats in on weekends to listen to the broad with the Blossom Dearie voice. He's into interior design and I think he's got his eye on Freddie the piano player. Stephen wears those tight slacks and a Byron short, close at the waist, and billowy in the sleeve. One Friday he asks me if I want to go on a Sunday picnic with him in his MG. I told Bellucci: "Get rid of these gayblades or pretty soon they'll be dancing naked on the bar. And that includes Freddie."

Bellucci says Freddie is an artist and he comes cheap. Stephen drinks Marguerites and pays cash. "Besides, he's a fashion designer, that don't make him a queer."

"Maybe," I tell him, "he'll write this place up in Better Bars and Gardens."

Bellucci teaches a real estate course two night a week across the street at the junior college. He snuck in there through somebody he knows when nobody was looking. I guess it proves he does have that degree from St. John's like he says, but it forebodes bad times for his students. If the kids' parents ever for a look at Bellucci's expertise in real estate, they'd send their punks into the army for training, like in the old days.

I can only imagine this pile of mashed potatoes teaching somebody about floating mortgages, prime rates, equity-income ratios, etcetera, when he not only doesn't own a piece of real estate himself after forty-six years on the earth, but is even four months behind in his rent on the bar, and (he brags about this part) he hasn't filed a tax return since '76. So much for higher education.

So Bellucci takes off for Florida in February like every other bar-owner in the world. He goes down there to Lauderdale with his shit-eating Bermuda shorts and thirty pairs of socks, the shoes on his feet, three pairs of underwear, one blue Izod shirt, one green Izod shirt, one "Bellucci's Bar and Lounge" tee shirt and a green, plastic-peak half-hat with a band around the back.

He meets the other bar owners from New York and they bounce around the cocktail lounges with their shorts and their socks and their brown shoes. They throw around tips like a gang of Babe Ruths. The biggest tipper in the world is not a Rockefeller or a Getty. He is a bar-owner with a load on. When he's up and around and sober, he won't give you the fuzz off a tennis ball, but put a shot of Jack Daniels in front of him with a beer chaser and he'll donate his liver and eyeballs to science. He'll leave a day's pay on the bar on the way to the next joint. Don't ask me why, that's just the way it is. It's tradition and the ginmill jockey who thinks he can do it differently is either new at the job or he will soon find himself a new occupation. It becomes clear to everybody that he doesn't belong.

Anyway, Bellucci does the wings of man and here I am, Undersecretary for Barroom Affairs, left in charge. Face the Nation. Shit-face the nation. The Honda's fuel pump is shot, and the exhaust system finally rotted its way into Japanese heaven. It's parked down on Chauncey and Jerome with a flat left rear. I think it has finally lost its will to live. It shows no interest and fails to recognize me. The headlights and grill are covered with frozen mud and somebody snapped off the aerial. One windshield wiper is in the up position, the other is gone altogether. Beak city is the ditty. At this point, a smart guy realizes that bad as it is, it could be worse. You never know when there might be a nuclear exchange.

So, while Bellucci is gone, I devise a little merchandising ploy to put the place on the map. The method I'm not prepared to reveal because I'm truthfully thinking of taking this concept public and franchising it again and again around the world. International. Five days didn't go by from its inception to the point where there were lines of people literally out into the street trying to get in. Even the regulars, Weinrhoder, Zeidel, Craven, they can't get in anymore. It's too packed.

When Bellucci comes back from sun city, he can't believe his Italian eyeballs. He shoulders his way in, bull that he is, by bogarting his way past the people in front of the line. He muscles his way to the bar and ends up with his head between these two old broads who do Amaretto and are here almost constantly since about two days after my innovation, my master-stroke. Einstein would probably like to talk to me about this.

Bellucci, with his arms around these two old babes, leans up real close to the bar where he can get my attention. His eyes are wide and white, his nostrils flaring with excitement.

"Kid," he hollers, "this is incredible. There must be two hundred people crammed in here and another two hundred and fifty outside tryin' to get in. It's a zoo. I love it!"

"Go home," I tell him, loudly. "Give me one more week and I'll have this place floating. I haven't even started with my marketing. This place will be more famous than the Lido. Remember the Peppermint Lounge? Don't make me lose my chain of thought."

"No, no," he hollers. "You do it. You do it, kid."

"I can't have nobody bothering me," I tell him. "You go home. Come back in a week."

"Right," he says. "Right, I'm goin'." He looks square at the two broads, one to the other. He's got a grin on his face like the cat who swallowed the canary.

"Are you ladies enjoying yourselves?" he shouts.

"Oh, yes," says one. "We adore this place."

"Great, great," squeals Bellucci. "I love it."

People are clamoring up and down the bar for drinks. Others are fighting their way from ten deep to get to the mahogany. "This is the owner," I say to the ladies.

"How nice," says one, the smaller one with glasses. "We're here all the time, every chance we get. Your bartender is a wonderful young man."

"The best," screams Bellucci. "The best!" He's smiling like a whale, his lower jaw open, his bottom teeth exposed, his tonsils dancing like Astaire and Rogers.

"We've been coming here for over a week," says the gray-haired, fatter one. "And he hasn't charged us for a drink yet."

So then what happens is: There's nothing. And I mean nothing. I said to Bellucci, not that there was anything in it for me, but I said to Bellucci something like: "Get bent." This is after he fires me. I told him too, don't think I'm going to do the Billy Martin thing where you hire me back and forth every time you get in a jam. Once I leave, that's it."

"Take a royal hike," say Bellucci. "I'll put my size 12 so far up your ass, the inside of your head will read CAT'S PAW."

That's the way he feels about it. Enough said. Some guys are afraid to spend a little money in the interest of promoting their business. Johnson's Wax spends about twenty million a year getting their name in front of the public. Bellucci's brain curdles at the thought of a few short beers that don't immediately translate into coin of the realm. That is why Johnsons are waxing the shit out of the western world and Bellucci is all out of roach spray.

Three days into the off-season and Zeidel and Loughlin catch up to me. "Let's go," they say. "We're takin' you out for a few golden draughts."

"Oh, what's the use," I say. "Everything falls apart. That's the way it goes. It's entropy. It's Einstein. It's the quantum factor."

"Your ass is the quantum factor," says Zeidel. "All of a sudden you're a smart guy?"

"Shit no," says I, lying. "It's just that everything I got is broke, including me."

"Hey," says Loughlin, "you're with us, you don't go to your pocket. There's people waiting for us."

Before you know it, we're across from the college and I'm being dragged into Bellucci's. Craven is there in the corner. With Weinrhoder. And Gwynne. The big tub of whaleshit, the owner himself, is there, sitting at the same table, the wrong way on a chair with his eggplant forearms crossed over the top. He's lecturing them like he's John Kenneth Galbraith.

"Here he is," says Weinrhoder.

"Bring him over here," says Craven.

"Sit him in the chair," goes Bellucci.

"We thought we was a friend of yours," says Zeidel from behind, where he's got his claws dug into my trapezoids.

"You are," I say.

"You ran out on us," says Gwynne. "I told you I can't give you a loan. It's the bank, it's not me."

"I didn't run out on nobody," I say. "I was three feet in front of a size twelve. That's not running out. That's flight!"

"So what are you gonna do?" asks Loughlin.

"Live in my car. Lose a lot of weight. Finish up school. Get the goddamned BBA and get done with it. Don't worry about me. Two years and I'm on Wall Street."

"Wall Street, your ass," says Zeidel.

"It's like this," says Craven. "Mr. Bellucci and us, we got an understanding. You don't work here, we don't drink here. And that's not Woody Allen talking. Who's talking is five right-down-to-the-wire alcoholics. Mr. Bellucci here, he sees you in a new light. He wants to give you your job back. Like a manager's assistant while you go to school."

I look at Bellucci square-on. "That right, fat-man?"

He hesitates five seconds to get his Italian temper back in the box. His eyes open up wide and he starts to chew on his tongue. "I'd like to have you back, kid. It's not that these guys spend a few hundred a week in here, neither. You got good ideas; you just get carried away a little. Just ask me before you do something crazy next time. By the way, you get to Wall Street, call the boss a fat man -- see if he's as nice as me."

"You guys are all right," I say. "It's nice to be wanted."

And it is. Yeah, it can hold you back from a lot of things you should be doing, but when you add up all the columns, what the hell else is there in this narrow-ass little life that makes a lot more sense than that? What?

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