When it comes to riding motorcycles, drinking in strange gin mills, or courting exotic pole dancers, it never hurts to err on the side of caution. But “caution” is an abstract unknown to the average 19-year-old and a characteristic that was deemed unmanly in the average Jersey City alpha dog of 1976. The circumstances of this story were such that I found myself drinking in a strange gin mill and chatting up a pole dancer, with my motorcycle parked at the curb outside — while throwing caution to the winds.
The Jersey City in which I was born and abandoned (no less than six times) was a loose confederation of neighborhoods that each started out as independent communities. Yet over the course of time, these were merged into a loose ethnic slurry that consisted of Irish, Italian, Polish, German, and Dutch territories, with their own main streets, churches, and factories. The most common element were square, attached houses with flat roofs (some with false gambrels in front), with a stoop to the sidewalk. The “stoop” was nothing more than a short flight of stairs upon which immigrant grandparents sat, waiting to die.
Baby Boomers born here in the ‘fifties had no idea their lives had begun on the threshold of hell. But the waterfront docks had fallen into the Hudson River by the mid-sixties; the spectacular Protestant money mansions of Old Bergen and Jersey Avenue had long-since begun to sag; and local factories had the vacant-eyed look of industry gone absent. If dog shit and broken glass could have been considered treasure, we’d have been pirate kings. The city had a Dickensian look to it by the time I was riding a motorcycle. However those of us spawned inside the bell jar thought it was Paris... And from our perspective, neighboring Union City was much worse.
Union City began at 5th Street (otherwise known as Secaucus Road) and Kennedy Boulevard. Crossing this line was like entering an alien nation. While I cannot say that the residents there had both eyes on the same side of their nose (like human flounder), there seemed a perceivable difference. And the very first community you’d wander into was known as the “Transfer Station,” a rabbit warren of diagonal streets that formed concentric triangles of hopelessness, lined with run-down bars, dubbed “clubs,” in the ‘forties. (The neighborhood initially served as the terminus and turnaround of several trolley car lines, hence the name.)
Yet in 1976, the Transfer Station was like a free trade zone for wayward pole dancers, who would flash their tits when the action got slow. My action was slow that week, owing to the fact that the love of my life had temporarily regained consciousness and invited me to take the gas pipe. My pals were nowhere to be found so I made my first mistake that night and cruised the “Transfer Station.”
“The Palm” was a joint with a semi-life-sized neon sign of that tropical foliage hanging above the door. And like most trees that lose their leaves or fronds, this one had shed every last inch of glowing glass tubing. A sign in the window advertised “Exotic Dancers,” featuring “Avancé,” which I believe is fake Italian for “Chrissy.” This bar had seen better days... Like the Roman Colosseum had seen better days. The upholstery of wobbly stools was patched with tape and the place reeked of cigarettes and a beer trough full of stale suds. Cheap track lighting cast a glare on a small stage that was anchored by a brass pole, smudged by fingermarks.
Like any Hudson County rider worth his salt, I scanned the gin mill for threats, and found only one knuckle-walker in the sparse crowd. This was a mutant who could easily touch his forehead with his lower lip. I took a seat as far away from him as possible, and made my second mistake: I put a $20 bill on the bar.
New Jersey has many idiosyncrasies. One of these regards appropriate behavior in a bar, specifically, putting down a tenner or twenty, and then drinking against that dwindling amount. My father, an expert in these matters, once said to me, “Don’t ever go into a bar and order a drink without laying your money down. The bartender will expect it, and no one else will touch it.”
I have had great nights in bars in Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, Paris, Berlin, and Dublin. Nowhere is this tradition observed like it is in New Jersey. Placing money on the bar even causes confusion in some places.
I ordered the first of several rum and Cokes, which were about two bucks each in those days. This left me with a ten-spot and four singles on the bar when the entertainment started. “Avancé” shimmied out and started climbing the pole like the floor was on on fire. She was a couple of years older than me and new to her arduous trade. There wasn’t an excess ounce on her lithe frame. She was blonde in the way that you knew the carpet would never match the drapes, and had gone a little too heavy on the eye makeup, but she was a talent far in excess of what this place typically presented. She was wearing a thong made of fishing line and two nipple pasties about the size of dimes. (The dime is one of the most understated of all US coins. It is exactly the right size.)
As was my custom of the day, I decided to marry her, move into a cottage by a lake, and have her children. The courtship started by holding up each of the four singles as soon as she finished a number. “Avancé” took each with a smile or a little giggle, and paused to chat with me. At buck number three, she asked my name. I interpreted this as a sign that we were going to leave together. “Do you want change for that ten dollar bill?” she asked, scarfing up single buck #4. And that was when I made mistake #3.
“Not if I’m just gonna give it all to you,” I replied.
I failed to realize this was her second set of the night, and that the neanderthal had squandered his total life’s worth of $8.50 on lining her “g” string. He concluded that the sudden onset of my patronage would have a dismal impact on his romantic chances later that evening, and decided to cut his losses and my throat.
“Hey Suck Nuts... Leave the dancer alone,” growled the mutant.
My response was mistake #4. I was halfway through the “Fu” part of “Fuck you,” when a fist the size of a canned ham got stuck in my right eye. It was dislodged by a roundhouse punch to the gut that ultimately resulted in my getting an unparalleled view of a floor that hadn’t been washed in 20 years.
I know that many of my Twisted Roads readers are fascinated by nature. One of the most remarkable creatures to be found in the great US west is the lowly armadillo, an animal of limited charm, but one of great discretion. When confronted by conflict, the armadillo simply rolls into a semi-armored ball. I can tell you right now that no armadillo has ever gotten into a bar fight. Rolling into a ball simply induces raging mutants to try their luck at soccer. This human muscle pounded me out into the street, knocked me down one more time, and threw the Kawasaki over on top of me.
For the first time in my life, I understood why most states have laws against the common man owning a flame-thrower. My head began to swell in three of four places, and would eventually assume the shape of a rhombohedron. My right eye was nearly closed, and there was a dent in the bike’s gas tank. It took me ten minutes to get the Kawasaki upright and on it. And yet, I couldn’t let things go. My friend “Cretin,” a real street brawler, would have beaten this guy close to death with anything at hand. And I wanted to come back for a rematch.
I still looked like shit three days later when I gave Cretin the details.
He laughed and said we’d talk later in the week. I met him for lunch in a Union City diner, where he insisted we sit at the counter, and ordered the Garden State specialty, the Cheeseburger Deluxe.
“What do you think of the waitress?” he asked.
She was a skinny thing with a half-inch of black roots showing in her blonde hair. She was cute in the ordinary way, and attempted to conceal a tired look by wearing too much make-up.
“Thanks, Avancé,” said Cretin, leaving a $5 tip.
The waitress shot us a bashful smile, and asked, “You guys see me dance?”
The name tag on her uniform read “Karen.”
Outside, Cretin said, “That’s what got the living shit beaten out of you. Want to give her ten bucks now? She’s the same woman.”
He went on to explain that the guy who beat me was named “Twitch,” and had a reputation for getting the edge through a sucker punch.
“I’d say he had your number,” said Cretin. “You’re enraged because you got the shit kicked out of you in front of a woman, who showed her ass to you and every other guy in a shit bar — for a buck. And you didn’t even get beaten that badly.”
“What would you call this?” I asked, pointed to my blackened right eye.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2012