55 Christopher Street (the old days)

by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

Three steps down, you push the heavy wooden door and enter the eternal twilight of the bar. No matter what the time of day, the season, it is always evening there——the light a mellow Jack Daniels amber.  When you enter, the people on their stools turn their booze and smoke-dimmed eyes toward you like half-blind moles surprised by a sudden light. They peer hopefully at you.  Now, who is this?  Someone new? Interesting?  But they know you.  One gets up and gives you his stool. In the tarnished mirror behind the bar, your face glows, pale.

The air is white with cigarette smoke.  The jukebox, famous for its selection of old jazz, is playing Billie Holiday, singing “God Bless the Child.”  Most of the patrons ignore it and pursue their endless conversations heavy with gossip. These are the regulars. They reminisce about bartenders from the Sixties, about brawls and crimes, encounters and betrayals.

The wood of the bar is smooth and warm as flesh. Glasses sparkle, lined up for use. Rows of bottles glimmer, flaunting their brilliant labels and swan-necked pourers.  The worn, wooden floor slopes gently down toward the toilets. The women’s room, slightly fragrant from the herb smoked there, has been the scene of many transactions——sexual, commercial, criminal. A writer OD’d there on methadone.  The door is inscribed with ancient messages of love and hate.

The Forties phone booth, near the WC, is also redolent of weed, another haven for those who require a bit of privacy. Its olive-colored quilted metal walls are a directory of enigmatic numbers.

Between five and nine the regulars are present.  They are not young: painters and writers, a New Yorker cartoonist, retired professors, CEO’s, architects—-drinkers all.  By ten, when the live music begins and the young crowd shows up, the regulars are gone, melted away like ice cubes.  But they will be back tomorrow.  This is their place, the Fives.

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is an ex-expatriate, explorer, educator, experimenter; author of two books: Notes of a Nude Model and Abroad, an Expatriate’s Diaries.  Also a grandmother, awfully aware of the waning of time.