By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Jay Fox (credit: Josephine Paz)
Hey, this isn’t faux-dive. This is a dive. — Yuppie-Boy, upon entering Moe’s Tavern (The Simpsons)
A true dive-bar is a frightful thing. It is also rare. There are wine bars, there are cocktail lounges, there are pubs, clubs, and cabarets. There are trendy bars, sports bars, taverns, shebeens, hangouts, and a slew of places that fall somewhere in between. There are bars filled with old men who have lived nearby since they were young men. There are bars filled with young people who will see the bar close long before they grow old. A dive, however, is something else. It is a kind of Mecca for the deranged, the cheap, and those who are just plain shit out of luck. There are no tourists who come to see it, no yuppies out to satisfy a little bit of that nostalgie de la boue. Still, there is an assortment of people; it’s not just a menagerie of lumpenproletariats, junkies and creeps too quickly prompted to violence. One will also find students, window washers, and punk rockers still crying in their beers because CBGB is now a John Varvatos operation dedicated to the memory of rock and roll (if you’re not familiar with John Varvatos, then you can’t afford anything in his store).
The bar itself must also contain certain qualities, if it is to be a dive. It should be strictly utilitarian, devoid of pretense, and such a staple within the neighborhood that no one can really remember when it first opened. Draft beer is out of the question. Food is out of the question. A walk to the toilet is impossible, as the correct verb in this situation is wade. Graffiti is everywhere. The serious regulars are by the door. The jukebox is the only form of music unless one of the jakewalkers feels like singing while in line for the can. The brightest lights come from the neon beer advertisements in the window, which paint the bar in the colors of dusk, many of the patrons in jaundice and pallor.
Still, a true dive is a gem, especially in neighborhoods that have become increasingly hostile towards—and yet also nostalgic for—the grittiness for which they became famous. The Village is perhaps the most bipolar area in the city when it comes to this. And Mars Bar (at the corner of Second Avenue and First Street, Manhattan), in my mind, is the most unapologetic dive left there.
More than any other bar that I can think of, the Mars Bar is a place that you either love or hate. It’s a spartan setup: one room with a very long bar that’s been scarred by generations of fidgety, knife-wielding drunks, a miscellany of stools and chairs, a jukebox, and no light fixtures (except in the bathroom...though, like when you know there’s roaches in the kitchen, keeping the lights off may be a good idea). Stickers, paint, graffiti, and an assortment of grime that has been accumulating since the Kennedy administration have covered most of the block windows.
Mars Bar (credit: Jay Fox)
My friend Colleen, a hairdresser from Detroit, who may have been the inspiration behind Dee from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, usually comes into town on Sunday morning. Over the years, our routine has come to be: eat, stop in at the Mars Bar, stumble around the East Village until we both reach that point where Monday’s hangover will be unbearable, and then have another two beers. Unlike so many other people who come to this city wanting to see the bright lights of Midtown or the glamour of the Uppersides both East and West, Colleen has been here enough to know that Midtown is nothing more than a space for film shoots and offices, and that the only worthwhile things between Central Park and the East River are the museums. And she’s seen pretty much all of them.
We came into the bar just as the city was coming to life with people in transit from either bar to home (Giants fans) or home to bar (Jets fans). The Mars Bar doesn’t have a television, so there were no football fans among us, and, even if there had been, most of them probably didn’t even know it was Sunday. Colleen’s teeth, more nacreous than pearls, shone in the dim sunlight as the jukebox blasted out Metallica, Soundgarden, and Pavement. After the bartender gave us our drinks, she returned to absently flipping through either the Yellow Pages or the Sunday Times. The career alcoholics by the door were maundering amongst themselves in a dialect of English that no one is capable of understanding without several years of gutter living and at least a half pint of whiskey to the face. The two next to us, on the other hand, had been ingesting something far less innocent, as their blackened teeth suggested. After one of them had stared at Colleen for too long, she finally exploded with a combative, but somehow cordial, “What?” which produced a crooked smile from the man, who slowly sipped on his beer, and then said something about “Them pearly whites,” which was, of course, something one would expect from a deranged character in a horror film, but that was more or less the last we heard from him.
At night, the only real source of illumination from inside the bar comes from a strand of white Christmas lights that reveal a wall covered in artwork and phrases written in Sharpie, my favorite being:
When life gives you lemons break its
thumbs and take the fucking oranges
One will also find that there is actually a very bright lamp, which the bartenders utilize when checking ID. This is something they do more often than any other bar I’ve been to that doesn’t have a bouncer. Nighttime is always kind of odd there. Most of the serious alcoholics have either wandered on home or been eighty-sixed by that point. One night not too long ago my girlfriend and I arrived around one in the morning. The small, blonde bartender was in the midst of tossing a junkie out. He was guilty of committing that type of mischief for which junkies are known. Rather than yell back, he starting crying and begging for a hug. She gave it to him reluctantly, and then told him that it didn’t matter that he had tipped her well at one point about a year previously, he had to go. He had been thrown out then, too. On that occasion, however, he did not leave quietly: two bricks, two broken windows and a police report will testify to this.
As she explained the situation to us a bit later, noting with casual disgust that he’d gotten “junkie snot” on her recently washed sweatshirt, it became apparent that she had long ago become inured to this type of madness. The rest of the patrons that night were mostly kids from Cooper Union and NYU, as well as a slew of bohemians in their late-twenties and early-thirties. The only guy ostensibly above fifty left not too long after our arrival to pick up an eight ball. On top of a stack of Village Voices was a one-page statement from Chairman Bob of the Revolutionary Communist Part, USA, celebrating the recent revolution in Egypt.
More than any other bar I’ve ever been to, the Mars Bar is a blank canvas. There are crazy drug addicts floating around, there are people who would look more at home in a West Virginia biker bar, there are kids from the wealthier suburbs of Chicago and Philadelphia who have relocated to New York, dyed their hair, and put on wolf’s clothing. It is the Village melting pot that has existed for as long as anyone can remember, and in an area that has seen just about all of its punk venues turned into wine bars, and all of its Ukrainian delis converted into sushi places, its refreshing to know that that Real New York—which, like Galatea, is but a creation—might actually still exist on the corner of Second Avenue and First Street.
N.B. With the recent news of Mars Bar’s pending destruction and reconstruction (at the same site, but on the ground floor of a twelve-story condo complex), it seems as though this image of the neighborhood is rapidly fading away.
Jay Fox was born in suburban Detroit. He moved to New York City in 2001. When he’s not working his 9-5, he spends his time writing fiction, playing with his band (Pistols, 40 Paces), doing the crossword puzzles featured in The New York Times, and drinking in waterholes around the city. If given the option of a PBR or a Budweiser, he would take the PBR. If given the option of an IPA or a Belgian wheat, he would more than likely take the IPA. Whiskey makes him charming, stupid, and then sleepy. He doesn’t particularly like writing in third-person, but understands that it’s necessary sometimes.
He would probably want to meet anyone who has bothered to read this, especially if it’s over a drink.