By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
The past is never dead. It's not even past. — William Faulkner
I used to go to Spanky and Darla's (140 First Avenue, East Village) back when it was called Cheap Shots. A lot. I was still in college, living on First Avenue between St. Marks and Seventh Street, reading until dawn during the week and drinking well past the dawn on most Fridays and Saturdays. The apartment was a poorly ventilated three bedroom that had been converted from a one bedroom. My bedroom was so small that I had to rip the closet door off in order to access the clothes inside, even though I slept on an army cot. The living room was loaded with hand-me-down furniture for which we had little room, but there was always an ashtray within arm's reach, as well as an extra couch or two for those who didn't feel like heading back to their respective dorms or passing out on the L train late at night. Bad things were happening on that train back then. Very bad things.
We had lived in the First Avenue apartment for about nine months when Cheap Shots first opened in 2004, and had by then figured out where we could drink on the cheap without scrupulous bartenders who wanted to know why we looked so young. Still, we knew that it was always good to have a few places in the neighborhood where we knew we could go without being hassled, and we figured that the new place was worth a shot. After all, it had, by being less than a block away, become the fifth or sixth closest bar to our place.
To say we were the first customers at Cheap Shots would be to stretch the truth, but to say that we were their youngest would…well, that would probably stretch the truth, too. Regardless, we were some of the first on the Cheap Shots bandwagon, and my roommates and our friends quickly came to love the fact that it was a new bar without any sense of pretense. It was narrow, home to the cheapest pitchers (and shots) in the neighborhood, and just empty enough to allow us enough room to meet up with our friends. We usually took our seats on one of (or both of) the wooden picnic tables in the back that had already been dug at with pens and knives and a variety of more creative implements. Eventually all of the vandalism ceased to impart anything more than a baroque design that looked like a topographic map of the Badlands. By then, of course, the bar had run its course from dive to hip-dive to NYU-kid-dive to fratty-NYU-kid-dive to middle-aged-man-hoping-to-pick-up-NYU-girl-dive back to dive. It was a dialectic process that took about three years to complete, though we missed the majority of it because we had by then moved to Brooklyn.
Spanky and Darla's (East Village)
We eventually got to know some of the bartenders—most of them by face as opposed to name. There was the owner's wife (Katie) with whom we became friends, an anemic punker chick with a lot of tattoos and piercings (Charlotte?) and a series of younger women who had too much dignity to be strippers and not enough ambition to seriously model, though they easily could have been mistaken for either on the street. Had they been more innocent, I would have suspected that the owner was skulking around Port Authority offering jobs to any cute and clueless girl who had come from the country to make it in the big city. This was far from the case, however, and a lot of them seemed to come and go with each passing month. Each one of them probably moved on to bigger and better things, though there is also the possibility that some may have quit without a fallback plan, that they had been pushed to the absolute limit by the antics of one of the more surly daytime regulars for whom even Christ would have had little patience.
These regulars began to file out as the night wore on, though more than a few usually stayed to finish whatever sports were on. By that point a younger crowd would begin to file in, the music thundering on even if there wasn't enough space to dance. This group favored classic or cock rock to top forties pop, though the latter was sometimes more prominent than the former when too many underage kids came in. Any jukebox is a shrine to caprice; when operated by a group of people under twenty, it becomes more of a weapon. The bartenders held veto power, however, as they had a pedal that allowed them to skip any song that didn't get their seal of approval. While this may have been due to several reasons, I like to think that a forty-minute Phish song of my choosing was the determining factor behind the installation of this mechanism.
The bathrooms were not for the weak of heart, and, in fact, one can begin to grasp just how disgusting they used to be by looking at the website Yelp. Virtually every person to write a review of the bar (prior to late 2009) described them ad nauseum. There is very little hyperbole to be found there. Successfully maneuvering from the door to the toilet without getting the bottoms of one's pants wet was a skill few could master, especially after a few drinks, and most came back to the table after their first trip to the can with no dearth of words about the bathroom, especially if they had been unlucky enough to enter the far one. Speculation as to why they were in the state they were would lead to arguments, and from there into a weird form of urine-based partisanship that oftentimes borrowed heavily from magical realism. There was a sense of accord, however, on why the problem persisted, as everyone agreed that we were witnessing a positive feedback loop (some piss would lead to more piss as people shied away from the toilet, which would, of course, lead to more piss as people shied further away, which would lead to more piss, etc.). Personally, I always felt that one could follow Occam's razor, which would point out the very discernible sign that stated that the name of the bar was "Cheap Shots" as opposed to "Reasonably Priced Consumables," and that the real problem was that people were simply too drunk to notice or care where they urinated. Then again, the bathrooms were in poor shape even when we went in early. Perhaps the piss goblin theory had some merit.
The place has cleaned up quite a bit since it was converted into Spanky and Darla's. It's not a favorite bar, but I like to stop in when I'm in the neighborhood or when my former roommates from the First Avenue apartment want to meet up (one coming in from Seattle, the other all the way from the West Village). Even though the bar is under new management, they still have cheap beer, cheap shots and cater to a revolving door of NYU students, sad old men and neighborhood drunks. It's a more respectable hovel, one that has preserved the virtues that Cheap Shots held while burying its most gruesome aspects. It now lacks the miasma of stale beer, urine and recirculated air that used to send the more respectable visitors out the door and gasping for the crisp air of the East Village, it doesn't serve children and it even has a bouncer to tell police: Keep moving, officer; there's no reason to raid us.
And yet the old Cheap Shots reputation is still undeniably there. It is still discernible beneath the coats of paint and beyond the stare of the bouncer (who will, if given a cigarette or two, tell the bartender to give you a free round). True, the bartenders don't encourage bragging rights by pushing truck bombs on people who feel like getting weird; and the regulars seem less like manifestations of a down-and-out Silenus and more like retirees with too much time on their hands; and looking in the bathroom mirror won't cause an existential crisis. The edge, in other words, has been blunted.
However, people still go to Spanky and Darla's looking for Cheap Shots, and, if there is one thing that I have come to know about bars, it's that people make the bar. This is why virtually every hip and cool place will eventually fade from the limelight—the hip and cool people will find something new and stop going. People go where they think they want to go; it's a speculative process (that, one could say, shows perception serving as a material force). Every once in a while, consequently, when enough people show up with enough nostalgia, when the bartender is a little tipsy and willing to give out free samples of disgusting cocktails with even more disgusting names, when you are absolutely certain that this is your last drink even though you've already ordered another one, you'll find yourself back in Cheap Shots. In fact, it's the only reason I ever go back.