The transfiguration of wine and wafer into the body and blood of the savior is a mystery accepted by all good Catholics. In my Bronx neighborhood of the 1970s, less ethereal transformations took place. They were as dear and vital to many as the soul-saving sacrament that occurred mid-mass every day and a hundred times on Sunday. Dim the lights and drop the needle. Dull turns exciting, empty turns edgy, and everyone is beautiful for a while.
Night and Day
Gin mill. Pub. Tavern. Bar and Grill. Call it what you will.
These places, often the center of social lives within neighborhoods, shared many characteristics, even though they catered to different clienteles. One particular place occupied a part of my life that seems, in glazed memory, to have lasted forever. In reality, it was a brief segment that set the direction for many lost years.
The shotgun-style establishment somehow fit a very long bar, a center room divider, and a row of booths into an area no wider than a few supermarket aisles. A wall separated the front from the rear section. The square-shaped back room held a pool table, an occasional makeshift stage, and on particularly wild nights, a motorcycle or two.
This place, not unlike other spots in other memories, morphed from one reality to another as the sun rose and set. Patrons rarely crossed time zones, or if they did, soon moved on to an equally familiar spot at the family dinner table.
A hearty few were able to blend with the crowd, whether day or night. They staked out a strategic spot at the scarred wooden bar, body hunched forward, arms protectively surrounding the dual chalices of a short shot and a tall beer. Fading eyes stole looks around the room and peered into the mirrors that ran the length of the wall behind the stick.
The room growled with acoustic excitement. Inside lighting dimmed as the outside skies gradually darkened. Thirteen souls turned into thirty, and thirty into heat-building, oxygen stealing full capacity. Conversations grew in energy and volume—animating gestures and bursts of laughter or angry exclamations. A blaring jukebox pumped artificial stimulation across even the last refuge of quiet corners and secluded nooks. The jukebox signaled who was in the room at any given time. We Just Disagree, Dancing Queen, Disco Inferno, Good Hearted Woman, Go Your Own Way, and the occasional Danny Boy floated above the haze of tomorrow’s lung disease. A hundred different perfumes melded with an occasional cologne. Hormones, pheromones, and testosterone, unseen as the Holy Ghost, intoxicated as much as the grains and hops in every hand.
“The Drink” lowered inhibitions and raised emotions. Caution left as “what the hell” entered. As hours blurred, hands began to fly. Lust and hate felt very similar in that crush of sweaty chemistry. Out of this simmer grew friendships, marriages, and lifetime feuds built on nothing more than “I just don’t like that guy.”
It was a world where any square yard held a dozen stories that could fill a hundred novels and a thousand songs.
In the daylight, the space was sadly worn and dismaying. The smell of perfume gave way to stale beer, whiskey-soaked wood, and nicotine-covered fixtures. The worn linoleum floors had the color washed away by a million footsteps and a thousand scrubbings that never quite resulted in clean. Wood-themed paneling covered the walls and showed every warp, gap, scratch, and gash earned over countless days and nights of hard use.
Daytime patrons, some closer to corpses, replaced the mass of nighttime bodies. But still, there was something comfortable there, in the unflinching light of day and the noisome smell of bleach and unfiltered cigarettes.
These patrons were not the characters assigned them by the arrogant young, the cruel bully, or the disdainfully righteous. They were friends, foes, and everyday people who enjoyed the comfort of a familiar gathering spot.
The lives they lived colored every inch of them. Some suffered disease and addiction. They were not losers, just lost. They were young once and danced, sang, argued, and fought. Perhaps, in the patchy and slightly distorted mirror, they still were.
Were they us? What might we be under our facades? After facing the same triumphs and failures, experiencing the pain and loss of love, health, mind, and hope, who might we become?
We are old, and we are young. It depends on which mirror we choose.
Here’s to all of us.