"Black eyes don't count," Mike tells me from three stools over — by which he means, "Black eyes aren't a big deal." But from where I'm sitting, the golf-ball-sized swelling surrounding his bloodshot eyes and extending well onto his cheekbones sure looks like a big deal. Combined with his lacerated neck and red bandanna, it makes him look downright disturbing. Mike's menacing appearance belies a surprising affability, however, so I demur: "That looks painful as shit, dude." But he swears he's not fazed. Sure, he got jumped in City Park on the Fourth of July and woke up in the hospital with little recollection of what happened — but he only lost nine dollars and a cell phone. "If I'd been jumped the next day," he says, all cup half full, "I woulda been down nine hundred bucks." He takes a shot of warm Jack and puts things into perspective. "Man, I once got attacked with a hammer in my own living room, and the next day saw my blood spattered on the ceiling. Now, that shit counts."
It's Monday night at the Horseshoe Lounge (414 East 20th Avenue), and Mondays mean guest bartenders. Carmen and Penny from the Tavern Uptown serve me my first $1.50 can of Schlitz (it just tastes better than PBR, haters) shortly after nine and giggle about some character outside named Peanut Butter & Jelly. I assume there must be a good backstory to accompany such a nickname, but Penny is reluctant to spill, so I leave it alone and go back to finding Yahtzees on the bar top, which is made entirely of thousands of white dice with black dots. At first I just look for five or more touching dice of the same number, but this quickly gets old. I'm in the middle of devising a new way to play — spread your fingers apart in a web, close your eyes and slam your hand down on the bar, then form playable Yahtzee hands from the dice directly underneath your fingers, throwing only the number of fingers in your second and third turns that correspond to unclaimed dice — when Carmen points to a cabinet underneath the bar that contains a host of board games, including Yahtzee. She smirks in a way that both gives me props for my ingenuity and condescends to my pointless creativity, then brings me another beer without prompting.
Tavern Uptown regulars and employees start pouring in around ten. Most hover near the bar to talk with Penny and Carmen; some sit on the couches or play pool in the back room; a few feed the classic, rotating-page jukebox, playing everything from Sinatra and Bowie to Kings of Leon and the New Pornographers. All order drinks or shots or pizza and tip liberally. Though I've never worked in the service industry, I recognize this display of camaraderie as typical of bar and restaurant crews, who nearly always resemble a tight-knit — albeit dysfunctional — family. This is most apparent in the way everyone greets and embraces Dick, the seventy-something gentleman seated next to me at the bar, saying things like, "Dick! What are you still doing out, man?" or "Dick, you crazy old bastard!" Dick, a happy-hour and Christmas-party regular at the Tavern, drinks Old Style cans, flirts with the bartenderesses and munches on leftover slices gifted to him by friendly faces. And he talks to me. He speaks in mostly unintelligible sentences — possibly a combination of age, alcohol abuse and drug use, though I can't be sure — that are even more difficult to decipher over the music and surrounding banter, but I gather enough: For twenty-some years starting in the '60s, Dick regularly wrote for Johnny Carson's Las Vegas stage show. "About twenty minutes of every hour-long show, which goes in a blip," he says, snapping his fingers. In all that time, he only met Carson once. "There's a difference between comedians and comics," he tells me during a quiet song. "Comedians do funny things; comics say funny things. Carson was a comic, which is where I came in." So what's the secret to writing funny material? He taps his index finger to the side of his forehead: "Think funny. That's all there is to it."
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The Horseshoe Lounge
Around eleven, I order my sixth beer and focus on Penny. "How many cans of Schlitz do I have to drink before you'll tell me about Peanut Butter & Jelly?" She takes a sip of her second comp-tab cocktail and leans in. Okay, she says, fine. "He's an old Tavern regular who used to come in and get so shitfaced that he'd pee himself." I scowl. She laughs. "Happy now?"
Not really, I respond, then scurry off to the bathroom. Ask me again in a minute.