Last days of the last of the Bowery Dives–Mars Bar

New York Press
July 6th, 2011

It’s 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I am smoking nervously outside Mars Bar when Amy Koteles stops me at the door. She tells me that Morgan Maginio, a 4-year-old crust-punk with hair dyed a flaming red (and a white mouse perched on her shoulder), is waiting for me inside.

Maginio had given me a hickey and sunk her nails in my back earlier in the evening (I could still feel the sting), and now she was telling people she wanted to “hang out.”

During the evening’s whiskey buzz, Maginio had come to symbolize everything that was formerly great about Mars—and the old East Village. As she explained: She had hopped a boxcar from L.A. four years ago. Now she was
noticing that a very minor local punk-celebrity had noticed her. “I’m going to ignore him for five months,” she rapped joyously. “I’m going to make him think he’s chasing me.”

Maginio reminded me of how this strip looked when I was a kid—like a beautifully decayed hulk of a forlorn ship on the edge of an apocalyptic planet. Back then, First Street was the soul of skid row: Sterno-bums
huddled around trashcan fires, rubble and tires. A little bit scary, maybe, but cool, too—and free.

Now something much more sinister was about to kill the neighborhood. For good. Maybe a night with Maginio was just the thing to turn that around, I thought, a bit too romantically. In any case, where will she sleep?

Finally I told Koteles, “Basically, Morgan’s just like me when I was her age—so I have to take her home and at least let her crash on my couch.”

But Koteles, a seasoned Mars bartender who holds the most shifts after staying for six years, stopped me up short. “Just go home,” she cautioned. “It’ll be all right.”

A few days later, Koteles and I were smoking a cigarette outside the fire door when she unfolded a yellow note from her pocketbook and gave it to me. It read: “Dear Amy, You are an angel sent from heaven. Thank you
for looking out for me. I cannot repay you. Love, Morgan.” She had gotten back to her “ghetto ass boat” at the West 72nd Street boat basin in one piece. And her mouse was OK too.

An attractive 30-year-old blond with shoulder tattoos and a rockabilly vibe, Koteles is the latest in a line of queen bees that have been the heart and soul of Mars since its opening in 1986. Johnny Casino, a first-wave punk rocker who’s been at Mars from the beginning, says Hank Penza—the bar’s owner, and a reformed gangster who usually keeps his mouth shut to the media—hires women who are all “smart and tough.”

Koteles, however, brings to the mix a warmth befitting a “nursing school dropout,” and the empathy of someone who, as she explains, was “homeless for a year.” Like most of the staff she got her job after “helping out”
during a rough patch in her life—she was “handing out a hundred
resumés” to a lot of places she didn’t want to work.

keeping with the spirit of the place, Koteles seems almost
pathologically willing to forgive the myriad sins of her regular
customers as long as they keep their cool and listen to her. But there
are things that set her off, she says, and yuppies dumb enough to take
their drinks outside is foremost, because “the bar will get a ticket.”
Then there are the condos, which will ultimately cost her a job.

Since the axe came down on CBGB’s in 2006 and a condo and retail complex
sprung up at East First Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue,
what’s left of the strip’s once notorious seedy side—hard-living
artists, aging punk rockers and wizened winos—have held out against
encroaching gentrification at Mars Bar.

As everyone knows by now, Mars’ building—and all the other 1920s-era tenements on Second Avenue between
East Houston and First Street—is set to be demolished this August.
Sounding the cry of alarm for his fellow East Village preservationists
when the news broke in December, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York wrote,
“this is a big [loss].” In the past week, the residents living upstairs
had already moved away. The old Bowery is truly only for the historians

Open its single steel fire door on any given afternoon and you step inside
another world. At 3 p.m. the last Sunday of June, Sid Vicious’ version
of “My Way” was on the juke. “Remember gay Ramiro?” asks Wayne Kral, a
surrealist painter with a Buddy Holly tattoo. “He loved this song. He’d
sing it all squishy.” Kral does a contorted little jig in honor of his
friend Ramiro.

The handful of regulars laugh. The next round is on you. For a few minutes,
the world is in its place. The squares are outside brunching and
shopping at Whole Foods—or whatever squares do on a Sunday afternoon—
and you’re safely ensconced in the graffiti-splayed darkness.

Kral, who moonlights as a barback, is lobbying the bartender for a late-night
shift. “It would be fun to work at Mars!” That’s when everyone
remembers. The mood of the room shifts instantly, and your heart sinks
as well—even though you’re not a regular. The place is a corpse, man.
“What am I going to do without Mars Bar?” Kral wails.

Terry Galmatz, a grizzled old painter, is willing to utter the unthinkable:
“I might stop drinking.” Then he gives a sharp laugh as if to say, As if. Just the night before,
someone had snatched one of his prints off the wall without paying for it, so he’s out 25 bucks.

He hands the bartender another one to sell on consignment. “But seriously,
it’s sad. This place was inspiring,” Galmatz says. “Anyone can hang up
art here. Where am I going to get a show?” Talk turns to Bloomberg and
yuppies and how Downtown has become a millionaire’s theme park. “Fuck
it. I don’t want to live in Manhattan Mall anyway,” a tough-talking
furniture mover, who has managed to stay in the neighborhood, adds.
“They can have it. Blow it the fuck up.”

his glass of red wine, Ray “Windows” Bell nods and changes the subject
to the previous night’s thunderstorm. “It sounded like the artillery in
‘Nam.” Then someone tells the story about the time “Crackhead” Charlie
accidently put his head through one of the tile window when the cops
were paying a visit and everyone laughs. The mood lightens again.

That’s how it’s been at Mars these days, long periods of aging East Village
holdouts pretending to forget—that they have to let go of the Bowery;
that they have to get on with their lives— interspersed with a gnawing
uncertainty about the future.

Hang out for a few years at Mars, and you’ll earn a nickname. Eric “Juggernaut,” a bearded bartender who looks like an extra in a mid-’60s Peter Fonda biker flick, has drawn up a seating chart for some of his favorite lushes.

There’s Jeff “the Toof” (a reputed coke dealer), and both “bad” and “good” Marcuses (who also both allegedly sell coke). There’s “Jew” Peschi, who’s not Jewish, but carries a switchblade and talks in riddles that need to be slowly deciphered. Then there’s “tortured soul” Paul; “Skateboarder”; and Gary “Rek,” who claims to have lost citizenship to
both the United States and the U.K.

Each day, though, the crowd of regulars gets a little thinner, as if each drunk is making his own private peace with the corpse and checking out.

Gerry Price, a tattooed, balding, selfproclaimed chick magnet—who bragged about being “known for having sex with any girl who will have sex with me” in a standout 2005 Observer profile of Mars Bar—disappeared a month ago. But a color portrait of him bare-chested remains above the bar, showing him as he tears at his nipple piercing. His Facebook status currently lists him as “gay.”

Befitting its bizarre world ethos, being gay at Mars seems to mean something different than it does in the outside world. “Gay” Billy’s putative sexuality is certainly the most normal thing about him, for instance. The 5-foot-4 man recently reappeared after a long spell in Florida—where, he says, he “inherited property”— because he got word that the
end was near for Mars. Billy’s known for sneaking into the bathroom stalls in the hopes of getting laid. This would seem fair enough if not for the fact that he mostly sneaks in by himself. Gay Billy also frequently leaves the dive on a stretcher.

“He gets taken out of ambulances about once a month,” Eric Juggernaut explains, as it’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience. “Last week he went out on back-to-back nights. Then there was the night he called the ambulance on himself.”

Asked what he loves most about Mars, Billy says softly, “That I can leave in an ambulance and come back the next morning.” Then he tries to half-heartedly get me into the bathroom with him before disappearing into the stall for a while. Being hauled out cold on a stretcher isn’t as rare at Mars as you would think. “Happens here more than in any other
bars,” Koteles says.

For weeks, Chris Collins, a self described “pill-head” and “graduate of Pilgrim State Mental House for the criminally insane, ’77,” had been an ever-present figure at the Mars death-watch. Even the staff doesn’t know what day it will close exactly, so afternoons can get tense.

“The bar runs on rumor,” Paola, a daytime staffer, says. “It’s driving us nuts.”

The first time Collins caught me in his thousand-yard stare, he told me he was going to “break my fucking neck.” Scratch the surface of his foaming-at the-mouth psycho persona, though, and he’s a total sweetheart who’s liable to call you out of the blue one morning to complain about “postmodernism and drowning in information.”

Despite his “6th-grade education,” Collins is also a sharper judge of urban architecture than many better-adjusted longtime city-dwellers. Flicking a cigarette butt in the direction of the 12-story boxes across First Street, which anyone can see have dimmed the once-bright and shabby street, he comments: “You see them? You could drive to Jacksonville and get that. It’s

Every couple of days Collins will get a little too rowdy and hyper—”Am I scaring you?” he
might ask a European tourist— and one of the bartenders will have to gently give him the bum’s rush. But he’s always allowed back the next morning, and it’s difficult to imagine Collins—and “Gay” Billy, or that redheaded Morgan Maginio—finding that anywhere else. And that’s the sad part.

The very
mention of the term “Mars’ regular” is enough to collect injured looks
or worse from bartenders at a host of sympathetic East Village dive
bars. Or as a pretty brunette who tends bar at Mona’s (and actually grew
up in the nabe) said to me when the topic was raised, “I hope they go
somewhere else.” The fact that Mars’ regulars aren’t always on their
best behavior is almost a source of pride with patrons and staff alike.

But more than anything else that defines the extreme end of the dive ethos is the almost pathological sense of forgiveness afforded by staff to the clientele. “We do things a little differently here, we just don’t hold grudges,” Koteles explains. For a bartender, this isn’t naiveté or false modesty, it’s just fact. She has picked up shifts at Black Sheep, a bar
in Brooklyn, where she’ll be able to keep the ethos alive.

“I don’t even know how to stay mad at someone,” says “Moonshine Shorey,” a formerly meth-addicted Adonis who subs in at Mars and holds the crown for Mr. Lower East Side. Everyone gets drunk and “fucks up,” he says, “especially me.” Not to mention the economic incentive: those stumble bums you kick out today could be tipping customers instead. What seems like a self-abnegating rip-off is actually a mutually beneficial arrangement bent on self-preservation.

The place is looking worse than ever. Frat types have punched out a third of the tile-sized windows just for kicks. The wood molding around the bar has been auctioned off to “some yuppie place” for five grand. The two graffiti-drenched plywood bathroom doors have been sold for $500 each to buyers unknown.

But Shorey doesn’t blink when asked what he wants to take with him out of Mars. It’s a sense of loyalty. “The thing I’ve always noticed about the people here, yeah they might be crazy,” he says. “But they’ll always have your back. Not many people are like that anymore.”