Tie Me Up, Scotty...
In the West Village of New York City, there (was and is) a dive bar the size of a subway car sandwiched between an old diner and an upscale kid’s clothing store because, well, that’s New York. This is where I bartended out of college, thinking that it would be a chill place to pass the time before I emerged as the next Jennifer Anniston. My thinking was that I made the same in tips opening a beer as I did fussing over a muddled mango raspberry mojito and that opening a beer took a lot less time. My thought process was that by the sheer volume of drinks I’d be able to serve, I’d make more money in a dive bar than in a high-maintenance place serving the aforementioned muddled situation. What I didn’t know was that I was walking in on a longtime family of regulars and an interesting microcosm of the city.
I had a lot of the day shifts since I was the newest hire. Most of the bartenders had been there for years. This situation would have been deathly boring anywhere else but as this bar’s customers took their drinking very seriously, you could always count on people waiting for you to open at 12:01 pm. The usual crowd included construction workers, local neighbors, and red-faced men in rumpled suits who refused to make eye contact.
When I started working there, it was pretty easy to remember everyone’s names, drinks, and stories. And if you forgot, you could just wait until they’d finished their third round and wouldn’t be the least bit offended if you asked them their name for the fourteenth time. Really, you could ask them anything and you’d get a sincerely honest answer. As long as you remembered their vodka preference. When you drink a lot, this is part of your identity. Or, at least, it is in a bar.
It was a quiet day in the Fall, maybe October, when New York is seriously underrated and just beautiful. The days are crisp, the foliage adds a certain cinematic feel to the city and you can pretend that you’re starring in a romantic film just by tossing your newly purchased scarf over your shoulder and feeling the warm sun on your face. I wasn’t doing either of those things on this particular day, because I had a long shift in the dark bar that smelled like a combination of dust, beer, and urine. I was cleaning out the speed rack to avoid a customer with enough tattoos on his face to make Post Malone look like a boy scout when I heard an intense crashing sound right above me.
New York’s buildings are old, especially downtown, and living in the city, you get used to weird and unexpected noises. A guy who lived next to me in Hell’s Kitchen owned a fully grown pig as a pet who could be very vocal around dinner time. A friend’s upstairs neighbor listened to the most violent gangster rap she’d ever heard starting at 5am every weekday. Eventually she met the neighbor, a bald, white guy in his 50s and never looked at him in the hallway the same way again. You just sort of get used to these kinds of auditory experiences when you live in a place where everyone is crammed together and on top of each other. I looked up, saw that the ceiling appeared unfazed by the crash, and used the well vodka to sanitize my surroundings.
Then I heard it again. And what sounded like a scream but not a scary scream, if that makes any sense….?
“Huh,” I thought, “I guess all couples fight. Or practice their pogo stick skills together.” The West
Village homed a fabulous mishmash of people and you never knew who was going to walk through the doors to this little, dirty watering hole. There were old regulars who had lived through major changes in New York, early 20s, right-out-of-college kids looking for a cheap beer, and the occasional celebrity figuring that this was probably the last place anyone would go looking for them. And then another CRASH.
The bar eventually filled up with enough day drinkers and someone fed the jukebox with 90s hip hop so whatever party was taking place upstairs was drowned out by the ruckus; I forgot about the cacophony above our heads.
The noise continued throughout the rest of my shifts that month and through the fall. Winter hit, the noise continued, and I mostly wondered if someone was going to come falling through the ceiling and land on me and my vodka-sanitized bar. That night, the regular bartender called out and I had to spend another eight hours at work in the first (and heaviest) snowstorm of the year.
The place was dead. Clearly, no one wanted to venture out in the storm and NY1, the local news station, reported that many of the city’s subway trains would not be running due to weather conditions. So, I cleaned. I vodka’d the shelves and the stools (is that where the urine smell was emanating from?) And submerged all the shot glasses in boiling water to see if their manufacturer intended them to actually be clear. That’s when a woman entered.
She was dressed in black leather with a face of makeup that would have instilled great envy in all of the Kardashians and some of Ru Paul’s Drag race. She had midnight black hair that cascaded down her back and nails that would make you think twice about offending her. A patent leather bustier peaked out of a black fur coat and I couldn’t see her shoes, but I could tell how she walked that they must have been very, very tall. She went to sit down on a barstool. As she was my only patron, I felt like I owed her something.
“Sit there instead,” I pointed to a pleather seat. “The cloth ones smell like pee.” My welcoming committee skills shone like the polished bar top. She wasn’t the least deterred.
“Thank you. Grey Goose, rocks, twist.” I obliged and was happy I’d wiped the dust off of our nicer bottle earlier in the day. I rang up her cocktail and pretended to busy myself with cutting limes.
“Quite the night,” she offers, “my client canceled so I figured I’d come down for a drink. I live upstairs.” I turned around, my interest piqued.
"Oh?” This seemed like as good a time as any to pour myself a drink. Especially now that the glasses were thoroughly disinfected.
“Clients are… fickle?” I was going to ingratiate myself to this attractive vampire by any means necessary because sometimes you just know that there’s a great story behind someone’s heavily mascaraed eyes.
Elvira took a long pull of her cocktail.
“Not with me,” she deadpanned, “they know better.”
Huh. This wasn’t deeply enlightening. I tried to put the pieces together. Goth makeup, well behaved clients and…, oh, furniture moving?
“Do they help you move the furniture?” She paused her drinking and looked me dead in the eyes.
“Furniture moving?” I was pretty sure that those light green, watery eyes could see right through me, directly into my soul, and was possibly x-raying my internal organs.
“Oh, I just, I mean, I heard…” I trailed off and pointed to the ceiling. She shrugged and ordered another drink. I poured it, went to the other end of the bar, and pretended to be thoroughly engrossed in a six-day-old New York Post that someone had left in the corner.
Elvira finished her cocktail, left a twenty on the bar, placing her empty glass on top of it.
“Thanks,” she said with a little wave, “be safe out there.”
“YOU TOO!” I exclaimed way too enthusiastically. She left the little bar, turned, and I believe went back upstairs. Alone again, I went over to her seat to ring her bill and clean her spot. Underneath her glass, on top of the cash, was her business card. My heart fluttered. I turned it over in my hand, reading the metallic silver inscription. Mistress Nikki. Dominatrix.
“Oh,” I said out loud to the silent, empty bar, recalling the red-faced men in rumpled suits, “that actually makes a lot of sense.”
PS: When I shared this discovery with some of my regular patrons later in the week that there was a dominatrix living upstairs, everyone was like, Oh, yeah, Mistress Nikki…
Someone always has to be the last to know.