Summer of 1977 was when I first fell in love. That was also the summer of Son of Sam, the killer who was terrorizing New York City. Lurid headlines blazed from the front page of newspapers, and all my friends in tenth grade were cutting their hair because Son of Sam supposedly liked girls with long hair. I kept my hair pinned up in a bun. He hadn’t shot anyone with that hairstyle yet. Disco music, like a noxious fume, was everywhere. I hated that pulsating rhythm and incessant beat. Donna Summer moaned with one orgasm after another.
In the basement of the Ansonia apartment building, where my piano teacher lived, was a notorious swingers club called Plato’s Retreat. Supposedly, naked people lined up for a lavish buffet and then had orgies in a heavily chlorinated pool. One rule was that single men were not allowed to enter the club. Sometimes lone men would approach me on my way to my piano lesson at night, offering me fifty dollars just to walk in with them through the front door.
“Don’t worry,” they’d tell me, “You don’t have to go inside.” I wouldn’t touch their dollars that looked as limp as soggy leaves. Those men resembled my dentist, fat and pasty with Long Island accents.
At sixteen, I had very limited experience with boys. There had been awkward kissing and groping in 8th grade games of Spin the Bottle, and a boy at a party who grabbed my breast as if he were testing a grapefruit. When I slapped him hard, he actually began to cry. I attended an all-girl camp with very strict counselors. We were checked daily to be sure we were wearing bras in case one of the boys from our brother camp wandered into our territory. Unlike my cousin Maureen, who had been sleeping with boys since 8th grade and was already on the pill, I felt woefully ignorant. “Just wait,” Maureen told me. I didn’t want just sex. I wanted to be possessed, the same way as my favorite literary lovers, Cathy and Heathcliff. But, as Maureen reminded me, their affair did not end well.
The man I fell in love with worked at a bar called The West End by Columbia University. How did a sixteen-year-old girl hang out in a bar? In 1977 no one paid much attention to rules. There were more important things to worry about with a madman terrorizing the city. I was tall, looked older, and the drinking age was eighteen, only two years away. The bar was dark even in the summer day, as if light was an unwelcome customer. How I hated the sun! I avoided the beach no matter how many times my parents pleaded with me to join them at The Jersey Shore. I was so pale that teenage boys cruising in cars would lean out of their window and yell, “Hey Casper, get a tan!” The city sun was merciless. The glare from the concrete sidewalk could blind you, and the stifling heat felt like a clammy dance partner that clung to you with a sweaty embrace. The Lovin’ Spoonful had it wrong. There was nothing enticing about “summer in the city.”
You could usually find at The West End at least three college freshmen clutching worn copies of On The Road, as well as a professor reeking of bourbon who would talk all night about how he spent a crazy weekend with Neal Cassady at Allen Ginsberg’s Greenwich Village studio. Victor was one of the bartenders. He was tall and dark and skinny. There are no skinny men anymore since the boom of the gym culture, and I miss that sinuous and slender sexiness of men. Victor’s face was all cheekbones, and he would have been almost pretty if not for his nose that looked slightly broken. His black eyes were as glittering as beads, and he had longer lashes than mine. At night I would imagine those lashes fluttering over my hot skin like tiny brushes.
I liked to watch him when he wasn’t mixing drinks, standing at the end of the bar, drumming his fingers on a napkin to an invisible jazz beat. I would sit unsteadily on a wobbly stool and wish I were wearing a brilliant piece of jewelry that would shine in the darkness so he could see me. Some nights no one else sat at the bar, and the space around me seem to swirl about in pockets of cool air. If only he would notice me, I prayed over and over. One night, he did.
I was bending down to fix a broken strap of my sandal. When I looked up, Victor was standing right in front of me, his face only inches away from mine. His olive skin looked slicked and moist as if he had just stepped out of the shower.
“What do you want?” he asked, and then, perhaps because I didn’t answer fast enough, he repeated the question. “What do you want?” His voice had surprised me. He didn’t sound confident but actually unsure, as if he were the customer who couldn’t decide what to order.
I ordered a Coke because I was terrified he would ask for my ID. I watched him fill the glass with three square ice cubes and then pour liquid the color of molasses from a bottle. When Victor returned and gave me my drink, I could feel the warmth of his fingerprints on the cool glass. I didn’t dare look up into his face but stared down into the bubbles. Finally, when I glanced again, I saw that Victor had retreated to his favorite end of the bar, where he stared at a red neon exit sign and resumed drumming his fingers on the napkin.
I drank the Coke too quickly, the sweetness making me feel queasy as if I had just eaten too much candy. I kept gulping the soda until the ice cubes rattled against my teeth. All I could see was Victor’s back, his shirt the same red as that neon sign. All that redness seemed to burn right through my eyes and into the back of my head. I felt as if Victor turned around to look at me I would melt like the ice cubes in my glass. Never before had I craved so intensely for someone to touch me. The air conditioner blew across my shoulder, and my skin prickled with goosebumps.
One of the musicians from the jazz room walked into the bar and shouted, “My man, Victor!” and I saw my bartender nod. “Victor,” I whispered to myself, his name as cool and smooth as the glass in my palm.
I had plenty of time to kill at The West End. The summer camp that hired me as a counselor had to fire everyone since there seemed to be no children who wanted to enroll. My friends were either in Europe or at their parents’ summer homes in Long Island. Manhattan, in July, seemed to be an abandoned waste site, either because of the heat or Son of Sam.
“You’re not bored, are you?” my mother asked, and I lied and said I was hanging out at The New York Public Library reading my high school summer books. I never came home because there were four days of the week when Victor had the day shift, which started at noon and ended by eight. I preferred the bar during the day. No drunk fraternity boys to bother me, and the late afternoon drinkers were mostly middle-aged working-class men, taxi drivers, or doormen on their breaks who were more interested in their scotch than conversation. I was probably the one person in the bar who was not drinking liquor. But I didn’t need alcohol to feel intoxicated. Just glancing once into Victor’s black liquid eyes was enough. Sometimes when his fingers brushed against mine, I would suddenly pull away, as if I had just touched fire. Now I wonder if anyone noticed me at all, a teenage girl who, hour after hour, nursed a watery Coke, my eyes always focused on the bartender moving as gracefully as a ballet dancer on his stage.
I noticed small things about him daily: how his nails were cut shorter than usual, or that his hair was parted on the left instead of the right, or how one Friday, he wore a necklace with a thick gold cross. His lips always looked to me as if he had just licked them. At night, alone in my bed, I would wonder how his mouth would taste on my lips, how they would feel on my body.
“Go home sweetheart, this is a place of stale beer and staler men,” the alcoholic professor told me one night when I stood up from my stool at 8 p.m., the end of Victor’s shift. I never followed him outside the bar onto Broadway. I didn’t want to see him outside the bar. It was as if there, on the steaming sidewalk on the Upper West Side, Victor could just dissolve.
Although we never had a conversation, I could eavesdrop through the din of loud talk and music and learn about Victor. Bartending wasn’t his true calling, but jazz. He much preferred hanging out at the jazz room than being trapped behind an army of glasses. No matter who was waiting for a drink, Victor always gave the musicians a free round. He loved Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Billie Holiday. He would hum a tune I soon learned was “Strange Fruit.” At precisely 6 p.m., the chef from the kitchen would deliver Victor a bowl of chili and a baked potato. That was the only meal Victor would eat. I noticed that he never drank alcohol, even though many of his patrons offered to buy him a round. Victor only drank tea with two slices of lemon, holding the cup daintily as he took small tentative sips from the steaming liquid.
I was not his only admirer. These were not girls or even ladies, but real women. There was a large Black woman named Louise Johnson who sang jazz in the back room and always wore low cut sequined dresses to reveal her ample bosom. “Hey Victor sweetheart,” she would croon, “when are you going to join my jam session?”
A waitress with a Deborah Harry bleached blonde haircut and purple lipstick would place her pale hands with black-polished nails on his wrist and whisper in his ear. One night a beautiful Asian woman wearing a sleeveless blue silk sheath walked up to the bar, whispered his name, and when he appeared, leaned over to kiss his lips for what seemed like a full minute. I was there forever in every second of that kiss. When Victor finally broke for air, I was astounded that there was no impression of her shiny red lipstick on his mouth.
Then there was the angry woman. Perhaps she was once beautiful, but her fury seemed to make her black hair stand on end, and her white face was bleached with misery. “Damn you to hell, Victor,” she shouted, throwing a set of keys in his face. Victor ducked, and the clanking keys fell into a pitcher of beer. It would have almost been funny had the woman not started weeping. Victor quickly walked from behind the bar and, with a hand on the women’s shoulder, swiftly led her to the back of the room. I saw him speak urgently to her while her head bobbed up and down, still crying. When she finally exited, a violent streak of white light pierced the darkness and made me wince. “Go home,” the old professor whispered to me, touching me briefly with a hand as brown and weathered as leather. “Now.”
But I didn’t want to be at home, listening to news reports about the lunatic terrorizing New York City. I wanted to be that sobbing woman who at least had held Victor in her arms. I wanted to feel the fire, the sizzle, a heat that boiled across my breasts and sizzled toward my belly. That summer of 1977 was hot, but not hot enough.
Then one day, it happened. It had been perhaps three weeks since I had been sitting on my stool, sipping Coke after Coke, watching Victor for hours. I went to the restroom in the dingy back hall, and when I pushed open the door, I felt a smooth hand grasp my wrist.
“What do you want?” Victor asked me, pulling me closer toward him. “What do you want?”
His arms were surprisingly strong for such a slender man, and I felt so fragile smashed up against him. Even if I wanted to answer him, I couldn’t. He kissed me hard, and when I opened my mouth, he tasted of lemons. His lips were softer than I expected, and I could hear myself make a deep sound. Above my head, the red neon exit sign burned in my eyes. Although Victor must have kissed me for only a minute, it seemed like an eternity, a black hole where I was falling, falling, thrilled at the speed of the descent. Just as suddenly as he took me, he abruptly let go, his arms raised as if just arrested.
“Is that what you want?” he asked me. He was frowning, and his voice sounded confused. “Is that what you really want?”
Someone called out, “Hey Victor, we need you in the kitchen,” and Victor headed to the back. The air-conditioning was making me shiver, and I suddenly craved the warmth outside. I managed to make my way to the front door and opened it. The harsh sunlight startled me, and I had to squint against the glare. Crossing Broadway, I bumped into a woman who cursed me. I didn’t see her. I barely heard her. When our bodies collided, I couldn’t feel her. Victor’s kiss still stung on my lips, yet the rest of me was insensate.
That night my parents told me we were leaving for Cape Cod the next morning. They were worried about my restlessness, my lack of direction. Someone in our apartment building, my parents wouldn’t tell me who, had seen me at The West End. Although my mother didn’t ask any questions, she knew that I was in trouble. And I was in trouble. I knew that if I returned to The West End, I would want to see Victor again and do more than just see him. I wanted him to take me into the darkness where there was jazz and magic and heat. I didn’t know if he would agree, but I would make him.
I went to Hyannis and Chatham with my family, and there wasn’t a minute during our vacation when I wasn’t seeing, hearing, feeling, or breathing Victor. At night, I tried to duplicate his touch but failed. At every restaurant in Cape Cod, I asked for lemon slices, hoping to reproduce his tart taste in my mouth. The bartenders were mostly tanned college boys in bright Lacoste shirts the colors of ice cream, too clean and fresh for me. These polished wooden counters reminded me of a new bowling alley. The floors were so clean that I expected them to squeak. How I longed for the sawdust-strewn floor of The West End Bar, littered with discarded half-smoked cigarettes and sometimes broken glass.
We returned just in time for my last year of high school. I was busy with new classes, new teachers, and catching up with friends. That August David Berkowitz was arrested, and his reign of murderous terror was finally over. The city seemed to sigh in relief, and all the girls in my class let their hair grow long again. The West End didn’t seem real to me anymore, more like a film I saw one hot summer night. When I thought about Victor, I wasn’t even sure about his age. Teenage girls were not supposed to be with adult men. There was a new boy in my class named Adam who kissed me in a taxi. Yet his mouth missed mine and our teeth clinked. I knew I had to return to The West End.
But Victor was gone. I knew it the moment I saw the new young bartender with a gold earring who stood in Victor’s place, slowly pouring golden amber beer from a green bottle into a glass. The old professor who had told me to go home sat hunched at a back table, coils of cigarette smoke floating above his head. I would return a week later, a month later, even a year later, but he never returned. The Black bartender was replaced by a young Hispanic woman who would be replaced by another bartender, a young white man with a wisp of a red mustache and angry red eyes. Nothing felt the same. The bar stool where I once sat was now a high wooden chair, the Coke tasted flat, and there were new bright lights that only served to illuminate the ashes on the counter, the dust motes in the air. Not only was Victor gone, but so was The West End.
Now, in 2021, The West End Bar has truly vanished. The owners had sold it to a Cuban restaurant that went out of business way before the pandemic. I am probably now the same age as the bearded Columbia University professor who spoke devoutly of Ginsberg and Kerouac. I stand in front of the boarded windows and the shuttered doors. Young and old, wearing masks, walk swiftly past me as the sky begins to darken and rain begins to fall. I think of the famous line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I never really understood that quote until now. The years are like an endless stream, pulling you back no matter how hard you resist. The past should be gone. Yet as I listen closely, I can still hear strains of jazz music, like a hidden fragrance escaping an empty bottle. I can still taste the cold Coke soda fizzing in my mouth, feel my hands gripping the wooden bar as I wait for Victor to appear. I am sixteen again, filled with the sadness and madness of that youthful love. No one could kiss me the way Victor had kissed me because Victor had been the first.
“What do you want?” he had asked me so many decades ago.
I should have replied, “just you.”