“Baby, I’m throbbing with curiosity.”
“Wrong choice of words,” she replies.
“Pulsating with intrigue?”
“Wasn’t that topless breakfast enough?” Recently in Montreal, I ate runny eggs at a dingy diner where waitresses bared their boobies and poured burnt coffee.
“That was in a foreign country. It doesn’t count.” While traveling, I believe vacationers are allowed licentious leeway. That would handily explain Thailand’s thriving ladyboy trade.
“Fine,” she says. “Just don’t come home late.”
No problem, captain. I prefer happy hour, pigeonholing weekday drunkenness into a tidy 6–10 p.m. slot. It’s time enough to transform into a slurring heap and snag a seven-hour siesta. I’m a smart adult!
So at 6 p.m. one late-summer eve, I stroll down randy Eighth Avenue. Sandwiched between buff Chelsea and turista Times Square, the sleaze zone is primed with squalid gaming dens that draw construction workers, low-rent office toilers and beefy Madison Square Garden–goers. I’ve sucked many a Miller at daytime-boozer dive Walter’s Bar (389 Eighth Ave. betw. 29th & 30th Sts., 212-502-4023), whose slogan is “We are a place to get drunk!” But the blue ribbon for sordidness goes to Deno’s Party House USA (393 Eighth Ave. betw. 29th & 30th Sts., 212-695-1814).
“Why, Josh? Why?” my friend Aaron wonders. We’re standing outside Deno’s, aka Bikini Bar. A row of plants prevents prying eyes from peeping inside.
“Because we’re bikini-bar investigators,” I explain. In the holy name of research, we’ve partaken of pizza parlor–cum–grind hall Cordato’s Deli (94 1/2 Greenwich St. at Rector St., 212-233-1573). And seaman hangout Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge (200 Flushing Ave. at Washington Ave., B’klyn; no phone). Oh, and Port 41 (355 W. 41st St. betw. 8th & 9th Aves., 212-947-1188), where skanky gals serve free franks. Bikini bars, I’ve deduced, are classier than a cubic zirconium wedding ring.
But here’s my hypothesis: Does pseudo-nudity portend a Puritanical streak, an enduring Giuliani hangover? No show vajayjay, but you wear a seventh-grader’s string bikini. Nah. Entrepreneurs are exploiting a salacious loophole—by keeping ’tenders and servers “attired,” they can sell spirits, beer and grub. Hello, Hawaiian Tropic Zone bikini contest.
“At least there’s no cover,” I tell Aaron as we enter Deno’s and sit beside men with sunken eyes and perspiring Buds. We grab potato chips and a bathing beauty’s attention. She sidles over, belly ring reflecting red neon. Her smile reveals Chiclet teeth with a field-goal gap.
“You want beer?” she asks, her Russian accent thick as borscht. My heavens, is Deno’s staffed by mail-order bartenders?
I inquire about happy hour. No happy hour. Three-buck Buds are only available until 4:30 p.m. Least. Happy. Hour. Ever. Since cocktails cost $9, and Amstel Lights run $7, we order $6 Bud pints. They’re brimming with golden joy. Less joyful are the half-dozen swimsuit sweethearts, half-heartedly shimmying to piercing pop. The scene is less erotic than a proctologist’s appointment.
“Though it’s sketchy, it’s still safe—sort of,” Aaron says, pointing to a duct-taped security camera. The broken equipment is an urban scarecrow to deter the twitchy men, who glare at fellow scabrous bar-goers. Smiles are scarce. Cocktails are consumed like water. Why do breasts always signal danger? Like bumblebee’s yellow-and-black coloration, areolas must be nature’s method of saying, Stay away from here, wussy boy!
Because the music inhibits conversation—louder does not equal better—Aaron and I order a second round. “You like…shots?” the bartender asks, smiling. Please marry me and rescue me, whispers her body language. She leans over the bar, demonstrating how underwire defeats gravity. No, no shots tonight. Her shoulders slump. I could’ve told her I’m no savior.
In the abstract, I’m stoked that dirt holes like Deno’s exist. New York City needs more sleaze, fewer condos and nail salons. But not all grubby establishments are created equal: There’s good sleaze (Mars Bar, Welcome to the Johnsons) and bad sleaze (Big Easy, Cheap Shots). There’s a certain je nais sais quoi to sleazy bars, an ineffably gritty trait born of whiskey, vomit, rock and roll and 3 a.m. mistakes—not pert Russian ta-tas and too-expensive brew.
“More beer?” the waitress inquires, as we drain our pints in a Usain Bolt instant.
“Yes,” I reply, “but no, not here.” We then decamp for Holland Bar, Dave’s Tavern and other murky alehouses where clothing is required.