It was not my intention to visit another bar that required me to insert dollar bills into the crevices of comely, tattooed lasses. But such are the peccadilloes one commits while answering a thorny question: How would you spend your last night in New York?
After dwelling in NYC for more than a decade, my friend Aaron and his wife were pulling up their tent stake and planting it in Denver. This news filled me with the sort of sadness best dulled by drinking cheap bourbon. Upon sobering up, I placed my emotions back inside the bottle and grabbed my rose-colored glasses. This was a positive change, a chance to start anew, perhaps purchase an affordable home and, more importantly, never again listen to an 8 a.m. subway preacher.
The night before his departure arrived. "Is anything on your New York bucket list?" I asked him, trying to figure out a going-away game plan. "I've done everything I want to do in New York," he said, understanding an important NYC truth: You'll never do everything in this town. And there's always something better happening elsewhere. I thought for a minute. "How about we eat tortas at the top of Sunset Park?" I suggested. Aaron's eyes lit up like the night sky on the Fourth of July. "Perfect," he said, as we set sail to Puebla Mini Market (3908 5th Ave., betw. 39th & 40th Sts., Brooklyn, 718-435-3326). Inside the workaday convenience store slinging phone cards and cigarettes sits a grill slinging New York's finest crunchy, overloaded tortas. Puebla offers more than 30 zany combinations, such as the hot dog–bacon-egg Española doble and the cheesy, deep-fried chile relleno. "It's your last night in town. You should go big," I said, pointing at the picture advertising the torta de la casa. The house special comes stacked with four kinds of swine: spicy carne enchilada, chewy bacon, crisp carnitas and salty ham. It's a meaty Mount Everest that every carnivore should summit at least once.
We brought our bad-idea sandwiches to the park. As the name suggests, Sunset Park offers stunning views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. "Not so bad," Aaron said, chomping his torta as the sun slunk into New Jersey. Slowly, the city lights twinkled to life. "If only the town were always so peaceful," he said, clandestinely cracking tall boys of cheap 'n' tasty Narragansett Lager. We toasted and tossed back beers, then headed down the hill to Melody Lanes (461 37th St., betw. 4th & 5th Aves., Brooklyn, 718- 832-2695).
The lure here is the barroom, a carpeted, glass-encased shoebox lorded over by Peter Napolitano. He's a treasure, an old-school character clad in a tuxedo shirt, cummerbund, suspenders, red bow tie, combed-back silver hair and the wire-rimmed glasses favored by the Williamsburg set. "Bernstein!" he said, remembering me from my last visit a few years back. I ordered a 10-buck pitcher of Bud. He delivered it along with his whirling-dervish discourse on the nature of existence, peppered with references to Hemingway and Nietzsche and the sound of crashing pins. "I doubt you're going to find that in Denver," I told Aaron as we pulled ourselves away from Napolitano's magnetic "one-man play that I live."
"I do believe you're correct," he said, laughing. He glanced at his watch. It was around 10. Normally on a weeknight we'd be home by now, relaxing in pajamas. We'd make plans to meet up later for another pint, another conversation. But there were no more tomorrows. By this time the next night, he'd be on a highway somewhere in the dark, starry Midwest. The future was certain. The rest of our night wasn't. "Let's get another beer," I said. I steered us to Freddy's for bitter pints of Smuttynose IPA, before stumbling down the block to Korzo for a pitcher of cloudy, refreshing Kelso Carroll Garden Wit. It tipped our scales to tipsy. Time ticked past midnight. "I should really be getting to bed," Aaron said, his eyes like peppermint swirls. "One more round," I said, delaying the inevitable. "Lucky 13!" On uneven legs we arrived at the heavy metal haunt, where slasher flicks splatter across the TV and Busch beer costs a buck till 9 nightly. We bee-lined to the bar, so focused on acquiring Busch that it took a few minutes to register that a different kind was also on offer. Atop the bar, tattooed gals were go-go dancing in scanty lingerie, writhing on a stripper pole in a manner designed to separate men from their dollar bills.
"I think we can stay for a couple rounds," I told Aaron, ordering several beers and another hour of friendship.