Bars of New York #4: Mars Bar

Bar#3: Nancy Whiskey Bar

Mars Bar

Mars Bar, East Village, NYC

If the Mars bar wasn’t the first bar I went to in New York, it was close. It was the fall of 1989. I had a friend who lived down 3rd street, a few doors away from the Hell’s Angels clubhouse and a few blocks away from the desolation zone that, a few years earlier, had been the fabled early 80’s Alphabet City (documented in Lech Kowalski’s ‘Story of a Junkie‘), and he took me round.

I’d just come off a couple of years squatting in London, and a couple years before that hanging around the hardcore scene in Montreal and Vancouver, and the Mars was very familiar. The walls were covered in graffiti and shock art, a Rolling Rock and a healthy shot of JD cost about two bucks, the jukebox was stocked with all the British punk/ hardcore and New York noise bands I liked. Best of all, it had the rollicking open-ness of the East Village bars of the late 80’s. You’d sit at the bar, have a drink, and talk to just about anyone – musicians, art school chicks, junkies, dealers, some old lady from up the street who’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life – even out and out hicks rolling into town for the night. People’s open-ness came from confidence, and a desire to make contact. The brick windows allowed for a good view of the circus outside. After London’s self-concious cliquiness, and Canada’s faux British snobbery and insecurity, the Mars and all NY bars like it were indeed a liberation.

After the first couple of years in New York, I didn’t go down so much. I quit drinking for awhile, which probably had something to do with it – the Mars wasn’t the kind of bar you’d hang around without a drink. But year after year, it remained, even after the area cleaned up, even after the condos moved in, like a pool that remains after the tide’s gone out. I went down once in awhile, but figured it would disappear or be taken over by kids like all the other grungy bars I used to go to in the day.

Little did I think it would not only survive, but become an icon, written about in the New York Times as ‘the grimy dive where tourists go in search of authentic punks and authentic punks start drinking at mid-day.”

Lordy.

Condos across the street Condos across the street from the Mars Bar.

I went back a couple of weeks ago, inspired partly by a post in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and my recent desire to trace my own past in the Village. The bar was as filthy as ever, the walls covered in graffiti and the same shock art, but it felt comfortable, like a decrepit living room. Fruit flies hovered around the toilet in the closet-width bathroom. The walls were still covered in graffiti and shock art. Boxes of bottled beer were stacked behind the bar and there was still no draught. A sign over the bar read: ‘If you can read this, go the fuck home.’ The bartender, surprisingly, had not attitude – in fact she was almost excessively polite.

On first glance, the clientele was something like it would have been a decade or so ago, when I’d last been in. Some big guys with big beards and ponytails who looked like hipster farmers were punching music into the jukebox while the woman they were with kept falling off her bar stool. A black couple hovered around the bar, the woman alternately talking to her man and into her cellphone. Some huge Italian looking guy came in, flopped down on a padded office chair in the corner and said to everyone and no one in particular, “How ya doing? Haven’ a good day?” He seemed familiar with the bartender and a few old guys along the bar, like he was a regular – and when he didn’t order a drink I wondered if he owned the place.

A girl was sitting at the bar. Early 20’s, maybe European, maybe American – I couldn’t hear her accent. She had peroxide blonde hair, shiny black Doctor Marten’s, and hi-tech tattoos beneath her slick leather jacket and from the way she looked over the bar with an odd mixture of ownership and pride, I figured she must have worked pretty hard to reach her perch at this scarred and storied bar, dressed up in her new outfit . . .

I didn’t stay too long. It felt too self-conscious,  too much like the past, a reminder of how little of the world I knew in my own early 20’s survives.

Then again, maybe the old place still has some life. Or something: A post from Slum Goddess

Nice shots from Gog Log: No Worries, Saturday night at the Mars Bar

The East Village is Dead mural outside Mars Bar Mural outside Mars Bar

10 Comments

  1. ahhh, sounds like a great little spot, Tim. you ever been to Rudie’s in Hell’s Kitchen? an Irish friend of mine always went there when livde in NYC and had told me about it. when i went to NYC, it was the only bar i had to go to. sounds much like Mars.

  2. Chris – I have been to Rudi’s, once, a few years ago. Its on my list to go back – I just don’t get to that part of town much anymore. Anthony Bourdain, the (now) celebrity chef, wrote a good essay about it a few years ago.

    So many bars, so few liver cells left to destroy . . .

    T

  3. Yeah, I like his writing. Essays are good. Got a sense he might have been a dick to work for though – having worked in kitchens myself. Nonetheless, he mentions a couple of bars – Rudi’s being one – on his site that are next on my list to visit. Sometime before the Xmas season.

    You know what they say: a good bar is hard to find . . .

  4. simply wonderful… when bar is home even for a brief period of time it then is home forever. I feel exactly that way about an old beloved bar I almost could say I grew up in from the age 17 on…

  5. In light of the recent news of Mars closing, I’ve returned to your post in a different state of mind….it’s easy to think these places will last forever. There’s some security in knowing that, even if you don’t visit, they still continue to exist in the background.

    I’d like to link to your post on my blog, if you don’t mind. Your story is a good one and I’m trying to gather people’s personal experiences so we have a collective memory.

    • Hi Goggla – Just got this. Don’t check this other site too often now. Sure, link all you want. And yes, having seen so many places I once knew disappear, they do continue to exist in the background, in stories, memories.

      T.

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