Brooklyn bars by bus

stela xhiku

Photo: Stela Xhiku

Photo: Stela Xhiku

The B7 bus begins and ends right in front of the Baptist church on my block. Its passengers ride through Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Sheepshead Bay.

B means Bewilderment. My head nods large at the window. Outside, men throw dice stoop-side, teens lean on doorways, property values decrease, and brick buildings traced in chrome fences become squatter and squatter until they are just one-story townhomes.

Inside the B7, an old man tells a woman gathering loose bags of produce that “the key to life is to live the best life you can” and somewhere just out of range: the sun!

Forty minutes will deliver you to the Flatlands – four-lane-street-lands – a place for sedans double-parked in front of the Pork Store. Here, Cash is 4 Cars, Kars are 4 Kids and lawyers keep offices in cottages.

I walk from the bus stop to Freeze Café & Lounge, but it’s closed. And in truth, I don’t give a shit about seeing Freeze. I take a photo from across the street and the cars between me and Freeze wonder why on earth.

Yelpers eulogize the former establishment bitterly. Apparently the chicken was vinegar-drenched and “the drinks were strong as hell” – this from a woman who gave an even lower rating to the the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Photos show blue and purple lighting, white paneling – an igloo.  Level 1 is for dining. Level 3 for dancing. Something tells me I could’ve loved Freeze.

Lucky for me, Buckley’s is only a B100 away. It comes in two parts: there’s Buckley’s Catering and Buckley’s Tavern – a diptych. The first is a carpeted reception hall, where a wedding has gotten hold of my Daddy Yankee playlist. The second, the tavern found through a passage in the bathroom, has a lineup of regulars at the counter, elbows-to-the-bar. It’s fitted cap country and the Stanley Cup is on.

Four bar seats are occupied by a double date. I sit next to the Joe Pesci of the group, possibly the verified Joe Pesci – a squeaky wheel, squeaking of marital problems. He’s pounding the counter. “Don’t whenever you call me, I answer? I answer, don’t I?”

His accent is so thick. That’s a lot of muzzarrell, I can imagine him saying. Where I come from in lesser Brooklyn, anyone who sounds like that must be joking. But not Joe, whose name turns out to be Chris.

“Chris, listen to me,” the wife of the other couple says. “Chris. CHRIS. Listen: she’s human!”

Chris’s wife is blinking at the Stanley Cup and so still with anger that I can almost hear her humming out the noise.

Everyone stops to applaud the live guitarist who is taking requests. “Oh, he’s good,” Chris says to the bartender, also named Chris, and then again to his wife. “He’s good!”

I get a whiskey ginger and watch the Cup. Feeling a little lonely, I write a note in my phone. “Hockey is violent. No out-of-bounds.”

Then Chris the Joe Pesci-soundalike makes an O-hooh-OHoh my god at a skirmish in the game. “These guys are NUTS,” he yells at me, and then later: “I was in the tux business in the ‘80s and I dressed [some hockey player] for all his events. The first time he got fitted, he loved his tux so much, he gave me an eight-ball of cocaine!”

“That's too many balls!” I laugh, pretending to know what it means.

“Hey Mickey,” Chris says by way of greeting to another man whose name is somehow also Chris but, as I find out, just got back from Disneyland.

“Thank you!” strums the guitarist. “I’m Chris and I’ll be taking your requests for another hour. Remember to tip your bartender.”

I go to the bathroom out of boredom and on my walk back request the Monster Mash. I’m not being cute – I love the Monster Mash and I want him to sing it. Instead, he answers me on the mic. This is the trouble with people who have mics: they always start performing their conversations. Chris the guitarist turns from me to his mic stand. “What? The MONSTER Mash? Haha... I don’t know... seems a little early for the MONSTER MASH.”

“Who wants the Monster Mash?” a woman from another part of the bar asks, feeling rightfully invested in this whole mess. 

“SHE wants the Monster Mash!”

He doesn’t play the Monster Mash.

When I return to my stool, Chris the bartender is shaking his head. “He usually plays everything.”

I take the B31 from outside the minimart nearby to the Gather Inn. They've got a $5 cover so I stage a walk off, stomping all of two inches to Beach Bar next door.

The bar is empty except for a woman at the end of the bar, the bartender.

“Are you open?”

“YES!” she yells into her open hands.

I get another whiskey ginger, two Cheetos ($0.50 apiece), and enjoy the muted TV for a while. SNL reruns are on. A second screen is being ridiculous about a Ronald McDonald statue theft. The third has Pippa Middleton getting married and the fourth has that handsome Chris Cimino, the Holy Chris of local news, giving me a pollen report.

We are alone for a while, me and Chris and the bartender, until the door flies open and a wet old man comes in frowning and wagging his right hand. He’s stuck at the doorway until the cramp passes and he finally sits in front of a John Wayne cutout. This is Mike.

“My stool’s open!” he laughs at the empty bar.

I do a round on the pinball machine – a mini-autoshop behind glass. Putting four quarters into this thing sends bulbs flaring, hot wheels whirling, fireworks bursting in a jewelry display. A ball gulps out of the belly.

Quick hypnosis and my body is bowing to this car crash in miniature. I realize how fast my eyes are moving only when the ball stops, scooped into some contraption for a beat before cannonballing toward the goal.

The game goes long because I happen to be very good and my thumbs are showing off their improviso talent. Almighty thumbs and scared eyes aside, the rest of me feels paralyzed.

I become desperate to lose but have started earning new balls – they’re all lined up in some wretched intestine, waiting to pinch in front of the launch. “Genie in a Bottle” is playing and Mike is making a joke about his cheating wife and I want to look at him because I can’t tell if he’s serious, but I’m stuck at my worship which keeps dinging and clanging cash-register noises for me.

“She’s out with the mechanic,” he says, turning the page of his Daily News. “Yesterday was the plumber.”

Another ball disappears and I scan the diorama, a demolition derby that’s done me so so dirty. I’m poised for the next ball but there are none left and no more quarters either.

The Gather Inn now stands on its original plot on Gerritsen Avenue following a brief stint as The Bantry Bar. Bantry closed in 2012 and was understood as a place for drug deals. The community was excited for the Gather Inn to return as “The Gather Inn Again,” and aired their hopes in an online forum:

“beleive me in a few weeks all the guys who sell the drugs and those who buy it will be gone they will be told they are not liked and they are not wanted the gather in will be a place for the good guys and women who want to be with their friends and have a good time no skells,” declares anonymous.

“STILL WAITING…” ANONYMOUS claps back.

It’s a Floyd Bennett dive across from Floyd Bennett Field, site of the city’s first airport. Howard Hughes started and ended his trip ‘round the world here. Now it’s a park.

Chris of Joe Pesci fame told me the Inn was “cliquey” and that I better be meeting someone over there. “Barfights! Every night!” he said. The other Chris – Mickey-Chris, frequent visitor to Disneyland – turned tired to me and said, “It’s an Irish middle-class joint. You’ll be fine.”

The bouncer lets me in easy this time, no cover because it’s getting late. Inside, the Inn is it. The place to be! They’ve got a live, young rock band with a full room of thirty-somethings, some even younger, dancing along. The wedding groomsmen from Buckley’s Catering are all here, standing over Northface-zipped girls at the bar.

I elbow my way in and try to order a whiskey ginger. It’s a busy night and the bartenders, well, they’re handling it: one slowly going from here to there, putting weight on one hip, and the other flinging herself from counter to shelf, miming fast to communicate and changing her face like a sock puppet.

This one comes first and she’s hardly saluted my order before scream-laughing at a joke behind me. She’s laughing and ankling away to my whiskey. Now her hair’s got into her mouth. “Did you see that,” I ask the guy next to me.

This guy, James, is a friend of the groom with a friendly smile, a slight pompadour, and no, he didn’t see it.

“Hey James!” says a big guy to my right, and asks after his father, who was their middle school swim coach and “a legend!”

They’re smiling at each other, drunk and happy. Sitting in between them means sitting in a valley of their projected memories. Lifeguarding together, throwing rocks at and actually killing seagulls in Marine Park – it’s all being spat on me as I lean forward and backward to give them direct eye contact.

It goes like this for ten minutes until James mentions that he’s a garbageman and I spring up because I have so many rat questions saved up for a New York City Sanitation Worker.

He answers all of them dutifully, “No, I’m not scared of them,” and finding his moment to gloat, tells a story about beating rats to death with a shovel.

He’s in good company! “What happens when the garbage trucks impound? Do the rats get squished in there?”

“Yeah! Most of ‘em but the other day one of them got loose and jumped out of the truck and I had to boot him.”

He shares two more curdling rat stories before I can get away with, “do you like killing them? I mean, if that one that jumped at you ran away too fast for you to kill it, would you have been upset?”

“Yeah!”

“You would have hunted it? On the street?”

“Yeah!”

Somehow this crosses a line. “Ew,” I tell him, “that’s terrible.”

A groomsmen falls in between us. Another Mike, and also a garbageman. These two are colleagues.

“We’re just talking about rats,” James says.

“Nah, I don’t fuck with rats.”

“What do you mean?”

“No, no rats. I hate rats. Fuck ‘em. I don’t want ‘em around.” He’s shaking his head.

“We’re not talking about people, Mike,” James says sternly.

Mike finally gets it and then he gets us a round of Fireball shots while laughing about the time he “squared up” with some rats in Flatbush. “They weren’t scared! These rats were gangster!” he says. “So we got the shovels.”

Mike limps off but not before yelling to James, “SHE’s a KEEPER.”

It becomes abruptly clear that all of this rat talk is flirtatious to them – two Marine Park boys flexing their shovels suggestively.

Also abruptly clear: the buses will stop running. I jump out of my seat to catch the B31 across the street, shouting my goodbyes. I miss it and James finds me at the bus stop. He wants to see me again but I’ve planted a great story throughout the night that I’m visiting from Dallas: “We don’t have rats down there.”

The bus finally comes and drives through Marine Park, passing Gerritsen Middle School and Gerritsen High School, where an Aquafina vending machine haunts the main corridor.

The bus driver says “good luck” when he lets me off at the B100 bus stop. I ask him what he means and he just says, “you look strong.” It spells trouble so I call an UberPOOL that takes me through deep Brownsville where we pick up a lady called Dominique. She is cooing at a man on the phone, cooing and sleep-talking. I really think, she whispers, you should stay up.