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The Ready Penny, Jackson Heights, Queens

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There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.

[Krieger, 12/10/09]

Bobby sips at his vodka and Dole pineapple juice. Judging by the advanced stage of his slurring, it is his tenth. Barmaid Helen, wearing a tight red t-shirt that says "I Need a Stiff One," shoves the weekly football pool under Bobby's nose. Bobby—who's 60 if he's a day—begins to carefully scribble his mark in one of the squares. "My daughter writes better than you," said Helen. "Of course, she doesn't drink a bottle of vodka a day." Another patron asks Helen why she didn't call him a cab last night. "There isn't a cab that would have you," she answered back.

Take a seat at the Ready Penny Inn in Jackson Heights, and you're bound to get some of Helen's lip. No one seems to mind, though, because there's a tenderness behind the jabs. She the sort of tough bartenderess who secretly nurses and looks after her regulars. And she takes it as well as she dishes it out. Like the time the owners TP'ed her car and posed for a picture in front of it. She got them back by framing the picture with the caption "Just married. We're gay" and hanging it behind the bar. They didn't like that. Next time, they put a "For Sale" sign on her car. "This is a friendly place," Helen said in her brassy Irish accent. "I've worked here 11 years and there have only been five fights. And I started three of them." Won? "Always!"

On 73rd Street between 37th Avenue and Roosevelt, the Ready Penny is the odd man out—a rustic Irish pub surrounded by flashy Indian and Bangladeshi businesses. It's seen the street change a lot in its 40 years, though the area's always been a mix of different peoples. Inside, the joint feels like a cocoon, despite its spare furnishings. TVs are on, music plays, yet it seems quiet. A bottle blonde laughs at the jokes of a raspy-voiced man. A student reads a book over his Smithwick. A black businessman in a suit serenely watches the game in silence. A middle-aged Beck's drinker enters warily into a conversation with a sober younger man about the nature of reality. "Losing touch with reality is a gradual process," the younger man intones. A dollar is taped above the bar; written on are the words "Ducky Should Not Bet With Eddie." For about ten minutes, Helen and her fellow bartender Linda go out for a smoke and leave the inmates in charge of the asylum. Nobody moves an inch.

After serving him two more vodkas, Helen called Bobby a cab, stretching the cord on the old phone across the back bar as she automatically pours another Beck's for the man who has drunk nothing but, and has never had to ask for a new round. Bobby leaves two dollars on the bar, totters to the door and is led by someone to his waiting car. Ready Penny Inn is kind to its drunks. To strangers, too.
—Robert Simonson

The Ready Penny Inn

37-07 73rd Street, Queens, NY