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, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.[Kreiger]
The sign on BillyMark's West reads "Since 1956." I've been to a lot of dives in my time, but few that were precious enough to proclaim—or even care about—their birthday. I steeled myself to encounter a kind of faux dive inside, more museum than bar. But, no. BillyMark's is a dive dive. As divey a dive as I've ever been in, with a strictly bottom-shelf array of liquors and beers (no taps) and a class Z clientele to guzzle them down.
As I entered, Mark (the Queens native who owns the bar with his brother Billy—hence the name) was berating the only female barfly in the joint, causing her to blow shots at the pool table. "You've got more chins than a Chinese phone book," he bellowed, his feet propped upon the bar. She laughed. "What's a Chinese phone book?" she wondered. "D'Aiuto's Cheesecake called," Mark continued. "They want their rolls back!" (D'Aiuto's is a block away from BillyMark's corner-of-nowhere-and-nothing location of 29th and Ninth.) She laughed again, blew a shot. For the record, the lady in question was not fat in the least.
The jukebox having stopped playing Beatles tracks, the lady's boyfriend loped over to punch in a few more songs. The Fab Four are big here. There are posters of them all over the walls. "You got a dirty joke?" he asked, pointing his beer at me. I confessed I didn't know any, not off the top of my head anyway. (And if I did, why would I tell it to a stranger by way of introduction?) "C'mon!" He wouldn't let up. "You gotta know one!" I made a show of racking my brains. "You tell one," I finally said. He was good and ready. "What's the worst thing that could happen when you're having sex with your sister?" I didn't know. He made me guess. Don't ask me what my guess was. He finally delivered the punch line—"The crib breaks!"—and roared.
My best friend at BillyMark's was a bald, dumpy fellow who carried his belongings in a shopping bag that he moved every time he shifted position in the bar, which was often. He was 40 years of age and looked 50. A Corona was in his hand, evidently his 11th or 12th beer of the day. He had started his day out with a "bad beer," he told me, a skunked Bud bought from a bodega. Made him sick. "I killed that with Absolut, Grey Goose, everything I could think of." He smiled and offered a fist bump. I obliged.
I learned a lot about my new friend over the next hour or so. He had been thrown out of the house at 20 by his father for taking too many women home. "Oh, that was the reason," said Mark, passing by, collecting the numerous beer bottles that litter the bar. There was some vague trouble with his driver's license, which had been taken away, thus adversely curtailing "his livelihood." "You know me," he said. I didn't. "There's no problem with me. I'm responsible. Then I party on the weekends. Don't hurt nobody." This was a Wednesday.
My Pabst Blue Ribbon tasted worse that PBR usually does. I wondered if I, too, hadn't gotten a bad beer. I got up to leave. "Good night, sir," said Mark. I was the only person in the bar he called sir. "I love you, man," said my friend. Fist bump.