How my last night bartending turned into one of the strangest nights of my life.
In decades past the alphabetized avenues of Alphabet City all had nicknames to give you an idea of what, exactly, you were getting yourself into as you headed east from First Avenue.
Land on Avenue A and you’re “all right.” Cross Avenue B and you’re “brave.” Find yourself on Avenue C—where I lived and tended bar for a few years—and you are “crazy.” Hit Avenue D and you’re “dead.” Nothing more, nothing less.
Those years are gone for the most part. Joggers don’t think twice about running east to the FDR overpass or clocking a few miles on the gleaming paths that now line the East River Esplanade.
When I finished my late-night shifts at the Avenue C bar I used to tend around 3 in the morning, I couldn’t even be bothered to look over my shoulder I was so exhausted.
The area is now full of $3,000-a-month studios and restaurants teeming with finance bros and what has generously been called the “creative class.” (Never mind the rent checks coming from Mom and Dad.) The legendary rock venues that once lined the Bowery and St. Marks Place and defined a certain era—The World, Brownies—are gone.
But you can still get your kicks there. You just need to know where to look.
On my last night as a bartender, I decided to go out with a bang. One of my colleagues had given me a 10-strip of exceptionally potent LSD—a thank-you for helping him move the previous weekend. I knew a full tab would have had me pouring beers for my imaginary friends all night, so I took out a pair of scissors and snipped one in half, downing it about an hour before my evening shift started. By the time I showed up at 6, I might as well have floated through the front door, my pupils as big as Sacagawea coins.
The shift began slowly, though even the simplest tasks took on a new degree of difficulty. Someone ordered a beer I’d poured hundreds of times before; filling the glass took what felt like an hour. Around 9, I, like Sir Edmund Hillary before me, peaked. I texted my friend Janie, who lived around the corner, a desperate SOS to come escort me out of the bar and headed to the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face. The bathroom walls inflated and collapsed like a wallpapered lung, and I knew it was time to get some fresh air.
On the way out of the bathroom I ran into the colleague who had given me the acid in the first place. I asked if he could finish my shift for me. He took one look at me, saw that I was in bad shape, and gladly obliged. I found out only later that he had swallowed a full dose a few minutes earlier.
I spied Janie at the front door, and we walked into the crisp October air. We walked west from Avenue C, past the dank basement at Manitoba’s and the grizzled old-timers at Horseshoe Bar (or Vazac’s or 7B, depending on who you ask) who have been sitting there since the NYPD rushed Tompkins Square Park back in 1988. We headed to Ray’s Candy Store, a hole in the wall that’s been serving everything from beignets to chicken fingers since 1974. The store’s octogenarian owner, Ray Alvarez, was in that night. I composed myself and ordered some Belgian fries; Ray skulked to the back of the store and returned a few minutes later with a clamshell so loaded with golden spuds that he had to rubber-band it shut.
The fresh air had cleared my head a bit, and Janie and I walked back outside to dig the scene on Avenue A. The western boundary of the neighborhood has changed even in the two decades since I first played pick-up basketball with my brother in Tompkins Square Park. Dives like Blanche’s Tavern—now Lucy’s—and Doc Holliday’s are still there, and legendary clubs like the Pyramid Club are holding on. But more common are the million-dollar condos sprouting everywhere, casting shadows over a park that people avoided after sundown no more than 20 years ago.
It was early still when Janie and I parted ways. I headed south to meet some friends at No Malice Palace, which has since closed. I walked down Avenue A and hung a left on 5th Street, passing Sophie’s, the platonic ideal of a dive bar, and Ace Bar, basically the opposite of that. (Sophie’s does have a real twin, though: Josie’s, located on 6th Street directly behind Sophie’s. They are almost exact mirror images of each other, and I have been late to more than one meetup because I mistook one for the other. Both bars have been around for more than a century.)
No matter how many times you take a dab of MDMA, you never get used to the bitter industrial taste.
I hooked a right on Avenue B and saw the neon sign for NMP glowing on 3rd Street. Inside, the party was warming up. I found my friend Cam, who palmed me a glassine bag full of pixie-dust-colored MDMA. I was still going through the pulsing waves of the LSD-induced high but went to the bathroom and dipped a wet finger into the tiny bag. No matter how many times you take a dab of MDMA, you never get used to the bitter industrial taste.
I rinsed my mouth with a beer and went upstairs. The dance floor had started filling in, and the DJ started playing tracks with Jay-Z and Clipse cuts. Those waves of acid flowing through my system weren’t subsiding, and they now had a fuzzy, tingly outline thanks to the MDMA.
Around 1 a.m. Cam and I headed back outside, lit some cigarettes, and inhaled the cool night air. We met some friends who knew the door guy at Home Sweet Home on Chrystie Street and piled into a cab heading south. The bar is on the ground floor of a building that was once home to artist Gordon Matta-Clark, a man who looked at the bombed-out buildings of 1970s New York and saw a massive canvas. Now it is where well-heeled millennials go to dance and forget about whatever is happening up at street level.
The vibe at Home Sweet Home was expectedly douchey. My group escaped before last call and broke off from each other, all heading home one way or another. I hopped into a cab, and the comedown from the acid and MDMA hit me like a truck. The 10-minute ride from Chrystie to my apartment on Avenue C felt interminable, and the ebbing tide of dopamine nearly brought me to tears. By the time the locks of my door tumbled open, I was nearly despondent, but I tried to settle into bed. My brain had other ideas—it simply wouldn’t shut off. It was morning before I drifted off to sleep, and Alphabet City was waking up again.