9 - Happy Birthday, Wolfman
The holidays passed and a dreary January had me coming to the May Way more frequently, my schedule nearly as predictable as any of the dancers.
I ached to escape home and its emptiness.
My uncle had attempted suicide again, and once more had been admitted to Graystone Mental Hospital.
His craziness drove me crazy when he was home and the loneliness of the apartment drove me crazy when he was gone.
I had friends – Han, Paul, Michael, John, but our world orbits had shifted so that we could meet less easily and I lived more and more inside my own little universe, disconnected from the old social networks, I knew growing up.
The My Way became a refuge from this isolation where I could suffer my individual loneliness with men like myself, torturing myself with the sight of nearly naked women who I thought I could never have, and had I even known they were available, could not have afforded to purchase.
What had been a once a month or less visit prior to Labor Day 1986 evolved into a weekly affair after Labor Day, and even twice a week after New Years – an expensive habit I could barely afford since drinks here cost more than at an ordinary bar, and tips for dancers and barmaids were expected – so most nights were short nights except on pay days.
To make things worse, Wolfman liked to put on galas to perk up the otherwise slow nights I preferred. While Friday and Saturday nights were always profitable, crowding the place with regular and irregular patrons, other nights such as Sunday were unpredictable, and during colder weather, became downright sleepy.
To pack the place, Wolfman brought on more than the usual two dancers, sometimes as many as a dozen, and then put one of his minions at the door to collect a cover charge that would help off set the additional cost of the additional dances, as if the higher fee he charged per drink was not enough.
Peggy hated these affairs more than anybody and did her best to avoid them.
But if Wolfman could not line up enough dancers to fill his bill, he threatened to take away her regular gif if she failed to show up for one of his galas.
Peggy had good reason for resisting.
With so many girls on the bill, she could expect less in the way of tips, drinks and especially cocaine, despite the increased number of men.
Competition was fierce, too, with younger, perhaps prettier girls drawing away the attentions of prospective marks.
Usually, posters announced the gala would warn me in advance to avoid the place that night. But sometimes, Wolfman would spring a gala on us with little warning and if I hadn’t come in for a week or more, I found a grinning minion at the door holding out his hand to collect my cash.
This was the case just after New Years, when on a particular cold night, I arrived to find banners outside advertising Wolfman’s birthday bash.
I might have had more warning, but I had not come to the place until just after Christmas.
This was not Wolfman’s birthday, or at least, he held a similar bash the previous August. But I couldn’t get in without giving up a five of my dwindling funds, and once in, the place was so crowded and filled with cigarette smoke and body odor, I wished I hadn’t bothered.
Nearly every seat was taken, filled mostly with strange people who liked me needed some place to help warm then against the deep chill Mother Nature had brought. Some even men stood around the bar, pushing themselves between the seated men for a niche along the oval bar, just enough space where they could deposit their drink and still glimpse the girls they’d paid to see.
These nights brought out rude and arrogant fools, too, and frequently led to fights – if not in the bar, then on the street outside after hours, often over some slight given a dancer or remark made, or look given or even the theft of a dancer’s attention another man thought his tip or drink had purchased.
Someone – most likely Mary – had put up streamers and balloons along the inside of the bar, attaching these to the dustier bottles no one had drunk from in years. A few of the balloons had already deflated.
Wolfman, apparently in a good mood over the large crowd, had ordered the amber lights lit, a generous deed for a man who complained routinely about how crooked the power company was, and this with that company’s office only two doors away from the bar’s.
While Wolman thought the amber lights gave the place class, I preferred the dimmer lights which helped hide the cracked walls and pealing pain, not to mention the worn vinyl bar stool tops and the layer upon layer of dust that decorated many of the shelves.
Mary was startled to see me.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she asked.
“I got lonely,” I said, looking around, noticing one stool still vacant at the bar. But it was at the narrow end, right in front of the stage and I was in no mood to get into the middle of a scene with any of the drunken irregulars, who were already screaming for the dancers to “show some tit.”
I settled at one of the café tables which were mostly vacant and put my notebook down. This was low enough to stay out of Wolfman’s line of sight, yet gave me an adequate view of the other men, the new cast of characters I might find something interesting to write about.
The gala hadn’t actually officially started yet, although one of the dancers leaned against the rail inside the bar chatter with several men, while a pack of other dancers clustered near the juke box clucking like hens as they selected tune and tried not to get mauled by the red necks who clearing at things on their minds, things Wolfman might find objectionable if any of the men went too far.
I didn’t see Peggy anywhere, but Wolfman sat in his usual spot, a small card table set up behind him with a large birthday cake on it. Beyond it, several thugs played pool. His minions laughed and patted him on the back, wishing him happy birthday again and again.
Mary appeared at my table carrying a bottle of beer and a glass, glancing in the direction I was looking.
“Don’t let his shit-eating grin fool you,” she said. “He’s in a foul mood.”
“Doesn’t he like birthdays?” I asked.
This time, Mary shrugged, her short brownish/reddish hair glistened in the bar lights, hair cut so short she looked a little like a young boy, perhaps intentionally to ward off the constant advances she got when drunk men gave up trying to score with the dancers and decided she might go for them instead.
But she was pretty just the same, with luscious eyes and rich red lips that more than once made me want to hit on her, too.
“He had another fight with Peggy,” Mary said. “She’s in a fowl mood, too. She didn’t want to dance tonight. She hates these things.”
“More work for fewer tips,” I said. “Who can blame her?”
“The boss can,” Mary said. “So watch yourself tonight. Don’t do anything that will get him pissed at you.”
She reached out across the table and squeezed my hand.
“You really are something refreshing around here,” she said, and gave a soft smile. “I wouldn’t want to lose you on account of Peggy.”
“You think that’s possible?”
“Of course it is.”
“I don’t understand.”
Her smile grew even more tender and her eyes seemed to smile, too.
“I know,” she said. “That’s what makes you so different.”
She moved off before I could ask her what she meant. She had order to fill and quickly reappeared behind the bar, feeling them in an assembly line fashion.
She had lightened my move, so I could sit back with my beer and take it all in from the irritation of the regular patrons at the antics of the irregulars, who crowded each other out at the bar, slugging down drink after drink until they grew even ruder than they were coming in – nearly to a man shouting at the girls to get on with the show, and when the first two dancers got up, haranguing them to uncover, men so loud and obnoxious they nearly drowned out the music.
They were another reason I usually avoided gala nights or even party nights, and even the dancers seemed annoyed, taking tips and drinks but not without a look of pain.
Irregulars usually included a generous helping of young professions, their Wall Street jobs making them more arrogant than their working class counterparts and more demanding. This time had more cash and cocaine than other men in the bar, but often refused to part with either, tipping the least and buying the fewest drinks, but always free with the use of their hands, as if they assumed they were purchasing more for their dollars than other men were entitled to.
Some of these so offended the regulars that they learned some hard lessons later when they staggered outside to the street.
A show off to the last, Peggy put on her usual routine even though she had a short set, popping out the ladies room pumped up and ready to go. Yet once she started to make her rounds, Peggy clearly didn’t like her choices – despite the inflated numbers.
Still miffed at being forced to work what she called “A flea circus,” Peggy mumbling something at Wolfman as she made her way behind the bar, and Wolfman, riled by their previous exchange, grabbed her arm.
“Don’t give me any of your crap, girl,” he growled. “How much is it to ask for you to dance on my birthday.”
“It’s not your birthday,” Peggy snarled, detaching his fingers from her arm. “Frankly, I don’t think you were every born. You were hatched from an egg like the pond scum you are.”
At which point, Wolfman called her “a fucking whore” who ought to be grateful she had a warm place to dance rather than walking the cold streets of Passaic looking for some pervert to poke her.
After this, she shouted and he responded, using a string of curse words that might have singed the ears of polite people, but the regulars had heard all of this before, and began to grumble about the delay in getting her on the stage, which of course Wolfman noticed and held up his hand.
Enough,” he said. “You’re here to dance. So dance.”
Peggy shoved her way passed the man and into the inner circle behind the bar, and up to the stage, where she found an empty glass left by the previous dancer. She growled for Mary to move it, and then when she mounted the stage, she found a shawl the other dancer had left as well and she kicked it off the stage, then, still glaring in Wolfman’s direction, she started to dance.
Then, as luck would have it, she noticed me.
A Soviet sniper could not have targeted me any better, her descending painted eyebrow folding in like cross hairs.
Her mouth puckered.
She ceased dancing, her hands settling on her hips as she stood at the edge of the stage facing my side of the bar.
I kept my head low, seeking no repeat of that earlier night when she had ordered me to take my place on a stool at the bar.
I’d seen what she’d done to men when in a good mood, I could not imagine how much worse things could get in her current mood.
At the same time, another – perhaps reckless part of me, found the whole situation fascinating, especially the terrified expression on the faces of the regular patrons who recognized the intense danger hovering over all of us and these regulars waited with horrified anticipation for the bolt of Peggy’s wrath to strike.
I even felt a twinge of pity for the unsuspected irregulars, who in their blissful ignorance, tempted fate in their continued annoying demands.
With the utmost care, I slowly glanced up – like a World War One trench solider peeking over my limited protection to spy out where the enemy would strike, and in once quick glimpse get the lay of the land before ducking for cover again – Peggy looming over it all.
I still hadn’t connected her stare with me, thinking at that moment she was still studying us all when nearly everybody else in the bar already knew she was staring only at me.
So all the more was the shock when I looked up and saw her staring directly at me.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she asked, her voice as raw as the croak of a crow.
Men at the bar between us, standing and seated, moved aside giving Peggy a clearer line of fire, making more obvious the one vacant stool at the bar.
“Well?” she asked when I had not responded.
“I don’t get you?” I said.
The juke box changed songs, leaving a brief gap in which my own croaking voice sounded unfortunately loud.
All I wanted was for this angel of death to turn her attention elsewhere, for the music to seep her back into her dancing.
But she did not move; she continued to stare, and wait, and when after another unbearably long moment, she said, “I thought I told you I didn’t want you sitting at those tables.”
“You did,” I mumbled.
“What was that?”
“I said you did.”
She nodded her head towards the vacant stool from which the rest of the men continued to lean away, as if it and me had become radiated, and none were willing to become contaminated by standing too near either of us.
“There’s not enough room for me up there,” I said.
“You’re full of shit,” she said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“Not for me and my notebook.”
“That’s another thing,” she scowled. “What’s all this writing stuff about? Every time I see you, you have you’re your nose in one of those books.”
I glanced uncomfortably in
Wolfman’s direction, well-aware of how much he hated my doing this as well.
“Are you some kind of private detective?” Peggy asked.
All this was said loudly enough to irritate Wolfman, although just which one of us irritated him most at that moment I couldn’t tell. But his eyes glinted and at that moment I realized he wasn’t annoyed at all, but interested in our exchange. He had seen Peggy skewer men at the bar before and he seemed to think I might be next.
His cigar glowed as he took deep puffs on it, and I realized Peggy and I had given him the present he most wanted for his birthday, a little bit of sadistic entertainment most likely to be supplied at my expense.
He sat back to wait on the next development, leaving me to dangle at the end of Peggy’s intense glare.
I sighed, closed my notebook, hoping that much would appease her.
When she continued to stare, I picked up my notebook, the bottle of beer and the beer glass, stood, and crossed over to the vacant stool at the bar. I had more than enough room as the other men made space.
Once seated, I assumed she would get on with her act as she had the last night, and thus ignoring me again.
Other dancers, of course, had asked about me and my notebooks in the past. One dancer even stepped onto it and told me to trace her foot on the page as a joke. Most times I had managed to put them off, claiming I was a student at the college doing some homework here –not totally untrue since I had come here from time to time while still attending William Paterson College.
Once I tried telling the truth only to have the dancer mock me – even after she’d just finished telling me how she was a famous star from Broadway, seeking to make a comeback. Still other dancers had tried to tell me their life stories – at which point Wolfman insisted I stop writing at the bar.
“I don’t need that kind of trouble,” he told me. “People get nervous when anybody’s jotting anything down in any kind of book.”
Tom later told Peggy Wolfman thought I might be a cop.
But Peggy did not start dancing again even after I had fully settled into the place at the bar she had indicated. She just stood there and stared down at me.
“Now what?” I asked.
“I’m waiting for you to tell me what’s in those books,” she said. “Or do I have to come down there and find out for myself?”
Wolfman – who could not hear every word and see me and my books clearly – stared at me and Peggy through a haze of newly-generated cigar smoke, the hope of cheap entertainment evaporating from his gaze, replaced once more by annoyance, and perhaps a glimmer of alarm.
I put my hands on top of my closed notebooks.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“NOTHING?” Peggy howled, as she took on something that resembled a fighting stance on the stage, her long legs parting, her red fingernails digging into her hips – she looking as if she’d already torn someone’s eyes out, and aimed to do the same to me. “Nothing my ass. Every time I see you in here, you’re scribbling in some book. It must be pretty important stuff if you need to pay it more attention than you do to me.”
I nearly ripped my shirt trying to shove the pen back into my pocket, leaving a dark ink stain on my breast as I did.
Men around the oval bar – regulars and irregulars – squirmed uncomfortably under Peggy’s gaze as she looked to either side of me, apparently in an attempt to determine if I had come in with anybody else.
I suddenly had even more room at the bar.
Some of the irregulars unwisely began to grumble.
This was not their kind of entertainment; they had paid good money at the door to see some tits and ass, and that’s what they wanted to see, not this.
Wolfman took noticed, as his cigar stub shifted from one side of his mouth to the other.
“I’m paying attention now,” I said, hating the disruption of routine as much as Wolfman did, knowing that no one would act naturally that night after Peggy had called attention to me and my notebook.
I had no more reason to scribble anything after that and Peggy seemed aware of this, took, taking on a very smug look.
She even smiled.
Again, I assumed that was the end of it, that she would move onto some other victim.
She did not.
“Maybe you think I’m not sexy enough?” she asked her bullhorn of a voice booming across the room so that even the music could not cover her words.
“You’re very pretty,” I mumbled.
“What was that?” Peggy said, holding her hand to her ear.
Some of the men began to chuckle.
Wolfman’s mood shifted again, once more reading into this odd scene some new aspect of Peggy’s game playing – nothing too serious, perhaps even something he might get a kick out of. Again, his eyes glinted through the haze of cigar smoke.
“I said you’re pretty,” I said more loudly.
The word hung in the air like the after glow of a Macy’s firework, trails of it floating over the oval bar in fading echoes, catching fire in the upturned faces of the otherwise grim men, only vaguely amused prior to this. Some even looked at each other, most looked at me, then at Peggy, all waiting for the next phase, craving more.
Mary glanced at me from down the bar, warning me with the intensity of her stare for me to be careful. She even tilted her head in the direction of the door, a clean hint that I should leave.
I didn’t budge – as frozen in my seat as any of Peggy’s previous victims.
I thought if I stood to leave I might cause a riot among the men who needed me to serve as sacrifice.
Yet not everybody was happy even then, a few less stout-hearted irregulars, stood up, gulped down their drinks, gathered their change from the bar top and fled – too out of tune with the ritual to realize Peggy would not turn on them once she had selected me as a candidate.
“Well,” I said, plucking up a little courage to speak again. “You are pretty.”
“I’m overweight,” she snapped, giving a sharp glance at the other men, daring any of them to affirm this.
“I am, too,” I said.
I hadn’t jogged in months and regular nights out at bars like this had packed on pounds I hated, but could no longer shed.
“Wise guy,” Peggy said, clearly thinking I mocked her. “Why don’t you come up here and dance if you think you’re so skinny?”
Then I made the most dreadful mistake of all: I laughed.
I stopped laughing only when Peggy’s shoulders stiffed and her feet spread back into her fighter’s stance.
“Now you think I’m funny?” she asked.
“I never said that.”
”But you laughed.”
“I thought you were joking.”
Down at the end of the bar, Wolfman stirred out of his go. His cigar again made its agitated way from side to side in his mouth.
“Dance, girl,” he yelled. “You don’t get paid to stand around.”
Peggy pivoted in Wolfman’s direction.
“I’m not going to dace if I’m not appreciated,” she shouted back.
“You’ll do what I tell you,” Wolfman said, glaring at her, his large hands flat on the bar top as he pushed himself up.
I decided I’d had enough, stood up, took two singles out of my wallet and put them on the bar next to my bottle of veer, then I picked up my notebook and started to leave.
Peggy must have caught the motion in the corner of her eye because she whirled around.
“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” she demanded to know.”
“Home,” I said.
“What the hell do you want from me, lady?” I asked, letting out an exasperated and extended sigh.
The juke box had ceased playing, whether from expired coins or someone, most likely Mary, cutting it off.
The bar fell as silent as a tomb.
“A drink,” Peggy said. “I want you to buy me a drink – or is that too much to ask?”
“No,” I said softly. “That’s not too much to ask.”
“Then you sit down and when my set is over I’ll come over and collect it.”
I sat back down on the stool.
The juke box went back on. Peggy started to dance, going into her usual routine, even to the point of flirting with some of the other men.
Things got so normal, I actually believed she’d forgotten about me since she paid so little attention to me during the dance.
When her time expired, however, she slid down off the stage, pointed a sharp red fingernail at me and said, “Don’t move. I’ll be back as soon as I change.”
Then, she marched down the interior of the bar, passed Wolfman at the gate, her head held high in obstinate resisted to his glares. The moment she vanished into the ladies room beyond the pool table, Wolfman waved Mary over and in a heated discussed with her, pointed at me with his still smoldering cigar stub.
Mary looked in my direction, nodded, then rushed through the narrow space between the racks of bottles and the bar towards me, pausing only in front the cooler where the bottles of beer were kept to draw one out, wipe off the ice and pull off the cap.
She deposited this in front of me and then made a mixed drink Peggy liked and put this down next to the bottle.
“Be careful, Al,” she said in a very low voice.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said. “But what can I do? I feel so fucking trapped.”
“Buy her this drink then leave.”
“What if she won’t let me.”
“She doesn’t control men like you.”
“She’s done a damned good job so far tonight.”
“That’s because you let her.”
“I don’t want any trouble,” I said.
Mary shook her head. “That’s not it. In some ways the two of you are too much alike.”
“How is that?”
“You don’t like to lose. But take my advice. Lose this one.”
“You mean I should run away with my tail between my legs?”
“If you don’t end this now, it’ll be a lot harder later.”
“I’ve seen her routine. She plays with people for a night then finds someone different the next time.”
“This is not like those. She has something else in mind for you.”
“You’ve seen this before?”
Mary nodded. “More importantly,” she said, “so has he.”
She tilted her head in Wolfman’s direction.
“It’s going to get worse, Al,” Mary said. “And you’re too good a guy to get caught up in one of Peggy’s webs.”
“I appreciate your warning me.”
“I mean it. Walk away,” Marry said, giving me one more pleading look before surrendering to the call for drinks farther down the bar.
For the moment, the crowd seemed to forget me as other girls took the state, men throwing money at the dancers in some desperate hope they might get lucky later, most knowing they would not, most accepting their fate as losers and men of personal misery, loneliness as thick in the crowded room as was the flow of testosterone.
Wolfman didn’t forget me.
He just kept staring until finally, after a dozen more heavy puffs on his cigar, he waved Mary over again and after yet another intense exchange, Mary came back to where I was sitting.
“The boss says you have to leave,” she said, dropping a moist ten dollar bill down on the bar in front of me.
I looked at the bar, then up at Mary’s concerned face.
“Who cares why?” Mary said, glancing over at Wolfman, then passed him at the ladies room door. “Just hurry up before she comes out. The last thing any of us need is another scene tonight.”
“Does this mean I’m banned?” I asked, knowing how Wolfman sometimes exited customers who broke the rules, men who touched dancers got banned, men who started fights or tried to rip off the bar in any way.
“No,” Mary said. “But if you don’t go right now he might.”
I looked over at Wolfman,
who gave me a nod.
I nodded back, got up, collected my notebook and the ten dollar bill, then left.