Jersey City was not always the yuppie playground that it is now. Before the gentrification took hold, JC was a hellhole, but the rent was cheap, the PATH provided 24 hour access to Manhattan, and there were plenty of bars. That is why my friends and I lived there after we graduated from college in 1987. It was our post-college playground.
The Heights in JC seemed to have a bar on every block. There were bars in houses, bars in storefronts, bars in stand-alone buildings. Cop bars, firemen bars, FBI bars. Bars that opened at 6 a.m. for guys coming off the night shift and/or degenerate alcoholics that could not wait until the normal 10 a.m. opening time. Bars frequented by the Irish, bars frequented by the Italians, bars frequented by the Poles.
Central Avenue was the main shopping drag in the Heights. It was mostly variations on the novelty store theme, with the occasional deli, butcher shop or barber thrown in. At the foot of Central Avenue stood McKenna’s Colonial Bar. The bar occupied the first floor of a small apartment building, and the rumor was that the apartments operated as a flophouse for the degenerates who lived in the area. There was always a group of guys standing around in front of McKenna’s, usually staring blankly at the traffic passing by. We never went into McKenna’s for drinks, mainly because it was a bit of a hike from the apartment, and we had to pass several bars to get there, and also because it had a reputation of being a dump. When the JC drunks hanging around the other dive bars in the neighborhood said it was too dumpy for them, that was enough to keep us out.
One Saturday night, Hag and I have no plans, as per usual, and are fishing about for something to do. I am not sure whose idea it is, but one of us says, “Fuck it, let’s go to McKenna’s. How bad can it be?” We grab a couple of slices for dinner, and head up Central Avenue.
Stepping around the drunks and pushing open the door of McKenna’s, the first thing we notice is the odor of stale beer, staler urine and fresh feces. Not to worry, as that heady aroma is soon replaced by the smell of vomit. Shortly after our arrival, a guy gets up from the bar, stumbles towards the bathroom, and yaks before making it to the door. While most bars would get out a mop to clean that up, McKenna’s has a simpler and more efficient method of dealing with the mess. The barkeep rips up a few cardboard boxes and lays them over the vomit slick, because, and I quote, “I don’t want anybody breaking their ass back there.”
Ah yes, our barkeep. She looks like a short and squat Joe Klecko, except her shoulders were broader and her legs stubbier. She has a mess of dirty blonde hair. I do not use ‘dirty blonde’ as a descriptive term for her hair color. I mean that her hair is blonde and filthy. Her eye shadow is that shade of blue that I am certain is only sold in the grimier sections of Hudson County, and possibly Elizabeth.
The bar has not been wiped down all day, and possibly has never been wiped down, so there are pools of beer and sticky spots of dried beer, pizza grease and god knows what else. Green horseflies the size of sparrows Stuka dive into these pools and buzz around our heads. We belly up to the bar and in reply to our barkeep’s inquiry of “What do you Two want?”, we order a couple of Buds. She hands us two 8 ounce cans and takes our money.
A couple of guys are sleeping at the tables along the back wall. The jukebox was stuck on “Holiday” by Madonna, and a morbidly obese guy sitting at the bar has removed his shirt, and is throwing his arms up in the air and dancing along to the song, without ever lifting his ass up off of his barstool. A guy at the corner of the bar has a red magic marker and is drawing giant clown lips on his face. He admires his work in the mirror behind the bar, and then shouts to our barkeep, “Hey Babe, HEY BABE, it looks like I ate you out when you had your period!!!”
Our barkeep lifts one stubby leg off the ground, props it on the sink behind the bar, grabs her crotch with her knobby fingers, and says, “You got a better set of fucking lips than I got!”
Hag and I are silent while all of this is happening around us.
“Holiday” starts up again. The obese guy without a shirt is still dancing at his barstool. Red Clown Lips Guy is grinning at whatever witticism is spinning through his head. Our barkeep hulks behind the bar, occasionally rapping her knuckles on the bar if someone starts to nod off. You can sleep at the tables, but sleeping at the bar is a faux pas, a breach of decorum and etiquette so foul that it cannot be allowed. Mind you, if you vomit, a piece of cardboard will be thrown over the pile, but you can stay and keep drinking. Just don’t nod off at the bar.
Hag and I drink our beers in silence.
Our barkeep approaches and says, “Do you Two want anything else.” It is less a question and more of an accusation. We silently shake our heads.
Hag and I finish our beers and walk outside. We walk about three blocks before one of us asks the other, “Did you see all of that?” The other responds by nodding his head up and down.
We never go back.
McKenna’s is gone now, replaced by a newstand.