In New York, every group has its own bars. There are bars for cops, firefighters, journalists, personal injury lawyers, construction workers, starving artists, gay starving artists, pimps and virtually every other profession or group you can name. There are bars for Greeks who like to throw dinner plates, and bars for Greeks who don’t like to smash kitchenware. There even used to be bars for alleged terrorists, like one in the Bronx that served as a safe haven for Irish Republican Army supporters running guns from the Grand Concourse to Belfast. In these redoubts, a cop can voice his fears and frustrations to empathetic fellow officers; writers can bitch to one another about their editors; and pimps can hold their pissing contests.
There is, however, one group of professionals — a group to which I once belonged — that has no alcohol-infused redoubt of its own and is sorely in need of one. They are New York’s Adult Protective Services case managers.
During my seven-plus years as a member of that beleaguered tribe, I and my colleagues became somewhat accustomed to being tossed out of bars. It usually happened like this: a group of us would be gathered at the end of the bar, or at a table near the bar, talking shop and laughing raucously. Politely, but forcefully, after listening in on our deviant chatter, the bartender would invariably request that we take our discussion somewhere else. Anywhere else, and do it quickly, please.
Perhaps the evening’s shoptalk concerned the elderly woman in the projects who was caring for her grandson but ignoring the unpleasant fact that maggots were gnawing on her left leg, while her son, aided by Al Sharpton, was threatening to sue the city because APS was trying to keep the woman, the grandson and the maggots from being evicted for non-payment of rent.
Or, the discussion that night could have been about the client who kept his wife’s head in the refrigerator (it had its own shelf). She had apparently died quietly of natural causes, but her husband simply couldn’t let her go.
Or, worst case scenario, we might have been talking about a client who built for himself a fortress of solitude within his one-bedroom apartment, constructed entirely out of 20 years’ worth of his liquid and solid waste. Should I live another thousand years, I should not forget peeking inside that apartment, at the complex maze of interior archways and dark warrens, and the army of rats guarding the windows. The client’s problem, according to one learned psychiatric diagnosis, stemmed from extremely poor toilet training, leading to an unwillingness on the client’s part to part with anything that had once been a part of himself.
After the cops had cornered the poor man in the street, cuffed him and taken him away to a shelter, the landlord leaped into action, hiring a half-dozen undocumented Mexican immigrants to go into the apartment without goggles, gloves or hazmat suits and clean out the place. Why New York didn’t experience a major typhoid outbreak is a mystery.
I had my own share of such stories, of damaged souls living in conditions that rivaled the slum huts of Mumbai; vulnerable senior citizens living at the mercy of pitiless children and neglected children living at the mercy of psychotic parents. I’d use the term “Dickensian,” but it’s been overused and abused. More to the point, I can no longer watch the climactic scene in “Silence of the Lambs,” when Jodie Foster walks blindly through the basement of the serial killer’s house of horrors. I’ve been in that basement more times than I care to count and I no longer wish to go back, physically or emotionally.
We laughed and joked about all this, of course, for the same reason that cops laugh and joke about the even more horrifying aspects of their profession. Because the alternative is to be rendered incapable of doing the job. But this doesn’t excuse the fact that such conversation is inappropriate in any respectable venue, and that the bartenders, in ousting us from the premises, were well within their rights and their responsibility to the public good and welfare. We were, to put it simply, way out of line and deserving of the bum’s rush.
Still, as the song goes, we need a place to go where everyone knows our name — where we can be safe and secure in our own crazy worlds. Where one’s words and thoughts can roam free, to encompass even the maggots, the severed heads and walls made of waste. Where better than a bar of one’s own?
Ladies and gentlemen, belly up. The drinks are on me.