Outside Mars Bar, the late-afternoon sun pulsed marigold light on its facade, its slapdash signs, its layers of graffiti. But inside, God, was it dark: As far as I could tell, the whole place was lit by a single bare bulb. It was not yet 5 p.m. Even now, years later, just thinking about it makes my eyes strain to adjust to the gloom, like a mole rat, or maybe a mole rat in reverse.
I had about 15 minutes to kill before meeting a friend for an early dinner at a restaurant down the street, so why not kill them here, I figured, in this bar, where so many minutes, hours, mornings, afternoons, nights, whole days had been exterminated before, by so many?
Besides, I loved Mars Bar. How could I not? It was the most unapologetic of shitholes, hanging on, at least a little longer (this was only a year and change before it closed in 2011), in a neighborhood that had rebuked it with designer boutiques, Whole Foods, rich people, posh people, the nice restaurant where I would eat sweetbreads and marrow that night. Even if the East Village remains one of the city’s least dramatically changed precincts—and a lifetime in New York City tells me this is true—that stretch of the bottom of Second Avenue had by then begun to bear little resemblance to its former self.
Except for Mars: still dank, still dingy, still sticky—and that went for the parts you could see. What abominations were hidden by that veil of darkness?
A blasé bartender idly dried glasses, wordlessly filled my whiskey order. Near the front end of the bar, two grizzled punk elders spoke in fibrous voices.
“You know why I’d like to die?” I heard one say to the other.
“No. Tell me why it is you would like to die.”
“Because they say that when you die, you see your whole life flash before your eyes.”
“Who gives a fuck?” the other asked. “What have you ever done that you’d want to see again?” Both went quiet for a spell.
Near the middle of the bar sat another man, not a punk, not old, but older than me. He nodded hello. I nodded back and kept moving. I took a stool near the far end of the bar, but not too close to the toilets, because those were Mars Bar toilets, and one of them had no door on it at all. I sipped my whiskey and almost pulled a book out of my bag, before conceding that that would be ridiculous: There wasn’t enough light for reading. I hadn’t been to Mars this early in ages. At night it was crowded and loud, and there was something soothing about the quiet of the bar at this hour, the almost-emptiness. It would be enough to sit, and listen, and think.
A tiny, twitchy woman walked in, scurried straight to the toilet that still had its door and shut it tightly behind her. I never saw her emerge. The jukebox jerked to life: Aerosmith, “Sweet Emotion. ” I thought that was funny, but I wasn’t sure why. Emotion itself suddenly seemed funny, too—as funny as it is sweet, and probably more.
The elders resumed their discourse on death, and for a moment I was nearly overcome with emotion. I started to get morose. I sank into death-y thoughts of my own. Mars Bar on a weekday afternoon was the right place for them, and in a way I was grateful for that. Still, when the guy from the middle of the bar sidled up to me, I snapped out of it.
“You look like you’re thinking real hard,” he said. “What are you thinking about?”
I couldn’t tell if it was a pickup line, but if it was, it’s my favorite.
“I overheard those guys talking about death,” I said, pointing my chin toward the front of the bar, “and it got me thinking about death, too.”
“That’s heavy.” He cast his eyes down. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“No, but thank you.” I looked at my watch. “I’m meeting a friend for dinner in a few minutes.”
The jukebox cut out before the end of “Sweet Emotion.” By now the guys at the front were really going at it, and with the music off, I could tell they’d gotten louder. They’d risen from their barstools. They were gesturing, arms flapping. They were shouting. They were on their feet, their bodies more upright than you or I might have thought possible.
“No, fuck you.”
“You go fuck yourself.”
Seconds later, a barstool was projectile. It was gliding, it seemed to me, in slow motion, from their end of the bar to mine, through the airless air inside Mars Bar.
One of the elders had hoisted it high, thrown it hard. The guy who offered to buy me a drink and I watched it, our mouths wide open, as though a missile were headed our way and we couldn’t do a thing to make it stop. But we knew we were not in danger. We were not its target—what was? regret? frustration? death? life itself?—and even if we had been, it had flown many inches off course.
The barstool landed in front of the jukebox. I finished my whiskey. Those two kept shouting, but less loudly. The bartender did not budge the entire time.
I made my way to the door. And as I crossed the threshold, back into the light of a later, still softer sun, I heard the guy from the middle of the bar admonish the two old punks. “You scared my fucking friend away,” he said.
It takes more than that, I thought, and went to dinner.
I don’t let nostalgia overtake me. I have always understood that it is this city’s nature to change, uptown and down, and that what once felt eternal to me was only a blip to New Yorkers of my parents’ generation. Mars Bar, born in the 1980s, had not been around forever—just as bars loved and mourned by those a decade or two younger than I am never even registered in my city psyche.
But I miss Mars. No place better for daytime ruminations on life and death. None as companionable for tortured old punks. Where do they go these days? The ones who are still alive?
Now there’s a bank in a high-rise where it used to be. That’s what scares me away.
This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.