Jungle Juice Willy’s benediction

Jungle Juice Willy — Jersey City Heights resident, longshoreman, WWII combat veteran and patron of the Tunnel Bar — had a story about a visit from a priest. (God only knows now why the good Father was in the apartment of the Jungle Juice Willy family.) Willy had given his guest a drink. The priest commented at length on what fine Scotch it was and how he’d not had anything like it since the seminary back in Ireland. He then — pointedly — mentioned that he noticed a case under an end table.

“Father, I’ve got to tell you the truth. I robbed it offa the piers. I’d like to give you a bottle, but I just wouldn’t feel right giving stolen goods to a priest.”

“Why, sure and Begorrah, my son, I’ll take that as your confession. Say three Hail Marys and an Our Father.”

At that point, the priest got up from the sofa, walked over to the end table, hoisted up the entire case of liquor, and left.

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Jersey City people often had a peculiar take on things.

People in Jersey City PG (PreGentrification) often had a peculiar take on things. Case in point:
Back in the late-’70s, an altercation arouse in a local basement (anti?)social club. Someone tried to pull a gun. Another someone correctly realized that the placing of both hands on the small of the back was not an isometric exercise and so launched an attack, pulling the armed and wannabee dangerous off balance with the left hand while using the right like a hammer to strike the head. Confused by the blows, the man with the gun didn’t complete the draw, but did pull the trigger. Echoing off of the stone walls of the small space, the gunshots sounded like cannon. Blood spraying in every direction, the pair spun about until the shooter finally slumped to the ground. The room had been dark, but just then, the lights went on. Two guys lay on the cement floor. One was the failed desperado, a portion of his scalp hanging in a flap. The other was a big kid, Bob, a weight lifter who lived with his mom a few doors down.

When the EMS got there, the troublemaker had already gotten to his feet, but was — as might be expected — quite dazed. The emergency crew quickly ascertained that though a lot of stitches were going to be needed, there was nothing threatening life. The real concern was for the strong man who they assumed to be a shooting victim. Curiously, though considerably blood splattered, there was no wound and so none was his. Finally, with the help of smelling salts, he regained consciousness. It turned out that after having heard the gun go off, when the lights lit he looked down and saw what had been a white t-shirt transformed into a canvas for a simply scarlet Jackson Pollock; Bob passed out.

THE POINT BEING: the incident was long remembered, but not for the gun, not for the fight but — with loud guffaws — for “the time Bob thought he was shot and fainted.”

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“Why do you have all these quarters?”

Even in the early days of Jersey City PPG (Post Pre Genrtrification) there really was no such thing as an unusual event. Through the Looking Glass style, everything always was wildly spinning out of control. Case in point:
Back in early 1991, two local guys show up one day with $1500 in quarters, in professionally, machine made up, sealed rolls. Seems that the pair were afflicted with agoraphobia or some other form of severe shyness, as they were looking for someone to take the coins to a bank for them. I really thought it best to steer clear, but I also didn’t want to appear not totally permeated with the foolhardiness of the gutters of Jersey City. So, I tells them that I wants a third, figgering that they’ll walk and that’ll close the curtain on what I planned as a one act drama. I’m surprised — and worried — that they real fast like — with just a quick mutual glance say “OK.”

SO, I picks up the three weighty little cardboard boxes and start walking fast to the bank, hoping to be exuding confidence. I fill out a deposit slip — in my mind I see the bank people unwrapping all the coins, demanding like a phone book of forms get completed, and maybe even calling the Treasury or the Fed, or something.

The young woman teller inquires with sincere curiosity, “Why do you have all these quarters?”

“I was saving ‘em, but with Desert Storm and the war and everything I guessed that I better bring ‘em in.” (This was clearly ridiculous, but as equally so as most of what we’re told in the news, I thought it’d fly.)

The bank manager strolls over and asks the teller what’s going on with all the quarters. As there’s no Plan B, I’m a little concerned. The teller repeats my improvised malarkey like she’s reciting a multiplication table. The manager nods as if it’s all absolutely obvious.

Deposit slip accepted, I get back the stamped receipt copy. I make out a check to CASH for $1000 and give it to the teller, asking for twenties.
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Herby the Mailman’s jail watching

Herby the Mailman lived across the street from the old City / County jail on Pavonia back of the courthouse. (My memory is that somehow or other the place had a Central Ave. address?) He had a couple of funny stories about that lockup.

1) I happened to be walking by the jail one very cold evening in the ’80s. There was a spot where the building indented, forming a somewhat half-hearted alley. There stood a very unhappy guard. The next day, I asked Herby the Mailman if he might shine any light on this curious detail. I knew that police officers who’d been on the losing side in an election were sometimes sent to walk a beat in cemeteries, supposedly protecting those beyond injury from insult. I wondered if the outdoor guard duty might be some similar punishment patrol.

“Nah, nah. The wife had me on the leash last week, so after supper, I’d sit in the front room with the lights off listenin’ to the radio and just stare out the window. I thinks I’m seein’ things, but there’s this coffee can gettin’ lowered down on a string. Some time later, a guy comes by and sticks somethin’ in the can which then starts on a return trip back up to the window. This goes on for a coupla days. Just the other night, the can goes up and the siren goes off. Since then, they’ve had the poor guy out there all night freezin his balls off.

2) Next to the jail was a boiler building that provided the heat in the winter. Even during the summer months a “fireman” (boiler operator) was on duty every night. As might be expected, there was not much to do during the warm months, so the boiler operator made like a Rip Van Winkle.

One horrendously hot and humid night back when air conditioning was considered a luxury, the prisoners — unable to sleep — were hooting and hollering. This noise interrupted the slumber of the boiler operator.

“HEY! Stop it with all the racket! I’m tryin’ to sleep.”

“IF WE CAN’T SLEEP, YOU AIN’T GONNA SLEEP EITHER!”

“Oh yeah? Well, since I’m up, I got a little somethin’ for you!”

And so on this 90 degree night, the fireman started up the boiler, heating up the radiators in the jail.

“PLEASE! PLEASE! TURN IT OFF! WE’LL BE QUIET!”

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Jersey City and TB — Perfect together?

All the Ebola hoopla reminds me of back when communicable diseases were handled with like a no margin for error policy. That was long ago. For well over ten years now, Jersey City has had one of the highest rates of Tuberculosis — if not the highest — in the State. Does any paper or politician discuss this grave threat to public health. Nope. Nobody gives it a thought.

Things were way different in the late-’70s. If you got TB, you went to Pollack Hospital and you stayed there until they decided to let you go.

One of the regulars at the Tunnel Bar — let’s call ‘im Johnny Noir — got hauled off for Tuberculosis. Once his condition improved, Noir was let out one weekend, but was told to report back bright and early Monday AM. After two days and three nights of drinking, the impatient patient decided that he wasn’t going to return to the hospital.

Noir’d given the bar’s pay phone number as contact information. After Monday morning started to get some tread wear, the telephone began ringing with calls inquiring about the health-compromised individual. Each time Jimmy Taraski the then tavern owner answered the phone, Johnny Noir just waved a hand and shook his head, indicating a no-go for conversation.

Maybe, an hour later, a police car pulls up and an uniformed officer walks in the door of the Tunnel Bar. Proceeding no further, he says, “Is there a John Noir here?”

“That’s me?”

“How we gonna do this?”

“Whad’ya mean?”

“You’re goin’ back t’ Pollack. Is it gonna be with cuffs or without?”

Not even finishing his drink, Noir jumped up and hurried to the door. “I’m going! I’m going!”

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Jersey City Heights resident goes to Greenville to buy a $2 bag of heroin.

Remember Jimmy Time Bomb’s buddy Joe? He had a story about just happening to be driving with some friends south on Kennedy Blvd., down by Lincoln Park. Stopped at a light, for no particular reason, he looked off to the left only to see some Heights guy running literally for his life with seemingly all of Greenville — each and every one waving a 2 by 4, bat, chair leg or some similar term of endearment — not far behind. Joe yells for the passenger to open one of the rear doors on the car. The newly crowned champion of track and field actually leaps in and slams the door shut behind. Joe floors it and — even with a barrage of thrown blunt objects bouncing off the vehicle — manages a safe and speedy exit.

The explanation for the unusual event was that the star of the tale — whose name I forgot — had wandered on over to the even then Wild West of Jersey City to buy one or so $2 bag of heroin. (I was told that there was a time when deuce bags were readily available and purchased by novices or perhaps the broke and desperate.) When our hero — dollar bills in hand — approached an entrepreneur, the gentleman made the mistake of fetching a bag filled with the little envelopes. Sensing opportunity, the Heightster grabbed all and booked, leaving the street dealer now NOT holding the bag. As might be expected, a chase quickly ensued.

Joe related how he’d asked the rescued individual if he didn’t think about what would have happened if like the ol’ luck well had gone dry. The answer was — as others have told me — that the road to success — after a manner of speaking — was not thinking, but instead acting immediately when ever and if ever a chance presented itself.

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Grumpy Will, TV Charlie and Billy Goat

Old Grumpy Will’s place at 212 15th, Jersey City was a hub of homosexual action down by the Tunnel Bar. This was not any first wave colony of creatives wending their way to Jersey City. Instead, these were some who’d found their sexuality in prison while doing hard time and wound up stuck outside of the Holland Tunnel as the industrial tide receded.


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Will was in his 80s and claimed to have been sent to Dannemora prison for murder. His on and off love interest was one TV Charlie, so called for his supposed expertise as a television repairman. Will and Charlie’s relationship hit some sort of snag. Stopping by the Tunnel Bar for his regular vodka and soda (on a Russian doctor’s orders), Grumpy Will related how, in an attempt to reignite the fire, TV Charlie had taken to wearing women’s underwear. (As luck would have it, Sissy from the projects later that day mentioned the theft of women’s garments off of the clothes lines.)

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A much younger Maynard type — a billy goat by Will’s description — who worked in the nearby Erie-Lackawanna Warehouse, began to spend the evenings with Grumpy Will and TV Charlie. (This same individual years later became homeless and so took up residence in the bus shelter on Palisade Ave. by Christ Hospital.) To impress their new friend, TV Charlie told of receiving a large pension check from the Navy each month. Billy Goat did find this interesting, so much so that he brought a Journal Square rough trade pair with him to meet TV Charlie on the day the check was to appear. The money was never anything more than a mirage, but the original story was so well-crafted that the duo wouldn’t now accept the truth. The tough two tied up TV Charlie and tortured him with lit cigarettes. As of course that failed to result in any cash, they then tried to hang TV Charlie with an electrical cord cut from a television set. (I don’t know if the irony was by design.) This was too much for Billy Goat who ran screaming out of the apartment, through the hall and into the street. This upset the two perps who then also fled. Luckily for TV Charlie, the wire broke before he choked and died.

A day or two later, Billy Goat bounced into the Tunnel Bar while Grumpy Will was there. Billy Goat denied any intentional involvement in TV Charlie’s ordeal. After this, Billy Goat became a regular at the Tunnel Bar, often providing items at a discount after the stuff somehow walked out of the warehouse with him.

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Paul almost got there too late.

The Boss’s mother’s house was rosy-beige rounded stone set on a low sandy hill, surrounded by pines and palms. In front, the trees thinned, giving a beautiful view of the gulf. Right now, the great golden disk was just below the horizon, but lots of light still reflected off the water illuminating the sky. The building had a large porch where they ate dinner.

Paul almost got there too late; they were leaving as he arrived. The Boss, who seemed to be in a hurry, already was up the tree-lined street a bit, but stopped for a moment to turn around and greet Paul with a smile and a wave. The Boss had on jeans, a black t-shirt, an old jacket, worn shoes and dark glasses. Paul tried to remember if the Boss began to dress like that before he started appearing in New York City or if it was after. The Boss had been going to New York a lot lately. So far, except for one homeless man, nobody there recognized him. The Boss even had managed to get arrested in Zuccotti Park with Occupy.

Walking out of the front yard were Peter and John. Spotting Paul, Peter scowled and strode forward faster to avoid him, but John slowed down to say hello. The rest followed in a line behind. Paul didn’t see who he was looking for, but wasn’t concerned. And sure enough, after Thomas, Andy Warhol, wearing the same sort of sunglasses as the Boss, came through the door. As usual Andy looked bewildered, like he’d just woke up and wasn’t sure where he was.

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A case of mistaken identity

Back in the early-‘80s, I had a Harley-Davidson Super Glide. Though the engine was the same 74 cu. in. as a police bike, lacking the racks and packs, the appearance was quite dissimilar. With shoulder-length hair and clad in worn jeans and a WWII era fatigue coat, the same could have been said of me.

One day I was riding the Harley south of the Square on Kennedy Boulevard, a few blocks before Montgomery. Waiting at a light in the left lane, I spotted Al, a regular at the Tunnel Bar who lived over by Christ Hospital, behind the wheel of a car to the right. As the light changed, with a black leather mittenned right hand, I gave him a wave. He glanced over at me and then drove up around fifteen feet and pulled over to the side. I was concerned that that Al might have intended to hand me numbers (illegal lottery) slips. Since running those across town on an attention-grabbing vehicle was not a formula for success, my first thought was to ignore him and just get going. It then popped into my head that he might need help and so I should at least stop and check. As I guided the motorcycle alongside the driver’s window, I looked down and saw that Al had his wallet open to a license. He was leafing through papers in the glove compartment, apparently in search of the registration and insurance documents. I rapped on the window. Al looked up very sheepishly.

“Listen and listen good, you fuckin’ drunk. I’m givin’ ya a break this time. Go home and sleep it off.”

“Thank you, officer.”

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The indigents’ graveyard

Early on one bright, warm, spring afternoon, a boozer not previously known, bounced into the Tunnel Bar. As winos start to wander when the weather breaks, and so newcomers generally were not a surprise, this gent had some noteworthy features. With short grey hair and beard, he was older. His skin had the leathery look of someone who for years had been mostly outside, but was not tanned, inside looking out pale instead. And his clothes were all new — blue shirt with a collar, jeans. Even the sneakers he wore were bright white, like just taken out of the box. As the man left with a pint of Thunderbird, Sal Jr. concluded that the customer was recently released from a hospital — or jail.

Around 5 o’clock, getting ready for the after work rush, Sal Jr. was walking to the door to take the garbage out to the yard. Before Sal Jr. could leave, two young Black guys entered, and stood in front of the doorway.

“Excuse me, Sir, but might I speak with the owner of this establishment.”

Sal Jr. smiled at the formal language not generally heard in a dive saloon. “I’m sorry, but he’s not here at the moment. Might I be of assistance?”

“Did you know that there was a dead man outside next door.”

“Why no, I wasn’t aware of that, but, as I’m headed there anyhow, I’ll be sure to take a look.”

The two guys left and Sal Jr. followed, dragging the refuse barrel behind him. He was wondering if the bearers of strange news were just jokers or if a day spent smoking marijuana had led to hallucinations. When he opened the gate in the wooden fence, Sal Jr. saw a whole troop of bompies, all quite drunk. And none of them were in buying anything all day! Sal Jr. spotted Frank Meyer. He’d given Frank eight-five cents credit the day before. Sal Jr. surmised that Frank Meyer had gotten paid for helping out on a truck. To avoid evening up the under a dollar bill at the Tunnel Bar, he’d walked on the sly to the tavern up the block, buying enough to treat all the local winos to a party.

Sal Jr. went into a screaming fit, berating Frank Meyer for being an ingrate, a conniver and a low life. Suddenly, Sal Jr. noticed the guy with the new clothes from earlier in the day, upper body propped up against the wall of the building, legs together and straight out, head hanging strangely loose to the side. His feet were clad just in socks, the sneakers missing. Sal Jr. cut short his rant. Pointing to the man on the ground, “Is he dead?”

“Yes, for some time now,” said Joe, a long-time resident of the Salvation Army — who happened to have on new sneakers.

Sal Jr. called the police. They arrived and as there were no signs of foul play, just notified the coroner.

One of the more frequent patrons of the Tunnel Bar, Margie, found the situation very upsetting and was sobbing over the passing of the unknown wanderer. When the coroner’s van arrived, she asked the men what they were going to do with the body.

“We’re taking him to Woods.”

“YOU CAN”T PUT HIM IN THE WOODS! HE WAS A WINO, BUT STILL YOU CAN’T DO THAT! HE’S GOTTA BE BURIED! I’LL PAY! I’LL PAY.”

With a smile, put politely and calmly they explained that they were taking the deceased to Woods Funeral Home on Bergen Ave.

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He didn’t say no.

One day back when Jimmy still owned the Tunnel Bar, a stranger walked in, took out a twenty dollar bill, sat down and asked for a Seagram’s 7 with water. Jimmy put a shot glass and a chaser in front of the man and then turned around and walked a few steps away to get the quart of whiskey. When he returned to the customer, the man’s arms were in a circle on the bar with his head resting in the middle.

Jimmy reached over and gently shook the man by a shoulder, “Buddy?” The only response was the head lolling to the side, jaw hanging, and unseeing eyes wide open. “HE’S DEAD! WHAT AM I GONNA DO?”

One of the regulars — Tommy, dishwasher at the Tunnel Diner — spoke up, “Hey, pal, buy me a drink? He didn’t say no, Jimmy, gi’mme somethin’ outta that twenty.”

Jimmy, bottle of Seagram’s 7 conveniently in hand, gathered up the glasses, took everything over to Tommy, poured a shot, and then rung up the sale out of the dead man’s cash. Everyone in the tavern now started yelling over to the corpse. Jimmy kept selling drinks until the money was gone, at that point calling 911.

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Hurricane Carter’s prison bout

One of the regular customers at the Tunnel Bar who we shall here call Hal was a long-time friend of Hurricane Carter, all the way from Yardville to Rahway. Hal told of an unusual Boxing match in prison with Carter as a contestant. His opponent was an unusually silent individual whose entire workout consisted of ten overhead reps with a 300 lb. barbell.

Initially, Hurricane danced around the opponent, fast flicking gloves cutting his face. The other man shuffled flat-footed about the ring, seemingly unaware of the punishment that he was receiving. His upper body swiveled slowly towards the prize fighter, like the guns of a battleship aiming at a target by slowly turning on their turrets. Every so often, a powerful arm shot out like a missile. Hurricane Carter at first easily avoided these attacks, but tiring, was caught by a solid right that sent him flying into the ropes. The other man skipped right in front of Carter and began to piston-pummel him with crushing blows.

The doctor was called in to revive Carter. Hurricane refused a rematch.

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