Weekdays, the main customers at the Tunnel Bar were truck drivers, laborers from the warehouses and factories surrounding the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel, and the railroad workers. These guys were always in a big hurry, their eyes glued to the twitching hands of the clock while ordering a drink. Many just bought a half-pint and ran right out the door. Their constant concern was that if the boss noticed them missing from the job for even a minute, they’d wind up getting the ax. Tending bar here was like a track event. All day long I had to run back and forth trying to achieve a personal best in pouring the maximum amount of alcohol into the crowd in the minimum amount of time. Plus, I needed to watch that nobody was stealing something or that a fight wasn’t about to explode.
The law in Jersey City prohibits taverns from opening before 6:00AM. Since that was the same time that the railroad guys punched the clock, to make a buck off of them, the bar had to be open at 5:00AM. I just kept my fingers crossed and hoped that the Alcohol Beverage Control police couldn’t be bothered being out in the street before dawn, all intent on nabbing a bar for opening an hour early.
Saturdays were different. I didn’t have to sneak the place open illegally early. I unlocked the doors whenever I felt like it: 7:00AM, 8:00AM, or 9:00AM. Regular customers would wander in with coffee, rolls, and newspapers, starting the day off slow.
But some were ready for serious drinking even early Saturday morning. One of the heavy hitters was Vinny Buchelle. To preserve his health, he’d start off with a beer for breakfast, before moving on to one of the dollar a double specials of hard liquor that were his mainstay.
Vinny was only two inches or so over five feet tall, weighing maybe 120 pounds. God only knows how, but he had managed to reach sixty-someodd years old. The last five he’d not had an apartment, sleeping in cars that had been towed out of Holland Tunnel. Even without the benefit of a bed or bath, Vinny always was clean and neat, with a dress shirt, slacks, and decent-looking shoes. Vinny shaved in the restroom of the bar every morning and his full head of white hair was combed.
It was a warm day. To air the place out, the doors were both held open by little wedges of wood. In walk two middle-aged guys wearing suits and carrying walkie-talkies, quite obviously detectives from the Jersey City Police. The plainclothes police walked up to the bar, one on either side of Vinny. Strangely enough – since Vinny was only a little old guy – they appeared slightly nervous.
“Are you, Vinny Buchelle?”
Vinny can’t believe it, “Yeah?”
“Let’s step outside a minute for a little talk.”
”Nah, I don’t want to go nowhere!”
”OK wise guy, finish up your beer, you’re under arrest.”
Figgering that Vinny might’ve been up to his old trick of shoplifting from the Salvation Army, I approach one of the detectives. To get Vinny off the hook, I’m planning on offering to pay for whatever the character might’ve stolen.
“Officer, is there any way we could straighten this out right now?”
The detective glared at me for a second, then began to chuckle. “I don’t think so. The charges are rape, murder, and kidnapping!”
Now all I can think of doing is to step out of the way.
The detectives put the handcuffs on Vinny and then lead him out the door and into the unmarked car. They drive away.
Vinny is gone all day. Nobody knows what to make of it. Way back when, for statutory rape, Vinny had done hard time in Trenton State Prison – in the same cell block as Howard Unruh (who Vinny described as “the nicest guy you’d ever wanna meet”). The whole neighborhood is wondering if after all these years Vinny still had it in him to pull some weirdo stunt. But, the cops didn’t haul him in for statutory rape. This time it’s rape, MURDER, and kidnapping.
When Mayor McCann claimed that there weren’t any homeless people in Jersey City, the Jersey Journal frontpaged a picture of Vinny standing in front of his wrecked Volvo bunk. The headline read, “Vinny Calls Abandoned Car Home.” The regulars at the Tunnel Bar wondered if Vinny’s little taste of fame had warped what few brain cells remained after decades of electric shock treatments and heavy drinking.
- – -
Late that afternoon, Vinny walks back into the Tunnel Bar.
“That miserable FLO! It was all FLO’S FAULT!”
“GIVE ME A DRINK!”
“The detectives take me to the lockup on Montgomery Street. They tell me that they ain’t takin’ no chances, so as they search me, they’ve got a cop holdin’ a gun to my head all the while. They take my shoes and belt and put me in a chair inside of a holdin’ cell and cuff me to the chair and lock the doors of the cell, too!”
“I can’t figger it out. They keep asking me where my car is. I keep telling them that I ain’t had no car in almost twenty years.“
“Then they want to know who the other guys were. I tell them that I don’t know nothin’ about no other guys. One detective is telling me how serious this is, that I’m lookin’ at like maybe a hundred years behind bars and do you realize how old you’ll be when you get out? Another detective says, ‘He wants to be stupid? Don’t do ‘im no favors. Let ‘im do all the time by himself!’”
“I still haven’t figgered which way is up. I keep telling the cops that I wanna know what’s it all about. Now I sees that they’s gettin’ more and more confused. Finally, one asks if I’m willing to take a lie detector test and I say, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
“That puts ‘em all in a huddle, whisperin’, and lookin’ over at me. Now one of ‘em leaves and comes right back with FLO! Me she don’t want to see. The cop pushes her in the room and says for her to tell her story all over again. She says that she was sleepin’ in the weeds by the Tulsa Gas Station across from the railroad property when I drives up with a bunch of guys in the car. We force some other wino broad in the car and rape her. And after that, as the car’s pullin’ away, Flo sees us stabbing her.”
“I’m so mad steam is coming out of my ears! I don’t even realize it at first but one cop is wanting to know if I’ve got something to say and another is telling me to speak up, ‘cause just noises, not woids, is comin’ outa my mouth.”
“Once, I get a little calmed down, I tell them the truth that I asked Flo for a little action last night and she said OK, but I hadda give her $5. After the transaction was over, I told her that, as I was broke, I’d give ‘er the $5 when I got my check. She was like all pissed off about havin’ to wait and that’s all I know.”
“Flo is startin’ to look a little scared and the detectives don’t seem too happy either and are askin’ ‘er if this is true. Finally they just shoves ‘er outinta the hall.”
“The phone rings. One of the detective that was here answers it and just keeps saying ‘Right’ to whoever is on the other end. The detective hangs up and tells the other cops, ‘They found the other broad. She’s in one piece; there weren’t no assault.’”
“Now the cops are all laughing. They take me outta the cell and give me back my belt and shoes.”
“At first I feel like I been born again, like the whole weight of the world’s been lifted offa my shoulders. Then I realize what a hike I got ahead of me. I tell the cops that, ‘Hey, I got no cigarettes and I gotta walk all the way back Downtown. Youse guys dragged me up here for nothin’, why don’t you bring me back?’ One cop laughs and says that I should be happy – that I’m lucky to be gettin’ off easy as it is. Another is a little sorry for me and gives me half a pack and says that’s the best he can do.”
- – -
After having heard the clanging steel of a cell door slamming shut, you’d think that Vinny would have learned his lesson as far as Flo was concerned. But, maybe six months later, Vinny in his capacity as watchman at the Tunnel Diner over the New Year’s Holiday, invited Flo over for dinner.
Out of the blue, Flo throws a heavy frying pan at one of the big windows, shattering it. Next she does like a Wide World of Sports jump, clearing the jagged broken glass and runs away. A little while later she returns with two policemen.
Pointing at Vinny, “That’s him officer! He raped me! Arrest him!”
“Whoa! Not so fast! This place is closed. You met him somewhere else, right?”
“He asked you to come here and you agreed, right.”
“You walked here with him, right?”
“Then you stood there and waited while he got out the keys and unlocked the doors, right?”
Eventually, the complete story took shape. Vinny had promised her a steak, but had only delivered a hamburger. By Flo’s reckoning, that constituted rape. The police suggested that she go to the Municipal Courthouse at 769 Montgomery Street the following morning to inquire about pressing charges.
Next New Year’s Eve, Mike, one of the owners at the Tunnel Diner, replaced Vinny with a Great Dane from the dog pound.