New customers came to the Tunnel Bar by various paths. As the place was on 15th just outside the Jersey City side of the Holland Tunnel, I aimed to get at least a little bit of that endless traffic to flow our way by putting up signs spray-painted on scrap plywood. A pirate HBO rooftop antenna meant a TV with lots of movies and boxing. I’d get a case or two of any new stuff that the liquor companies were pushing on deep discount promotion. This way for the adventurous, there always was a novelty to explore. If the new and improved rotgut caught on, that was great and if it didn’t I’d get rid of it with a $1 a double special. This kept the heavy-hitter boozers walking in the door.
And not infrequently the State sent us customers by opening the prison gates. That’s how it was with Roy.
A guy from a large Heights family that was once in the waste management business (but unfortunately without the connections that usually went along with that trade) worked across the street at Hudson Refrigeration warehouse. One day he said that he wanted to speak to my father, the owner of the Tunnel Bar.
“My brother-in-law just got out of jail. Monday, he’s startin’ a job in the Erie Lackawanna. He’s a printer, so he gets paid pretty good, but right now he’s broke. I wanted t’ask ya to put him on the book till he gets paid. It’ll be two weeks before he gets a check. There ain’t gonna be a problem, but if there is, I’ll make good on it.”
“Yeah, sure,” my father said. “I’m glad he’s gettin’ back on his feet.”
“What limit do you want on the tab?” I asked.
“I don’ think he’ll be spending much more than $5 a day.”
“So, sixty dollars for the two weeks?”
“Yeah, that sounds just about right. I’ll try to bring ‘im on Monday to introduce ‘im, but his name’s Roy. He’s probably the only guy aroun’ here called that.”
Roy was a little below medium height and on the skinny side. He had a thin mustache and was always neatly dressed. He came in every day for a sandwich and a beer at lunch and another beer before he went home. After two weeks, right after work, Roy was in the tavern with his check. He cashed that, paid the bill and this time got a six pack to take home.
The following week, Roy again was in the bar twice a day on credit. We didn’t see him the week after that.
“What’s goin’ on with Roy’s tab? Did you say anytin’ t’ his brother-in-law about it?” my father asked.
“Nah. He gets paid every two weeks. Maybe he just didn’ feel like drinkin’ or was sick or sumtin’. I’m gonna wait t’ next week t’ see what happens.”
Roy had never been in the Tunnel Bar on the weekend, living as he did in the Heights, but he showed up that Saturday.
“Hey! Sorry I wasn’t in on Friday, but I’m not at the place around the corner no more. It was a real sweat shop! I got another job, with a big outfit this time.”
While he was talking Roy had been signing a check that he handed to me. The amount was a little more than the pay at the print shop in the Erie Lackawanna. The company name on the check was along the lines of CONSOLIDATED AMALGAMATED, something impressive that didn’t mean anything at all.
From then on, Roy only stopped in on paydays. He’d cash his check, have a couple of beers, and take a six-pack to go. This went on for maybe a month. Some checks were a little less (“Missed a day this week.”) and some a little more. (“Whew, it’s been busy! Got some OT!”)
On a Saturday morning, Roy’s brother-in-law walked in the door of the Tunnel Bar. He, too, lived in the Heights and so generally only was by on work days.
“Have you still been cashin’ Roy’s checks?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s out aroun’ the corner but . . . “
“Roy stole a box of checks from the printer. He been cashin’ checks all over the Heights. The bar on South Street got hit real heavy. Roy even took up wit’ some Black hooker, an’ he been sellin’ checks to her friends. Since I brought ‘im in here, I wanted to let you know. I’m sorry it’s sorta to late, but I just foun’ out meself.”
This was not good news. I figgered that it might have been around two grand in checks from Roy that I’d cashed.
Monday I looked up a phone number for Consolidated Amalgamated.
“Consolidated Amalgamated, Who should I put you through?”
“It’s sorta complicated. I dunno who I should talk wit. As it turns out, wittout knowin’ it, I cashed a bunch your outfit’s checks that were stolen.”
“Why did you do that!?”
“Likes I said, I didn’ know. This is a bar. We cash paychecks. Some guy said he worked there.”
“Well, who should I connect you with here?”
“Likes I said, I dunno. Let me speak wit’ whoever deals with this sorta thing.”
I was on hold for a long time. All of a sudden, a voice boomed on the line.
“I’m calling because we cashed a number of your company’s checks that were stolen. I wanted to know what you plan to do.”
“You didn’t cash any of our checks.”
“I didn’t know that they were stolen, but, I’m sorry to say that we definitely did cash a bunch of your checks. An’ it’s not jus’ us.”
“You didn’t cash any of our checks”.
The line went dead.
The Tunnel Bar never heard anything more about the Consolidated Amalgamated checks. They didn’t bounce and no police ever investigated. We guessed that a large firm didn’t want any bad publicity and either just wrote it off or maybe the printer’s insurance took care of it.
I did see Roy again some months later. He was dirty and disheveled. He sat groggy on the sidewalk in front of the supermarket on Central between Manhattan and Franklin.
“ROY! Howya doin’?!” I said in a loud and upbeat voice.
Roy didn’t answer. He looked at me, grimaced, and then looked away.