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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Rambling Ray, Vinny the Rapist and the Motorcycle cop

Rambling Ray was in the Tunnel Bar getting ready to head out to a mega used car lot in PA that was supposed to be like the Holy Land for everything with four wheels. Vinny Buchelle (affectionately known to all as Vinny the Rapist) was going along for the ride. They finished their beers and walked out the door. Five minutes later, I’d completely forgotten about Ray, Vinny and their quest. Until the next day.

Late one hot and sunny morning, I was walking down State Highway somewhere past Baldwin headed to the Tunnel Bar. There was Vinny, standing next to a spiffy little car with cardboard Pennsylvania plates, waving his hands and telling three stories at once. He was in parley with a motorcycle cop.

Ray, mumbling and incoherent drunk, was spread out in the back seat. Since I knew that Vinny hadn’t had a license in at least ten years — if ever — I was waiting for an opportune moment to offer to drive the car. The policeman was going through and trying to make some sense out of a shoe box full documents, filling station road maps, and diner placemat menus. Giving up, he asked Vinny, “Do you have insurance?”

For a moment, but just a moment, Vinny didn’t know what to say. He then replied, “Yes, Medicaid.”

The copy yelled, “GET OUT OF HERE!”

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What’s in your wallet?

In response to one of any of many examples of bizarre and strange behavior, I commented to a regular customer of the Tunnel Bar, “You can’t imagine how many people that come in here don’ belong out on the streets.”

The tavern patron immediately became highly agitated. “THAT’S NOT ME!”

“Of course that’s not you. I wasn’ talkin’ about you.”

Opening his wallet, “That’s not me, Tony! I got my release papers right here! I got every right to be out on the streets.”

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As seen on TV!

Vinny Buchelle, one of the regulars at the Tunnel Bar, some decades before had been sent off to Trenton State Prison for statutory rape, or so he claimed. Underneath all that steel and concrete, Vinny suffered a breakdown and so graduated over to the hospital for the criminally insane. There he received what’s called a course of shock therapy. (“They roll ya in and it hits ya . . . You don’t know if y’r gonna see t’morra.”)

One evening, a rerun of a Saturday Night Live show was on the TV in the Tunnel Bar. A fake commercial for Spud Beer was playing. When the announcer said, “You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy . . .,” having some knowledge of Vinny’s curriculum vitae, I turned my head over towards him to see his reaction. Vinny’s attention was focused in a way that I’d never seen him achieve before. When the spot ended, Vinny said, “Something new, ‘eh?”

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Our Lady of Graham Bell

I was attempting to navigate the fog of 6:45AM and coffee not having kicked in yet, when all of a sudden, after nearly forty years, this reef of memory surfaced.

# # #

Me and some other guys were hanging out at a friend’s dorm room one Saturday. The phone rings.

John, whose place it is, answers, “Hello. No, I’m sorry Phillip’s not here.”

The phone rings again.

“Hello. Wait a sec, Anybody named Phillip supposed to be here? No, I’m sorry, Phillip’s not here and it doesn’t look like he’s headed this way. OK?”

The phone rings again.

“Listen, you’ve got the wrong number.”

The phone rings again. Now, John takes the phone off the hook.

An hour or so of reflections on the imperfections of the faculty goes by.

“John, can I use the phone.”

“Oh, jeez, I forgot to put it back. My mother always calls at noon on Saturday. If she hears that non-stop busy signal, she’s going to think that I didn’t pay the bill again and I’ll get all sorts of grief.”

As soon as he replaces the handset on the hook, the phone immediately rings.

“What did I tell you, that must be mom now.” Answering, “NO! YOU’VE GOT THE WRONG NUMBER!”

John hangs up the phone and then after just a second — as if afraid — pulls it off the hook.

“Put it back.”

“But, it’ll just keep ringing.”

“That’s OK, I’ll answer it this time.”

Very soon, the phone rings and I pick it up. “Hello.”

A shrill voice at the other end demands, “I want to talk to PHILLIP!”

“You’ve been told time and time again that there’s no Phillip here. He ain’t been here and he ain’t gonna be here,. If you’re like overcome by loneliness, you can stroll on over to such-and-such room at such-and-such dorm an’ ask for Anthony. An’ if’n you don’t wanna do that, that’s OK, too. JUS’ DON’ CALL AGAIN!” And I slam down the phone. The telephone’s quiet, but the room’s filled with my friends’ laughter.

Some hours go by — interpretations of various episodes of the original Star Trek, Stones albums, David Bowie, Clapton, a Humphrey Bogart movie, . . . — and we’re talking about when to head over to the cafeteria for dinner.

There’s a knock at the door. John answers. He looks in sorta quizzically, “Anthony, somebody for you.”

I can’t figger who it might be, but I jump up off of the floor where’d I’d been stretched out. A tall, skinny, young guy is standing there. He’s got long blond hair and a blond beard. His face is red and he’s shaking.

“YOU MADE AN OBSCENE PHONE CALL TO ALLYSON!”

As my ’74 Impala of a consciousness back then had headlights for tunnel vision through the darkness of the future, but basically no rear view mirrors for contemplating what had been, I was momentarily shocked into complete confusion and unable to respond or even to move. Then, I remembered the audio apparition of Our Lady of Graham Bell.

“Why, Phil (he looks surprised that I know his name), I been lookin’ forward to meetin’ ya. You ‘know, some say there’s no God, but a lookee here. On a campus of THOUSANDS, two pieces of work like you and Ms. Telephone 1976 found each other . . . If that’s not proof of a divine presence at work in creation, I don’ know what is. But, I digress. Y’r lookin’ for me, “WHADD’YA WANT!?!”

He turns and runs away.

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Bobby with no legs

One of the Spanish guys who’d hang out all weekend at the Tulsa gas station on Henderson Street was in the Tunnel Bar for a six pack of beer and a pint of rum. Sal Jr. was the bartender. As he was handing over the change, the customer asked, “What ever happened to Bobby?”

“Bobby? Bobby who?”

“Bobby with no legs.”

“Oh, him. The city took him away to a hospital.”

“That’s too bad. He was always good for a laugh.”

– – –

It was late summer in 1977. Sal Jr. had been working at the Tunnel Bar, just outside of the Holland Tunnel in Jersey City, for some months and was by now rarely surprised. But then Bobby walked in and asked for $9.00. Maybe six years before, Bobby had landed on his head after falling the five feet or so off of the shipping dock of Blue Comet, a trucking outfit that’d been next door. After ripping through the accident settlement in a week in NYC (returning with a monkey in a cage), Bobby had been homeless. Sal Jr.’s reply was short, “Get lost.”

Bobby left, but quickly walked back in, now with a cab driver known as “Yatch” in tow. Yatch said, “Hey, this guy gotta pay me a $9.00 cab fare. He told me that you owed him money and would take care of it.”

“You c’n see the guy’s a bum. If you think that I owe him money, you mus’ be as crazy as him. You been beat and that’s that.”

Bobby leaves.

Yatch said, “I didn’t get beat. When a guy didn’ pay me ten grand for sports, then I was beat. This is just one of those things.” Yatch put a twenty dollar bill on the bar and ordered a drink.

– – –

Jimmy, a warehouse worker who once had a fairly substantial sideline in the illegal numbers business, was drinking one night in the Tunnel Bar and started to talk about Bobby. “He walks in in one day and asks me, ‘I got a gal doin’ tricks in the car, y’ interested?’ I asks him what she looks like and Bobby says, ‘You know her.’ And so I says, ‘I know her? Who is it?’ Bobby says, ‘My mother.’ An arm just shot out and sent my fist right into his jaw and I tell him, ‘You slimy skunk. Don’t ever come anywhere near me again.’ And you know, as disgusting as it is to think of, there were guys that stopped by here special for that action.

– – –

It was December. Bobby lay in a car for three days at the Tulsa gas station. An ambulance had been there to take him to the hospital. He’d screamed that he didn’t want to go, that he was being kidnapped and so they left him there. Now a motorcycle cop rode into the gas station, stopped and got off the bike.

Banging on the car window, ”Open the door. NOW! Listen! Here’s how it works. Sign this paper saying that you were offered help and refused it. If you don’t sign, I’m bringing the ambulance back and making sure you get in.”

Bobby signed. The police officer left. That night, the temperature went below zero. By the next morning Bobby’s legs were frozen and had to be cut off.

– – –

These were the Reagan years and nobody – double amputees, mental patients, what not – stayed in the hospital for very long. One day, an ambulance pulled up to the Tunnel Bar and lowered a wheelchair with Bobby in it down to the gutter.

The winos latched onto Bobby. They’d push him over to someone about to walk in the door of the tavern and ask for money on Bobby’s behalf. As soon as they got enough for a bottle of Thunderbird or Night Train, they’d leave Bobby and go to Burke’s, the bar up the block. Bobby then would bellow like a cow being slaughtered. Sal Jr. caught on to this scheme and would watch out the window. To stop customers from being hassled, whenever he spotted any of the bompies with Bobby, an irate Sal Jr.’d run out threatening violence. The other winos then steered clear of Bobby. Without the hope of anyone going inside to get a bottle, Bobby, too, stayed away and remained at the Tulsa station.

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Jackson came in from the cold.

Teddy Kucz (“Jackson”) first became homeless during a summer of endless drinking. When the steady freeze of January set in, being free as a bird was not enjoyable for one unable to fly south. Cold and hungry in Journal Square, the immense window of the J. M. Fields store provided inspiration. Jackson found a brick and tossed it. He then stood there waiting for the police to arrive and to bring him to the warmth of the jail.

The next day in court, Jackson started to tell his tale of woes brought about by immoderate imbibing, until interrupted by the judge.

“OK, you’re tired of the cold and are lookin’ for a warm place to sleep. Is 90 days OK?”

“Thank you, your Honor. That’s just right.”

Next year, Jackson again broke the big store window. When he went to court this time, the judge laughed and immediately asked, “Another 90?”

For the third January in a row, it was as if the Fields’ glass had a bull’s eye painted on it. Now the judge was not amused.

“Listen up and listen good. I’m doin’ y’ favor and givin’ y’ 90, but that’s it. If I see y’ again next year, y’er gettin’ a year. It’ll be just as cold commin’ out as it was goin’ in.”

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Tunnel Bar sign

tunnelbarrev

This was inside, over the cash register.

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Rites of passage

One of the regulars at the Tunnel Bar, Hal, was something of an expert on the NJ correctional system. He had an amusing story of his graduation from a youthful offender to an inmate. Transported from Hudson County early in the AM, he and a number of others were placed singly in a row of small cells in a corridor. Eventually a door slid open and a prisoner pushed in a metal table on wheels. On it were metal plates, a set of tongs, and a galvanized bucket — shiny and clean, but the same sort that’d you use to put sudsy water in to wash a car. In the pail were whole potatoes that had been deep fried. The guy went from cell to cell, sliding a steel plate between the bars.

“How many you want?”

Some said “one.” A few, “two.” Here and there, “three.” He’d then place potatoes through the bars onto the held plate.

One of the recently convicted when asked answered “six.”

“I can’t give you no six. Most I can give is four. Here you go: one, two, three, four . . . Lookee, I gave you one extra by mistake, but you can’t get no six.”

Reaching the next one, “How many you want?”

“What’s this?”

“Hey listen, I got no time to play games. I got three more floors to do. Whata you mean, ‘what’s this?’ It’s breakfast.”

“Breakfast?! This is too heavy for breakfast.”

“Well I guess you gonna have to go someplace else from now on.”

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