Yesterday, Easter ("The High Holy Day for Believers," as a priest buddy of mine in NYC used to say in a tremulous voice), Angie and I traveled over to some friends in Torrance. I'd never been to Torrance, nor had I ever heard of it, but it was a fun day, nonetheless. In any event, as the various guests came and left, I found myself at one point in the kitchen with our friend, Mark Lipps (Mark is a honcho with FOX out here in LA)and another fellow, Tom, a novelist with some six books under his belt so far, talking about 'the old days' in NYC. We'd all lived there at one point or another, Mark and Tom before I got there in 1985. Mark was remembering some times he spent with the vestiges of the old Warhol gang from the 'Factory' and Tom was going back even further with memories of The Village when it was truly 'The Village.'
The great thing about New York is that at one point or another everyone has been in the same place and can pinpoint that place and everyone can see it clearly in his or her mind's eye. In this particular instance we began, quite unpremeditatedly, remembering the legendary White Horse Tavern down on 11th and Hudson.
The White Horse was the first place, outside of my hotel, that I visited upon moving to NYC. It was May 5th, 1985, and after I'd checked into my hotel (the then decrepit but now quite oppulent Paramount Hotel) I flagged a cab and asked to be taken to The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. I had my reasons.
It's amazing how much more courage (or in this case, naivety) one has at the age of 24 than one has at, say, the age of 50. So I flagged a cab and off I went. Fortunately, this was back in the days when cabbies spoke English.
It was about 3:00 in the afternoon and when I entered the venerable, old pub, it was empty. Just me and the bartender. I swaggered to the bar (my mindset in those days was to always appear supremely confident even though I hadn't the vaguest idea where I was half the time) and asked the bartender where Dylan Thomas was sitting when he drank 18 straight bourbon shots and then fell face down on the bar and died of alcohol poisoning.
He glanced up from what he was doing and said casually, "English major, huh? First day in New York?" I hesitated, "Um, yes." He smiled. "Right over there." Naturally, I thought I was being quite original coming to The White Horse to see where the great Welsh writer had died. Apparently not.
Today I'm told there is a small plaque at that place at the bar commemorating the spot. Back then, there was no plaque. So I sat at the very spot where Thomas had keeled over and ordered a beer. I sat there for a bit and then asked where Belushi always drank. He pointed to a table across the bar and I walked over there and sat for awhile. Belushi and Akroid used to come to The White Horse, without fail, after doing SNL back in the mid-seventies. The place was just full of self-destructive history. As I sat there, I remembered that this is also where Burton would drink after doing his famous Hamlet in 1964. Norman Mailer had once passed out in this joint and Charles Bukowski had once called it 'the perfect bar.'
A few years later, while I was doing one of my plays ('Changing it to Brando') the cast and crew and I would retire to this place after the show to drink until 5am. A few years after that I would be sitting outside with a buddy (there was a small sidewalk area for drinking) when a homeless guy jumped the fence and grabbed my pint of beer and ran off. Another time I was in there and a guy came in and tried to sell me a watch. I told him to beat it. But he was persistant and I ended up buying the watch for two bucks just to get rid of him. A few weeks later I discovered he'd sold me a real Cartier Tank Watch for two dollars. I wore that $3,000 watch (I had it appraised) for years. And a few years after that The White Horse was the last place I visited before moving to Chicago.
It turned out to be the place to meet in my NYC days. In those days there were four of us who regularly would meet up after our respective plays in NY to spend the evening drinking. John, Jeff, Robert and myself. Robert has since died, John is now out here in LA with me and Jeff is in Colorado teaching computer stuff to people. But at the time we were constantly in the maelstrom of the NYC nightlife and most of the time our long nightly trek would begin at The Whitehorse. From there we would usually walk over to 'the bar on Jane Street' (none of us ever knew the name of it) or to The Spring Street Lounge, a favorite haunt of ours because there were only two artists on the juke box (Sinatra and Springsteen) and only two things to order (Budweiser and Jack Daniels). They don't make 'em like that bar anymore.
I remember getting a bottle thrown at my head one night at The White Horse because I drunkenly berated a yuppie for daring to drink a frozen drink while sitting at the Dylan Thomas spot. The subsequent battle raged into the street (Hudson) and I recall narrowly avoiding a trip to jail that night. It seemed important to me at the time to express my feelings about a Pina Colada being drank at the very spot where Dylan Thomas had fallen. It somehow just seemed terribly wrong. I remember one of the cops that night saying to me, "I'd slap the bastard, too, if I were you." A literate cop...who would've suspected?
Someday I'll take Angie to that spot in The White Horse Tavern and although I don't drink anymore, I'll have a refreshing club soda and give her the oral history of Dylan Thomas and 'Under Milk Wood' and 'Death and Entrances' and a slice of my youth when arrogance and ignorance permeated the days and nights and everything and nothing was possible. The cool thing about my wife is that she'll undoubtedly be as reverential about the whole thing as I was back in those halcyon days in the spring of 1985.
I'm told the small, brass plaque attached just underneath the lip of the bar in that hallowed spot reads simply, "Dylan Thomas sat and died here - November 9, 1953." Not coincidentally, I'd like to think, the day I moved to Los Angeles and watched my whole world change.
See you tomorrow.