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  • By Drew Henkels

    If you frequented the Lower East Side anytime before 2011, it’s possible you set foot in a place called Mars Bar, which was at Second Avenue and First Street. Although, if you had a functional self-preservation instinct and a healthy amount of common sense, it’s more likely you did not. Mars Bar was what you might find if you dove to the very bottom of a dive bar, peeled the scum from its floor, and lifted a trap door to a new dimension of dirt and debauchery. The interior of Mars Bar was long and skinny, with only a foot or two of wiggle room between the jukebox and bar stools, which stretched back to a small supply closet and toilet-paperless bathroom. The only light in the place seemed to come from the lone glowing jukebox and the neon beer signs hanging outside. Seeping through the warped glass cinderblocks, they bathed the graffiti-caked walls and ceiling in a dreary neon wash. Before its doors closed for good in 2011 due to pressures from the Health Department and plans for an icy condo skyrise, it was a true punk rock mecca; one last stronghold of the no-brow art world.

    As a twenty-two-year-old film student in 2007, this was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. On one particularly boozy Wednesday night, I found myself drinking alone in Mars Bar at three a.m. My friend, who was celebrating his birthday that night, had wisely decided to jump ship and go home. I, on the other hand, was content soaking up the spirits and the spirit of the place altogether.

    At the far end of the bar was a small cluster of what I assumed to be homeless men (a coat fashioned out of bubble wrap, taped to one grisly man seemed a fair indicator). The female bartender was catering to them intently. Earlier she had shown me, with a sly, proud smirk, the hammer she brings to work to “tame” the late-night crowd. She would pound the bar with it anytime someone did something she didn’t appreciate, like a judge residing over an unruly courtroom with an iron gavel. I was seated at the opposite end of the bar, in a recess dark enough to be forgotten entirely. There to my right, also out of earshot from the rest of the bar, was the only other patron that night: a middle-aged skinhead with bomber jacket and cuffed jeans to boot. As I complemented him on his jukebox song choice, it became clear that this was no punk rocker, fashion skinhead. This was a full-on, I-want-to-talk-Aryan-brotherhood skinhead. I settled in, and prepared to file the experience under my songwriting material bank.

    Somewhere between long sips and a short yawn he reached a hand into the pocket of his jacket, then pulled it out and leaned his meaty forearm on the edge of the bar. In his palm was a small puddle of pills. “See! I’ve got enough Adderall to keep me going” he bragged.

    When the color of the pills did not match my personal experience, I arrogantly blurted out “Those aren’t Adderall.” He jumped to his feet, so I jumped to mine, startled.

    The man was built like a bulldog, with a demeanor to match. He was short and muscular, with a cold, casual violence hiding somewhere in his eyes. When we squared off, my neck was right at his eyeline, maybe reminding him that he did not have a neck (perhaps this was what was making him so angry).

    “That’s not your fucking kidney…” he barked, digging two stumpy sausage fingers up underneath my ribcage “Do you want to find out?”

    I grimaced and backed down immediately, trying to diffuse the situation. “Haha OK! OK! I believe you!”

    His eyes let up, almost softened, and he suddenly became apologetic. “Agh I’m sorry, I’m on edge tonight. I’m never going to make up for what I did. All those things, I’m never going to make up for those things. I’m sorry, let me buy you a drink.”

    I accepted the offer, mainly out of fear of disagreeing with anything he said. We huddled over another drink, and he continued to tell me about his experiences in what I slowly pieced together to be the Gulf War.

    “Do you know they made me skin a man!?” his eyes darted nervously around the space, as he became increasingly agitated. He continued to teeter between gleeful boasts and haunting confessions. Anger and guilt slurred together in every word, and I was becoming more uncomfortable with each tale.

    “Wow, that is a crazy story!” I interjected at some point. “I gotta be on my way now, but thanks for the drink.” I stood up and reached for my coat. Again he pounced to his feet, intentionally blocking my path to the exit with his wide frame.

    “Sit the fuck down. You’re not going anywhere.”

    I sat down. This time he seemed to have even startled himself. “Is she here?” he asked in a surprisingly soft voice, his face now twisted with regret.

    “Is who here?” I was stunned.

    “She’s here, isn’t she?” he whined, looking somewhere over my shoulder into the empty side of the room. I glanced down to the lit end of the bar, where the disturbance had gone unnoticed, then quickly came up with a new escape plan.

    “I’m going to go get a sandwich. Want one? It’s the least I can do since you bought me the drink…” I said with the best casual tone I could squeeze from my shaky voicebox as I stood for a second time and reached for my coat. Once again he shot up.

    It must have been a switchblade considering how fast it came out and its length, five inches or so of steel blade pressed to my neck, his watery eyes already stabbing at me from behind it.

    What happened next is difficult to explain to the rationally minded. All I can do here is recount it exactly as I remember. Everything slowed and became still and quiet. A laser beam of focus linked the jukebox to my mind. (The only time I have ever experienced anything similar was when I first saw my now wife from across a crowded room.) Then the jukebox, with its warm fire-like glow, spoke directly to me. It was a female voice singing, the record seemed to be skipping, and the message repeated: “Danger son, danger son, danger son.”

    “I WILL KILL FOR WHAT I NEED,” he blurted as he pulled a wad of cash from his other pocket and held it in my face. He continued to edge me toward the pitch-black supply closet, where, to this day, I am convinced he was ready cut me up. This was no pragmatic mugger; there before me was a man deep in the throes of a psychotic episode.

    Spit sprayed from his chapped lips: “Step into the closet SON!” And it was there, right then with the word “son,” that the warning from the jukebox clicked: he was going to kill me if I went into that closet.

    I’m still amazed that the move I pulled next worked. It was almost like out of a cartoon. I lifted my arm, as if on autopilot, pointed over his shoulder and yelled “I would but… LOOK!”

    He paused, stunned, still staring into my face.

    “LOOK!”

    He craned his neck away just long enough for me to duck out from the knife and shove past him. I bolted past the jukebox, knocking over bar stools on my way, and crashed through the drinkers huddled by the door, out onto Second Avenue.

    The sky was just turning from black to its deepest shade of purple, and a new calm had entered my mind. As I ran toward the street, I coolly calculated the odds of his knife reaching my back against the risk of darting into four lanes of moving traffic. I found an odd serenity and self-satisfaction as I wove through the moving traffic like a gazelle.

    Blocks curled under my feet as I ran, a maniacal grin sprawled across my rosy face. When I lost my breath and couldn’t run anymore, I stopped and took my shirt off, tying it around my head like a do-rag in an attempt to disguise myself from my hunter, then walked the rest of the way home bare-chested.

    Back in my freshly painted apartment, I vomited into the new sink. I lifted my head and looked around at the recently installed cabinets, the sterile sconces and other fixtures of a just-flipped piece of real estate. Then my eyes settled on the window, where the city skyline was thawing in the pale light of dawn. I felt the bizarre bubble of false security around me pop, and just stared out at the city, thinking about what else goes on out there in the dark of night.

    Read more, from ten New Yorkers who recall their most memorable dusk-to-dawn stories, in Narratively's Tales from the Night.

    * * *


    Drew Henkels is a Brooklyn-born artist and videojournalist. He loves adventure, and specializes in being in the wrong place at the right time.

    Chelsea Mose is an Australian-born artist and photographer with a passion for neurology, strange behavior and unforeseen circumstances.
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