MYSTERY DATE ~ It was on New Year’s Eve, 1981, a Thursday. At the time I was living in the Bronx and working in an office in Manhattan. Now, New Year’s Eve was a regular work day like any other though not really because, as was custom at my company, on the day before a big holiday, they would let everyone leave around one o’clock. It wasn’t on the regular business calendar so it was supposed to be like a big benevolent holiday surprise…OK everybody, guess what? OH gee, what a surprise, thank you so much, dear company! Only it wasn’t a surprise because everyone knew it was coming and was cynical about it, complaining, instead of letting us go early, how about bigger pay raises? Whine, whine, whine. As for me, I could not leave early because I was in the IT department and this being New Year’s Eve, the big year end reports had to be generated so a select group of us had to stick around to make sure all the reporting jobs kicked off smoothly at the end of business hours.
Fortunately, this year I was NOT part of the sad sub-team, assigned on a rotating basis, who had to stick around all night monitoring computer jobs. I would thus be able to get out of there by six and, doubly fortunate, I had a date lined up with a woman, Wilhelmina, who worked in the office. Her full name was Wilhelmina Boekhout which I thought sounded very cool. Like a European tennis star or something. She was born in Holland, you see, hence the name. Everyone knew her as Willie. I was younger than her, can’t say for sure by how much though I’d hazard a guess of maybe seven or eight years, putting her firmly in her thirties so yes, an “older” woman, but that didn’t bother me none because she was pretty good looking and, more importantly, she had a very good sense of humor, though many considered her to be annoyingly quirky and somewhat flighty. I myself didn’t think of her that way, she was alright by me. We had always flirted around in kind of a humorous way, me making corny jokes and such, calling her Wilhelmina “Knockout” (instead of Boekhout) which she always got a big kick out of, her having an excellent, infectious laugh. But it had never gone beyond that, me thinking she must be married or something, that is until a couple days earlier when she had asked me what I had planned for New Year’s and, after telling her “nothing special” and her saying the same, on a total whim (and much to my own surprise) I asked her if she’d like to go out together to which, smiling, she answered “sure”. I think she was amused that this younger guy she joked around with suddenly wanted to take things to the next level. Anyway, Willie had taken New Year’s Eve off as a vacation day but had agreed to meet me out in front of the office at six when I got off, after which we planned to bop around the Village, staying well away from the midtown mayhem and eventually (I now hoped) maybe winding up back at her place. Something to look forward to on this quasi-workday.
By one o’clock the office was pretty much vacated except for us IT folk and a few ambitious middle management types with no life trying to justify their existence. But soon even they were gone and it was just us computer nerds. One guy, an English bloke named Stuart, broke out a bottle of single malt scotch he had hidden away and poured rounds for everyone in those conical water cooler paper cups. That meant, of course, that we had to knock down the whole cup at once because, well, they were conical and couldn’t be put down anywhere. No one seemed to mind though and Stuart made the rounds a couple more times, much to everyone’s delight. (Stuart and I went back and were veterans of more than a few liquid lunches over the preceding few years.) We all stood around, telling jokes, drinking and smoking. Not much else to do, really, except check the status of the system from time to time. Those were the last heady days when you could still smoke in the office. By the end of the decade those good old days would come to an abrupt end.
When six finally rolled around, I packed up, accepted a last shot from Stuart and donned my winter gear. There had been a storm the day before which dumped about 10 inches of snow on the city. In New York, a fresh snowfall is pretty for about five minutes and then it turns into a slushy, blackened mess that festers for several days as it is ground into oblivion by the barrage of pedestrian and motor traffic. Actually, I think the snow starts accumulating dirt before it even hits the ground. I was decked out in New York City winter combat gear, ready to face the elements: waterproof army surplus boots, corduroy pants and lined peacoat, everything black in order to blend in with the night and city dirt. And the scotch ensured I was, for the time being at least, warm and toasty inside. As I stepped out on to the sidewalk and took stock of things I saw right away there was no sign of Willie. Alright, she’s flighty but she’ll be along shortly. She lived out in Brooklyn somewhere so she probably got delayed on the subway. The subway was notoriously bad in the early 80s, dirty, dangerous and unreliable, conditions having deteriorated precipitously since Ford told the city to drop dead a few years earlier. I used to take the subway myself back and forth to work from the Bronx but after getting a promotion recently I had switched over to taking the much nicer and more reliable, albeit pricier, Metro North Harlem Line commuter train.
After waiting about a half hour, smoking cigarettes, looking up and down the street for Willie, the realization that I had been stood up began to dawn on me but there was still sufficient denial that I decided to give her a little more time before moving on to my as yet not formulated, nor even considered for that matter, Plan B. As I stood in the dirty slush smoking, Stuart and a couple of the others exited the building. After comprehending my plight they invited me to join them for some local bar hopping. I turned them down as I wanted to give Willie another Marlboro or two. However, once another half hour had ticked by, the cold and darkness and the snow that was again starting to fall told me it was time to move on. She was pretty good looking. And funny. But after all, she WAS quirky. And flighty. And I knew I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, when midnight hit and the clock was ticking.
PLAN B ~ My next resort was to try and locate some friends of mine down in the East Village who I’d ordinarily be hanging out with on New Year’s Eve if it weren’t for my now nonexistent date. A couple of unanswered calls from a phone booth told me they were already out and about so, it only being about seven, I thought it’d be worth my while to try and track them down at the usual haunts. Rather than risk a subway nightmare, I hoofed it downtown which only took me about twenty minutes, not bad from Murray Hill, through the snow and rush hour, no less. But because my only food since lunch had been a few Christmas cookies washed down with Stuart’s scotch, I was feeling somewhat peckish and decided food was in order before proceeding with my dragnet and so stopped at Brunetta’s, a local mom and pop eatery on 1st avenue. Alas, the door was locked as they were getting ready to close early in order to avoid all the New Year’s hooligans who were beginning to make their boisterous presence known. Luckily, the owner Louis knew me and, seeing me woefully gazing in, took mercy and waved me inside, joking that I looked like a pitiful, abandoned puppy. One bowl of delicious veal stew later and I was on my way. God bless the Louis Brunettas of the world.
Having been reconstituted and my brain somewhat degrogged, I plotted a circular search route of all the local wells. I’d hit the usual spots, starting by working my way towards Tompkins Square Park. On Avenue A I stopped first at Miss Helena’s, a dive old man beer and shot joint that was a typical starting point for my crew on a night of carousing. The real name of the place was Lucy’s but we all called it Miss Helena’s after the Polish waitress who worked there that my friend Charles had a crush on. He and Helena were both in the same age bracket, late thirties, and I believe Helena had a little crush on Charles as well. I had a beer and a shot and chatted a bit with Helena who informed me that yes, my friends had been there but had left a while ago. She said Charles promised he’d be back before midnight. I hope so, she said longingly in her endearing Polish accent. I told her I was sure he’d be back though I knew Charles’ drinking habits and seriously doubted it would ever come to pass as he’d probably already forgotten his promise.
So it was on to the nearby Holiday bar and another quick beer while I queried the bouncer, Lurch, a friendly but frightening looking guy whose real name was Walter but who’d earned his moniker due to his uncanny resemblance to the Addams Family butler, which was probably the reason he got hired as a bouncer in the first place. Lurch said he hadn’t seen anyone which struck me as strange because in the normal East Village bar hopping route Miss Helena’s and the Holiday were usually in sequence one way or the other. Next was the Pyramid, not a regular stop but was nearby so worth an in and out take-a-leak quick check. No dice. Then hit the Radio Bar where I discovered that they had, indeed, also been there but had been asked to leave after Charles dropped not one but two bottles of Rolling Rock which had no chance of survival on the old school black and white tiled floor (BTW the place was also known as the Tile Bar). Apparently, my friends were well on their way to midnight. Other stops included Downtown Beirut, JJ’s, Lismar Lounge, even the Kiev Diner, admittedly a real long shot, that being a place we more typically ended up at four in the morning to soak up all the night’s sins with pierogies and challah bread French toast.
From the Kiev, since I was on 7th street already, I thought I’d take a look in McSorley’s Ale House, another unlikely place we usually avoided because it was always crowded with amateurs. But what the hell, I was practically there and had to use the bathroom anyway. McSorley’s has a kind of touristy gimmick where they serve up their namesake brew in two half pint mugs. Don’t really know why, would make more sense to just put it in one pint glass. But whatever. As I nursed my double beer, noticing that it was now approaching nine o’clock, I realized I had a decision to make. I could either continue onwards into the West Village where it’d be significantly less likely for me to locate my friends OR I could abandon this quest, skedaddle over to Astor Place, hop the Number 6 up to Grand Central and catch the 9:38 Metro North back up to the Bronx and, finally, ride out the stroke of midnight with the neighborhood local yokels at Bill & Bob’s. I went with the latter option as all the beer I had consumed in my search was beginning to take a toll. Clearly, I couldn’t carry on this way and risk getting stranded god knows where in cold, damp Manhattan. Besides, an alcohol breather was probably a good idea and maybe a quick hot dog or a pretzel at Grand Central to keep body and soul together. That was the ticket. Bill & Bob’s always put out a spread on New Year’s Eve and that gin mill was only a block from my apartment which was comforting. Just needed to make it back up to 233rd Street.
Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Under the best of circumstances, a subway ride from the Village to Grand Central should be about fifteen minutes, tops. But, this being 1981 and New York’s crumbling infrastructure being at it’s lowest point, I first had to wait a long time for the 6 to even show up and then it inexplicably stopped between 14th and 23rd Streets for a half hour (of course, why wouldn’t it?), finally arriving at Grand Central at 9:37, giving me exactly one minute to make my train which, running like a madman though I did, I arrived at the track just in time to watch it pulling away into the darkness. Crap! What now? I could go back down and catch the subway up to the neighborhood but that was a local and made every stinking stop through the South Bronx which was pretty bad news in those days. Not that I was particularly worried for my safety. I had taken the subway back and forth for years and had never been seriously harassed. While, if need be, I did know how to put on a deranged lunatic face which kept troublemakers at bay, truth be told it was rarely necessary because, contrary to popular belief, most people riding the subway (even in those bad ass days of the 80s) weren’t thugs out to mug everyone in sight but were more typically working class, ordinary folks just trying to get to work or back home. What concerned me more was the reliability of the subway system itself. In theory there should be plenty of time to make it up to 233rd Street and walk the couple of blocks to Bill & Bob’s with room to spare but as my Number 6 experience just showed, shit does and do happen and after striking out in Manhattan I didn’t want to be ringing in the new year stalled out at Intervale Avenue. The more palatable option was to hang out and catch the next Metro North train at 11:15 which would put me into 233rd Street by 11:40 and Bill & Bob’s in time to ring in the New Year.
So here I was at a quarter to ten with an hour and a half to kill and again pondering options. Do I just sit in the waiting room, which would have been the sensible thing to do, or do I seek out a bite to eat and a beer? (Yes, the prospect of all this free time had, again, revived my thirst.) Never having been a sensible sort, I opted for the latter. Of course I didn’t want to frequent any of the establishments within Grand Central itself as they not only cost an arm and a leg but were also frequented by that newly emergent and irritating subclass, the yuppie, but then I recalled there was a Blarney Stone just around the corner on 43rd Street. These were classic New York gin mills, basically a pastiche of inner city working class with an emphasis on the Irish. Nowadays I think there’s only one or two left but back then there were upwards of thirty of them scattered across Manhattan, providing watering holes for the masses to congregate and tell their tales over a boilermaker (or eight) with basic pub grub available to soak it all up. So expeditiously set sail for that port I did.
NO SURRENDER ~ The old expression “smells like a brewery” was probably inspired by what hits you in the face when you walk into any Blarney Stone and this one was no exception, augmented by an aggregate aroma of whiskey, cigars, cigarettes, burgers and, when it’s as crowded as it was that night, cheap perfume, bad cologne and body odor and add to that the wall of sound from the drinking crowd, laughing, arguing and trying to tell stories over the loud jukebox blasting out “I Will Follow”. All that said, there was still a comforting warmth walking inside after being out in cold, dark Manhattan. I was home.
Miraculously, I found myself a freshly vacated barstool and soon I was sitting there contentedly, a burger in my belly, nursing a beer and keeping an eye on the clock. Before long a barstool to my right opened up, into which an older guy, obviously with a few under his belt, plopped down, ordered a beer and a shot and, finally, lit up a cigarette which I noticed was a Gitane, a man’s smoke if ever there was one and which made me think this guy was maybe French. I was minding my own business, staring straight ahead when he looked over at me and started to speak but was, on the first syllable, interrupted by an extended smoker’s, phlegm filled cough. He put his left hand on my forearm and waved apologetically with his right, then slapping it down on the bar to brace himself as he slowly regained his composure. While all this was going on I noticed what looked like a crude, homemade tattoo across his knuckles reading “NO SURRENDER”, the last “ER” being, E atop the R, on his right pinky, I’m guessing because he miscalculated the available number of digits before beginning the tattoo? Which made sense to me because, judging by his appearance, I reckoned he was drunk at the time. What the significance was of “No Surrender” I had no idea but I was about to find out. At long last he sat up straight and looked at me.
“Whew! Wired to the moon I am! Sorry bout that, Happy New Year, mate!”
He was Irish, not French. I really didn’t want to get involved in an extended conversation with this guy and miss my train so I kept it brief.
“Same to you”, half smiling and then turning back to staring straight ahead. He wasn’t about to let it go, though.
“Name’s Brea. That’s short for Breasal. As in Breasal Shanahan.”
He held out his hand which I reluctantly shook.
“Nice to meet you.”
Again, I resumed staring ahead but he kept pressing me for my name and when I finally told him he burst out into laughter.
“Ha! I figured you for a narrowback. Where do you hail from?”
“No, no, I mean where are your people from…over there?”
“Well, my grandparents came from County Mayo. Originally.”
“God help us! I be from Derry, myself. Directly.”
Now, I’m a native New Yorker so I’m well familiar with the many ethnicities resident in the city, including the Irish, but this guy was like a caricature, almost leprechaunish, unlike any Irish I had ever run into, except maybe in Lucky Charms commercials. I was beginning to think he was maybe some unemployed actor, yanking my chain for fun. I lit a cigarette and offered him one which he waved off.
“No, thanks, got me own.”
“Gitanes. Aren’t those French?”
“Ay, and I know what yer thinking…what the hell is a Mick doing smoking French fags? Well, years ago I once upon a time had a girl who was French, whereupon I took a fancy to her cigarettes, among other things, and there you have it.”
“But thank you kindly, nonetheless. Hey barkeep, be a good lad and fetch us a couple of Bushmills, neat, with Guinness to chase will you?”
“No, you don’t have to. I really must be…”
I really had to leave soon if I was to catch my train. Damn it, didn’t need this now, just wanted to get out of there.
“Oh, but I insist. No, no, I insist.”
I resumed staring off into space though I was seeing that would be a losing battle. My distance seemed to perturb him.
“You’re the quiet one, eh? What’s eating you, boy?”
“Nothing. Nothing important”
“Bullshit, nothing important. You bullshiting me, boy?”
This guy’s sudden abusive tone was a little unsettling, but I managed a weak smile and a shrug. He glared menacingly for a few seconds until the bartender brought the drinks at which point he burst into giddy laughter, ending with a shudder brought on by a gust of wind from someone entering the bar.
“Damn, it’s colder than a witch’s tit tonight! Now I’m the one bullshiting you! I’m sorry, I’ve been going at it, readying myself for what I have to do. Here, drink up, lad. We’ve got to take the edge off.”
We clinked glasses. He then put his right hand over his heart and, holding up the shot glass, gave a toast right out of The Quiet Man.
“Here’s to the old sod, may it glisten forever like a rose and be rid at last of the blight plaguing us all these years! Sláinte!”
I could have sworn he had tears in his eyes but it was kind of dark so I couldn’t really tell. I was starting to warm up to this quirky Irishman and the drinks heightened my disposition. I calculated that, at this point, I wouldn’t be able catch the 11:15 as planned. The next one was 11:47, meaning I wouldn’t make it back to the Bronx in time to ring in the new year but that was alright. I could still get to Bill & Bob’s by 12:30 where the party would be going until closing time at 4:00 AM and beyond if you count the after hours joints and house parties and, finally, that meant hanging out in the Blarney Stone for another half hour. In any event, I was glad he had bought me a round and had signaled the bartender for an encore. Sure, I was glad…now…but that was how I always got myself in trouble, a fact I never seemed to remember until it was too late.
“Bottoms up and thanks again. So Breasal…”
“…Brea please, my friends call me Brea. The only one ever called me Breasal were my mum just before she were about to beat me for some transgression. Aptly named, I.”
“My name. Irish for ‘pain’, you know.”
“Ah, OK, that would make sense. So Brea, what do you do for a living?”
“Shhhh! You don’t want to know. I’m an auditor you might say. I make sure the books don’t get cooked, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean. I’m in IT and we have to deal with auditors all the time, running reports and stuff. Which firm do you work for?”
This made him laugh hysterically, so hard that tears came to his eyes, ending in another sickening coughing fit and drawing the disgusted looks of nearby patrons. When he finally calmed down he lit another cigarette and signaled the waiter for more drinks.
“My boy, let me tell you a little bit about ‘auditing’. My…”
He caught himself and looked around cautiously to make sure no one was eavesdropping but the place was so noisy and everyone so buzzed there was no chance of that happening. Nevertheless, he spoke in a hushed tone.
“My ‘firm’, if you want to call it that, is based over in Belfast. Business has been in a bit of a slump as of late. There are certain, ah, competitors, if you will, who are intent on seeing to it that we’re put out of business. Permanently.”
Belfast. No surrender. The light bulb went on. I began to connect the dots. He was close up in my face, arm clasped around my shoulder so tight I dare not look away, the beer, whiskey and cigarettes on his breath combined into an acrid stench that made my eyes water.
“You see, a lot of our financing is arranged in America. In fact, our accountants, if you want to call them that, are headquartered right here in New York. Over on the West Side.”
“Well, don’t you know it, damn it all, it seems that one of the accountants whom we relied on for so many years was actually all this time, that rat bastard, in the service of our competitors.”
“Brea, what time is it? I really don’t…”
“Shut up boy and let me finish my story!”
A loose cannon if I ever saw one. I managed to nod but was starting to get nervous. He downed a shot, sipped his beer and squashed out his cigarette which had burned down to his yellowed, tattooed fingers and smiled the devil’s smile.”
“And on top of all that, turns out he was one of the perpetrators of Domhnach na Fola.”
“Bloody fucking Sunday! Be ten years at the end of January. Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Me own younger brother were shot down that dark day. He was only fifteen years old! No. No! Can’t have that. So my boss, the CEO. Ha! The CEO calls me in and says ‘Brea me lad, we need you to go across the pond and personally terminate that fellow’s employment.’ You know, since his services are no longer required, eh?”
All I could do was nod (and swallow).
“Perhaps I’ve said too much. Damn this drink! But I can trust you, eh boy?”
I’m dead, I thought to myself. Trust me? After spilling the beans like that, how could he let me live? He glared at me. Again.
“Yes, of course.”
When he turned to light another cigarette I stole a glance at the clock. I was on the verge of missing my train if I didn’t leave immediately but at this juncture I dared not. He took a long drag, another sip of beer, and set his glass down, signaling the bartender for an encore. Then he turned to me, smiling benevolently.
“Anyways, that’s the purpose of me business trip to the Big Apple. God almighty, I got to piss something fierce…like a fucking race horse!”
OK, I thought, if he goes to pee that’ll be my chance. But despite his proclamation, he just sat there. Finally, he took a big drink from his beer but still didn’t move, just sitting there in a stupor, contemplating his next move. Was he so drunk he forgot he had to pee? I stared at him and started inching towards the edge of his seat, preparing to bolt. Just as I was about to stand, Breasal reached under his overcoat and slipped something on to my lap.
“Be a good lad and watch this for me? I won’t be but a minute.”
It took a moment but I quickly realized I was holding three pounds of fully loaded 357 Magnum. Alright, I didn’t know that for sure but I had seen enough Dirty Harry movies to make an educated guess. He staggered off, leaving me holding the big gun. I yelled after him.
Fortunately, it was dark, noisy and crowded so no one had noticed this little transaction but I didn’t want to draw attention so I shoved the cannon up under my left armpit beneath my coat and looked around to see if I could slip out unnoticed. I would have to quickly push my way through the crowd in order to get out the front door before he returned. As I stood and turned to leave the bartender grabbed my shoulder.
“Hey, what’s this?”
“What’s what? Oh, I’m sorry, what do I owe you?”
“No, no, don’t forget your smokes.”
“They belong to him.”
I started weaving my way through the crowd towards the door, carefully keeping my left hand in my coat pocket so as to not drop the gun. Once I got outside I’d drop it in the first garbage can I came across. I was almost to the end of the bar, just had to make it past the last group of drinkers and the dart players, then I’d be home free. Just when I was almost there, a guy at the end of the bar pinched the girl next to him in the ribs, causing her to scream and twist on her stool, her elbow hitting me hard in the chest. This caused me to fall backwards into a drunk standing behind me, making him spill his drink and angrily respond by cursing and shoving me in the back.
Well, this knocked the gun loose and as I, in a panic, tried to grab it to keep it from falling on the floor it somehow discharged, shattering the mirror behind the bar, then ricocheted, blasting the dartboard off the wall, then ricocheted again, exploding the Budweiser sign hanging in the front window in a hail of sparks. As everyone was screaming and hitting the dirt, I ducked out the front door, pushing past a crowd of incoming revelers and ran as fast as I could through the darkness and falling snow, dirty before it hit the ground.
CODA ~ When I got round the corner, I shoved the gun deep down into an overloaded trash can and walked briskly towards Grand Central. I had missed the 11:47 so rather than wait another hour for the next one I decided to hop on the subway and ride the local back up to the Bronx. As I sat on the Number 2, keeping an eye out for cops, or Breasal, who I was sure were pursuing me, I thought back on my busy day. You can’t make this shit up. However, I was not apprehended and finally did make it back to Bill & Bob’s for the last couple hours of the party.
A few weeks later I read in the Daily News that Brea Shanahan had been arrested, along with a couple members of the Westies gang on suspicion of attempted murder of a turncoat IRA member in Manhattan, presumably the “accountant” he was referring to. As I understand it he was eventually extradited back to Belfast to face other terrorist charges, did some time in the Maze and was back on the streets after a couple years.
My friends in the East Village, it turns out, had been to virtually all the same places I had looked for them, either before or after I was there, and eventually had ended up at some party over on the Bowery, stealing a few bottles of liquor from the open bar when they left. From the sounds of it I didn’t miss much. I heard the next time Miss Helena saw Charles she gave him a good dressing down for never showing up.
As for Willie, when I finally made it home that night there was a voicemail message from her, profusely apologetic, something about her sister being in the hospital, etc, which I took with a grain of salt, but she ended the message imploring for me to call her when I got home “no matter what time it is” so I did. We chatted for a while and patched things up, her chuckling at my telling of my misadventure, me taking care to leave out some of the incriminating details. After that we did end up dating for a while and had a lot of fun together but then the company merged with another company and a bunch of us got laid off and went our separate ways. Willie and I lost touch and I never saw her again. I often wonder whatever became of her.
For a long time after the Blarney Stone incident I was convinced the police would come knocking at my door but that never came to pass so I can only assume the following three possibilities: 1) the gun was never found and is now buried in the landfill on Staten Island, 2) the gun was found but couldn’t be traced to me because I had never been arrested and fingerprinted, or 3) there were no reliable eyewitnesses which would make sense as everyone in that bar was smashed and it was very dark and crowded. In any event, after a couple years I stopped worrying about it though I do think about it from time to time and how the whole thing never would have happened if it weren’t for Wilhelmina Knockout standing me up. The end.