Happy Hour: Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room

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It was 1984 and in some Orwellian counter-plan, I worked for a large apparel company on the 33rd floor in a building that looked like all the others,  just below Times Square. My job was just dreadful. It was laborious, stressful, with surmounting pressures, as I was charged with developing sales and marketing strategies for a soon-to-be launched new line of men’s sportswear. I was alertly at my desk each weekday at 7am and still there, each night at 7pm.

I usually took a thirty minute lunch but spent it at my desk frenetically paying bills or catching up on phone calls. If I craved a smoke, such an indulgence required a long wait for the elevator, a long descent, and finally a walk around to the side of the building. I chose to puff in secret in the men’s room … which was actually rather safe from detection.

The only other male employee on the entire floor was the designer whose goods I would soon be hawking. We’d often meet up there with our coffee and trade horror tales of being the only men in such a reverse world.The still men’s room became a haven to us both. And, we both smoked menthols.

We could escape innuendo, harassment, and (I at least) was able to forget the suggestion my boss was always making: that perhaps I bed the Saks, Bloomies, or Burdines buyer to guarantee a larger opening order. Although I became quite proficient at my job, I was quickly despising the moral and karmic decline it seemed to represent.

One October morning, I left my building in time to catch the train downtown … with enough time to get coffee. Right as the subway entrance at 72nd Street came within view, I turned right and just started walking up Broadway to 75th, then over toward Central Park, and was heading back toward 72nd Street … when I finally decided. I was taking a personal day and just chill. I had been in New York for six weeks and had yet to really take advantage of many amenities, save hot dogs and pizza. That day, which I had labelled “today”was actually becoming that day.

I returned to 89 West 72nd (my humble prewar building, with my apartment, a 14th floor walk-up!) and made the fateful call. Relieved, I put on my trusty fatigues and boots and headed out for a brisk walk and to survey my options. Before long, I was at Amsterdam Ave & 84th Street and noticed several people walking hurriedly down the steps into the infamous Bike Stop.

The Bike Stop was your typical Manhattan dive: ancient, wood-paneled, and filled with the smoke and ghosts of fifty years. I peaked in and was shocked. It was just past eight and it was packed!
I had stepped right into the Late Shift’s Happiest of Hours. 

There most have been over a hundred people squeezed between the bar tab and billiards tables: some in suits, others in jeans, others in clothing I had never actually seen in daylight. The woman at the bar fixed me a spicy Bloody Mary with extra, extra everything … and I pulled out my cigarettes.

An attractive woman (although with only one eye), she solicited a smoke, I offered, and soon we were exchanging stories. She was a retired circus performer who had brought her savings to the city and rented a small flat in the Bronx. Her friends all had similar and eclectic stories. I was already fascinated.

And on my second Bloody Mary, when the memorable turn of the morn transpired, I eased over toward the jukebox, inserting several bills. When“Romancing the Stone” (D-23) erupted into the air (Eddy Grant was a favorite of mine that autumn), I started tapping my fingers on that antique music machine. I was lost in the music, the energy, the oddity of the moment. At that point, he came over.
     

Yes, HE did.

He was my height, with long blond locks, and rather quirkily garbed. I remember he was wearing a chartreuse beret because he took it off, walked over and introduced himself. “My name is Hans.” The two of us spied a table, quickly seated ourselves, and spent the next few hours in discovery and flirtation. He was originally from Toronto, had been in NYC for ten years, and restored paintings at the Metropolitan. And he was the combined embodiment of strapping, fetching, and Bohemian. Craving lunch, among other things, I suggested we get a bite to eat.

As we strolled down Amsterdam Ave, laughing and gesturing with abandon, Hans asked if I had plans for the afternoon and if I were up to an excursion. Of course, I said yes, remembering at once I might only awaken to find myself at my desk near Times Square, once again peddling men’s sportswear. We hailed a cab and headed to Mercer Street.

Within minutes, he was unlocking his door to his studio, above a bookshop across from what is now the Mercer Hotel. As Hans started to push the door open, I at once glimpsed what was to be the splendor of the day. The studio was huge, at least by Manhattan standards, with eighteen foot ceilings, and an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. And the Venetian-plastered walls were filled with incredible and varied images … some impressionist, some abstract, others given to realism of still lives and portraiture.

Easels were placed at every turn, except for the area in the corner where a small and worn seating group nestled. I was overwhelmed with the beauty, the room’s grandeur, and the incredible spirit.

For the next few hours, we snacked on various cheeses and fruits (from his atypically artsy icebox!) and sipped champagne. And the ever-so-increasingly intriguing Hans gave me my first lesson in restoring paintings, as he meticulously detailed the various freelance projects he was undertaking.

In what seemed to be minutes, it was soon dark and I needed to head back toward Columbus Circle and prepare for the coming workday. We exchanged reluctant goodbyes, made plans for the weekend, and he took my hand, walking me to the corner to hail a cab.

The next morning, I was at my desk at 7AM, coffee steaming … my coworkers only beginning to slowly file onto the 33rd floor. Tommy (the designer and my eager partner in crimes of tar and nicotine) came over suggesting we have a smoke before the day’s pace reached the critical overdrive state. I held the door open for my friend and, as he passed through, I offered: “I realize your intent but do you think your name is the easiest to market and remember?”

His name had become quite a difficult sell and I was naturally curious. “I just can’t see Tommy Hilfiger as a branded line of clothing.” 

He beamed with his confidence and vision radiating from his broad smile. I knew at once we were going to make it work. I returned the smile. As long as all these women didn’t beat us down too severely! We extinguished our cigarettes and returned to our desks.

All I could think about was Hans and his steady paintbrush. And, of course, how glad I was that I had finally moved to New York, now that I was indeed tasting it. I stopped referring to my job as heinous that morning.

That “artistic holiday” had made a world of difference, as did “D-23” and that peek into the Bike Stop.

(Image: “Toaster Bar” by Randis Albion.)

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