Monday, December 8, 2014

A history lesson in the Tempus Fugit.

The Tempus Fugit opened in 1924, at the height or depth of Prohibition.
The bartender at the Tempus Fugit, not that I’ve ever seen him do it, seems like the sort who could spit between his teeth and ring like a cheap Chinese gong the brass of an old spittoon. He’s old school that way and his eyes have seen more in the comings and goings of the world than a thousand poets dreaming for a thousand years.

“During Prohibition, when the Tempus Fugit opened, the Feds opened a speakeasy down on 44th Street between Madison and Fifth, 14 East 44th to be exact.”

“Remind me to chart it on Google maps” I answered.

He wiped clean with a white terry a small six-ounce juice glass and filled it obligingly with Pike’s Ale (The ALE that won for YALE.) He then wiped the mahogany in front of me and placed my suds down on a small paper cocktail napkin emblazoned with the logo of the Tempus Fugit.

I sipped at the amber then asked him, “What were the Feds doing opening a speak?”

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes," he answered. Obliquely.

"Who will guard the guards," I confirmed.

He nodded. Again obliquely.

“It was called ‘The Bridge Whist’ club and it was a bona-fide speakeasy. Except for the fact that the G-Men ran it in the hopes of attaining information leading to the arrest and conviction of liquor smugglers.”

“Bootleggers,” I unnecessaried.

“They had had no success closing down the little neighborhood jernts,” he said, pronouncing ‘joints’ with an extra helping of Brooklyn for old-time’s sake. “They had no success padlocking the big places like the ones Tex Guinan ran. No luck with the El Fey, the 300 Club, the La Ray or the Casa Blanca Club.”

He pulled me Pike’s number two and deftly sidled a bowl of salted nuts so they landed just in front of me like a Romanian gymnast.

I pushed the legumes away, as I do, and started in on the brew.

“And they had no luck shutting down the Tempus Fugit. Fact is, they could barely find the place. By the time they did, by the time they went down one hallway and up another, and down one flight and up two more, then down another passage and through three sets of double doors, by the time all that happened, we were all drinking tea from porcelain tea cups.”

“You run a respectable operation,” I laughed.

“Never have, never will,” he corrected placing the goobers under the woodwork. For later.
Arnold Rothstein, 1882-1928. He kept New York wet when the country was dry.
“The coppers were feeding the small fish to try to get to the big ones. Opening a blind pig in the hopes that they'd corral Rothstein, Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz. The big fish.

“The thing is,” he continued, wiping the bar with his terry, “the Bridge Whist, classy as it was, served up denatured alcohol. Booze made with wood alcohol—methanol.”

“That’ll give you a hangover,” I said draining my third. “You’re not trying to tell me something.”

He laughed at that.
Drink is the curse of the working class. And vice-versa.
“Pike’s is as pure as the driven snow. It tiptoes into the glass like a maiden and dances the dance of a foamy Anna Pavlova.”

“I second that,” I said.

“The drinks at the Bridge Whist blinded some, killed others and gave still more the shakes. As far as I know, they caught no bootleggers.”

“A gloomy story for a Sunday night,” I mentioned, putting on Whiskey’s leash and then my heaviest winter coat.

“Christmas cheer,” he said.

I handed him two twenties which he sent back my way.

“And Merry Christmas to you.”

Whiskey and I walked home through the still of the silent evening.

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