Christmas Eve. Warm and secure in your Uber you’re speeding to cocktails, then a feast with friends and afterwards, an A-list afterparty. The streets twinkle with good cheer. You can almost hear the sleigh bells tinkling in the Prada window.
But there is one place where the Herald Angels won’t be singing tonight. Stop and look in any corner saloon bar. You’ll see something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Even with festive lights ablaze a bar is gloomy when empty. The bartender, leans back, arms folded, discouraging conversation.
The few customers are seated just far enough apart so they can ignore each other without being rude. They’re alone in a saloon on Christmas Eve.
By an accident of birth I was forced to work 11 Christmas Eves behind the stick. Covering my suddenly pious colleagues who had sick mothers and Midnight Masses to attend and also didn’t want to work the most depressing, unremunerative night of the year.
There was a lot of good-natured raillery as they promised to make it up to me. “I’ll cover your Day of Atonement.” “That’s every day for him.”
What’s the difference between Santa & a bartender?
Santa only has to look at 8 A$$holes
Merry Christmas Eve pic.twitter.com/sfxpXvUXxm
— Jennifer Scott (@Jennifer24Scott) December 25, 2015
One night in particular sticks in the memory.
It’s New York’s Soho in 1976. No superstores with three-story photos of LeBron holding a can of Sprite. Turn-of-the-century cast iron buildings, small factories, outlets, sweatshops. $500 a month gets you 5,000 feet of raw space.
Spring Street Bar is the official watering hole of the flourishing art scene. On any given night you can see the creme of the wealthy avant-garde. Johns, Rauschenberg. Serra. Cutting-edge gallerists like Castelli and Karp. John Lennon and Yoko Ono nurse beers
But on Christmas Eve Spring Street becomes like any other dismal gin mill on any obscure outer borough street.
It’s been a raw day. Snow blowing in stinging flurries, leaving an icy sheen on the streets. There’s a brief flash of merriment as people come in for a quick drink to start the festivities.
The chef puts out a special menu. Only a few takers and they bolt it down and slink out. The loners stare into their drinks. I hit the Hennessy. It’s 8:30 and I’ve got another seven hours of this.
A couple come in. She’s tall and graceful, wet snow glittering on her dark hair and cashmere coat; the kind of reckless beauty who never buttons her coat, even in bitter cold. He’s shorter and softly fat. Biology hasn’t been kind. His face is chapped red by the cold, just as it’s probably blistered red by the sun.
“What would you like?” he asks her with what sounds like a parody upper class lockjaw drawl. She gestures impatiently. “I don’t know…anything.”
“What was that crazy drink you loved in Antibes?” he asks.
“I don’t know, I don’t remember.”
“Pousse cafe,” he says like he knew it along. And he asks me: “Can you make a Pousse cafe?”
I’ve never made one in my life. “Sure,” I say. I rummage under the bar and find a torn copy of Mr. Boston’s Bar Book.
Pousse cafe has six ingredients floated on top of one another to produce what the author calls “a striped rainbow of color.” The liquors have to be floated in the right order, the heaviest down to the lightest. I’ll have to make the drink in front of them because if I carry it the colors might run.
It would be easier with a flute or a narrower glass. I cover the bottom of a highball glass with Grenadine. Using the back of a mixing spoon I float Yellow Chartreuse on top of that. Then reddish Creme de Cassis…White Creme de Cacao.
A stool scrapes.
“Nobody move please,” I say. With a steady hand I float Green Chartreuse and a final layer of Cognac.
It’s beautiful. One layer of gorgeous color on top of another.
But the girl pushes it away with a sob. “I can’t.” The drink comes apart, its colors sloshing and bleeding into one another. She gets up. “I’ve got to go back there.”
“No…” He pushes her down and whispers vehemently. “We’re going to have a Christmas drink just like we said.”
Peggy, the waitress, sips the ruined pousse cafe. “It tastes like poisoned candy,” she says.
The beauty finds a crumpled cigarette in her purse. He fumbles with his lighter: “Bet your mom’s making her special egg nog like she always does, right?”
She takes a sucking drag and blows smoke through her nose. “I don’t know what she does anymore.”
“Well, we can have one, too.” He turns to me with a pleading look. “Bartender, two beautiful Christmas egg nogs.”
We make a classic egg nog at Spring Street. Three parts heavy cream, two parts cognac, one egg yolk and gomme syrup in a mixing glass (we didn’t use blenders back in the day.) Shake vigorously and pour in a tall glass. Sprinkle with nutmeg.
“Talk to me,” the fat kid says urgently. “What did you do on Christmas when you were a kid?” Another deep drag. “We’d spend a few days in town with Daddy…Skate at the Wollman rink…Then he’d put us on a plane to Aspen to meet Mom and Bart.
“Mom and Bart would go skiing and Francy and I would freeze in that dark chalet…When it was dark, they’d come back with their friends. Bart would try to get the fire going and everybody would laugh because he was so loaded. Mom would come out of the kitchen. Time for my special egg nog, she’d say.”
Almost on cue I lay the drinks in front of them. He takes a tentative sip and brightens: “This is good…Just like your Mom used to make.”
She hardly puts it to her lips. ”No, it’s not even close.” She jumps up: “I have to go.”
On second look I see that her long, graceful fingers are yellow with nicotine. The face under that mass of dark hair is gray. The eyes have the panic of a trapped animal. “Let me go there please.”
What’s “there?” A pile of coke? An abusive lover? Is this fat, red-faced man trying desperately to save a tragic beauty he will hopelessly love forever? Suddenly, his face has a suffering nobility. His shoulders sag. “Okay,” he says.
And they’re gone. She huddling in a storefront while he stands in the middle of the street whistling for a cab.
Peggy takes a sip of my spurned masterpiece.
“More like ugh nog,” she says.
Heywood Gould is the writer of ‘Cocktail ‘and is currently writing a book based on his experiences being drafted in the 1960s.