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Notes From a Polite New Yorker: A Good Night in Hell('s Kitchen)

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A tour of the dive bars of Hell's Kitchen.

After much talk about doing it, I arranged with a friend to gather together a proper drinking posse and tour the dive bars of Hell's Kitchen. I set out one fine Saturday evening and took the slow weekend A train to the 42nd Street stop. I got out of the subway and headed east on 44th Street. 

To my dismay, the west end of 44th Street was blocked off entirely. Two large dump trucks filled with sand stood facing one another, blocking the way. A police car was parked right on the sidewalk in front of the Toys 'R Us, forcing people to squeeze by and bump into one another. Mothers with strollers could barely get by. At 44th and Broadway, I could see Jimmy's Corner from behind the barricade and asked an officer if I could go there. She told me that it was closed, but that I could get there if I walked all the way around and entered the barricaded maze from 6th Avenue. 

I quickly realized the reason for the lockdown. President Obama and his wife were seeing a play—August Wilson's 'Joe Turner's Come And Gone,' at the Belasco Theater—that was right on 44th and 6th. Police vehicles were everywhere. A bank of news cameras were positioned in a special area. Police had just shooed away a bunch of tourists as I made my way down 44th Street. A man in a suit who had no badge displayed but who I assume was a Secret Service agent was barking, “You can't stop there! Don't stop! Keep walking!” He shouted at passers-by with the arrogance that results from power without wisdom. 

I finally arrived at Jimmy's Corner to meet my friend, Larry Fishkorn. Fishkorn is a fan of the President, and even sent a text message to the White House inviting the Obamas to join us for a drink, but they did not head over to Jimmy's Corner, though it would have spoken well for them if they had. 

Jimmy's Corner is a bar dedicated to boxing. It is a narrow space with two main drinking areas: a bar in the front and an area with tables and chairs in the back. The bar was full, so we sat in the back with our beers at a table covered with photographs of owner and proprietor Jimmy Glenn with various boxing and non-boxing celebrities. The walls are covered with boxing photos and other memorabilia. An autographed photo of former lightweight boxing great Greg Haugen kept guard over our table. Glenn was there, mostly sitting quietly in an office in the back, watching a television and eating. The atmosphere was excellent and the prices on the beer were very cheap considering Times Square is now an overpriced hell of tourists and police. The porno theaters, prostitutes and junkies have been chased away, but somehow the moral rot of Times Square has only increased. 

The drinking posse that Larry Fishkorn and I rounded up was an eclectic mix of New Yorkers, all of whom were seasoned drinkers well fit for the task of drinking in Hell's Kitchen's greatest dives. 

We had several rounds as Jimmy's filled up. This was not your superdouche yuppie crowd. Even the trendier younger people there were watching sports or chatting in the proper spirit of the place. 

After our several rounds, it was time to leave, but we couldn't. The Obamas were leaving the theater and the Secret Service and police had established the kingly “frozen zone” on the block. We stood in the bar waiting to leave, hoping to someday live in an America where presidents were treated like presidents instead of kings. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss… 

Our group left as the police were dismantling barricades and the people of New York were allowed to walk down 44th Street again. There was great bustle and excitement, as President Obama is popular in New York, and the press had made a fawning brouhaha over the first couple's visit. 

Our next stop was the Holland Bar, which we were happy to find was bustling yet with available seating space for our group. The bar is a bar-bones dive with the simple sign 'BAR' in large letters out front. Behind the bar is the larger defunct neon sign reading 'Holland.' It was feared that the Holland would be gone forever, but after some renovations, it re-opened earlier this year after being closed for renovations for a while. Soon after ordering a round of drinks for everyone, the bartender, Steve, supplies many of us with free shots of Jameson. I could not say no. Behind the bar is an urn containing the ashes of Charlie O'Connell, a former Holland bartender and regular. Charlie was a constant Hell's Kitchen personality and unrepentant drunk who was well known at the Holland and elsewhere. After his death, no family claimed his remains, and so now he resides permanently at The Holland Bar, where he spent much of his adult life anyway, if the legend is to be believed. Telemundo, the Spanish television channel, played on both of the bar's televisions, and some kind of humiliating dating game show was on at the time. Without a doubt, the Holland lived up to our greatest expectations. 

But it was time to move on, and we next visited Port 41, on 41st Street near 9th Ave. Port 41 had all the elements needed to be an extraordinary dive bar experience. They had a decent selection of cheap beers, served by a very fit young woman who tended bar in a bikini. There was plenty of room at the bar and at tables, and the yuppie/hipster/douchebag contingent that afflicts many bars is not there. It had all the elements that make for a great dive bar. However, when we were there the place was dead. A few drinkers looked like potential drug dealers who seemed to scoff at our arrival and looked like they thought our arrival was interrupting some other kind of business. Port 41 also has what has to be the worst juke box in the world. All the selections are nothing but the most popular top-40 tripe. When we quickly gave up on the jukebox, the bar blasted the absolutely most horrendous pop-R&B pabulum, designed to drive real drinkers away. I only hope that the place is a front for drugs, prostitution or illegal gambling; that would explain a lot. 

Our group made an attempt to go to Rudy's, a fine dive bar on 9th Avenue near 44th Street. However, it was after 11 p.m. by this point, when Rudy's gets way too packed. After 11 p.m., the bar is forced to close its back patio, forcing an additional mob of people into an already full to crowded bar. It's one of the best places to drink at certain hours, but we abandoned our quest to drink at Rudy's this night. 

We made a brief detour at a bar called Hibernia at 9th Ave. and 50th Street, but quickly determined that it did not qualify as a dive bar. It was crowded and full of yuppies and men in polo shirts who were way too interested in darts. 

Fishkorn wanted to go to J. Mac's on 57th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. I had been there once before and found that while it qualified as a dive bar, it was not a particularly good one. We made the trek anyway, only to find it closed. 

Disappointed, we took cabs back to The Holland Bar, which was the best place to end the night. Steve the bartender was glad to see us, and I lost track of the good pints of beer, shots that emptied not one but two Jameson's bottles, and the few we had after closing time. We disbursed randomly and I was the last of our group left in Hell's Kitchen. I had a slice of pizza and a can of soda at Two Bros. Pizza on 40th Street and 9th Avenue as the drunken chaos of life after closing time swirled all around me. I caught a cab home and enjoyed seeing the black night start to turn blue to welcome the morning. 

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