113 St. Marks Place, New York, NY
I can’t tell you if the dogs at Crif Dogs are any good. I recall eating firm and succulent Kurobata snags at Japadog, just two blocks away, a place where the time-honoured trio of mustard, ketchup, and onions (or sauerkraut) was replaced by bonito flakes, kewpie mayo, and dried seaweed strips. The novelty fusion worked, but despite the Japanese obsession with Americana, the Americans—I mean the countercultural ones, or the ones who dressed the part on weekends—didn’t return the favour. Japadog is still open in Los Angeles and at several locations in Vancouver, Canada. If you’re stuck in the East Village on a Saturday night, however, having been spurned by a lover, accosted by crack addicts, and now positively drunk—well, you could always go to Crif’s.
The first thing you notice is how bright it is. The florescent lights hurt your eyes, but you proceed anyway. You’re hungry. You walk up to the counter and look at the menu. There’s beef and pork dogs, bacon-wrapped dogs, dogs dressed with cheese, jalapeños, coleslaw, pineapple, terikayi, or some combination of these. It’s all a bit confusing—especially the Chihuahua (“Bacon wrapped crif dog covered with avocados & sour cream.”) Are we at a Mexican joint? It doesn’t matter. You order a regular dog and recline in an easy metal chair. It’s uncomfortable—the aluminium slats jut into your back, so you lay your head on the square table, whose funky silver whorls are pleasantly mesmerising… You greedily down your dog, and leave a mess of napkins and cardboard behind. On the way out, past the arcade screens to the right, you notice something a little odd: a telephone booth. When did that appear? It’s as if it had been plucked out of a Doctor Who production set.
But perhaps you’re misremembering. Because when you look at photos of Crif’s on the internet, many of them Eggleston-styled snaps of the wiener-shaped sign that says “eat me,” there’s no evidence of harsh light, no cheap restaurant décor trucked in from Bowery Street. Maybe you crouched over the picnic bench that’s pictured in the corner, maybe swivelled in the fancy bar stools near the opposing wall. Or, what’s more likely, you didn’t even sit down. That’s the problem with drunken memories: the state of inebriation does not lend itself to a solid sense of place.
Nevertheless, you’re pretty certain of the phone booth. This is confirmed when you visit again, more sober. You see a visitor enter, pick up the black receiver, and dial a secret code. It’s like a scene out of Get Smart, except there’s no elevator that drops to intelligence headquarters. Instead, after a short wait, the back of the booth opens up miraculously, and it’s a welcome surprise to discover there’s a bar—a speakeasy—hidden behind.
Please Don’t Tell is Jim Meehan’s homage to the speakeasies of the 1920s and ‘30s, when New Yorkers refused to turn dry though it meant bucking the law. But it is also a homage of sorts to the Cold War era, or rather to the shenanigans of Agent 86 (aka Maxwell Smart), who charmingly bumbles his way against the forces of KAOS. Prohibition and Get Smart, scofflaws and spies, bootleggers and bombs—PDT (as it’s acronymised) represents a yearning for riskier, more paranoid times.
The greatest risk for today’s Wets is being left without a seat on Saturday night. You could reserve days before, and be denied at the booth. You could drink yourself silly and forget how to get in. Or you could arrive late, too late.
Last time I was on my best behaviour and was seated in a semi-circular booth with a few friends, including a couple who’d visited from Sydney. Those were years: the mining boom in Western Australia, the dollar near parity with the USD, thereby hordes of Australians on long-haul trips that were, and again are, prohibitively expensive. It all certainly helped with the (already delicious) cocktails. There were many tempting options, which went by names like Algonquin, Monkey Gland, Siesta, or Zombie Punch. And were it not for another friend who, for some obscure reason, always had a bottle of Crème de Violette at the ready, I would’ve ordered an Aviation (a drink, dating back to 1916, which is nowadays rare in bars). In the end, I sipped on a combination of rye whiskey, bitters, and amaro—a negroni that pleasingly veers into Old Fashioned territory. The Lacrimosa, as the recipe was called, was poured in an ample glass over a perfectly geometrical ice cube, topped with a flamed orange twist. Like PDT, the drink’s name—Latin for tears—is ironic. At least in this drinker’s experience.
Once we stopped admiring the large ice cubes and the bar’s wooded interior, matters turned elsewhere. One of the visitors—the husband—said that he was on the verge of changing careers. He was going into the ministry. Not that being a lawyer was particularly bad (he was, I’d gathered, quite successful). But after a decade of the corporate grind, he felt that he wanted to do something more “meaningful.” And what was more meaningful than preaching a message of eternal consequence?
I had known him from my days at church, when we, including his present wife, were university students. How he came to join the church I do not know. When he did, in his second or third year, he was an affable guy with whom I could have a pleasant chat after service, having endured yet another long sermon. I wouldn’t say he was exactly a close friend or an acquaintance, but perhaps he was somewhere in between a sibling and a cousin. We were family after all—God’s family, that is, which we unashamedly declared in emails: “Your brother in Christ.”
Indeed, I saw him more than any of my cousins, knew him on a weekly basis, became familiar with him as part of my Sundays—and Friday nights—even if we did not speak at length. Despite his gregariousness and ability to talk to just about anyone, I was never part of his close circle of friends. Maybe it was because of his evident social gifts that I regarded him with some suspicion. I tended to side with the oddball and the misfit, even the neurotic schemer—none of whom could last in this environment. For the young adults’ service was, among other things, a marriage market. And when all the professionals had inevitably paired up, the others had little choice but to flee.
I had fled for other reasons. I needed to get out of Sydney. My ticket overseas was graduate school, to a place I’d never been. Based on the reputation of the school, I packed my bags and said goodbye. But during the summers I sometimes flew back and visited my old church. I went twice, but demurred on the third, perturbed by the lack of familiar faces and the sudden enthusiasm of once mischievous youths (some of whom I’d taught). “We just want to make Jesus known!” they’d say, and I would wonder if I—God forbid—had also said such things.
It was not that I had given up on church. In fact, I had found a medium-sized congregation that met in the airy chapel of a progressive theological seminary (unaffiliated). And though I was not entirely comfortable, a half-dozen or so friends—in truth, surrogate family—were enough to keep me there. They were more or less outsiders, more interested in art or fashion or music or books than securing a six-figure income or a pious Korean spouse. Fortunately, the younger pastor understood our plight. He also had a wicked sense of humour. Outside of preaching or administering the sacred rites, he could barely suppress his quick-witted instincts. Speaking of a girl who had turned down every bachelor in the congregation, he joked: even Jesus wouldn’t be good enough for her. After all, he’s not Korean.
I am walking down a dimly lit street in Soho. I can barely make out anything, only the edges of buildings and entryways, sly reflections of distant light. We—I am with two friends—have just passed an illuminated Apple logo. There was a line outside the store. But it’s almost 10 p.m.! Perhaps there’s a special sale. No, this is normal for Friday night.
We go on like this, taking in the crisp night air. Our friend, the Jamaican one, who regrettably lives up to the stereotype of operating on African time, tells us that we’re close. When we find it we must wait there, outside the building, for thirty seconds. Where is it now? He apologises, inspects the kerb, backtracks a bit, and waves at us to join him. He’s found it.
After thirty seconds, he continues, and only then, will a guy in a black suit come out. He will ask you what your business is, and you will say the name of the DJ who’s on tonight (and who happens to share a name with the local drugstore chain). The bouncer—doorman? concierge?—will nod and say “this way gentleman,” or maybe he’ll say nothing at all. One thing’s for sure: he’ll guide you to an unassuming wall which, upon closer inspection, camouflages a door.
There are four of you waiting now. Ding! The door opens; it’s an elevator. All bodies in, your suited guide presses a button. You feel the floor drop.
When you get out it seems like you’ve entered a labyrinth. It’s still dark, but your eyes begin to adjust and you notice the walls are latticed with steel bars and horn-shaped glass, the heels of numerous wine bottles. A cellar? You hear murmurs and a faint pulse as you’re led through a corridor of red and amber hues, until the guide stops, fiddles with a knob, and lets you in. Yes, it’s a hidden bar.
How much of this actually happened is hard to know. The sequence unfolded so fast, mentally quickened by virtue of its unusualness. But because my friend—the non-Jamaican one—took a picture of us and sent it to his wife (she said we looked like a gay couple), I have little reason to doubt that we were there.
The drinks are not much to write home about. (Or am I too ashamed to mention my rum and coke?) Unlike PDT, it is less speakeasy, more club—an ample watering hole with room to mingle and dance. In any case, we are not there for the drinks but the spectacle, which comes in the form of Russian oligarchs, rich-kid dates, and a recreational stripper pole. The latter is sadly neglected tonight (last night, says the bartender, one could hardly get a turn), so we move toward another section where the vibe’s stronger.
Our ears soon lead us to the heartbeat of the place. We clasp hands with the DJ (whose name was our open sesame) and let them get back to work. They’re busy spinning vinyl and modern wheels—four in total—as well as manipulating countless knobs, sliders, switches, and keys. I’ve never seen anyone handle so many discs at once, and with such ease. Sometimes he’d be rummaging around for an LP, or greeting another DJ, or sneaking a drink, his headphones permanently askew—all without missing a beat. A little overwhelmed, I close my eyes. I’m not entirely sure what I hear, but I can make out snippets of soul, funk, jazz, disco, and pop, expertly layered over the top of a gentle, insistent house. It’s fun to analyse what’s going on, but I let that go, allowing the four-part harmonies fill my being and work their fugal magic.
A few hours have passed; the buzz has mellowed somewhat. The factor of surprise can only last so long. (The music, too.) Furthermore, there’s the sobering realisation that you’re probably in a place that’s largely exclusive to the one percent.
But before that thought takes hold, you’re captivated by another one: the idea that there’s a vast, underground network of bars, clubs, shops, and passages—a veritable New York Arcade—that rivals the catacombs of Paris or Rome. A hidden world that exists underneath the city, completely unbeknown to the several million whose feet land atop.