Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Night to Remember

It wasn't the first killing I witnessed and it wouldn't be the last but it was the most random. Of course nothings ever as random as you might think. During the Mid-Nineties I worked a bar in the Times Square area while the neighborhood morphed from red light district to Walt Disney World. Actually it was a bar in a French bistro whose windows looked out on to Forty-Third just off Broadway, on New Years Eve you could see the ball drop. Business lunch, office hang-out bar and theater crowd. The building was probably seventy-five or a hundred years old and at one time was called Rossoff's part of the Rossoff's Hotel and famous for being the largest Kosher Catering Hall in New York City. Then Rossoff's became a welfare hotel and the restaurant became Cafe 43 where the bartender and two patrons were killed by an out of control truck that ploughed through the place in 75'. Some said it was haunted but I never saw any evidence of that. Well, I worked there part time for a number of years back when "The Deuce" was still very much the red light district and Rossoff's was still a welfare hotel. Then Rudolph Giuliani and Walt Disney came to Times Square, the welfare recipients were kicked out and the hotel was sold to a Slovakian who re-did the place in Moroccan chic and christened it; "The Casablanca". Henry was his name and he desperately wanted to take over Le Max and call it "Rick's Cafe" but VeraChai, the Thai, French trained chef and owner wanted no part of it and soon a rivalry bordering on hatred formed.
Well, one overcast and chilly day in early December they came; two mid-thirtyish African American guys sporting business suits and briefcases, they sat at the bar, drank espresso and after a little while asked to speak with the owner. It was late in the day after the lunch rush and well before dinner so VeraChai, as was his habit, was sitting at the big round table in the back betting on dice with some of the cooks and waiters. I told him about the guys at the bar and being grouchy by nature he frowned, but dropped the dice and followed me. He sat with the guys for about a half hour and when they left he called me away from where I was chatting up a regular.
"Those guys," he said, "they want to throw a party this Friday, ten till four AM, cash bar, DJ. You can work?"
I thought for a minute, it was my girlfriend's birthday but I also needed the money and I liked VeraChai and could tell he thought he needed me, "What kind of party?"
"Disco party, they say older people, city workers."
I weighed it all up and made a bad decision, "Sure."
I broke it to my girlfriend like I had no choice and she was pissed but eventually let me off the hook. Then a few days later one of the guys who'd met with Chai dropped by and left off a stack of fliers and I knew I was in trouble, it was going to be Hard Core Hip Hop in Times Square, the theme of the party; A Night to Remember. I'm not sure how it is now, but back then hard core Hip Hop events got violent and that was practically guaranteed. I'd worked them before and they could be scary even with veterans who knew what they were doing and had the proper security, but this, this was going to be me and Chai and a few French Bistro cooks and waiters. "Oh well," I thought, "In for a penny in for a pound." And anyway, I was already committed.
The fateful night rolled round and I worked dinner, the usual crush at six as people arrived for pre-theater then the frantic rush to get everyone cashed out in time for their eight o'clock curtain calls but after that it was different. Normally we'd wind down at this point tending to the occasional customer and preparing for the post theater rush, but tonight we had a different agenda. Tonight we removed all the tables, covered the front windows in black construction paper and dug in to the bar like the marines at Khe San. The promoters arrived with one security guard and a tough looking DJ around nine-thirty and their crowd began to shuffle in around eleven-thirty. Thuggish, rough looking people with poor manners who didn't tip. Much. I tried to keep a neutral expression and roll with it even after some of them began calling me names like steroid king and muscle head (I've always been a weight lifter). It was a rough night but fairly uneventful and when I looked up and noticed it was three thirty in the morning I thought I'd made it through to the other side.
That's when I heard and saw the commotion at the coat check across from the bar. Two men struggling and a woman yelling. The security guy with the help of a couple of other guys pushed one man towards the back of the restaurant while the other man grabbed his coat and headed for the door with the woman and a couple of other guys. The woman paused by the entrance and stared into the back, the music, by some coincidence chose to stop at the same moment, and she shrilled out in a loud voice like fate to one and all;
"You, Motherfucker, in your JC Penny fucking suit! You betta get yourself some new shoes cause you going down!" Then she stormed out the door, the men trailing after.
Someone had the good sense to crank up the lights and now that the DJ had stopped I threw a Frank Sinatra CD into the player and the people started to leave. Henry's minion, the nasty Bulgarian bellhop stepped through the door that connected us to the hotel, "What the fuck are you assholes up to here tonight anyway?" He demanded.
  "A piss in a windstorm," I said then suddenly there was a series of loud pops which I recognized as the sound of small arms fire and through the half fallen construction paper on the front window I could see the flashing in the dark of the muzzle fire and all became pandemonium with people stampeding toward the back of the restaurant to escape the gun play. There was the sound of shattering glass on my right, I jerked my head in that direction and the bellboy was face first on the floor, dark red blood pooling around his head.  Then everything got quiet and Chai was running toward the front door with a bucket of water, I guessed to wash away the blood but I pulled him back and shook my head. I stuck my head out the front door and three men were lying, bleeding on the pavement as New York's finest converged on the scene from every possible direction. A Night to Remember.

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