My gang has a showdown at the Mars Bar saloon: Zoe Heller in America
Sunday 07 August 1994
I would love to go on holiday in a gang, but I haven't run with a crowd - a distinct pack of chums I could call my own - since I was 16. (And at that age, summer holidays were spent sitting around in each other's smoky bedrooms, listening to the Jam, praying that our mothers would not rush in and embarrass our Cockney poses by screaming fruitily about the washing-up.) In adult life, for reasons I don't really comprehend, my social proclivity has been towards discrete, one-on-one friendships. These are delightful in all sorts of ways, but they don't lend themselves to the sort of industrious 'fun' that gangs enjoy. Throwing each other into swimming-pools, for instance, rapidly becomes rather a sad exercise when there's just the two of you.
In such matters, it is always advisable to accept one's limitations. I am not a gang kind of person, and I shouldn't fight it. The other week I had my friend Jim visiting from England and, fearing that he would be bored spending the entire week in my company alone, I arranged to spend an evening with two other friends of mine, Kevin and Martin. (All names have been changed.) If this went well, I figured we could try another night out with another two or three pals. And if that was successful too - well, hey, perhaps we'd get ourselves a real social group going. Oh, hubris. Oh, vile ambition.
The evening in question started off with me and Jim and Kevin in a SoHo bar. This was pleasant enough, although Kevin, who is an artist, turned up wearing weird wrap-around glasses, a pair of paint-spattered Birkenstocks and an over-sized suit jacket with nothing but his pink chest underneath. Everybody in the bar stared at us, and Jim looked deeply embarrassed. When I said something mild about the stir Kevin was causing, Kevin said I was being bourgeois, and Jim, rather treacherously, agreed. (This, by the way, is one of the unpleasant effects of bringing incompatible types together: the easiest way for them to avoid punching each other out is to train their mutual hostility on you.)
Anyway, we drank a couple of margaritas and then set off for a restaurant on West Broadway, where we were joined by Martin. Shortly after he arrived, Kevin told me that he thought Martin seemed like a real nerd.
Martin didn't seem too enamoured of Kevin, either. Kevin has a line in lecherous observations about women - supposedly sanctioned by the fact that he's an artist - and Martin has a tendency to be rather prim on matters of sexual politics. So when Kevin started up with his standard spiel on the 'horniness' of the female form - 'God: women's hips - they're great, aren't they?' - Martin's mouth pursed and he kept catching my eye accusingly, as if to say, 'This man is your friend?'
We all drank vodka-and-tonics rather fast. Kevin, having temporarily exhausted his hammed-up enthusiasm for les girls, proceeded to provoke a long and rather tedious debate about conceptual art (Jim and I representing the Philistines, Martin and Kevin horrified by our crassness but uneasy about finding themselves allies). When the food came, we ordered wine and then more wine, and by the time we got to the pudding (Martin incensing Jim by helping himself, uninvited, to Jim's tiramisu) we were all pretty drunk.
We had now got through a couple of hours without anyone being explicitly rude to anyone else. It was the moment to get out while the going was good. But there comes a time in an evening when the momentum cannot be stopped, however wise it would be to stop it. Drink, or drugs, or some animal instinct for trouble, drives the hapless revellers inexorably on. We decided to go over to the east side to visit a grubby little hostelry - one of Martin's favourite hang-outs - called the Mars Bar.
As soon as we arrived there, Jim and Kevin went all sullen and swaggery, as men are inclined to do when they find themselves in unfamiliar situations. Luckily, however, there was a jukebox and two very pretty young women in baby-doll frocks bouncing about to the Pogues. Kevin, of course, was unstoppable in his appreciation - he kept shimmying over to them and trying to get into a cosy jig a trois. But even Jim and Martin - by now quite sodden with alcohol - gave themselves over to staring at the women with solemn, slack-jawed lust.
For a short while, things were fine. Kevin was finally repulsed by the two bouncing lovelies, and settled for whirling me around to Guns 'N' Roses instead. And then, while I was in one of the fetid lavatories, Kevin and Jim got into a fight. I have not been able to fathom the cause of their initial disagreement, despite having subsequently interrogated both men. All I know is that when I emerged from the loo, I found the two of them rubbing noses with one another, clenching their fists and performing that odd, pre-fight dialogue - 'Yeah?' 'Yeah?' 'You starting?' 'Yeah?' - while Martin gazed on, looking for the first time that night properly entertained.
Just then, Jim, my guest, the man I had promised a great night out on the town, turned and saw me. He wore a look of inexpressible weariness. His eyes were strained and dilated, not just with anticipation of his impending battle but with the long evening of effort to get on with my friends.
The next night, at his request and with my happy consent, we stayed in and watched The Philadelphia Story - alone.-
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