Although he had never held a man’s hair in his hands before, Dani knew instinctively what to do.
The yelling started instantly, and the bar devolved into a dangerous chaos all around him as he squeezed his fist around the man’s scalp. The three off-duty cops seated at the bar jumped off their stools, jackets and ties exploding into the air like bird feathers. The woman also jumped, and screamed far too loudly it seemed, and dropped her gin drink onto the dirty wooden floor beneath them. Chairs fell and cracked onto the hard surface, followed quickly by the man’s knees and elbow, all of which Dani then dragged through the gin towards the door.
Dani heard all the yelling and the screaming, but he mostly ignored it. His focus was on the man, whose surprise at being dragged off his bar stool by his hair Dani found admirable.
The man howled in pain and thrashed on the floor, helpless under the bear paw full of hair that Dani used as a rudder. Hair-pulling didn’t feel like it was included in the repertoire of a fair fight, but Dani was not one to have much experience in the etiquette of lashing out, so he trusted his gut on this one. His goal was to get this man out the door and to punch him as absolutely hard as he could in a pure expression of blind, cinematic violence. Ideally, it could be an educational moment, he thought.
The man’s hands clawed at his, and it became slightly more difficult for Dani to continue to humiliate him in such a way. He had never personally been manhandled and had no idea what it was like, as he had been described more than a few times as “a horse” and a “gentle giant” while growing up. His disinterest in the gladiator sports broke the spirits of innumerable adults in his life, whose hope to bolster the local team’s offensive line were pressed on him from the time he could first bag groceries and the local men got a good look at the boy. He worked hard and silently, giving a careful diligence and respect to even the most demeaning of grocer burdens, a trait he also brought to his current, much more passive profession.
Before moving to New York he lived a pretty normal suburban life in a quiet, overly boring town off 95, like so many hundreds of thousands of twenty-somethings in the city. This perspective did not help him make sense of the place he now lived. His time had so far been a few years of modest professional success punctuated by interesting restaurant options and friendships with people exactly like him. They all worked in pseudo-creative roles for big companies with 401Ks that were all slowly dying, and lived glamorous lives in new glass buildings that towered over previously impoverished neighborhoods, going to events and experiences curated by bloggers.
Dani’s weekends were full of long walks, and he spent his time traveling to different neighborhoods in the city and learning about the place that he lived. He looked for historical landmarks and then stand there for a long time, trying to imagine what it used to feel like at that spot, and what the people were doing back then that made the city feel so alive.
Every day he’d walked down recognizable street names in neighborhoods with songs about them, and wondered about his unearned nostalgia. He lived in those stories just like everyone who chose to live here does, to make it seem worth it. New York has a throttlingly rich history of its citizens pining for Old New York, with every generation decrying the fact that the public services mostly work now, but that it was a lot cooler when they didn’t. The grit, the struggle, the violence: that was what brought so many people to try their luck here. Dani was no exception, but it was hard to take that idea seriously when every one of his explorations brought him to a building that was once a cool venue before it was a bank.
As Dani dragged the screaming man towards the door, he looked out the window towards the two neighboring buildings that menacingly towered over the block. They were what had initially interested him on his walk, as they provided one of the more unique cityscapes on the grid.
The exact center of one of his favorite vanished neighborhoods, the infamous Five Points, was 200 yards to the left of the door of the bar. In the early days, the neighborhood was home to a mixture of poor immigrant populations, and correspondingly neglected and ignored by the city. It was a desperately sad place that institutionalized the idea of an American slum. Tenements housing multiple families in single, windowless rooms where disease and carnality pounded up and down the shaky staircases. Spurned by the city, the neighborhood turned insular and became a gritty, thriving place where unimaginable daily struggle made a population where life can continue for them only with dogged resolve for survival. How different it was now, with smooth stone government buildings rising above the quiet, empty streets, walling it in once again.
The Tombs, as it was known in another life, was an equally notorious prison that was attached to the adjacent courthouse by a long passageway over the street that had grimy, blurry glass on either side with iron bars and concrete supporting it across. The Bridge of Sighs was often the final opportunity for a free man to see out into the city and decide whether the actions that had brought him there was worth the trouble.
Dani knew the buildings had earned their nicknames from the stories, and before walking into the bar he stood under the bridge watching people cross. They looked surreal in their normalcy. The people who once traversed that path were psychopaths, violent masterminds, mafia bosses, he thought. The people he saw sighing now just looked like kids.
The reality of the place was banal, its architecture was so recognizably 80s that it felt like a set for a cop drama, except these buildings were understudies for the original that had once dominated this corner of the slum. Razor wire was tinseled along its edges.
Dani was drawn to it after walking down the fortified streets, as it seemed like a place that would have been more at home in the Five Points than it was next to their natural enemy. As he walked in, nobody said a word, and he felt more satisfaction sitting at the deteriorating bar than anywhere in his neighborhood.
To his left was a middle aged man, with slightly shaggy hair that looked at home next to the grained wooden walls and earthy green chair backs. His stubble came in thick and peppered, which made his blue eyes pop wildly against the dark backdrop. He’d clearly been there a while, both that day and in spirit.
The woman next to him was dressed similarly to the few members of the after work crowd who needed a drink but wanted to be alone, which seemed to be the bar’s specialty. The man had not taken the hint, and had turned antagonistic towards her when she didn’t respond to his slightly too loud overtures, which were delivered thick and heavily accented. She sighed, and in a move she’d probably had to do a hundred times before, she turned and told him to fuck right off please.
Dani felt he was drawn to this particular bar because of people like them, who from the outside represented what New York was at some point, and what he felt like he was missing. Their skin was thicker seeming, meatier. The clothes they all wore were cheap and unfashionable. They were brash and confident despite the constant feeling that the walls of the city were closing in on them. They were part of the history of the city. They smelled like death.
Dani had never seen such an aggressive ballet between a woman and a male suitor, and he was shocked to see the man continue on as if all he needed to do was pierce the armor. He imagined it was a story that had replayed itself thousands of times in this exact spot. He’d seen routines like it before, of course, but typically in old sitcoms full of good ole boys havin’ a good time. In those the women would tilt their head and say something sassy, seemingly free of the fear that Dani felt intensifying in the woman’s eyes.
The third eyelid that every true New Yorker closes when walking past one of the daily horrors the city produces can help a person stay sane. But when you want to be seen and heard, the reality of isolation is stark. When the man started grabbing the woman is when Dani found himself in this very new situation with a man’s hair in his hands.
His strength was rarely something that he relied on, though he was typically the first call when friends needed to move furniture. He rarely felt violent, or even angry, which occasionally weighed on him in a place that seems to require fire in your heart to survive. Dani wondered if the people who used to teem through The Five Points were angry all the time. He wondered if this helped them live.
The man offended the solitude and sensibility of the bar, and Dani’s heart began to pound as he bothered the woman. She just wanted to be left alone. Everyone down here, even before it was shadowed by a garish prison block, just wanted to be left alone.
It was as if he was performing a bit for the few scattered bar patrons who were now paying rapt attention. This is what it used to be like in The Five Points, when men were men and they used their hands to get to the bottom of things mano-a-mano. Dani leaned into his new role as the hero, and he peacocked towards the door. He knew the choreography. He was going to take out the trash.
The cops were off their stools now and yelling nonsensical things like “woah,” and “hey buddy,” which had little effect on deterring him compared to the gun which now appeared in the man’s hands. The snub-nosed silver barrel flashed a dull metal, which glinted like a Midtown Art Deco masterpiece, and moved towards Dani. A deep, guttural noise came from the man, whose eyes were fixed with hate on Dani as he brought up the gun.
Though Dani had obviously crossed some version of the male ego’s Rubicon, this development was an extraordinarily unexpected twist. He had never seen a gun in the city, much less any actual violence that wasn’t between two drunk finance interns over a girl, and he now saw that dragging a man by his hair anywhere deserved the reaction that was unfolding. He felt a fear he’d never experienced before, and there was nowhere for him to go but towards the door.
In 1983, the year of its latest construction, there were 1,622 opportunities for the person walking across the Bridge of Sighs to be a freshly convicted murderer. The cops drawing their guns now probably weren’t in the force then, but they or their colleagues no doubt were touched in some way by the violence of the city during that period of crime. During its heyday, The Five Points was the most violent place on Earth with one particular warehouse rumored to have been stuffed with over a thousand people, where there was a murder a night for 15 straight years.
They must’ve been drawn to the violence, the struggle, dragging themselves through the shit, Dani thought. It occurred to him now, though, that maybe it was because they had to.
Dani let go of the man’s hair and jumped back as the first policeman pounced. Remarkably lithe for a middle aged man, he grabbed the gun and disarmed him with a twist as they all piled. They twisted the man’s arm behind him and locked him against the floor, smashing his head down with their knees and grating his teeth into the black grit.
Dani was pushed up against the wall while the three cops dealt with the man, bending with their hands all over him as if surgeons, in a shock. The cops overflowed with curses at Dani. “What the fuck is the matter with you?” they asked him. “Are you out of your mind?” they challenged.
The man struggled on the ground, still aflame with rage. The woman sneered as she grabbed her jacket and stormed out, giving Dani a glancing blow as she stepped passed the pile of men. The bar collective furrowed its brow at him.
“Jesus. Do you have any idea where you are?”