Friday, June 6, 2008

Bongo Johnny Likes Big Brown

Somewhere between four and five in the afternoon every day at Smith's Bar on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn the action picks up steam. The mail jockeys down the block like to stop in for the $1.50 mugs of Bud. This old time four corners bar, a Brooklyn fixture since the Ninth street trolley took the dock workers down to Red Hook back in the glory days after prohibition, is the last of the local watering holes that hasn't turned into a theme pub for upscale newcomers moving into luxury condos at a million a pop or a private club for the widow of the guy who opened it up after he returned home from World War II.
Bongo Johnny gestures at the TV, where the horse channel showed the post parade for the second race at Hollywood Park. "C'mon, get your dollars on the bar," says Bongo Johnny. "I'll take the 5 horse."
Bongo Johnny works the crowd until he had a pile of singles in front of him. Popeye the bartender gives him the look. Popeye is old school and believes that all of his regulars deserve a nickname. Most of them like it and it's an easy way to remember who everyone is, even if you haven't seen him for years. One guy is John Wayne, another Mayor Kotch, somebody else is Sinbad. The young fireman who tends bar on the weekends is Jason Giambi. "Don't he look like Jason Giambi?" Popeye asks everyone at the bar. They all agree, even if he doesn't look that much like Jason Giambi, because they enjoy the alternate reality. Once they walk into Smith's they shed the skin of the dog's life of grinding it out in post-9/11 New York City. A couple of shots of "Palooka juice" as Popeye refers to the beer and these guys are all denizens of a mythic "Palookaville," where the idea that "I could've been a contender" is viewed as an optimistic statement.
Bongo Johnny is one of the few that came by his nickname because of something he did instead of how he looked. A salsa fan, Johnny sometimes used to play in front of the Bodega that is now a pizza joint masquerading as an Italian restaurant on third street. One day at the Fifth Avenue street fair years ago Popeye saw him in action and from then on it was Bongo Johnny. Johnny likes being remembered as a musician instead of a mail carrier.
But for now Bongo Johnny is on the 5 horse at Hollywood Park.
"Look at him go!" he shouts as the horse moves to the lead in the stretch. Bongo Johnny chugs his Bud. "Go, go, go!" He yells at the screen. The 5 wins by a nose but is disqualified by the stewards. "No," yells Bongo Johnny. "no, no, no."
Bongo Johnny downs another glass of Palooka juice. "I actually won that," he tells his buddy from the post office, handing over the cash. "The stewards screwed me.
"But that's OK," says Bongo Johnny. "Saturday I'm a winner. I'm betting Big Brown in the Belmont stakes."
Popeye places another frosted mug of Palooka juice on the bar and says "But Bongo Johnny, Big Brown is 2-5."
"That's OK with me," says Johnny. "When he crosses that finish line with my money on his back I'll be hollering like I had my whole paycheck on him."

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