I run a bar called the Stephen Talkhouse. Back in the late 1970s, before I owned it, I happened to walk into it. It was just an old house built in 1832. Rustic is putting it politely. From the instant I went inside I thought it was the coolest bar in the world. Everything about the staff, the customers and the place was laid back and unpretentious. Everyone was treated the same. I felt safe there.
In July 1987 it was closed and up for sale. I had just finished spending seven years writing a pretty bad novel. I needed another quest. A friend asked me was there anything else I had ever dreamt of doing. I told him I always wanted to own a bar. “Buy the Talkhouse.” And with the help of several partners I did.
We kept the vibe the same and hired as many of the old-time staff as we could. But I made two changes — I added live music and a bar on the back patio. Now, 29 years later, this dive bar is undeniably the smallest bar on the planet hosting the talent we offer. Over 50 members of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame have played there. Mega-stars like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, Roger Waters, Chad Smith, Sting, and Bon Jovi have played for charity or fun.
Everyone in the Hamptons knows the Talkhouse, but it has an international reputation too. The place is a sanctuary that manufactures memories. The Hamptons in the summer is inundated with people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. But not at my joint. There is a sign over the front bar that reads “Customers come and go. Here at the Talkhouse the employee is always right.” Seven of us have worked here for 29 years and there are over 20 of us here for over 10 years. Hundreds of people have worked here in that time. People move on, but no one ever quit on me.
Along with the attitude and the music it is the staff that defines this place. Their reassuring presence slows down time. They are friends to the regulars. And the Talkhouse affords them a unique stage to display their personalities. They do not have a boss telling them how to do their job. They know whatever call they make we all back them. They are the bosses of their reality. They can drink on the job, buy anyone a buy-back, and they are trusted. You make people trustworthy by trusting them.
Alas, we cannot, however, stop time. I am right now sitting midway down the front bar. It was right here, 37 years ago, that I sat gazing at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I could not help staring at her. I thought she looked straight through me, like I was part of the furniture. Over the next few hours I watched a dozen guys hit on her. I did not even consider assailing that fortress.
When I left she followed me outside and took my arm. She laughed a beautiful laugh. “I want you to take me home.” I was stunned. When we got in my car she added, “But I am not going to have sex with you tonight.” We both stripped and got into bed. She let me hold her. I did not push. In the morning I watched her in the outdoor shower. She dried herself off and came into the bedroom. “You were a gentleman so I’ll make love to you now.” Her name was Mia and I can still hear her laugh.
I got to know the bartenders quick enough, as well as the regulars. Looking to my right now I see where a customer with a stutter named Fudge complained to the bartender, Kevin Finnigan, that his drink didn’t taste right. Kevin whipped out his dick and stirred the drink with it. When he handed it to Fudge he drank it, then added “Tasted perfect.”
In front of me there used to be a trap door and the deal was that every time a bartender went downstairs to do a line he’d return with a bottle so any undercover cops wouldn’t notice anything was amiss. Over the course of three hours I saw Michael Farrell go downstairs nine times. Finnigan pulled him aside in front of me. “Bring up a different bottle next time,” he advised, pointing to the nine bottles of Kahlua.
I was around when the former owner, whacked on coke, came in on a packed Saturday night in August and threw everyone out at 10:30 because he had his watch on upside down and thought the joint was open too late.
In those early days I was young, awkward, and vulnerable. I was smart, funny, and I could drink, but without a secure path to access your audience you are a blind sniper. But when I got to be the manager in 1987 my platform was instantaneously secured. I brought Finnigan and Farrell back as well as the doorman, soon-to-be bartender, Larry Wagner. I hired Michael Gochenour, interviewing him from across the bar. He was standing in Mia’s spot. When I tried to explain his shifts he kept telling me everything was fine. He looked really nervous and when I walked over to see if he was alright I saw he was getting a blow job from his girlfriend.
Now it was the regulars’ turn to get to know me, and the music added more cache to the place. I had two great artists as friends, Dan Christensen and Billy Hofmann, and it made me feel secure to know two heavy drinkers 15 years my senior were still drinking steady.
Finnigan moved to Spain, Farrell retired, Gochenour died, and Larry is one of the few, like me, there from the first day I bought it. Now they share the space with their younger incarnations or, in Larry’s case, his younger self, lighter and with better hearing. The party follows the same script, but with a slowly changing cast of characters.
I turn now to look at Loudon Wainwright III perform, thinking back to February 2nd, 1988, when he sang here for the first time while Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley watched him. I see Rick Danko playing acoustic guitar when the power went out as the audience sang along to “The Weight.”
I see a younger version of me up there, looking thinner, less worn out, and with a lot more hair. I am standing next to Toy Caldwell and we’re singing “Can’t You See” on my birthday. I see Nicolette Larson, Laura Nyro, Luther Allison, Albert Collins, Richie Havens and so many more who have passed and the crowds they entertained;Dan Christensen laughing, Billy Hofmann sketching them, only they are gone as well, other artists playing over them, readying themselves to be replaced, along with me, by the next generation of actors, to fill that stage, sit on that empty stool. Yet so many performers, employees, and customers are still here, united in some subliminal quest to slow the intractable passage of time.
And why not? It’s as good as one can give. So I stand at the urinal, looking into the mirror over the sink as I have in this saloon for 40 years. I walk around and see my son and daughter cavorting with their friends where so many have done the same. It is hard to know when to hand off the baton when you do not want to let it go, when you want the movie to rewind endlessly back to the beginning then play forward to now, your sense of self oblivious to the repetition.
I can see myself opening the door again in 1994 to the building inspectors to find Larry in a dress and his girlfriend in his clothes. Or Phil, another bartender from 1987, up there on the stage dressed as Cher trying to read the lyrics for “I Got You Babe,” to my Sonny as the sweat obliterated the lyrics I had written on his arm.
I know I will be the next ghost in this play, in this temple, in this sanctuary where people can be happy and safe while they can. I am here watching the next generation as they watch the generation to follow. There are concentrated places of evil in this world like Auschwitz and the Roman Coliseum but the Talkhouse is hallowed ground.
I have the best job in the world. I get to make people happy for a living. I hope I die here so my spirit does not have to drift so far to get back here. So now I look back at Mia where she still stands. As beautiful as she was I think of her laugh.
I loved it. It never changed