Why you should care
Because comedy is tragedy … plus a kick in the ass.
It was the summer of 1991. My first marriage had ended, and I had just moved back to my old neighborhood. Stuyvesant Town, one of city builder Robert Moses’ visions for New York, was built on the eminent domain bones of the Gas House District as a community for returning veterans of World War II.
To outsiders, it looked like all the other projects, with ghettos to the south and hospitals to the north. In fact, it was an island of safe, secure, affordable, middle-class America situated in the heart of Manhattan madness. But my favorite neighborhood had always been just across 14th Street, in what we called Alphabet Land.
It was a dirty, dangerous part of New York, where the worst of the city’s underbelly intersected the remnants of the older immigrant population and new arrivals, mostly from Puerto Rico. Ever since the 1984 release of that awful Vincent Spano film, it had come to be called Alphabet City. I quickly learned that it had since been dubbed the East Village — primarily by real estate agents, who were in a feeding frenzy — and was in the process of swift and conspicuous gentrification.
The vacant buildings, squats and shooting galleries were being emptied, sometimes by force, and in their place, new, subdivided apartments at three times the price that the older, larger apartments had cost just a few years earlier. Boutiques and eateries were popping up where small bodegas once fronted for cocaine dealers who slipped glassine envelopes of blow, cut with baby laxative, through slots in the wall.
He was behaving oddly. Or maybe normally, for Bill Murray.
The neighborhood drug dealers who understood what it meant to get along with the locals had been replaced by underage gangbangers who menaced people in the lobbies of their own buildings, and when confronted, were quick to lift their shirts to flash the gun tucked in their ill-fitting pants. If you have ever seen the musical Rent, this was the same neighborhood, same time period, but with less singing.
I was a drinker, particularly following my separation, and I’d always liked having a place that I thought of as my bar, but the old haunts were gone — one had become a Sichuan restaurant, the other a veterinarian’s office. My sister mentioned a new bar she’d been going to just two blocks from my apartment called Z Bar. It was on Avenue A between 12th and 13th streets. Several of my local friends had also started hanging out there, so I went to check it out.
It was a nice-size space, with the front occupied by a long bar on the left and booths on the right. In the center, there was a chokepoint created by the kitchen on the left and the bathrooms on the right. Beyond this area was a large back room that had a dartboard, two pool tables and additional seating. It was dark, with matte black walls and funky decor, somehow both grungy and current. Wings, darts, booze … I was home.
One night I was sitting at the end of the bar chatting with the bartender. It was late, and the place was very quiet. A group walked in noisily, and I looked over to see a handful of young people, excited and chattering away. And in the middle of the group was … Bill Murray.
It seems they had just run into him at another bar and were now introducing him to Z Bar as “a good place to hang out.” Murray was behaving oddly. Or maybe normally, for Bill Murray. He was just standing in the middle of the bar, looking around kind of mechanically with an odd grin on his face. I went back to chatting with the bartender.
Every time things calmed down, either the kid or the cousin would suddenly go after Murray again.
Not long after he arrived there was another commotion, this time behind me.
A young guy was sitting in a booth with his girlfriend and his cousin. I recognized the cousin as a bouncer at one of the other local bars. The girlfriend had apparently asked Murray if she could take a picture or get an autograph, and he was apparently rude to her. Her boyfriend and his cousin got angry and went after Murray. The girl was holding her boyfriend back. I stepped in and tried to back the cousin off. When he persisted, I put my thumb in his sternum and used his body weight against him, a harmless but painful way to gain some control.
Every time things calmed down, either the guy or the cousin would suddenly go after Murray again. It was baffling. Until I turned my attention to Mr. Murray.
He was surprisingly tall, and I came to realize that while I was trying to diffuse things, he was taunting the guy and his cousin, mouthing things to them over my head. I started to chew him out for acting like an ass until I realized he wasn’t even looking at me. He was still looking right over my head at the other guys, still antagonizing them.
I decided it was time for Mr. Murray to make his exit. Now it was his sternum I had my thumb in, and I was backing him toward the front door, making sure it hurt.
When I got him outside, I left him with the admonition “And don’t come back unless you can act like an adult!” The next day the incident garnered a few lines on Page 6 in the New York Post. It closed with something like “…a Z Bar regular finally asked” — italics are mine — “Bill to leave.”