In the 90’s Under The Stairs was an Upper West Side Bar & Grill that served as nightlife to all the neighborhood drug dealers. It wasn’t your usual bar employed with aspiring actors and dancers but rather was filled with old time career bartenders, friends of the boss, and South Americans new to NYC.
I somehow managed to get hired for a waitressing stint.
It was owned by a short, pinstriped- suit–wearing, flirty Ecuadorian man named Miguel who had an annual pool party for the employees in his New Jersey home every summer. My uniform consisted of a white tuxedo shirt, black pants and a royal blue bow tie. The men ordered bottles of Moet, rum and cokes, and Johnny Walker Black straight up. The women ordered Amaretto Sours, White Russians, Orgasm shots and Sex On The Beach. The restaurant bathroom was a constant in and out of coke sniffing patrons, while on Sundays the place transformed into an after church lobster spot.
Miguel was ambitious.
We were in the middle of the Gulf War. The television a constant stream of tanks and missiles. The jukebox favorites were Madonna’s “Justify My Love”, Lisa Stanfield’s “Been around the world”, Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares To You,” and my favorite, Earth Wind and Fire’s” Reasons”, which I played at the beginning of every shift.
The employee- friendly policy at Under The Stairs was; if someone walked out on your check you were responsible for the money, making us waitress/ security guard. My first week I emerged from the kitchen with extra blue cheese dressing ramekins to find an empty table, empty Moet bucket, and strewn napkins on my five top that seven rowdy guys had been sitting at. I went home with no tips; even with a discount Miguel had given me on the Moet.
The next day this big fat guy they called Cabeza, (who did have a particularly big head) came up to me “You went to P.S. 166 right? Yeah, I think my little brother Tone was in your class.” I remembered Tone. We sat next to each other in 3rd grade. He was a lefty and I was a righty and we’d get annoyed because our elbows always bumped. “I heard you got mad jerked last night. I’m real sorry preciosa, some guys don’t know how to act. You let me know if anyone fucks with you again. Aiight?”
With Cabeza as my newfound bodyguard I didn’t have any more knuckleheads walking out on my checks, but the scandalous vibe at Under The Stairs demanded more than just getting by.
I had to get my hustle on.
I don’t even remember how it actually began, but I somehow befriended Diana a friend of Cabeza’s. I think it was because I always remembered she liked extra cherries in her Amaretto sour. Without a reminder, I’d bring them to her on a tiny bread plate. Diana was older than me, wore strappy high heels and short dresses, ordered baked clams and smoked Virginia Slims. She lived in the projects on 93rd street dubbed “Nam”, (short for Vietnam.)
Diana had really amazing legs and pretty narrow feet, but no ass or waist. I had a waist and an ass but thick legs and flat feet. As the story always goes, Diana wanted an ass and a waist and I wanted amazing legs. She would tell Cabeza “look at that, she’s got an nice ass for a white girl.” And then she’d twirl me around in my stupid little tuxedo outfit. I’d always be wearing the tightest jeans I could sausage myself into, cause as all waitresses know, if you have to wear a uniform, you WILL find SOMEWAY to hype that shit up.
Diana worked those gams of hers like nobody’s business. Clicking her way into “The Stairs” every Friday night. I admired the way she walked in heels, and was fascinated with the way she managed to flirt and put all the guys in their place at the same time. She was probably only 24 but at that time it seemed a lot older to me. She had a son Brandon, which she showed me a picture of in a little plastic cylinder on a Great Adventure keychain that you squinted your eye to look through. When I went to her house I also saw she also had a photo of him on a huge button that said #1 MOM propped up on her mirror. She introduced me to Brandon as “Titi Vanessa “and I never felt so special.
Diana and I never discussed the hustle. it just happened. I would bring her and her girls rounds of Amaretto sours, not charge them and they gave me a phat tip at the end of the night. This was before all bars had computer systems so we just called out our drinks and hand wrote the tally on a bill that the bartender Ricky would then ring up on an old clunky register. It didn’t take long before Ricky figured out my scam and then (again all unspoken) I was forced to tip him extra as well. Diana’s table began to multiply weekly until there was a whole little crew that requested to sit in my section.
I was running shit.
Diana had one friend Lucy that seemed annoyed that Diana liked me so much. I understood enough Spanish to translate, “Why you always hanging with this white girl?“ But then one night I got stoned with them after my shift and made her pee in her pants laughing when I did my Yoda and Charo imitation.
From then on she fuckin loved me.
Aside from Under The Stairs and Copa, another bar Diana liked to hang at was a bar uptown in the heights; Coogans. Eventually she invited me to come up with her and Cabeza, and the rest of the crew. Coogans, was a local bar known for being a favorite among cops. It was there that I sampled my first and last coolie. A cigarette laced with cocaine.
I started seeing a cop Manny until one day I got a message on my home answering machine from a girl telling me, “I don’t who the fuck you are Va-nes-sa, but you better back the fuck up off my man, Va-nes-sa.” She kept breaking up my name into syllables as if was it were an alias.
So as you can see it was a charming little scene, but that didn’t deter Diana, Lucy and I from consistently going up to Coogans, getting wasted, then calling La Familia Car service to get back down to the Upper West Side.
Diana was like me; a heavyweight drinking champion. Lucy was one of those girls who couldn’t handle her liquor. And even worse was that Lucy was one of those girls who seemed to always forget this important fact. Always trying to keep up with the champions, she’d do shots and end up in the bathroom over the toilet, Diana and I taking turns holding her hair back.But there was always that one golden hour before Lucy got sick that we’d all be in that perfect fucked up zone dancing, the ways girls do with each other when they want men to notice them, but also want act like they don’t need guys to have a good time.
One steamy Thursday night I was chillin at Coogans with Diana & Lucy, We were sitting at the bar enjoying free lemon shots when all of a sudden Diana jumped up from her stool. “Oh no, he’s got to be fuckin buggin. That motherfucker thinks he’s gonna come to my spot with some fuckin hoe.” That motherfucker turned out to be Leo, her son’s dad. I had seen pics of Leo before but had never met him cause he had moved to Miami a year ago. “Oh shit, its on,” said Lucy as I watched Leo and a skinny blond with big tits walk into Coogans and sit at a table. The skinny blond was clearly not a New Yorker and looked out of place among the curvy, dark haired world she had entered. Everything from that moment on went very quickly. I remember feeling that pit in my stomach that one has right before some shit is about to go down. That slow motion moment of " I’m going into to survival mode” as I suddenly saw Diana pounce onto Leo. For some reason I had expected her to pounce the blond chick, but Diana lunged for him, which in turn had the blond chick pounce on Diana, which then had Lucy and I pulling on the girl. I remember seeing Diana’s beautiful face looking wild and that the blond chick was wearing a red bra that Lucy yanked at. I remember being impressed that my instinct was to defend. I remember being impressed that Lucy sobered up and she managed to get the blond chick off Diana. Then the bouncer got to us and broke the whole thing up. Leo started screaming at Diana and then argued with the bouncer who was making them leave. The blond chick adjusted her big fake Miami titties in her red bra and tried to regain her exposure.
The craziest part was when they left we all sat our asses right back in our seats, smoothed our hair, applied lipstick and went on with our evening while Diana recounted the drama. “Did you see that stringy white girl’s face? Ill smack that bitch right back to the trailer park she came from.” Did they have trailer parks in Miami? Who cared, We all laughed holding high court as the bouncer had clearly chosen us as the Coogan’s Queens. I could tell Diana was upset but she comforted herself in entertaining us, her eager audience, dissing Leo and the girl, sayin how they looked like fools being kicked out. And as she dissed that stringy haired trailer park white girl, somehow my being a white girl never came up. In its natural journey my identity was more importantly; New Yorker, a brunette with real little titties, Diana’s girl who had her back, A Coogan’s queen, and definitely not a trailer park bitch.
In the Fall I quit Under The Stairs telling Miguel I needed to focus more on school. This was total bullshit of course, but when windy October came, Under The Stairs was getting really lame. I was thinking about getting a job in the village, maybe near 8th street. As a professional hang out girl I felt it important to work on my social resume.
So as the quickly as my hot and heavy friendship with Diana and Lucy began, it then trailed out. I think Brenda and I called each other once or twice, but without Under The Stairs our friendship dissolved. Not in a bad way, but in that young way, that New Yorker way, that party girl way, that get lost in the shuffle of the big city way, with new adventures, new guys, new jobs.
It’s the natural course of social evolution in these parts.
I bumped into Diana once years later with her son at Sal’s pizza on 94th and Broadway. She was still sporting those heels and hot legs and we laughed about old times. Her son was now tall and gangly, in that awkward, sullen pre-teen stage where he chewed on a soda straw and looked away while we bugged out. She smacked his arm, “Papi, you remember Vanessa?” She used to come over when you were real little.” He shrugged, and I felt sad that Diana and I lost touch and I had missed so many years. He probably had met tons of her friends, friends that had given him birthday presents and come by year after year. Friends he now called “titi.”
As we parted I told Diana I was going to start taking acting classes in the village. She said considering my Yoda and Charo imitations, she thought I’d be real good at that.