“Crazy Jeannie” laughed maniacally with a raucous mock cheer as she swung the short rope attached to the clapper of the brass bell hanging from the ceiling behind the bar. Ding! Ding! Ding! Fifty drunks joined in celebration! The brass bell signaled some big spender had just left folding money as a tip. (The bell was ingenious as nobody wanted to be seen as cheap and face jeers on the way out.) Jeannie tucked the dollar bill beneath her shirt between her tits. It was good money considering a guy could get away with leaving one thin dime on the bar as a token of his appreciation. It looked like it was going to be another good night at The Bowery. But then again, it was always a good night at The Bowery in Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts.
Mornings were a different story. She had to wake up early, (if she had slept at all) and clean up because there was never time for that the night before and the Indians would be coming in soon for their extended lunch break.
The Indians? They held the highest paying jobs as iron workers constructing The nuclear power plant in Seabrook, NH a few miles from the MA. border. Indians were well sought after as iron workers. Over the years Native American workers cultivated the myth they were not afraid of heights. Their little joke on the white man. Jeannie knew how to keep them laughing and buying drinks for hours before they had to get back to the job site.
“Crazy Jeannie” was seen as a good time girl. But most people didn’t know she had recently left a professorship at Harvard. She had mouths to feed and could make much more money, tax free, slinging drinks to a bunch of stiffs. And let’s face it, this was a hell of a lot more fun. People also didn’t know she had been married to “Big El” since she was 18 and they had two kids together. Now she was 28 and “Big El” was in his 60’s spending most of his time in the Veteran’s Hospital.
Big El was the owner of two other bars in Salisbury Beach; The 5 O’clock Club and the Tik Toc Club. He was also one of the most well known of the unknown in the area. He was connected. He ran the books. That is what kept him flush. His clubs were popular but The Bowery held a hidden attraction. At the end of the long wooden bar was solid door that looked like it may lead to a storage room. Behind that door, fantasies came to life. That is, if you were in the know and had some real money to spend. Behind that door your drinks were brought to your table by scantily clad (if they were clad at all) “dancers.” If you were a gentleman and generous you could spend an hour or two with a dancer or two in one of the small, one room, wooden cottages behind the establishment.
How do I know all this shit? I knew “Crazy Jeannie” as “auntie Jeanne”, my mother’s sister. I was seven years old and Jeanne was watching over my brother and I that year while our mother was…. My mother was somewhere. I don’t know where. There are some things nobody in our family ever talks about, and us kids were taught not to ask too many questions. We pieced together our histories sharing things we overheard in the early morning hours after the parties died down and folks started getting maudlin. But there are some stories not even liquor can pry loose from their lips.
We were living rent free in one of those small cottages behind the bar. No, my aunt was not a dancer; she knew people. Yeah, four of us kids in one room, two beds, a small stove, small fridge (carton of milk, government cheese, some butter and the ever present jar of fucking green olives.) In the corner was the shower, sink and toilet; walled off by a sliding nylon curtain.
It was me, my brother (5 years), and my cousins; “Little El” (10 years) and his sister (6). El and I were in charge when Jeanne was working or partying or both. So, you know, most of the time. It wasn’t a tough job. Jeanne would slip us couple dollar bills from her shirt and that would keep us in home made macaroni and cheese for a week. (That was our main responsibility; procure the supplies for, and cook, the mac and cheese.) The real money was in the huge glass jar of quarters, nickles and dimes, Jeanne swept off the bar. I swear she could tell exactly how many coins my cousin and I had filched to play pinball at Joe’s Playland just by it’s weight; and it was heavy. Oh! She would get pissed! I don’t know how I kept letting my cousin talk me into it.
Salisbury Beach used to be a destination back in the ’70’s. It is a ghost town now. Most off the businesses are closed, I think you can still go to Joe’s Playland and play SkeeBall. The amusement park is closed. Almost all the buildings are decrepit. The Bowery is long gone but in it’s place is one of the only well maintained buildings, “Ten’s Show Club” Adult Entertainment. It is huge. Taking up a full corner of the block with two floors. No longer clandestine, “Dancers” are big business. I’ve never been inside but I imagine times have changed, but some things may never change.