Requiem for a Shithole
The author, in the DJ booth at St. Jerome's with Lady Gaga.
Today, in the wake of the shittiest storm New York has ever seen, Manhattan’s shittiest dive bar is shuttering its doors for good. St. Jerome’s was a horrible and fantastic place, a peerless dump in the belly of the Lower East Side where the author of this article used to DJ and bartend and Lady Gaga shook her ass as a go-go dancer before she turned into whatever it is that she is now. It was also a place with its own dedicated drug room, and an after-hours scene that had to be witnessed to be believed. So before it turns into another exposed-brick artisanal kombucha spot, here’s a brief history of St. Jerome’s.
Lady Starlight go-go dancing. She is now the opening DJ for Lady Gaga's Russian and South American tours.
How much cocaine went into St. Jerome’s? Like, if you had to declare blow on your taxes, what would it all add up to over the five-plus years that little coke den was rotting away in the LES while all the decent real estate became condos? Imagine that many little baggies. If you cut them all open, poured them out on the bar, dusted the floor, made spin art in the DJ booth, heaped it onto those tipsy tables, and let the excess fill the tears of the leather banquettes, would it be enough to cover the stench of cigarettes, hairspray, and broken dreams?
St. Jerome’s was roughly the size of your friend’s shitty fifth floor studio walkup. The place was absolutely packed if 15 people showed up. There were two bathrooms, one of which was handicapped and unofficially designated for drugs. At some point the toilet in there broke, turning it into a filthy room with smooth, level surfaces that served no purpose aside from being a dark hole to snort things in. Still, when you came out there would be a line of people waiting.
When the line got too long, Luc, the bartender, would cut the music and bang on the wall, “ALL THE COKEHEADS IN THE BATHROOM FINISH UP. PEOPLE GOTTA PISS.” Or fuck, or whatever.
After hours at St. Jerome's.
The best time to come to St. Jerome’s was at 4 AM when you and all your other really accomplished and amazingly talented artist friends had just finished stripping or bartending somewhere else. The register couldn’t report any sale after 4 AM so you’d toss the bartender your hard-earned 20 and have at it. Then you’d watch as your friends morphed into machines that could turn trace amounts of cocaine into an unlimited supply of bullshit.
You could get fired from St. Jerome's for playing a hip-hop song, so we waited until Luc went camping with his friends from Nebraska to throw this party.
There was a corrugated iron riot gate that someone would pull down over the windows at closing time. After they wiped the counters down real nice your friends could show you how good they were at fractions by cutting up the most pristine and carefully measured lines you’ve ever seen.
Or, if a friend of yours worked there and had a set of keys you might just open the fucking place up for yourself if they closed early. One time one of the bartenders got so fucked up he closed the place on autopilot and locked all the cokeheads inside. No one noticed until it was time to leave. We—I mean they—ended up screaming out the mail slot until someone heard us.
Lady Gaga chilling behind the bar. She worked here between being an NYU dropout and becoming a superstar. Some of the time when she was hanging out there she was living with her parents. Bellied up are her friends from Convent of the Sacred Heart on the Upper East Side. They were really sweet, but usually just stared at everyone and tried not to touch anything.
Then there was the very short but very dark time when I bartended at St. Jerome’s. My history behind the bar started before I was officially employed by the place. I was covering happy hour for a friend one night, and two minutes into my shift a group of crusty assholes came in all charged up from a punk show at the squat house across the street. I got into it with one of their dads, and ended up getting jumped by 11 dudes at once.
Dad charged behind the bar and went for the register, so I did a fucking backflip over the short leg of the L-shaped bar, kicking over drinks and girls’ purses. They beat me with the rusted pipe legs of the barstools, using them like filthy cookie cutters to stamp a circular cutout of flesh in my shoulder. And these weren’t kids from the project down the block. They were from Connecticut. I know because I had one of their IDs and Amex card.
Luc bartending in his fatboy prime before writing The Drunk Diet (note that the fucking bar is on fire).
When the cops showed up they said they would go get the guy who left his Amex, charge him with leaving the scene of the crime, and get him to turn in the other guys. They just needed our permit number from the State Liquor Authority to file the papers.
I called the manager. Without asking me, y’know, if I’d started clotting, he goes, “Tell them you forgot what the guy looked like so they can’t file the report.”
The place was shitty for both patrons and staff. There was a below-minimum-wage shift pay for happy hour, but not at night when you were paid in tips, which you split with the barback and door guy. There were no taps, and the cooler was a dank pit where the bottles sat in a dumpster puddle of broken glass and flat beer. The sound system always shorted out, the two turntables never worked at the same time, and the DJs spent most of their time getting hammered, snorting drugs, and blasting hair metal and classic rock.
Gaga and Luc just before she left on tour. She has a song called "You and I," which is about trying to get back to this moment. "He said, 'Sit back down where you belong / In the corner of my bar with your high heels on...'"
Thing is, despite all of the terrible stuff about the place, people came back again and again, and even got “I <3 SJ” tattooed on their arms. The place nurtured a real camaraderie among the people who went there—perhaps because it took a certain kind of person to be willing to go there in the first place.
My friends and I hung out at St. Jerome’s during a time when we were all broke. We had shitty jobs and were all working weekends to fund whatever bullshit band/novel/painting we were put on this earth to create, and St. Jerome’s was the only place we could go to just chill for a minute in those small gaps between work and every other frustration in life.
We had a fake wedding on the day before July 4, 2007. Everyone had the next day off but we were all too broke to go out of town. The "bride" ended up marrying the "reverend" in a real wedding last year.
Some of us are still poor, but not all of us. As you've probably noticed from the photos, Lady Gaga used to hang out at St. Jerome’s. In fact, she got her start as a go-go dancer there. The bartender, Luc Carl, wrote a diet book while waiting for the crowds to come in, and Lady Starlight designed her own costumes during her time as a dancer there. Most of the old staff is out of the business now, because, I suppose, you have to grow up sometime.
Last week it was bought by an actual management company. They want to expand, change things up. Whatever.
Am I sad? Kind of. I’m a fucking loser who likes to do lame shit like go to Havana and have a drink where Hemingway got plastered. I have a book coming out next year and I had this sad little fantasy that one person somewhere would read it, then one day that person would come to New York City, walk into St. Jerome’s, and get all choked up: “I am sitting on the stool where Brendan Sullivan used to make out with go-go dancers.” The place had a good run. It made its mark on the LES and will soon be forgotten just like the Jewish department store that was in the space before it.
R.I.P. St. Jerome's: August, 2006 - November 1, 2012
Brendan Jay Sullivan writes stories and music and tours under the name DJVH1. His first book, TEXTS, DRUGS & ROCKNROLL, comes out next year.
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