I would never presume to call myself a regular at Jimmy's Corner—even though I make a point of stopping by whenever I find myself passing through the Times Square neighborhood where it's located. It's not the cheap booze and great jukebox that draw me to the joint, either. It's more than that. For better or worse, Jimmy's reminds me of the time before Rudy Giuliani and Disney transformed the Great White Way into a virtual theme park; when turning a dark corner on 44th Street meant risking your wallet—or worse.
I remember those days well. Back in the 1980s, I worked my first job as a part-time stagehand at Lamb's Theatre Company (now the Chatwal Hotel), which was next door to Jimmy's Corner. Getting home after each night's performance meant navigating a different kind of Times Square—one of grind houses and peep shows, haunted vaudevilles and three-card monte games. There were second-floor dance studios and sparring gyms. There was grit and spit and shit on the streets. Jesus freaks and Godspell-goers, panhandlers and hustlers were everywhere. It was the era of Midnight Cowboy, not Naked Cowboy.
I've always considered Jimmy's Corner a throwback to all that. Here, it seems, it's forever 1971. That's the year the bar opened, in a three-story walk-up, now shadowed by higher-rise buildings on both sides and what seems to be permanent construction scaffolding out front. A blue sidewalk awning and a small window, illuminated by a Samuel Adams neon sign, are the only indications the bar even exists at all.
Most people who come to New York rush past Jimmy's stone facade, barely noticing the place. I certainly never thought to push open its battered door until long after my stagehand gig, when I changed careers and nightlife preferences (theater to journalism, clubland to cocktail lounges). It took another member of the fourth estate to finally introduce me to Jimmy's, but I'm thankful he did, because this is a dive bar with bona fides.
The first thing you'll notice when you step inside Jimmy's is the decorating theme. The walls are papered with memorabilia of a ringside life. Photographs of heavyweights, posters advertising rumbles between high-ranking contenders, framed newspaper clippings, a Madison Square Garden bell, and a pair of Everlast gloves. There's a life-size cutout of Joe Louis nailed to the wall. His dukes are up, as if he's guarding the boxes of Heineken and Magners Original hard cider stacked below him. A framed portrait of Mike Tyson graces the office door near the bathrooms.
Jimmy's owner—James "Jimmy" Lee Glenn—first boxed in New York's amateur Police Athletic League, and then worked the corner of the ring as a professional cutman and trainer. He operated one of those gyms in Times Square, and eventually became a restaurateur and barkeep.
I guess the correlation between boxing and imbibing isn't such a stretch, especially if, like me, you're a fan of A. J. Liebling. The early-20th-century reporter and gourmand wrote about binges in his book Between Meals, as well as punch-drunk palookas in The Sweet Science. If you favor that cinematic genre about tough guys with questionable post-career luck, Jimmy's Corner is your place, too. A Raging Bull movie still of De Niro as Jake LaMotta has pride of place near the cash register.
My most recent visit to Jimmy's happened near quitting time on a Thursday night. The bar was still quiet before the rush, when the narrow room gets three-deep with thirsty commuters en route to Grand Central and out-of-towners heading to an evening performance of The Lion King.
I grabbed a seat three down from the jukebox. Did I mention the jukebox? It's a glowing altar to R&B, funk, and soul, and one of the two reasons why I like drinking here alone. The other is the pickup conversations I almost always have here with other New Yorkers. Sports is an approved topic in a room with three smallish televisions perennially tuned to ESPN, especially when Syracuse squeaks into the Final Four or the Red Sox play the Yankees. The current election cycle is strictly off-limits. A sign tacked over the bar politely requests: "Let's not discuss politics here."
Jimmy's Corner is not a hangout for wine snobs, and there's nothing craft about the cocktails. In all the times I've been here, I've seen just one person order a Martini. The only food on premises is a string of empanada-shaped party lights. Not even packets of peanuts or baskets of stale popcorn. You can't snitch olives from the garnish tray, because there isn't one of those, either. The four beers on tap are all from big brew houses. Recently, the top-shelf lineup: Fireball, Malibu, Sauza, Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, and a dusty bottle of Rémy. "We never sell it. I don't know why it's there," said bartender Karriem Mitchell, who has graying dreadlocks and a calm smile. Then he cracked open a 187ml of no-name Chardonnay for me.
The Delfonics were crooning "Didn't I."
I gave my heart and soul to you, girl Didn't I do it, baby, didn't I do it, baby?
"Don't move the stools!" warned Karriem, as some chastened German tourists, who were clustered near the opposite end of the bar, closest to the door, returned the seating to its regulation arrangement. Jimmy's Corner has rules, and if you want to drink here, abide by them. Don't walk in carrying a Starbucks cup. Do pay cash as you go—and be sure to leave a generous tip. Expecting a buyback is tantamount to insult, given that a shot of Jim Beam costs only four bucks fifty.
The barstool episode resolved, everyone turned back to their drinks. A couple of gals from Vancouver squeezed past me on their way to the back tables and apologized for bumping into my chair. I asked how they'd heard about Jimmy's Corner.
"This bar?" the taller one said. "When we come to town, this is our bar." Later that night, an enthusiastic Glaswegian told me he found it searching for "cheap beer" on Yelp.
Two hipsters, who looked young enough to be carded, leaned over the counter next to me sipping their pints. I noticed they were toting a snare drum and a trumpet case and asked them about it. Their plan was to busk on Broadway later.
"Do you have a permit?" I asked.
"No. But we're giving it a shot, anyway."
We got into a serious conversation about the acoustics at certain subway stations, and how they had become friends after discovering a mutual love of jazz. They mused about what it might take to get permission from Karriem to play in the back of the bar. I advised them not to ask.
The "Theme From Shaft" cued up.
Who's the cat that won't cop out When there's danger all about? Shaft. Right on.
On my other side, a woman (a former FBI employee, I would soon learn) pointed out a sharp split in the brass sheet metal that serves as a bar rail to Karriem, who immediately tore a piece of duct tape from a roll to patch it up. The surface of the bar is shellacked to protect a collage of fighters and drinkers. Sitting there, I spotted Muhammad Ali pontificating, Evander Holyfield flexing biceps. The FBI lady introduced me to her boyfriend, a retired firefighter wearing a 9/11 first responder T-shirt. They'd driven into Midtown, she explained, to buy advance tickets for Kinky Boots and grab a steak dinner. Walking down 44th Street, they'd spotted the Jimmy's Corner awning and, excitedly, taken a detour. "It looked like our kind of place," she said.
After ordering a second round, we figured out that they lived two blocks from a public school in Queens Village where my grandmother used to teach. This led to a discussion about a liquor store on Jamaica Avenue where Nana used to send me to cash her personal checks, before the invention of ATMs or legal concerns about underage customers.
Harry Belafonte sang "Matilda."
Hey! Matilda, Matilda, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela.
I started wondering about Jimmy. In all the times I've dropped by here for a glass of crappy wine, I've never actually met him, though his wife, Swannie, who died last year, used to pour for me. Karriem told me that Jimmy, now an octogenarian, would likely be in later, but he didn't show up that night. Once again, he proved elusive. Still, Jimmy is always here in spirit, smiling in photos with his arm around Ali and other champions, in everyone's corner, so to speak.
The friendly couple from Queens wanted to buy me another round, but I'd hit my limit; it was time to go. I eased off the stool so another potential regular could take my place and I could drift off into the night. And while that night would be a lot safer, and far brighter, than it was in the old days, it would also be a little less thrilling. As I headed toward the door, James Brown grunted through "The Payback."
You hollerin' and cussin', you wanna fight! Don't do me no darn favor, I don't know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!