Neither Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken in "The Hole"

Mario's Bar, Hoboken, New Jersey

The hole  vicbw

                                                  Photograph by Justin Dobish

It’s well into the second quarter of the Steelers-Cardinals game on Super Bowl Sunday, and the city of Hoboken is wide awake. Thousands of football-loving young professionals, tourists and old-timers alike are crowded into any one of the 100 or so different bars that are scattered throughout the mile-long New Jersey waterfront community, and the restless energy circulating throughout all corners of the city is undeniable. Even though it's February, even though it's cold, and even though business has been very slow, tonight, its game day, and Hoboken is hot. At 301 Park Avenue, though -- the sign-less bar officially known as “Mario’s,” but most commonly as “The Hole”-- Victor, the 78-year old night-time bartender, and his three only customers, don't really seem to care.

Although a single 12 inch television in the corner of the dim room does indeed display the game — be it with no sound— the lure of a cheap game of solo pool and another bottle of Bud have proven to be the more likely action of interest for the men. One in particular, a gray-haired, bearded regular in glasses who sits by himself at the darkest end of the linoleum print bar —most often fumbling through the day’s newspapers and most always drinking the house red wine —has even fallen asleep upright, still grasping his empty glass in his right hand. Seeing this, Victor gets off his stool at the other end of the bar and limps over to the man, holding the counter for support every couple steps.“There is no sleeping at the bar,” he says, in as composed a loud voice as possible as he taps the man's glass against the bar. Then, once the man has successfully been revived, he adds, in a much calmer tone, to go sleep by the empty tables by the juke box instead. And in what must be a routine situation, Victor pours the man some more wine, and carefully watches as he gathers his scattered newspapers in one hand, and his wine in the other, and moves next to the equally quiet jukebox.

Come halftime, Victor is propped up in his chair looking more comfortable than usual. From a certain angle, it even looks like he too, might be sleeping. His folded hands cover the unbuttoned sections of the brown sweater vest he always appears to be wearing; a vest that reveals its overuse by the abundance of tiny lint balls which an onlooker might assume formed long ago and have not bothered to be removed.

The room has now grown eerily still, and the only noticeable sound, and movement, for that matter, comes in the form of a customer ordering another round from Victor. The man doesn't tell Victor what he's drinking, and Victor doesn't ask. Instead, he just nods, getting up from his stool and walking over just a few steps, to where he reaches under the bar counter for ice. Putting five new cubes in the man’s empty glass with a certain delicate nature one might expect of an aging and secretly frail old man, Victor then lifts the glass into the fluorescent light which illuminates both his liquor selection and the two wooden crosses with dangling rosaries that hang above it. After adding rum (more than one might expect for six dollars) and soda (from a can), Victor puts the drink down and takes a few singles from the pile of cash in front of the man, the only payment accepted.

As he walks over to the old-fashioned register at the center of the bar, a bell chings loudly, signaling two more people which walk in through a side entrance, and sending a cold draft from outside flowing through the entire room. Everyone turns toward the new customers and new commotion, breaking a certain comfortable silence which has formed amongst strangers, and also waking the bearded man by the jukebox from another slumber.

The new patrons — an exotic looking girl holding a book and a much taller male — are greeted by Victor with a firm handshake but with little enthusiasm, and after a few friendly words, it becomes clear that they’ve been here before. While the boy orders two beers and asks for an exchange of quarters for the pool table, the girl opens her book, completely unaffected by the eyes which glance over at her.

“It’s still here, Vic!,” the boy says as her grabs a billiard stick and shows the girl what appears to be an engraved name. Victor mumbles something under his breath, turns on a switch at arms reach, and watches closely, along with everyone else, as the boy gets ready to break, looking somewhat angelic as the surgical-esque lamp that hangs above his end of the table flickers for a few seconds and then turns on, lighting him, and the entire bar, it seems, up in a bright glow for the first time that night.

As the game draws to a close at around 10pm, no one at The Hole even notices. Victor is still sitting in his stool and the young pair still plays pool, and the only development comes in the form of the bearded man, who has awaken and leans against the jukebox scrolling through song selections. "New York, New York” begins to play shortly after, and a man at the bar who has kept quiet all night hums along as Hoboken’s own sings These little town blues, are melting away, I’ll make a brand new start of it in old New York. He then asks Victor for another drink, who tells the man that this one's on the house, and leans back to listen comfortably, with strangers, as the bearded man with glasses also quietly joins Sinatra in singing his New York anthem.