The Mars Bar Saved Me From Jury Duty

The First Essential Scary Truth

The Mars Bar is the definition of a disgusting dive bar. The joint, located on the corner of 2nd Ave and 2nd Street, is feet from the Bowery and still carries the stink of the alcoholic bums who scammed nickels and dimes to buy their medication. The graffiti on the walls – both inside and outside – started out as statements against the horrible pejoratives of the ‘Man;’ now they serve as a kind of dingy inbred pop art. And beware all those who must use the restrooms: toilet paper is an option the management has left to the customer.

This run down shit hole dive also saved me from jury duty in 1992.

In August of 1990, Brittany Hall, my dorm at NYU opened for business two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester. I came back from Detroit as soon as I could and spent a remarkable two weeks crawling around the dark edges of New York spying on the action. The City was in the throes of the Crack Epidemic at the time and the total murders for the year would top out at 2,245. There was plenty of action to spy on.

On September 2, a few days before school began, Brian Watkins, a Utah tourist in town with his family to watch the US Open Tennis Tournament in Forest Hills, was stabbed to death while trying to defend his mother from being mugged on the D subway platform by eight boys who were part of a loosely confederated gang called FTS. His was the 18th subway murder victim that year. Because Watkins was protecting his mother, was a clean-cut white tourist and the attack was rather brutal (the gang stabbed Brian in the chest. He chased his attackers up a stairwell where he collapsed and died) the case received national attention.

I followed the investigation in the tabloids. My reading room of choice was the Mars Bar. No one seemed to be in town during those late summer days so I could sit quietly with a personal punk rock soundtrack from the jukebox; drink very cheap bottles of domestic sludge and follow the chase and arrest of the eight FTS members. The Post and Daily News made the murder seem more tawdry than brutal, as the writers of the New York Times deemed proper coverage. The New York Post had a front-page graduation picture of Watkins, holding a blazer over his left shoulder, a cocky, youthful grin on his face. As I threw back my last bottle of Rolling Rock that warm night in September, at 4:30 am I felt lucky. Brian Watkins and I were close in age. It was easy for me to see myself in his place. Of course, this didn’t stop me from falling out into the Lower East Side night and weave down the street to find my date with destiny.

The Brain Watkins Murder Case had largely faded into the memory by the time I was called for jury duty in March of 1992. I was told the average call for a New York juror was three days. If no lawyer had decided to sit me on a jury after the third day, I’d be released from my public service and wouldn’t be called for at least three years. On day two, a bailiff came into the large room with all the prospective jurors and called out 60+ names. This was unusual as the other cases took 10-15 people into a courtroom at a clip. We were sheparded into a courtroom with at least twenty pews a side and a high enough ceiling to be the sanctuary at a Gothic Cathedral. Those of us gathered in the room were told we were to be put through the voir dire process for the Brian Watkins murder trail.

“Dumb fucking luck,” I swore quietly. Here I was just out of college, unemployed and now I was probably going to be sat on the jury for the latest trial of the century. At first I thought I should follow my grandfather’s advice: when being questioned by the attorney’s say I hated cops and criminals equally. Essentially demand we kill ‘em all and let G-d sort ‘em out. However, my sense of civic duty kicked in and I decided if called upon, I would serve.

I watched carefully as the defense attorney’s tore up and burned indictments and the prosecutors recommended Irish bars in the area for that St. Paddy’s Day Guinness. It made for interesting theatre. Two of three defendants weren’t so enthralled with their lawyer. They were more concerned with flipping the bird at the jurors and making threatening gestures, hardly the proper demeanor for tow young men on trial for their lives. The third defendant studiously took notes on the proceedings with a shaking right hand, obviously terrified.

Over the course of the next four days, the jury was slowly empanelled. First FDR Jr.’s widow, then a young priest. A middle-aged stockbroker followed quickly behind the priest. Finally it was my turn in the jury box. Both the defense and the prosecutor asked if I could be impartial and I said “sure” hesitantly. The two knuckleheads who were flipping the bird at earlier jurors were now making slashing motions across their throats. I was supposed to be scared but their actions only made me want to sit on the jury and vote to convict, thus giving these two the Darwin Award they so richly deserve. However, the third defendant, with his sheer fear of the justice system and his obvious remorse for whatever his action were on September 2, 1990 caused me concern. Would it be an all or nothing verdict? Was this third guy just hanging out with the wrong bunch of kids? Or was this some sort of program the three were running?

The judge asked if I could be impartial. Thinking my next seat would be on a jury and my impartiality was nil, I demurred. Both attorney’s were unhappy with my answer and let the judge know. He called me to the side of the bench. “Is there any reason you can’t be impartial son?”

I thought for a moment. “Well you honor, back in the fall of 1990, I was sitting in the Mars Bar down on Second Ave, ever been there? A real dive with cheap beer and the women…”

“Go on young man,” the judge replied.

“Well, I was sitting there reading the Post when Brian Watkins’ picture was on the front page and I wondered who would want to murder a good looking boy like that and those kids who did it should get the chair,” I said.

The judge covered his microphone and leaned into my face. “You’re dismissed. Get out of this court.”

According to various reports, the Mars Bar will close this spring to make way for another 12-story apartment building with rentals too expensive for the old neighborhood mainstays.

There are those who say it was the Brian Watkins murder that finally got the powers that be in the city off their rear ends and serious about gentrification. Ironically, it seems the remedy for one murder has led to many others.

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