RIP

Remembering Hank Penza, the Man Who Gave NYC Its Most Iconic Dive Bar

Penza, holding court outside the Mars Bar.
Penza, holding court outside the Mars Bar. Photo: Courtesy of Antony Zito

Hank Penza, the owner of the East Village’s legendary, now-closed dive Mars Bar, passed away on Thursday, October 29. The news trickled out earlier this week through a private Facebook group of nostalgic regulars and former bartenders who worked there (one member says the group is “kind of like a high school class page”). Mars Bar was, of course, a seminal place in the history of the East Village, an almost cartoonishly gritty watering hole deeply entrenched in the city’s punk history. When it closed in 2011, it marked for many the end of a particular kind of downtown. And Penza — those who know him seem to agree — was a charismatic and uniquely New York individual responsible for all of it. Grub spoke with Indy Bachu, a former bartender at the bar, about her memories of the place and, most important, Penza himself.

To tell you the truth, I lived down the street from the Mars Bar before I worked there, and I passed it every day on my way to work, and I used to be shit-scared of going in until I met Hank. I found out he owned the building I lived in, and he offered me a job. That’s how I ended up working there. When do you get offered a job at a bar in New York without any experience?

The Mars Bar was around the corner from CBGB, so that impacted who came in. During the daytime you had the Bowery old folks, the people that lived there when that whole thing started, when men ended up on skid row. But in the evenings — my shifts when I was there were Thursday and Friday nights — we got a lot of the CBGB crowd. Between 8 and 11 you’d get musicians that were sound-checking and getting ready to go on, and there would be some bands or whatever, so they came over for a drink. You never knew who you were going to serve. Later on in the evening, when CBGB closed, the staff would come over to Mars Bar. That’s where they drank and they hung out. Those two institutions were kind of intertwined.

When CBGB closed, Mars was still there, but now that Mars is gone, and finally Hank is gone, it really is — many, many people feel — like a legend has gone. He took, like, 50 years of downtown with him. He was the king of the Lower East Side. I would say, it’s that whole attitude, he was the last of it. Where do you walk into now in NYC and decide you’re going to spray-paint the wall and they’re going to be okay with that?

I stopped working there in 1993, but I stayed in contact with Hank the whole time, and I spoke to him maybe three months ago. My heart feels not empty, but different because a big part of that time is gone. He went with it. He had a restaurant that he went to every Thursday — I won’t say the name — and I started going there. I didn’t know that was his place, but I had mentioned his name to the maître d’ when I had to wait a long time for a table, and immediately from now on when I go there the guy kisses my hand. There’s so much respect.

Hank helped a lot of less-fortunate people downtown. He came off as a wise guy and a tough guy, but he was a very sweet person with a tough persona. He was a lover of mankind, and that’s just the reason for the Mars Bar. As one of my colleagues said, “He gave us a place to play.” Hank ran other establishments. He was a bar owner, he owned bars in Brooklyn, he owned other bars on the Bowery, and the thing about him is that you worked for him — you were his bartender, but you never saw him. I think later on, in the daytime, he would come sit in front of the bar and he would hold court. He had a chair outside, and he always had people gathered around, sharing stories, but you know during my time he wasn’t as involved in the bar.

One situation, Saturday morning at 5 a.m. I’m in Union Square Park with friends, and we got into the fountain and all got wet, right. And now we’re cold, so what do we do? “Well, Hank lives around the corner on 18th Street.” “Let’s call him.” “Oh no, we can’t call Hank.” Oh yeah, we called Hank, and Hank opens his door, sends the elevator down for us, lets us dry our clothes in his dryer, gives us robes to put on while we waited, and offers us tea.

One of his bar managers was a Native American guy, someone that Hank met upstate. He brought him to New York and gave him a job. He gave work to a lot of people that wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise, and I’m not saying that to diss any of the bartenders, because, honestly, Hank never hired a bartender — okay, the only bartender that Hank ever hired in the entire history of the Mars Bar was me. Because you didn’t get hired to work there; you had a friend who worked at the bar, and they needed somebody for a shift and your friend brought you in. That’s how you got a job there. He never interviewed anyone. A lot of the bartenders didn’t know him.

He was not the boss of anyone there. If you worked at the Mars Bar, you were your own boss. On Thursday nights, I worked with a bar back named Ron, and after we closed the bar we would close down the gates and have a dance party on the bar — everybody that was left over, including the customers that were allowed to stay. While we were dancing on the bar, a lot of us held on to the ceiling, and in the morning I’m sure Hank saw it — there were chips of paint all over the floor. And I remember going home one night and saying to myself, Oh my god, is he going to find out? He knew we were dancing on the bar, and he let us all play. He gave us a place where we didn’t feel like we were an establishment, and that was what it was like in the ‘90s when you were on the Lower East Side.

He gave a lot of people at that time a place to be themselves and to grow. That was the most important part. Every month there was a rotating art exhibit. The hanging would be on Saturday. We called them the locals; the Martians would come in and paint the bar, you know. We’d hang art and have an opening. I ended up curating, you know, and at that time I was a history major; I’ve gotten involved in so much history in my life so far. I worked for CBGB as well after; I did all of their internet marketing — online marketing, T-shirts that got all around the world. It was Zoe and I figuring out ways to get them out there.

A lot of people didn’t know the man and who he was. There was so much more to his life and, like I said, his family wants to keep stuff private, but he had bars in the city since the 1950s, ran different types of social clubs, always gave work to the less fortunate. He gave meaning to people’s lives … He had other businesses where he made income, and we always said he doesn’t care what he made at the Mars Bar. It’s almost like a hobby. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but he wasn’t there for the money. When all the prices in the bars went up, Hank kept it the same. When I was working there a top-shelf drink cost $2.50. I don’t think it ever went past $5 or $6. We were known as having the biggest shot in New York at one point. Hank didn’t care about it. I’ve never seen anything like it.

He was a man that cared about people, and that’s something that people that don’t know him won’t ever know. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have created the Mars Bar. Not that he created it; he allowed us to create our own Mars Bar. He gave us the keys and was like, “Hey, go hang out in my house and do whatever you want. You want to graffiti the walls, go graffiti the walls.”

I was also very young, so I didn’t have that much experience, but there were lots of artists that had never hung their art before. There were people that never knew they were artists … It completely changed my life, the entire direction of my life. You know how they call Times Square the center of the world? Well, I feel like the Mars Bar was the center of the universe.

This has been edited and condensed.

Remembering Mars Bar Owner Hank Penza