An excerpt from Chuck Zito's book "Street Justice."
Used to be the Hayden Planetarium boasted the most dazzling display of stars in Manhattan but now there's competition across the street. At Cafe Central, the newest discovery on the West Side's suddenly chic Columbus Avenue, a nightly caravan of limos, taxis and cars deposits such luminaries as Matt Dillon, Harrison Fordt Penny Marshall and the Divine Miss M. The cafe now is the place for preening performers, models, business biggies and overpaid athletes to meet and eat, —People Weekly, January 30, 1984
IT'S TRUE THAT CAFE CENTRAL WAS TO THE 1980S WHAT STUDIO 54 HAD been to the 70$ (although with far less cocaine): a hip and happening place for the rich and famous to party late into the night. When I was first introduced to the cafe, however, it was in a different location, a few blocks away, and still happily wallowing in wannabe status. It was, in fact, a gloriously tough and cool saloon that attracted an im-pressive array of gifted young actors and writers who were merely on the cusp of stardom. Many of them were trained stage actors putting in long hours honing their craft the old-fashioned way; on Broadway, or off-Broadway, or off-off-Broadway, or, in some cases, "so far from Broadway you couldn't see it with a telescope." What they had in common was a willingness to roll with the punches, to audition all afternoon, perform in some shitty one-act play that no one had ever heard of in the evening, and knock back a few drinks late at night, all in the company of a similarly driven gang of friends. They supported one another and teased and taunted one another mercilessly. The camaraderie was not unlike that which I'd experienced in various motorcycle clubs, and I found it instantly ap¬pealing. It helped that Cafe Central, in those early days anyway, was also the kind of place where you never knew when a quiet night would erupt into violence. As at any good bar, there was always the potential for two people to drop their glasses and raise their fists. And, afterward, the winner was expected to buy the loser a drink. Cafe Central was the brainchild of a former Catskills resort busboy named Peter Herrero. A Brooklyn native who dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen, Peter had joined the U.S. Marines in 1964 and ended up serving in Vietnam. Like a lot of men I know, be returned from Vietnam surprised to find that the country wasn't ex-actly opening its arms to veterans; so he moved to Spain for a few years, worked odd jobs, eventually returned to New York in 1972, and plowed through a succession of jobs in the New York restaurant in-dustry. A self-made man, he obtained a contractor's license and drained his own life savings to build Cafe Central in the only place he could afford to put it: a neighborhood often patrolled by prosti-tutes and addicts. Most young businessmen who open a club or restaurant, especially in New York, have their dreams crushed with a few short, ugly months. Not Peter. Cafe Central quickly became a second home to Manhattan's working-class theater crowd—serious, determined ac-tors and actresses who aspired to movie stardom. And many of them would reach that goal. Peter Welier was a regular (and future busi-ness partner with Peter Herrero), back in the days before he made RoboCop or Shoot the Moon, Treat Williams was there a lot, right before he broke out with his starring role in Prince of the City. Other frequent patrons included Animal House alumni Peter Riegert and Bruce McGill. future Home Alone dad John Heard, and Moonstruck star Danny Aiello. Also John Goodman and Robin Williams. Oh, and behind the bar? Shaking martinis (and eventually whipping up egg creams for yours truly)? A young actor from New Jersey named Bruce Willis. This was prc-Die Hard, рre-Moonlighting ... hell, it was pre-paycheck for Bruce. But he was there, working the bar and trying to make contacts . . . trying to build a career, just like everyone else. My first trip to Cafe Central came in 1980, on the night of the first epic fight between two of the greatest boxers of all time: Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, I was invited by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to watch the fight on closed-circuit television at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. (John and Danny, both avid mo-torcyclists with a taste for the wild life, were good friends of the Hells Angels back then.) After the fight ended, Danny said they were going to stop by a place on 74th and Amsterdam. He asked me if I'd like to join them. "It's called Cafe Central,'' he said. "It's about to be the hottest place in town." If Danny and John were going there, then Cafe Central was indeed about to hit the big time, for in 1980 there were few people in the entertainment world who were hotter and flipper than Belushi and Aykroyd: the Blues Brothers. Nevertheless, 1 wasn't all that interested. "You know what, guys?" I said. Thanks for the offer, but I really don't like to hang out in bars all that much. I mean I don't smoke and I don't drink." That's cool." John said. Then he raised an eyebrow, just like Bluto in Animal House, and smiled slyly. "But you might like it anyway. A lot of models hang out there." "Yeah?" They both nodded. "Ahhhhh .. . what the fuck," I said. "Let's go." (Incidentally, the next time I visited the Academy of Music was to watch Danny and John perform as the Blues Brothers. Really, though, I went because I had heard through the grapevine that John had hired a new bodyguard, and I thought maybe if 1 showed up and intimi-dated the guy a little bit, I could take his job. Boy, was I wrong. When John came out of his dressing room after the show, I approached him and said, "Hey, John." with my chest all puffed out, prepared to dem-onstrate that there was no better bodyguard in the business than Chuck Zito. Then I looked behind John and saw his bodyguard: a man named Bill Wallace, who was nothing less than a living legend in the world of martial arts. Bill's nickname was "Superfoot" because he had devastating kicking ability, which he had used to win numer-ous world championships. This was a man I respected and admired, and there I was, about to make a fool of myself by getting in his face. Instead, I smiled at him, put out my hand, and said, "Hello. Mr. Wal-lace. I'm Chuck Zito." That was the beginning of a friendship that endures to this day, I began working out with Bill, John, and Danny in 1980; in fact, they were in my corner at my first karate tournament. We were regular training partners until John's tragic death in 1982.) Cafe Central was precisely as advertised: loud, lively, and filled with great-looking women and intense young actons. I liked the place right away, but not more than ten minutes after we arrived I was ap-proached by Peter Herrero. He seemed uncomfortable, and he invited me to sit down. "Look," he said. "I love Dan and I love John, They're great friends, and if you're with them, you must be all right. So you're welcome to stay here and have a good time, but I'd like you to remove your jacket." "Why?" He pointed to the Hells Angels insignia. "That makes people ner-vous." "Let me tell you a little bit about myself," I said. And then I re-peated my mantra: "I don't smoke, I don't drink. I don't do drugs, I don't cause trouble . .. and I don't remove my jacket for anybody. This is a public place and I'm not doing anything wrong. I was invited here by a couple of friends, and when they leave. I'll leave." There was a pause. "You're intimidating my friends." Peter finally said. Well, that wasn't what I wanted Peter seemed like a nice-enough guy, and I didn't want to make his life any harder than it already was. At the same time. I wasn't about to remove my jacket. A little diplo-macy was in order, so I spent the next fifteen minutes talking with Peter, explaining to him how he was misinformed, and by the end of our conversation he'd come around. "You know what?" Peter said. "Don't worry about it. You're wel-come here anvtime you want." Everything was fine for a few weeks. I became a semiregular at Cafe Central, as did some of my buddies from the club. No one both-ered us, and we caused no trouble at all. 1 got the sense that in a strange way our appearance was appreciated, because it had a calm-ing effect on many of the patrons. Who wants to fuck with the Hells Angels? Our mere presence will keep most people on the straight and narrow (of course, itll send others fleeing for the door, but that's a price you pay). One night I was hanging out with one of my brothers, Bert Kittel. when we were approached by Paul Herman, the host of Cafe Central. I'd quickly come to recognize Pauly as more than just a good-natured man who liked his work. He was a smart and loyal friend. "Got a little problem," Pauly said. "I need your help." "Anything at all." Pauly pointed to a man across the room—he looked more like a kid, really. His name, Pauly said, was James Hayden. James was a talented and respected young actor who was then costarring with Al Pacino in a stage production of David Mamet's American Buffalo. Pa-cino was the big draw, obviously, but James, who played a junkie, was getting rave reviews. His career it seemed, was about to take flight. Now, though, he was having a bad night. Pauly explained that James had been taking a walk near Hells Kitchen (not a great idea, but I didn't question his judgment—maybe he was new to New York! when he was jumped by a couple of black guys. They took his wallet and gave him a pretty fair beating just for the sheer hell of it. "He didn't do anything to provoke them?" I asked. Pauly shook his head. "Not a damn thing. They just ripped him off." "And he's a friend of yours?" "A good friend" "Okay, let me talk to him" Pauly brought James to our table and we talked for a little while. He seemed like a genuinely decent kid, the kind of kid you'd want to befriend, and looking at the welts on his face, the cut over his eye. I couldn't help but feel for him. It wasn't long before the three—me, Bert, and James—were in a van, driving slowly through Hells' Kitchen, armed with baseball bats. If you see these scumbags, I want you to point them out," I said. "You stay in the van, and we'll take care of it" "How so?' In the back, Bert picked up one of the bats, gave it a little check swing (not as easy as it sounds when you consider that Bert had only one hand; he'd lost the other hand when a bomb, planted by a rival club member, exploded in his mailbox). "Crack a few skulls," he said. James nodded. I could tell he was nervous, probably scared, but I figured that was only natural. I mean when you hit somebody in the head with a baseball bat, you're as likely as not to kill him. This was a serious mission we were on, one with serious, far-reaching reper-cussions ... and James was in the middle of it. "You Okay?" I asked. He looked a little green, almost as if he was going to be sick. "James?" "Huh?" "You all right with this?" He rubbed his eyes and let out a little groan. "Oh, man .. " Something was wrong, I'd been around people who were anxious about the prospect of violence—hell, most people are that way—but this was different. James was stressing out in a way that made me apprehensive. Usually when someone's been robbed and beaten, he wants retribution. At the very least, he wants his money back. James looked like he just wanted out of the van. Immediately. "Тalк to me, kid," I said. James let out a long sigh. "Okay ... there's something I didn't tell you." "Spit it out." "I wasn't just walking around down here, minding my own busi-ness." I slowed down. "No?" "Uh-uh. I was trying to score some smack." I hit the brakes and pulled the van off to the side of the street. "Are vou shittin' me?" — James shook his head. "Sorry" I punched the steering wheel In the back, Ben chuckled. I didn't see anything funny about it. I mean I didn't know this kid from a hole in the wall. I was helping because Pauly vouched for him and because he seemed like a good guy who, through no fault of his own. had been abused by a couple of punks. Yeah, he was in the wrong neighborhood, but I'd been led to believe he was guilty of nothing more than stupidity. "Man, this really changes things," I said. "As far as I'm concerned, if you came down here to buy drugs, you got what you deserved." "I know," he said sheepishly. "No, you don't know!" I was so angry I wanted to smack him my-self. "You drag me into this thing, get me involved in some illegal bullshit? When I don't even condone drug use?" I put the van back in gear and started to drive off. "Whatever happened, man ... it's on you." We drove in silence back to Cafe Central, where Pauly was waiting. 1 lit into him before he had a chance to say a word. "Are you crazy, Pauly?" "What are you talking about?" This guy went down there to cop heroin." Pauly looked at James. "That true?" James nodded. Pauly, normally a pretty robust, lively guy, suddenly deflated. He'd been duped, too, "I'm sorry, Chuck. I didn't know." James apologized again, and for some reason I couldn't help but want to forgive him. He didn't seem like a dirtbag; he seemed like a kid with a problem, and although I'm not normally sympathetic to junkies. I felt an urge to take care of this kid. At least he'd been smart enough and honorable enough to come clean before it was too late. Had we found the guys who beat him, we would have hurt them. We might have been caught and sent to jail, and it would have been on James's head. And. eventually, when the truth came out. his punish-ment would have been much more severe than the tongue-lashing he received from me. My suspicions about James being essentially a good guy proved to be true, and in fact we spent a fair amount of time together over the next few months. He was cool, funny, and a terrific acton which I'd only heard from others but finally witnessed for myself when I went to see American Buffalo. Jimmy as his friends called him (and I was happy to count myself in that group), held his own next to Pacino, which is no small accomplishment for any actor, especially one so young and raw. You could see in Jimmy all this energy just trying to get out, and you knew that if he channeled it in the right direction, he could do almost anything. If... About six months after the night I went to Hells Kitchen with a baseball bat, I got a tearful call from Pauly. Jimmy Hayden was gone, he said. He'd died of a drug overdose. Jesus Christ Talk about life imitating art. The guy plays a junkie every night onstage, and it turns out he's not just acting after all. Bert and I rode our motorcycles to the funeral, where I was introduced to Jimmy's entire family by Jay Accavone, an actor who was a good friend of Jimmy's. These were wonderful people whose hearts had been shat-tered. It was tragic. They said Jimmy had talked about me, that he'd had only good things to say. Then, to my surprise, they asked me and Bert if we would like to be pallbearers. We agreed, of course. On the way out of the church, I saw Jimmy's mother crying arid Г wondered exactly what Jimmy had told her, if he'd mentioned how we had met. I wondered if he had told her about Hells Kitchen. Probably not, 1 thought, and it really didn't matter. It wasn't until my fourth or fifth trip to Cafe Central that the shit finally hit the fan, I was seated at a back table, near the bathroom, having a friendly chat with Pauly. The place was mobbed, as usual— Cafe Central was just beginning to get a reputation as a gathering place for actors, models, and wealthy young businessmen, and with that designation came increased traffic, including hordes of star fuck-ers and others who simply wanted to get a glimpse of someone fa-mous. I was used to the noise and the commotion and even the occasional bump from some poor slob who had a little too much to drink. By staying in the back I could usually avoid the bigger crowds, but this was a Friday night and the club was filled to capacity ... and then some. There was barely room to breathe. In my experience, its in this type of atmosphere that a bar brawl is most likely to erupt, Guys are horny, hot, and filled with the false bravado that comes with having too much to drink. They all think they know how to fight when they've had a few beers. The truth is, most of them couldn't defend themselves if they were sober: drunk, they're just targets waiting to be hit.