Volume 74, Number 32 | December 15 - 21, 2004

At home hanging with the hipsters, just twice a week

By Lincoln Anderson

At first glance, the slight old man with neatly combed white hair at the end of the bar might look out of place among the young revelers at Vazacs Horseshoe Bar. But this is his place.

John Dikun is no Johnnie come lately to the hip scene at Vazacs. In fact, he’s been going there since 1946, and since the 1960s it’s been the only bar he’s called his local.

His routine is unchanging. He comes in on Saturdays and Sundays and has about three Budweisers and four shots of Canadian Club whiskey. His seat at the end of the bar is always reserved and on the bartop set up waiting for him are three coasters, with a beer glass and whiskey glass on two of them. The third coaster is for a bottle of beer.

Vazacs, also known as 7B, threw Dikun an 80th birthday party Sunday. His birthday was really Monday, but the only time he drinks other than Saturdays or Sundays is New Year’s Eve.

The night before, Dikun was in his usual spot. He’s unfailingly upbeat and friendly. Talking in rapid-fire old New York patter, he begins and ends sentences with an enthusiastic, staccato “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah!” or equally positive, drawn-out “Awwwww!”

On the stool to his right was Sarah Lanham, in from Chicago visiting friends. They realized they had the same birthday.

“I’ll be 24 — he was born in ’24!” she shouted above the music blaring from the jukebox and the raucous conversations of the crowd packing the place.

Dikun used to be a conductor on the Third Ave. El. Back then it took six men to operate a train. After the El came down, he cleaned I.R.T. subway car windows.

“When I started in the subway, it was 5 cents fare…. Six days a week,” he recalled of his working days. “We had no five-day week. But then my union — Mike Quill — he got the five-day week.”

Sunday was former Mayor Ed Koch’s 80th birthday, a fact not lost on Dikun.

“I remember Koch — ‘How’m I doin’?” he said. “I went on strike two times in the subway. The first time was Lindsay. The second one was Koch. Koch cost me. Lindsay didn’t cost me.”

When the transit workers struck under former Mayor John Lindsay, they got full pay. Under the labor law under Koch, they lost six weeks’ pay.

“How’m I doin’? — I’m still drinkin’, so I’m all right,” Dikun kidded. “Me and Koch, we’re both doing all right.”

Drinking only twice a week was a habit Dikun formed while working. He didn’t want to indulge when he had to be on the train the next day.

“During the week soda and ice cream — keep in shape, keep in shape,” he noted.

When he retired things changed — instead of going to Vazacs Friday and Saturday he switched to Saturday and Sunday.

A son of Czech immigrants, Dikun was born in Yorkville. His family moved to the East Village when he was 11.

“After the Beatniks came here, they made it ‘East Village,’ ” he noted. “Before it was ‘East Side.’ ”

He attended elementary school on E. Sixth St. and junior high at the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. — the former CHARAS/El Bohio building where a 19-story student dormitory is planned. He started high school at School of Printing but found printing involved too much math and dropped out. He wanted to join the Army at age 17, but was 4F because of his heart. But the Army eventually took him — “Three years later my heart became better” — and he served in the occupation force in Japan for two years.

“The only action I saw was peeling potatoes and onions,” he noted.

While he’s seen action of another sort, he’s always been single.

“When I came back from the Army my girl got married. I mean, I fooled around with girls, but never married,” he said.

Over the years, Dikun watched the neighborhood change. In the 1960s, things got rough. There was a riot on Sixth St., he recalled, when police fired shots into the air. Many fled to the suburbs. He decided it was time to relocate, too — from Avenue C to Avenue A, moving in with his sister, brother-in-law and two nieces.

Dikun used to have a Jewish buddy he’d go with to Vazacs, Abie Karp. Dikun recalled how one day Karp brought along a Hispanic friend and the bartender told the man to get out. Karp said it was prejudiced and stood up for the man.

In the morning, Dikun goes downstairs from his place at Seventh St. and Avenue A to buy the Post and News from Ray’s Candy Store.

“I used to take walks. Now I walk in the house,” he said.

His brother-in-law died this year and his sister is in a nursing home after a stroke.

“Lousy year, man,” he said. But his niece cooks for him. “We have three cats,” he noted.

While some complain that the influx of bars has ruined the East Village, Dikun disagrees. In the old days, Vazacs only used to be open till 11:30 p.m. since there was no late business.

“The young people made the business,” he said. “Before it was so dead, so quiet. So many restaurants. It’s Times Sq.” The bar’s pounding rock music doesn’t bother him. “As long as it’s noisy, you can’t fall asleep,” he said, though professing a preference for swing music, Johnny Cash and Sinatra.

“Johnnie, what’s up?” a young hipster asked, stopping by to shake his hand.

“Awwww, the best!” said Dikun after he had gone. “It’s a great place, great people,” he said of the bar. “So many friends.”

A pretty female bartender poured some beer from his bottle into his glass for him.

Jay Bradley, another bartender, asked how he was feeling.

“Oh, the best!” Dikun said of Jay.

“It’s just a treat for everybody to meet the guy,” said Bradley, 37, who has worked at Vazacs 10 years, of Dikun. “I think it’s part of the experience of the bar itself.”

Jamie Hill, 38, who tended bar at Vazacs nine years, ran out of the tavern where he currently works, J.P. Ward’s on Avenue A, to bring Dikun a birthday cake the other night.

“He’s an institution,” Hill said. “He comes in at 10 o’clock on the nose. You can set your watch by it…. He looks delicate, but he’s a rock….”

At the end of the night, someone from Vazacs always walks Dikun the one block home. He admits he doesn’t get around too well anymore.

“I try to sneak out sometimes,” he said. “I don’t want to bother them — but they always catch me.”

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