August 14, 2011

A Toast to Ray


In the late ‘90s, Morgan and I kept finding ourselves in the same situation. We’d settle into a quiet home bar, get to know the bartenders and the regulars, and spend three or four nights a week drinking there. Then quietly around us things would start to change. A once low-key bar would become infiltrated with hipsters. The crowd would get younger, and thicker, and louder. The asshole quotient would go through the roof. Before we knew it, we could no longer find a place to sit, and we weren’t really sure how much we wanted to sit there anyway. Next thing we knew, we were inebriate refugees out on the street, wandering lost in search of a new bar to call home.

            It was one of those days, an afternoon in the spring, and it was clear we couldn’t go back to what had been a home bar for a good few years. The crowds had simply become too bad and too annoying. The goal was to find a place that was quiet, where people were decent, where the beer selection was good, and where the music wasn’t stupid. A place where we’d be left alone. Such places were getting harder and harder to find in the city—especially in the East Village, which itself was becoming Asshole Central.

            Still, knowing there had to be some place left, we wandered eastwards and down First Avenue, peeking through windows. Most places made it pretty obvious pretty quick that we’d hate it there, so we moved on.

            Then Morgan rook a look through the open front door of a place called d.b.a. It seemed awfully quiet in there, and the blackboard behind the bar listed an awful lot of interesting beers. There was even a door in the back that seemed to open onto a patio. We decided to give it a shot.

            It was obvious almost immediately that we’d found a new place. The bartenders were swell, it was all but empty most afternoons, they had a bar cat, and the patio out back was pleasant, with overhanging trees, the beginnings of a garden, and a thriving squirrel population. The place was still fairly new and still coming together, which made us homesteaders in a way, staking our claim at the end of the bar.

            It was only our second or third visit when we found ourselves on a first name basis with the owner, Ray Deter. We’d certainly known our share of bartenders, but rarely did we ever even see the owner. Bar owners tend to be ornery tightasses who stay locked in the back office, sorting through receipts and slapping around small animals.

            Ray was a smart, articulate, and charismatic fellow who always took a few moments to chat. Sometimes he sat down with us and talked with Morgan about obscure beers, or told us stories about the first week he was open, when a few of the Angels from around the corner stopped in and tried to sell him protection. He turned them down flat, and nothing ever came of it.

            We ended up over at d.b.a. at least four days a week, either out back in the garden, or on the bench near the back window. Ray still stopped by, no matter how busy he was (he always seemed to be fixing something somewhere). We heard stories about the upstairs neighbors and his plans to open a branch of d.b.a. in New Orleans. We met his wife and his two sons.

            One December we stopped by for the Boxing Day party/coat drive (which was an annual event) but found the only way to escape the massive crowd was to step out into the garden despite the chill December air, and sit among the donated coats on a bench. At one point the back door opened and Ray appeared with another armload of coats.

            “Yeah,” he said. “I kinda had a feeling I’d find you two back here.”

            He had a way of making even anti-social drunken freaks like us feel welcome.

            But then it started happening again. The crowds started getting thicker and younger and louder. We’d encountered the occasional asshole there in the past, but now they didn’t seem to go away. A few of the regulars—like the old biker who’d get a Belgian beer and sit in the back, reading and smoking cheroots— vanished. It was growing harder and harder to find a place to sit. Worse, it had become known that d.b.a. was our regular haunt, so people started tracking us down there.

            The staff remained as friendly as ever, and Ray still said hello, but it was simply becoming too much. It wasn’t the place we once knew. This wasn’t Ray’s fault—in fact we were glad to see him getting that much business. And lord knows we couldn’t very well expect him to lock the doors to keep the place empty just so we would be more comfortable. It was just the natural way of things in this town. Someone says something somewhere, and before you know it everyone has to be in exactly the same place at the same time.

            So we moved elsewhere, with more melancholy than bitterness this time. It had been one of the friendliest bars we’d ever called home.

            The last time we went back was a few days after the attacks in 2001. It was shortly after opening, and the place was dead quiet. We took a couple of seats at the bar, and though we hadn’t been there in quite some time, Ray remembered us by name and sat down with us again.

            As was the habit at the time, the standard topic of conversation was the attacks.

            An hour or so after the towers came down, he told us, he started seeing dazed people covered in dust stumbling up First Avenue. Every few minutes there were more. He opened the bar a few hours early and invited them to come in. He gave them water or whatever they wanted, let them wash up, and just let them talk. It was quite a story, but again it wasn’t surprising—that’s just the way he operated.

            We had a few beers that afternoon, then headed on our way. The next time we decided to try and give d.b.a. another shot the crowds were spilling out onto the sidewalk, so we decided to skip on past. We kept meaning to get back there at some point, though, just to say hi and see if we still knew anyone.

            Last Saturday, Morgan called me at about ten in the morning. She’d been online, and happened across an obit for Ray. In late June he’d been struck by a car on Canal Street while biking up to the bar. He later died in the hospital.

            To a lot of people this is very old news now. The internet is awash with memorials and obituaries. There have been benefits both here and at the d.b.a. in New Orleans (yes he finally opened it, and it even survived the hurricane) to raise money to help put his kids through school.

            But even if it’s old news I just wanted to take a moment to say that Ray Deter was a very rare individual—especially in the tavern business. I can’t say that we’ve ever known another bar owner who not only took pride in his place, but who genuinely seemed to like his patrons and took the time to show them as much. He was a very rare bird indeed, both as a businessman and a man, and Morgan and I are both privileged to have known him.


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