SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
February 26, 2017

A Life In Nine Taverns

 

In Mid-November, Morgan and I marked our third wedding anniversary. We generally don’t make that big a deal out of it, considering it more a technical bureaucratic definition, valuable when dealing with technical, bureaucratic things like taxes and insurance. For our own purposes, we trace our real anniversary back to June of 1995. We’d been working together at the NY Press for about two weeks at that point, and on what turned out to be my thirtieth birthday, a small handful of us headed around the corner to Milano’s for a few.

            Even before starting at the Press, I’d spent a few long and memorable nights at Milano’s, one of the Lower East Side’s more respected and feared old man bars. At the time, Milano’s was the last stop for the lost and forsaken, the lifers with nowhere else to go who just wanted to be left the hell alone. It was a dank and dour place that opened at eight in the morning and closed at five the following morning. Sometimes you could find a few bums and winos camped out front during that three hour window, just waiting to be let back in again. It was usually pretty quiet in there, save for the Sinatra and Dean Martin on the juke. It was the perfect and only place to mark my birthday, and after that night Morgan and I were pretty much inseparable.

            Looking back to that night at Milano’s and all those subsequent years, we realize, sometimes with horror and dismay, that we measure out our time together, recall specific events and historical moments, not in terms of who was president or what songs were popular at the time, but rather in terms of what bar we were calling home.

            Although we’d stop into Milano’s every now and again, our first real home bar was Botanica, just a couple of doors east on Houston Street. It was a two-minute walk from the paper’s offices, so that was part of it. Botanica was in the basement of the building that once housed the original Knitting Factory, and had become the official after-work stop for the Press’s editorial team. We’d go there every night for a few hours, and always come away with stories. It was a narrow, dusty, cluttered place with a young staff, an ancient cash register, and rarely more than a couple of other customers. We got to know the regular bartender quite well, to the point at which he never asked for money. We’d just drop a couple of bills on the bar, and he’d keep the pints filled as long as we were there, sometimes snatching half-full glasses out of our hands to refill them. We kept that as our home bar even after the rest of the editorial staff had a snit over some perceived slight or another and moved on to a new haunt. We were there five nights a week, even after Morgan left the paper. Sometimes we’d take the booth by the front window, but mostly we stayed at the bar itself, the end by the front door, trading stories with the bartender.

            As would soon become an unfortunate trend, though, word eventually began to spread, Botanica got a little to popular, too crowded, and all those new fresh young faces too annoying for our taste, so it was time to move on.

            Our next home was about a block away and across Houston Street, a place called 288. It was wide and deep and bright, with art on the walls, tin ceilings, a big round table in back, and two bar cats, Ratso and Rizzo, who always seemed to perch on us whenever we were there. The bar had likewise become the new home of the editorial staff, who commandeered that round table in back every night from five, holding court until eight or nine. It was always at the bars after work where the real editorial decisions were made. The bar also became a destination for the Press’s freelancers, artists, and ad sales reps. Sometimes we sat with them, sometimes not. An old Greek wandered in a couple of nights a week with a bag of squeaky toys he was trying to sell, table to table. It was also where the derelicts who’d been eighty-sixed from Milano’s tended to land for awhile.

            But again, and likely as a result of so many people at the Press writing about it every week, the hipsters started moving in. We lasted there about two or three years until it was clearly time to move on. All those fucking snide little dot com geeks were too much to bear.

            By the time we knew we had to abandon 288, the Press offices had moved to Chelsea and the editorial staff settled into some snooty English pub known for its martinis. We weren’t much interested, so we left them behind and struck out on our own. I’m guessing this was around 1999. One afternoon we headed deeper into the East Village, in search of a quiet, desolate place we could call our new home. Back then such places really did exist in the EV, though you had to hunt them down.

            We were heading north on First Avenue near Third Street when we passed a place called d.b.a., and Morgan glanced through the front door. It seemed completely empty. Looking straight through the small and narrow bar to the back, she saw they had a garden, so we decided to give it a try.

            Although it was primarily a whiskey bar, they had a decent array of beers and another bar cat, so we stayed. A few Hell’s Angels used to hang out there, and it was there I saw a man with no hands drinking a pint, which was a first. Squirrels from the neighboring cemetery used to scrabble over the back wall to beg for food from the drunks, and the crowd for the most part stayed low-key and tolerable. We got to know the owner and staff pretty well, and eventually became such fixtures that anyone who might be looking for us knew all they had to do was stop by d.b.a. any time after three and there we’d be, usually out back.

            After a few years, though, as NYU continued to gobble up the neighborhood, the crowd grew too young, too loud, and too stupid, and we were nudged out the door yet again.

            Years later, after Ray, the owner, was killed by a hit and run driver, we ventured back to pay our respects. But the place was so dank and unpleasant, with snotty bartenders and a frat boy crowd, that we only had a single pint and split. There was no reason to ever go back there again.

            After d.b.a. things were hit and miss for several months, as we divided our time between several home bars.

            Knickerbocker, which was close to Morgan’s apartment at the time, was a fancy-ass theater bar and restaurant that catered to an aging showbiz crowd. That was news to us—we just went there because it was close. But then we started seeing the likes of John Turturro, Harvey Weinstein, F. Murray Abraham and Tony Randall at the tables around us. One night we fell into conversation with an old woman who said she’d written most of the episodes of “Bewitched,” and we had no reason to doubt her. In the end, though, the whole vibe just left us a little queasy. We didn’t belong in that scene. All those young, gay aspiring Broadway stars flirting with all the elderly drunken producers and all those impromptu show tunes just made me want to puke.

            We then spent a few months at 11th Street Bar, a generic Irish place over between Avenues A and B. A couple of the Pogues used to drink there, and that’s where we went the night after the twin towers came down. It’s also where we hid out the night of the blackout. They locked the doors and only let regulars in. It was a decent, insular place to get a decent Guinness, but in time that insularity got a little claustrophobic. Although the hipsters never discovered it before we decided to move on, a few of the regulars started getting a little too chummy and aggravating, so we opted to avoid them.

            It was back to the Bowery after that, or just off the Bowery anyway, to another Irish joint we just called Hibernian. Tricky thing with Hibernian was always the timing. If you didn’t get there before four, you’d never get a seat at the bar, let alone our preferred seats at the end, as ever, by the door. But at least the crowd was interesting and Warholian, with local artists, eccentrics, and musicians gathering every night to impress each other. It was fun for a stretch, the Irish bartenders always had good new adventure stories to share, and they put out free food every night at five. But even all that became a bit much -- the fight for a seat at any hour got a little tiresome as the crowd grew younger and more insipid.

            Given what was happening to the East Village, the inescapable creeping infection of the young and fashionable and vapid, we made the leap to Brooklyn. There were plenty of decent and as-yet undiscovered bars in my neighborhood, so we settled at The Gate, another ostensibly Irish place.

            First time we stopped in, we had immediate doubts. It was a sweltering and humid summer afternoon, the place had just opened, and we were the only two customers. The air-conditioning wasn’t on, no fans were blowing, and the heavy front door was closed. Even though we were alone in there, we had a hell of a time getting the bartender’s attention. He was a burly, bearded guy who was clearly hung over. When we finally did rouse him from his copy of the Post, I made the mistake of asking if I might open the front door to, y’know, get a little air circulating in there, given it was kinda hard to y’know, breathe. He simply stared at me long and cold before eventually saying, “No.” We had one beer and left.

            For some reason a couple of days later, we decided to give it another try, and sure enough, things had changed. It was a different day, a different time, a different bartender, and things weren’t nearly so miserable outside. It gave us the chance to look at it with fresh eyes. That may have been a mistake. The crowd was small and quiet, the staff a little older and wise enough to mind their own business, and the music a little iffy, but it was there we found ourselves living six or seven hours a night, every night, for the next three years. These days I look at them as the bad years, though maybe that’s unfair. They were just a little dissolute is all, leaving in a dark fog at one or two every morning, dragging ourselves back to my place four blocks away to crash, then getting up at six to head to work before heading straight back to The Gate again. It was there we met The Swans’ Michael Gira, who was another regular, and became good friends with a tugboat captain. A lot of musicians hung out there, and it was a good vibe for a bit. Just wish I could remember more of it.

            But just as the NYU crowd killed the East Village, the smug assholes and the Stroller Brigade who overtook Park Slope eventually took over The Gate as well. It became impossible to get not only our regular seats at the end of the bar, but any seats at all. What free space there was on the floor became clogged with strollers and sniveling, stinking brats, and their fucking parents were even worse. So fuck it.

            A few weeks before abandoning this latest home bar, I got a call at the paper from a bartender at a place just a block away from The Gate, inviting me to stop by sometime. To be honest, we’d passed Loki hundreds of times, but with its black awning, blacked-out windows, and a name like Loki, we always just assumed it was a gay S&M bar. Still, finding ourselves adrift without a home bar, we decided to give it a try one Saturday afternoon.

            If I’d had my way, I would have turned and run screaming the second we opened the door. The World Cup was on, and my god how those Park Slope assholes love to pretend they’re all cosmopolitan and really, really care about soccer whenever the World Cup is on. The place, big as it was, was over-packed with fucking liberal mid-level investment counselors, their fucking children’s book author wives, and their fucking kids named Orson and Julianna, all these hateful vapors who read Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer and think they’re so fucking cultured and urbane for doing so. After clawing our way from the front to the back and finding no place to go, and furthermore noting the line six deep at the bar, we had decided to bolt for good when Mike, the bartender who’d called me, spotted us, wrestled us two seats at the front window, brought us a couple of free pints, and assured us this wasn’t typical, that all the assholes would go far away once the World cup was over with. We took him at his word, and he was right.

            After the fucking soccer poseurs drifted back to their co-ops and private schools, Loki revealed itself to be home to a small regular crowd of outcasts and eccentrics, drunks who had no patience for the fuckwits and their strollers at The Gate. In fact Loki, bless them, had a strict no strollers policy, and smart bartenders who put up with no useless vapid nonsense. They refused on principle to make the fancy trending drinks of the day, and if some youngsters wandered in and asked to hear Amy Winehouse, the bartenders would program Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday instead, informing the interlopers that this was what they really needed to hear. They also took very good care of us. In many ways it was like a return to Botanica. It was a kind of shabby place without a shred of pretension, a bar you really could call home, knowing no one would bother you there. I traded books and music with Mike, met some storied oddballs, and came away with plenty of tales.

            After I moved to Bay Ridge, I still made the pilgrimage back as often as I could, though returning to the neighborhood always took a psychic toll.

            There were others along the way, places we knew and frequented, and where we were known by name for several years, but Loki was the last bar I called home. We tried a few places in Bay Ridge, but none of them quite panned out (though I still have hopes for the German place around the corner, even though, or likely because, everyone I take there tells me it’s too depressing. So now we just drink at home. It’s cheaper and quieter, but there are fewer insane dancing Russians, Greek toy salesman, and Mexican ex-junkies who communicate exclusively via Seventies sitcom theme songs. I miss them and miss all those long drunken nights when I was never sure I was gonna get home alive or not. It was all so much of my memory and history. Things are very nice here, don’t get me wrong, and I no longer have the cash to drop at the bars, but all those joints sure helped make for an easy historical shorthand, even when everything else, all the things we said and did in those bars, remains so fuzzy.

 

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