New York City: Signs of Life in the Smoking Ruins

The host eyed us with disdain. “You’re with the band…?” Having been on both sides of this equation, I know the drill. Musicians, particularly jazz musicians, are the bane of the restaurant industry. Anthony Bourdain knew: “I need more jazz musicians in my restaurant? They’re fucking deadbeats!” Thinking quickly, we stammered, “but we’re going to spend money, honest!” The bar is called Fiddlesticks, which annoys me for some reason. Imagine taking a date there, falling in love, and having to tell your grandkids that you realised she was your destiny, all your heart desired, as you held hands under the table at Fiddlesticks. Honestly. Anyway, perched on tiny stools over the Greenwich Avenue subway grate, C and I obediently ordered our state-mandated snack, allowing us to drink to our hearts’ content. Every seven minutes we’d lean sideways to avoid the plume of stale corpse-breath erupting from beneath our feet as the A train rumbled by. A restaurant down the block fired up the barbecue, sending wafts of sweet, meaty smoke along the street, as masked pedestrians shuffled by, eyeing us suspiciously. And crammed into a doorway, the band swung like nothing had changed, Jerry Weldon’s towering tenor sound bouncing from one side of the Avenue to the other, only a few residents hip enough to keep their windows open. The atmosphere was claustrophobic but jubilant–  we can drink and listen to music– it’s better than it was.

At an old favourite, 1803 in TriBeCa, we sat in the ruins of our city and ate grilled oysters, while a band of our friends and heroes played their hearts out, their music echoing through the deserted neighbourhood; intently ignoring the iceberg out the porthole and the water lapping around their shins. —The word “parklet” is an unwelcome addition to the lexicon: outside hundreds of foundering restaurants across the city, one lane of roadway is abducted, swallowed by the sidewalk, overlaid with wooden decking and outfitted with tables and chairs, sometimes clear plastic dividers so our neighbours don’t infect us. We laugh and drink and bask in the cheerful hubbub and try not to look over at the abandoned apartment buildings all around— Musician friends, some we rarely saw in normal life, dropped by to bump elbows. Mask on, mask off. On a warm August evening this was possibly the only live music in New York City, and those of us still here don’t want to pass up an opportunity. In the end we took our masks off and blew. There’s no alternative. Nobody knows what the fuck to do. The rules go too far and not far enough. But at the end of each tune, the small crowd erupted, glasses raised, shouts of encouragement. Uncertainty reigns, but music and wine helps. 

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The High Line snakes along 22 blocks of Manhattan’s west side. A disused elevated railway line, it was revived and reopened as a public park about ten years ago and was, until recently, a major attraction for infuriatingly slow-walking tourists. On Saturday night, beneath the park, in the walled-in courtyard of the Guardian Angel church, it was muggy and airless. Bus-stop-style benches seemed to sink into the rubber matted floor. The band and I poured sweat as we attempted to reach a masked and clearly sober audience of wide eyed young people who seemed unsure how they got there; peering down from the rooftop, more bemused faces, but these folks had sensibly paid more to be further away from us. At band level, hands started reaching into shopping bags containing wine, beer, champagne, even the occasional cocktail shaker– this was entirely appropriate: if there’s one thing I know about church, it’s always BYOB– and by set two things were loosening up. Jerry Weldon arrived to help us out on tenor as pizza deliveries started showing up, and by 10pm the squares were stomping their feet and making out extravagantly with people they’d just met. There was no bar, no pictures of jazz legends on the wall, no surly doorman; but for a few hours, the place was a jazz club.

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Sunday, and I dragged my feet along a path I know well. Every week for months I’d planned to visit Smalls, and of course nothing ever came up to stop me, but still I hesitated. They now put on a live-streamed concert every evening but the idea of descending that legendary staircase after so many months of lockdown felt like volunteering to spend a night in a haunted house. I know so many of its secrets. I’ll delve more into this someday, but the promise of some swinging music from my buddy, and fellow club manager, Carlos Abadie, finally got me down there. And in a way it was as eerie as I expected. The club will reopen the first day it’s allowed, but for now dust hangs in the air; the chairs are stacked, the walls are bare, the bar shelves and fridges are empty, and of course there’s almost nobody there. I wiped off a bar stool and slouched up the back of the club, feeling guilty but I don’t know why. The cats breathed air into the vacuum, vibrations making the air shimmer, dust billowing; a glint of possibility. Strangely the music hasn’t changed, hasn’t become suddenly sad and uncertain, it’s just become incongruous with its surroundings. New York City still has a faint pulse but you have to know where to look. 


 

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South Brooklyn Badlands and a Bar with No Name

I’m standing at a bar, pushing my luck. I’ve got a beer in my hand and I’m wearing out my welcome. Currently in New York City, I’m allowed to order a drink at the bar, but not drink it there. Mask on, distance observed, I’m supposed to order and pay, then take my drink and get the hell out. But I want to sit here. I want to lean back in a rickety stool, eavesdrop on neighbours’ conversations, maybe pass an eye over some sport I don’t care about on the TV in the corner, spin a beer mat between my fingers, and order another one. That’s what neighbourhood bars were invented for.

  I arrived in Sunset Park uncharacteristically early, to give myself time to poke around. It’s a fair hike from my part of town— a good 30 minutes on the N train over the Manhattan bridge, down through swanky Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, past the cemetery, and into South Brooklyn— so I’ve only made it out here a handful of times. For a very hot minute I even had a steady, if soul-crushing, gig at a Chinese restaurant, playing jazz standards in the face of requests for something “popular.” But every time I visit I’m delighted— this neighbourhood is a trip. Like most of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, demographics have shifted gradually but surely over the years: Irish, Polish, Italians, Norwegians moving in and out. Midway through the 20th Century, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans moved in; and in the 80s Sunset Park became home to Brooklyn’s first Chinatown.

 Last time I was here, maybe a year ago, 8th Avenue was heaving with shoppers and workers, a chaotic, noisy, shouting, jostling tangle of humanity. It felt like Saturday morning in Hong Kong, but also unmistakably New York— this is what streets all around this city used to feel like before they were taken over by beautiful people taking photos of themselves. Wide open storefronts with vendors out front bellowing the day’s specials, shoppers running a skeptical eye over the precarious piles of fruit and veg, the jaw dropping array of flapping, wriggling seafood; clothing, electronics, restaurants, food carts; all relentlessly bustling. And hardly anyone who looked like me. It seemed like every corner was home to a vegetable or fish market; spiky stinky durian in string bags dangling from the awnings, frogs and crabs leaping to freedom from plastic buckets. 

 Somehow I was expecting the same this time as I surfaced from the subway. Had I forgotten about the virus? Despite the news, I somehow get so used to the bleak reality directly around me, I think it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Surely if I make the trek to another country, another city, even another borough it’ll all be different. And of course in Chinatown, the opposite is devastatingly true. I remember before we had any idea of the spread of the virus, it was still a Chinese problem; I heard reports that people were boycotting Chinese restaurants around the world, using the pandemic to excuse their racism. So of course, now Sunset Park is a wind blown, dusty, tumbleweed ghost town. Store fronts are shuttered, many never to return; twisted strands of tinsel hang forlorn from power lines, maybe left over from January New Year festivities. Walking past the overflowing trash cans and piles of empty boxes, some of the smells still linger– it would take decades for the smell of the fish markets to blow away; and from the small, neat homes, a waft of incense and Chinese medicinal herbs remind me of the time an old girlfriend convinced me to travel every week to Flushing (ironically for a stomach complaint) to poke out my tongue and receive a bag of twigs and desiccated spiders.

 I cross 60th street and stop. In front of me is the glorious S——- Tavern, the end point of this sentimental journey, and I want to take it in for a moment. It’s not a beautiful facade, but unpretentious if nothing else. A squat little building; a cranky tired face of exposed red brick, neon shamrocks in its eyes, its name stamped on its forehead like a drunken prank. American, Irish, and Norwegian flags hang listlessly over the closed green door; and the ubiquitous sign: “no mask, no entry.”

 I push in. Waiting at the bar is my attorney, chatting to a bartender whose mask portrays a grotesque broken-toothed leer, the rest of him not pretty enough for this to be convincingly ironic. A beer and a whiskey appear in front of me— the only reasonable order in a bar like this— and I breathe it all in: the old beer smell that even four months out of business can’t erase, the dusty Irish knick knacks, Chinese guys playing darts, Irish at the bar (Tuesday morning is for the Norwegians); muted classic rock from the ancient jukebox, elbow grooves in the dinged up old wooden bar. There’s wood everywhere, but not the artfully distressed beams and lavish polished oak you see at the Irish behemoths in the city; just old lumber, worn smooth by years of human occupation. The S——- Tavern is a joyously friendly mutt where a shared love of booze and darts leads to a harmony the world outside the green door struggles with. My attorney chats with another local about their favourite local places, now gone, like the Chino-Latino restaurant unluckily named Corona– shuttered within the first week. They saw the writing on the wall. Our masked bartender, after casually revealing that his day job is addiction counselling, brings me another round.

I complain often and lustily about the dearth of good bars in NYC, but as usual my outlook is blinkered  and I forget to look beyond Manhattan and my own little yuppified hood. Out in the real world, they still exist, and South Brooklyn has some standouts. We’ll do a tour one day soon.

 We settle our tab and tell our man we might be back later- who knows how this night will play out. We pour out onto 8th avenue and head south- we’ve got an appointment at a Yemeni restaurant a mile or so away. But at 61st street we’re almost physically yanked around the corner by the smell coming from a battered old food cart. It’s Chinese barbecue. Smoke pours from the chimney, from the service window, from cracks in the corners of the roof; it’s sweet and thick, and immediately transports us back to tours of duty playing Cantonese pop in Hong Kong. We join the line of intent, hungry locals, and eventually score a bag of good stuff to fuel the next leg of the adventure. Charred squid, whole mackerel on a stick, chicken wings— smoky, intense and delicious. They’re all sent down to meet the beer sloshing around downstairs, and we roll off into the night.


 

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Bars: Italians do it Better

One of my idle fantasies, when I’m not plotting world domination (any day now), or fuming about technology and young people (every day now), is opening a bar. Not because I have any great desire to be a small business owner, but because the kind of place in which I like to hang out just doesn’t exist where I live. You know, a good place. Where people from the neighborhood drop in for a coffee or a beer, to have a chat or read the newspaper, to take a few minutes or a few hours out of their day and it doesn’t cost them a fortune. Where you can escape the chaos outside without being assaulted by musical and televisual chaos inside. Where there are a few good things to eat and drink, and everyone’s welcome. Like they do it in Italy.img_1527

 

Italian art’s great, they sing a cracking opera, their historical monuments are top shelf, but the Italian bar is a thing of unrivaled beauty. Stand at the bar of an afternoon and order a coffee and maybe a cheeky grappa, take your time stirring in the sugar, smile at the girl working the cigarette counter, and soak it in. The muted chatter of the locals, the soccer playing silently on a tiny screen in the corner, the smell of coffee grounds; unfamiliar multicolored spirits being freely poured into shot glasses; the crunch of your shoes on the slightly gritty tiled floor and maybe an errant cigarette butt to remind you of the days when the joint would’ve been thick with smoke. The thimbleful of thick, bittersweet coffee, a perfect layer of light brown crema on the surface; you’ll down it in two sips, and want another one straightaway, but be prepared for an uncertain look from your barista- the Italians do it one at a time. Slip a coin or two on the bar, call “ciao, grazie” to your barman, and you’re out.

d6e2117e-911c-486a-bd48-a39b6e15a8e9Come back late in the evening and the atmosphere will have changed. Work’s done for the day, and the locals are getting stuck into the aperitivos. In theory it’s an evening drink, usually something slightly bitter, slightly sweet, maybe bubbly, designed to get your taste buds ready for dinner. But in bars, especially in Milan, the drinks are often accompanied by appetizers, sometimes so substantial that the evening aperitivo can replace dinner. Buy a negroni, help yourself to the free grub: bruschetta, roasted eggplant, fried zucchini, caponata (sort of a sweet and sour Sicilian eggplant stew), focaccia- maybe switch to wine at this point- pasta, anchovies, olives… Round it off with another espresso and my current favorite after-dinner drink, Fernet, and you’ll feel like a million lira. Language boundaries have melted away, and you realize you’re suddenly fluent in nods and smiles and previously impenetrable hand gestures. Come back tomorrow, and chances are your new friends will be there again.

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Let’s face it, “Nick’s Bar” is best kept a fantasy. My reasonable prices would keep the influencers away, and within a week we’d be out of stock, staff would have quit, and I’d be trying to sell box wine in paper cups because I never got around to doing the dishes. I guess I’ll leave it to the specialisti. See you at il bar.