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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An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.