Setting A Scene In A Bar
New York City, NY (resident 2010-present)
This is a classic dive with a suspicious Canadian theme. It sits across from a very fine Indian restaurant (fare of the northwestern subcontinent) on a long stretch of Grand Street in East Williamsburg, with many other bars–dives and otherwise. My normal procedure here is to drink a lot of whiskey sodas and say some friendly things to whomever is around. When I first moved to New York my colleague Bobo encouraged me to go to Ontario Bar, I think because it had more of a cozy neighborhood vibe (at the time) than places nearer to Bedford Avenue. He could sense that I missed smaller-city dives? In addition to serving other bartenders, staff are known to be friendly to dull-eyed, lonely men who work in production and creative services. It’s not a bad business model in Williamsburg. I once heard a bartender complain that she only makes money between the hours of three and four. Close later and change the whole experience of the night.
This is a service industry dive on Grand Street in Williamsburg proper. The bathrooms are legendary and disgusting. It’s easy to get cheap whiskey. The area by the bar has arcade games which I never considered playing. It’s a great place to end the night, as long as you expect nothing and try to be polite. The last time I went to Midway an attractive woman ordered herself a drink and then gave it to me, saying that she had to go. I was too wasted to understand her.
Duff’s is an important metal bar. Imagine an angry cave of rock memorabilia and sexual frustration. At Duff’s they take drinking very seriously. The clientele are my people: sartorial weirdos, various genres of goth, comic book addicts, drug addicts, metal nerds, actual musicians, losers. I love it. One night it was very crowded and I was informed that the bar had just hosted an event related to alternative pornography. When I think about Duff’s being in Williamsburg, a short walk from Whole Foods and The Apple Store, I smile.
In Manhattan’s East Village there are a few Ukrainian places grouped together, including this place, which is part of a building that contains a decent restaurant, the sort of place with overstuffed chairs and paper tablecloths. Sly Fox looks like an abandoned primary school. The bathrooms are downstairs, in another part of the building and very over-lit. I have done drugs in them. At one point my friends (David, Adam, Miles, Zach) did a reading series at Sly Fox. The idea for the series was a few short readings and then never again. Sly Fox serves cheap imported vodka and two-dollar beers.
Clearly, I was avoiding the world. When my last long relationship was breaking apart, this is where I went, to to imagine it being finally over. The bar exists in East Williamsburg, just under the border (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) of Greenpoint. I’d typically go on weekend afternoons and order an Ace Cider with a glass, which cost an astounding three dollars during happy hour. I like to sit in there, not looking at my phone, talking rarely to the kind, quiet bartenders. On of them always brought in a few tapes from her VHS collection to play on a small glass screen above a booth at the front of the space. (It was the same TV that showed me the first Republican debates during this last election cycle.) Other times, I remember, I’d stop in for a Coors in the middle of a few hours of skateboarding with Miles Ross, now my roommate, then my longtime writer friend. We’d skate under the freeway, have a beer, skate a little longer, feel a lot better.
David Fishkind and I go here to have pickle martinis and soak in the ancient, problematic tones of a historical oyster-and-classic-songbook dive bar. I recommend all the food. I recommend the back room with the pool table, as long as you are not tempted to actually play pool (it voids movement in the space). The last time I was inside 169 Bar an executive in charge of the teacher’s union for NY public schools was there (at four in the afternoon, like me) buying a plate of shots for the his legal team. I love all the bartenders. I love the stupid, crowded weekends when the idiots come from everywhere to feel the violent dislocation and economic impossibility of Chinatown converted to a warn, self-affirming drunken stew. There are so many corny office parties, so many suits, so many different ages and types of drinker.
Post No Bills
There are parts of Brooklyn that manage to survive while being totally in between neighborhoods. Once too placeless and remote (the way the whole Montrose L stop area constantly feels) Post No Bills is now the obvious bar for me. I live across the street. I recognize all the employees. Some of them recognize me. I know the local celebrity, who introduces himself with a fake name out of what I assume is a sense of embarrassment. I mean, taking photos of naked women for a living seems fine to me. There shouldn’t be shame with nudity. But maybe I’m confusing him with someone else? Then again, it would be unusual for just any older man to dress so young.
Alaska closed this year–or last? I enjoyed going to the under-coded creative class bar because it reminded me of the West in the vaguest way and because it was easy to get a dark booth. Nothing was expensive. Alarmingly, there seemed to be no locals whatsoever, perhaps because of its slightly industrial location, near the Morgan L. The decor is dark and worn down. People will tell a story about a Puerto Rican gang using the space as a club house. The space has since been converted to something less ambiguous than what Alaska Bar had been. I am draw to bars, not for what they contain, but for what they refuse to confirm.
I include KGB bar on this list, not because I go there often but because it saw a few big readings organized by Tao Lin and Giancarlo DiTrapano. I have sipped the Russian beer and vodka. I have squinted at people in the warm room, amidst deep red curtains, trying to understand who they are, or who I might be to them. The East Village is too much for me, generally speaking. I don’t know the history.
Oakland California (resident 2009-2010)
Eli’s Mile High Club
A biker gang owned a lot of the bars in Williamsburg, at the time I lived there. This bar had been a bit neglected, perhaps, like much of the physical space in West Oakland. My friends slowly took the place over, one dance party at a time. They created a drinking space for young people living near Downtown. Because we spent money in the bar, our friends got to play whatever music they wanted.
Near the shore of Lake Merritt there’s a very dark bar. A very small window at the front. The candles had those heavy red shades. It was OK to smoke cigarettes in the back room. There were serious pool games. Nobody who showed up wanted to be anywhere else. Everyone I know in Oakland I originally met at Ruby Room.
The White Horse
It might be the nation’s oldest gay bar. The website says it was born gay in 1933. Though, of course, much of its history necessarily had to be secret, unwritten, cloaked. I saw a king’s show there and the place just feels special – a medium-sized room with just enough politics to be safe, a bar where friendship and community are as important as sex. It feels like a bar that represents home for people who had struggled to find one.
There are certain bars that feel remote. They might sit on the edge of town, but their atmosphere places them on the edge of the known universe. Zero social expectations, cheap drinks, nearly impossible to find without help. Merchant’s Saloon was an oasis of hardest-edged nightlife in a city once known for hard-edges: racial conflict and self-determination, radical politics, the drug trade, national-scale industrial projects.
Seattle Washington (resident 2006-2009)
The old Pony was cool and secretive. I had read about it in The Stranger during the period when Eric Grandy was editor. In college I DJed a monthly party at Chop Suey, which was just up the hill a block or two. When the bar re-opened at the new location, I went and was not disappointed. The place felt fun and masculine in a way that very few places do. It’s rough without being cruel. It’s simple without being trite. Seattle should be known for its gay bars and while I have no idea what the original Pony was like, the new Pony was (at least when I was in college) a cool place to have a drinks with men who like men.
Women took me to the Redwood. It’s at the end of a residential street, downhill a bit from Broadway on Capitol Hill. Women I cared about knew the bar scene better than I did, as an underage college student. A woman I knew was in love with a bartender at the Redwood. This bartender was also in a slow-core chamber-pop band. I bought my friend a bloody mary and the two women flirted for an hour while a politely sipped a Rainier. It was a classic Seattle nightlife scenario. It’s wasn’t about me. When my sister and I want to have a drink that feels like the fuzzy, energetic, gender-aware image of Seattle drinking we grew up with, we go to The Redwood or to Linda’s, just a few blocks away.
Blue Moon Tavern
I graduated from the University of Washington. The school is a long walk north from Capitol Hill, down the hill and across a canal, up another hill, over to a crest with a bunch of massive brick structures. I was a very serious student except for on Tuesday nights when I tried to host a weekly bar night, together with my roommates from Spokane. We lived between the freeway, the school, the canal, and the bar. Every Tuesday we hiked up hill to 45th, where a very seasoned tavern sits on the western fringe of the University District minisprawl of gas stations, private tutoring outfits, dopamine-designed bubble tea emporiums, tattoo parlors and endangered hookah bars. The inside of Blue Moon bar looks like petty crime in the 1930s. The walls are dulled by beer breath and ancient cigarette residue, stacked with old books, magazines, board games. The same bartender worked most nights. She had also modeled for the very tamely erotic neon sign. It was a proven fact that the beat poets visited the place, adding a bit of international proto-hipster flair to the authentically terrible atmosphere. It isn’t a college bar. That’s why we liked it. Most Tuesdays the bar was full of street junkies and professional drinkers. But my bright-eyed friends were there every week, trying to dodge the bill for the next beer pitcher, trying to play a bit of trivia, to talk politics, to hook up with someone special from Women In Film 204. It was the pure romance of youth. I never wanted to leave Blue Moon, but I was always glad to have the option.
The Sloop Tavern
A few bars in Seattle recall the maritime industries that rise and fall with each economic cycle. In the current moment, kayak rentals, boutique luxury big-water outfitters and high-end research vessel support mixes with deteriorating fishing and ship-maintenance businesses. Walk along the water in late summer and see all of it. Sometimes I go to a bar to forget where I am, other times I go to remember. I want to remember where Seattle came from, what kinds of people lived in the city, who was allowed to thrive and who wasn’t. Ballard is a huge-commercial-success of a neighborhood in North Seattle. I’ll probably live there in the future. Its history is a history of the ship canal connecting Lake Washington to the Puget Sound, a history of the Norwegian immigrants who helped to established a fishing industry in the region. The Sloop Tavern is a funky neighborhood bar that helps me remember certain things about what made Seattle a great city to grow up in. It wasn’t always Microsoft, Amazon, Nevermind. In the right local bar, you can do a bit of time traveling. After a couple drinks I like to go outside and peer down into one of the two Ballard Locks, the massive pieces of transportation infrastructure that allowed commerce to grow and flourish in the time before microtech. That era of Seattle–before personal computers and coffee-as-experience–is worth a few strong drinks, thick air off the Ocean, beyond the canal, the sea smell.
Daman’s is a sports bar by a strip mall near my childhood family home. Nestled in the more-conservative suburbs, across Lake Washington from the city, Damien’s is barely part of Seattle. It’s the beginning of the outer suburbs. A generation ago there were still farms on the East Side. That open space was converted to sprawling woodland office complexes. Some of it became new housing for younger and migrant workers. While the East Side now mostly serves the will of Microsoft, Google and Facebook, Daman’s serves strong drinks to anyone with a major credit card. I always end up there at the beginning of some weird holiday night, meeting old friends, thinking about growing up, thinking about dying on a cross. When you’re still very young, you never imagine yourself having these dim, listless thoughts in a strip mall bar, two doors down from the place you took karate classes as a pre-teen.
The Comet is simply the most reliable place to drink in the middle of Capitol Hill. Unless a really well-promoted show is happening, it’s easy to go in and have a beer. I try to go once every time I’m back home. I go for one drink at the Comet and one drink at Moe Bar, across the street: one classic rock ‘n roll, the other more creative class. Nothing ever happens at the Comet Tavern. I never talk to anybody. But I can sit and relax and feel that odd spiritual consensus that happens late on a Friday night, when everybody wordlessly expresses the same gratitude and exhaustion.