By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Do fish ever get seasick?
Jay Fox (credit: Josephine Paz)
I first learned of the Irish Haven (5721 4th Avenue @58th Street, Brooklyn) from an old communist friend of mine. We had run into one another at a place called Hanks, a concrete-floored watering hole at Atlantic and 3rd Avenue—a corner which serves as the proverbial water cooler for vagrants, degenerates, and other assorted derelicts for whom shame is a four letter word. As we drifted through the platitudes common after years of estrangement, we discovered that we lived next door to one another in Sunset Park. He and his friends shared a floor in a row house. I lived in a lonely tenement building filled with tacitly hostile residents, a toothless super, and a large number of mice that treated my apartment like an elephant graveyard. I never had a mouse problem—what I had was a dead mouse problem. Suffice to say, our experiences in the neighborhood were very different, and I rarely bothered exploring it because I tried hard never to be there.
Pinko was appalled when I told him my story. As we rode the R train south to our respective (and adjacent) homes, he did his best to talk up the neighborhood. He had become particularly fond of the only pub within walking distance to our apartments—the Irish Haven. He had been going there for the better part of a year, and felt it was in my best interest to be introduced to some of the regulars as soon as possible.
We arrived too late that night to see anyone that he knew. Pinko was mildly upset about this, but it didn’t stop us from having two pints and a good conversation on revolutionary politics. It was a solid Tuesday night, but more importantly, I had learned there was a place I could retreat to when I didn’t feel like sitting in my studio, writing, chain smoking, and waiting for more moribund visitors to pop in and go leg-up.
A dire case of boredom broke out in my apartment the following Saturday. A bad case of writer’s block was keeping me glued to a television that received only nine channels, the most entertaining of which was CSPAN. By nine pm, that familiar studio-stir craziness was starting to creep up on me like a bad trip. The Haven beckoned.
I had to buzz to get in. I was only allowed entry when I correctly guessed the password to be “I don’t know.” The sentry, an older Irish woman (thickset, attractive to the point of not being ugly, gunmetal-grey hair), welcomed me without a hello, and continued to ignore me for the rest of the night. She was busy, though. Petula Clark’s “On Broadway” just wasn’t going to be the same without a gravelly harmony sung in quartertones. The rest of the patrons, however, were a bit more cognizant of my presence.
The bar top in the Haven is an expanse of aged wood that runs on toward infinity. Those resting their elbows and heads upon its surface are a mix of broke intellectuals, surly union men, and neighborhood drunks whose bitterness blossoms under a whiskey-brown incandescence. The jukebox, directly to the right once you walk in, is a miscellany of Irish favorites and bad pop. In the far corner is a full kitchen with no purpose beyond collecting dust and confusing first-timers. The color of the bathroom walls is one and the same as the walls of the bathroom in my parents’ house—labial carnation.
Irish Haven (credit: Jay Fox)
I sat down at the bar between two empty stools, ordered a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson, and then produced a worn copy of Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind from my pocket. It’s important to have something to do at the dawn of a solitary bar visit, especially in a place where your patronage is viewed as invasive, where you can feel the eyes of the men, perhaps even the ghosts of stevedores and ironworkers, calculating the probability of you being some kind of problem they may have to deal with later on in the night. Luckily, the bartender returned with not only the shot and the beer, but also a head full of Yeats, which he recited in a lovely brogue. Most in the bar didn’t notice. A few responded with respectful nods and limited applause.
He had spoken to me for no more than a minute, but I felt the tension ease and the curiosity foment. Two brothers from Pittsburgh were the first to approach after the bartender had walked away. Maybe they were Yeats fans. Maybe they sensed that I too was a refugee from the Rust Belt. Maybe they just wanted to know how the hell I managed to elicit such beautiful words out a bartender whose face had long ago soured into a permanent scowl. Regardless, they were not to be the last.
Within an hour or so, I realized that the icebreaker of choice in the Haven goes something like: “You know they shot The Departed in here?” Presuming you to be incredulous, each person then points to a plaque of various photographs taking during the filming (including a shot of Scorsese behind the bar). All things considered, it is a very nice plaque.
Discourse is a byzantine affair in bars like these. People don’t want to tell you much about themselves without serious tangents that follow like the plotlines in a Pynchon novel sans the zaniness. Maybe it’s just the alcohol or the fact that they’re encountering a receptive ear. Maybe it’s simply that everyone else in the bar has heard it all before. A man who talked union like Pete Seeger gave a lengthy hagiography on Mother Jones before finally divulging that he was a plumber. He also jabbed the air and said “Boom!” (in the thickest Brooklyn accent you ever heard) after the punch line of every joke. A former graduate student from U. Penn, one of the Brothers Pittsburgh, told me about his thesis by asking whether or not I’d read everyone from Aeschylus to Žižek. I don’t think he ever got to the thesis; it seemed like he just wanted to talk to someone who’d also spent most of college in the tenebrous stacks reading books that rarely, if ever, come up in conversation. The hours passed almost without notice.
As I walked (walked!) home that night, I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to think about this experience very often. It wasn’t wacky. A lot of the memories were already beginning to fade like an old wedding dress. It almost felt as though I had stepped into another person’s routine for a night. But as I lay in bed that night (morning), awaiting yet another Mus moribundus, I thought about my reflection next to the plumber and the Brothers Pittsburgh in the mirror behind the bar. Our reflection.
Jay Fox was born in suburban Detroit. He moved to New York City in 2001. When he’s not working his 9-5, he spends his time writing fiction, playing with his band (Pistols, 40 Paces), doing the crossword puzzles featured in The New York Times, and drinking in waterholes around the city. If given the option of a PBR or a Budweiser, he would take the PBR. If given the option of an IPA or a Belgian wheat, he would more than likely take the IPA. Whiskey makes him charming, stupid, and then sleepy. He doesn’t particularly like writing in third-person, but understands that it’s necessary sometimes.
He would probably want to meet anyone who has bothered to read this, especially if it’s over a drink.