By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Jay Fox (credit: Ashley Sears)
I’ve been going to bars in New York City for over ten years now, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve watched the sun go down while hanging out in a beer garden, and I’ve seen it come back up from atop strange apartment buildings. I’ve witnessed hookups, shakedowns, pass-outs, and lock-ins. I’ve heard spontaneous sets of jazz standards begin as a consequence of a wall piano, a spare trombone, and a serious set of pipes; listened to cocaine monologues that can continue, without interruption, for hours, if not days; felt the pull of one of the last cigarettes to be legally smoked in a bar. I’ve tasted ales, lagers, stouts, and pilsners, shot Hennessy, sipped Oban, and even put Tabasco in my tequila because I was feeling particularly masochistic one night.
Despite all of the things that I’ve consumed—sometimes recklessly, sometimes responsibly—and been a part of, what I think of in these somewhat reflective moments, as I look back over the twelve bars that I’ve written about during 2011, is the people I’ve met. A bar does not derive its idiosyncrasies from the food on its menu or its décor. True, the best onion rings in the city or the best selection of beer on tap will serve as a way to draw people in, but it will not dictate the character of the establishment—this comes from the people who inhabit the bar.
To say that there is a sense of community in a good bar may sound kind of cheesy, but it’s true. It’s taken a lot of time to realize this, since I spent the majority of my initial years in this city looking for a place that would serve me even though I was underage (these usually ended up being serious dives that seem less like bars and more like refuges of the damned) or, briefly after turning 21, looking for cool places that host cool people who stand around, look beautiful, and speak with great vacuity on no small variety of subjects. The former are disappearing in this city; the latter are popping up all over the map, in areas that only a few years ago were considered to be decrepit purlieus within walking distance to an “up and coming” neighborhood.
It’s hardly the time to get nostalgic about the old New York. Nostalgia’s great power and, more importantly, its great danger lay in its specious portrayal of both past and present. To remember the good old days—when the Village was dangerous, when Coney Island used to be littered with medical waste and discarded nickel bags, when Port Authority used to be the home of thousands of drifters, vagrants, and junkies—is to conflate the past and one’s own youth. Nostalgia, in other words, is not really about the love of an era or the way in which the city used to be; nostalgia is about wanting to be young again.
So it’s foolish to become nostalgic about this city, especially for someone like me, who has only been here for ten years. I won’t understand, nor will anyone who moved here after the dawn of the century. Then again, my views have also been skewed on account of my growing up just outside of Detroit. To me, anyone who wants to entertain the idea that New York would be better if it reverted back to being a dirty, dangerous place should go see what Detroit is like. While there are more than a few really great things about that city, it is the punching bag for anyone who wants to document the urban decay that has accompanied the nation’s transformation into a post-industrial economy. There’s a reason you have to be in a car or on a bike if you want to travel a few blocks after dusk.
What made New York the greatest city in the world and what continues to make it the greatest city in world is the people who live here. True, there are a lot of assholes, a lot of dangerously crazy individuals who thrive on ruining the days of everyone around them, a lot of yuppies, poseurs, conmen, pimps and sociopaths; but the people who congregate in the local bars around this city usually don’t fall into any of these categories. They are the components that make New York New York, and they are no less important to the character of this city than the buildings that comprise the skyline of Manhattan. Therefore, if one really wants to understand this place, to embrace it, one really needs to know the people who live there. They won’t talk to you as you ride the train; they might pop you in the gut or spray mace in your eyes if you approach them on the street; they may entertain a brief word about the weather, while waiting in line for a sandwich or a cup of coffee. The local bar, however, is a space that, while not truly public, is meant to encourage spontaneous and gregarious exchanges. In fact, it may be the only venue that does so.
For all of the advances in social media and electronic communication, I find it ironic that this technology can often serve as a means to insulate us from the surrounding world. Meeting someone new requires some shared interest that we can manipulate in such a way as to appear however we think we are or however we would like to be. A conversation at the bar down the street during happy hour, on the other hand, is more authentic, even if it may not result in anything more lasting than a few words about the Mets or a brief discussion on Faulkner. Once you’ve had enough of these interactions, you begin to realize that there is a certain something that radiates from the people who live in the area. Your reasons for loving and staying in the city becomes less about the ease with which you can purchase commodities or get to work, and more about the fact that you feel like you belong here because you not only recognize that sine qua non…you possess it.
Jay Fox's profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing