By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion, in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it — Sir Isaac Newton
My first apartment after college was the same size as the house I grew up in. The former was in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint; the latter was in suburban Detroit. While I never felt the house to be too small for my parents and two siblings, having an apartment of that size, especially in New York, seemed almost too capacious for five people. Then again, there were rarely only just the five of us in the apartment, as there were always others coming and going—boyfriends, girlfriends, acquaintances, friends from out of town under the assumption that we always had an open couch for them to crash on.
It was not a flophouse for degenerates, though it sometimes seemed that way on Sunday mornings—the living room baroquely decorated with empties and overflowing ashtrays, a package of frozen meatballs opened and clearly snacked upon with no attempt to heat them, people no one seems to know still passed out on the floor; and then there were the mid-breakfast recollections about people passing out while in the midst of urinating or how the fire department showed up not once but twice due to a series of very unfortunate circumstances that may or may not have been connected. Disregarding the state of the apartment after a three-keg party, our place was quite nice. Our amenities included a dishwasher and an island in the kitchen, a skylight in three of the four bedrooms and an impressive amount of closet space. We even had a full drum kit in the living room (which, I should admit, was the bane of at least one man’s existence, whose retaliatory efforts were both clever and devious, culminating in a coup de maître that came in the form of setting fire to a grill full of plastic miscellany under one of our windows one excruciatingly hot afternoon).
To say that this apartment was the stuff that kids dream about when they move to Brooklyn would be an understatement. It was cheap (I paid $540 a month when we moved in) and it was huge. The ceilings were probably fifteen feet high. It had two bathrooms—a luxury that I had not experienced while growing up. Even better, it was in an area of Brooklyn that had several bars and restaurants, as well as a plethora of Polish markets that sold produce at half the price of the closest supermarket (cabbage was something like twenty-nine cents a pound). True, the G was the only nearby train, but…well, I guess perfection cannot exist unless haunted by defects.
Red Star Bar
This notion began to creep closer and closer to home. Soon the phrase “perfect except…” began to apply to the apartment. Then it was applied exclusively to the apartment. After a few months, it had fallen into disuse, to be replaced by words like “good” and phrases like “not bad”. As the months got colder, any positive side to the apartment had been eclipsed by the fact that, one, our landlord refused to pay for our heat, and, two, that heating a massive apartment with lofted ceilings was too expensive, especially when the only means of doing so came in the form of a commercial heater the size of a truck engine that precariously hung from the ceiling in the living room. In the dead of winter, we would awake in four layers and stumble out to see that the thermostat was below 45°. And then we had mice. And then it became so humid that our clothes began to lose their shape if stuck on the hanger for too long, that many of our books began to look like inflated accordions. And then the summer came, and we realized that cooling an apartment of our size was just as difficult as heating it. And then we realized that such vicissitudes in temperature and humidity often cause black mold to form inside of the walls of an apartment, provided it is not insulated well. As our apartment was not insulated well, one need not guess what we found lurking beneath our drywall one afternoon as we were moving furniture in order to clean.
But there was another problem, one that didn’t have to do with the apartment itself. It had to do with the fact that the majority of the bars in the neighborhood catered to one of three crowds: the Polish crowd, the either assimilated-Polish or non-Polish people who had lived in the area for at least a generation, or the new group of kids, like us, who had moved into all of the “mixed industrial” spaces by the East River. The first favored taverns and clubs. The second had a few dives. The third wanted tenebrous and artsy pubs. What seemed bizarre is that these three circles rarely, if ever, intersected. There was no one place where everyone could go, where everyone did go. Furthermore, there were no sports bars in Greenpoint (though, it must be said, a few places had a television that would air the local game). Consequently, if you were a sports fan from another city living in Greenpoint, you would have to travel no short distance to see one of your teams play. It was always a headache, especially during football season, since the G train had a bad habit of simply not running on the weekend.
And then Red Star Bar (37 Greenpoint Avenue, Greenpoint) opened up. Though it does not attract that many members from the Polish group, it does attract an equal amount of people from the second and third groups. It does this by providing a common ground in the form of sports, wings and some of the best sliders I’ve ever had. It may seem odd to a lot of people living outside of New York, but such a place is kind of a rarity in the city, especially in Brooklyn. I don’t really understand it. The city is filled with people who have immigrated to the city from all over America, it has more bars than stoplights, and yet, for whatever reason, you can only watch a non-New York team after walking three miles in the snow, uphill in both directions. And, yes, this snow comes down even in September when the Tigers have the chance to finally make it into the playoffs.
For this reason, Red Star quickly became a favorite while I was still living in Greenpoint. I would head to the bar with my roommate, who was from Seattle and was thus in a situation similar to mine, and we would either watch our games or take advantage of the Wednesday night wing deals. It was perhaps the only time in my life where I really did this type of thing—the whole two guys hanging out at a bar not getting drunk, but drinking pretty heavily, and ostensibly having a moment of repose from any social obligations while at the same time discretely serving as one another’s therapist.
What seems so odd to me now, five or six years later, is that Red Star has become something of an institution in Greenpoint. It gets packed, even when there’s only a hockey game on. (This is not a barb directed at hockey—being from Detroit, this would be considered a capital offense. The point is that I remember watching the sixth, and final, game of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals at about ten-percent capacity at Red Star.) Its food has come into its own, too. Their wings are highly regarded now, even if we used to have to order them “extra crispy” when the place first opened because they would come out almost raw otherwise. There are even some solid bands that play in the venue upstairs (mostly hard-rock acts, which is peculiar, since there are more hipster bands based in Greenpoint than there are hipsters).
However, this should not seem odd to me. Though it is a cliché, it is true that change is the only constant in this world. In fact, the process of changing, or flux, is the very basis of existence, history and consciousness (see Heraclitus, Hegel or Marx, and Dennett, respectively). When a new bar is introduced into a neighborhood, the change typically has a divisive quality that is rarely good for a community. Bars like Red Star, while they may still be divisive, do not reinforce the normal lines of division of the groups I described above (think of this in the form of a Venn diagram—they open up an overlapping space) because they are indifferent to them. This is what I really love about the bar; it does not try to accommodate anyone besides people who like really good bar food, beer and sports. As a consequence of this, it introduces the kind of communal space that so many of the hip joints in the area—with names and personas based on the concept of community via local farms and local beers—fail to create. In other words, by proclaiming that they are representative of the community, they only affirm divisions between the new people moving into the neighborhood and the people who have been there for generations. The irony is overpriced, but delicious nonetheless.
Photo of Jay Fox by Ashley Sears