Gut Instinct: On Holiday

1229488642494882026a181 While these are tough times to earn a paycheck—soon, the Press will compensate me with ramen—there’s one upside to this rocky economic climate: drinking with canned comrades.

Recently, I’ve commiserated with a photo retoucher at Gowanus’ industrial-hip Bell House, where we sipped two-for-one Smuttynose IPAs. “No more full-price beers,” he lamented. Over at Crown Heights’ Franklin Park, which recently unveiled a gaming room, I shared Sixpoint microbrews with a fired condo broker. “Another round?” he asked.

“It’s not like I have to get up tomorrow.” Still, a laid-off editor friend’s invite was most enticing. “To celebrate my return to freelancing, I’ll be drinking at the Holiday,” he wrote. “It doesn’t get cheaper.”

“Yes, yes and yes,” I responded, later adding, “Sorry about your job.” Back in 2000, I lost my dive-bar virginity to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (75 St. Marks Pl. betw. First & Second Aves., 212- 777-9637). I know I sound like a knockedup teen, but I swear my cherry-popping was accidental. At the time (to conveniently extend my pregnancy metaphor), I toiled for American Baby magazine. By day, I’d sort mail and send toddler calendars to friends.

“Congratulations on your girlfriend’s pregnancy!” I’d write. “American Baby looks forward to joining your journey to fatherhood!” By night, I strolled darkened streets like Baudelaire’s flâneur.Then as now, I knew New York City’s secrets weren’t all Googleable.

Whither the street-corner magician? The Chinatown arcade offering Street Fighter II? My knowledge-seeking missions were fueled by a brown-bagged Bud, its boozy kiss making New York more lurid, more cinematic—and filling my corn-kernel bladder.

Wandering St. Marks one eve, direly needing a toilet, I spied the graffiti-splashed Holiday. A few chain-wearing punks poured out, puffing Marlboro Reds. Sketchily promising, I thought, yanking open the creaky door. Home, I sighed. That is, if home was filled with chain-smoking grandpas—as creased and worn as their stacks of dollar bills—watching Wheel of Fortune.

“Close the door!” shouted a dumpster of a dude. I obeyed. Who knew I liked being bossed around by old men? After relieving myself in a bathroom ripe with decades-old urine, I faced a bartender who recalled the Crypt Keeper.

“Whaddya want?” croaked the corpse-like octogenarian named Stefan Lutak. According to legend, Stefan was once an Olympic soccer star. Now, his only goal was getting drunk.

“Bud,” I ordered. Stefan cracked the beer and shuffled away to bus empty bottles, leaving me to scribble in my journal. Dear diary, I found a bar I loved! Like the best dives, the Holiday was a refuge, a port in the city storm where nobody asked questions or passed judgments, least of all Stefan. He’d inevitably drink himself into a surly stupor and sing warbling songs, like an aria dragged through the gutter. And when he’d finish crooning (or clearing his throat; I could never tell the difference), he’d often refuse to serve customers. One memorable Valentine’s Day, Stefan liquored himself into dreamland.

So us lonely-hearts bargoers went to a bodega and bought six-packs, partying at Holiday while Stefan cut Zs. Since falling for the Holiday, I’ve had countless dive-bar flings: Imperial Biker, Johnny’s, Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge.

Some would call it cheating. I prefer to think I’ve become a polyandrous lover of sleazy, whiskey-soaked saloons—rotgut whiskey is the route to my heart. But my editor friend’s firing brought me back to my first love.

Little had changed since my last years-ago visit. Then again, why should it? Dive bars exist in slowly degrading stasis. Swaths of duct tape held Holiday’s booths together, and Iggy Pop still sang about being a passenger.

Sure, drink prices ticked up a couple quarters but, defying medical science, they were served by the same gaunt figure.

“Stefan, can I have a beer?” I asked. He looked up, his eyes dripping with as much disdain as my mom’s after I wrote about her squirting me with her breast milk. “Whyyyyyyy?” he groaned, as if I’d killed his dog. “Because…you sell beer,” I said. Stefan wearily acquiesced. I brought my longneck to the I’m-fired gathering, where we discussed media’s collapse.

“The rate things are going, media will go down in flames. Anarchy will reign. But you know what will remain? Bloggers and Stefan.”

“To Stefan!” we said, drinking to survival against all odds.