I arrived at the Rum House in time to watch it die. For 37 years, this piano bar anchored the ground floor of West 47th Street’s Edison Hotel, an Art Deco inn that opened during the Depression. But the Rum House was a dingy remnant of the swingin’ ’70s: dark-brown fixtures, lights so dim it seemed like you were wearing sunglasses, ass-swallowing seats and the stench of cigarettes past. Plus, there was also Karen Brown, a piano player who crooned sing-along Sinatra tunes to tourists and camaraderie-seeking New Yorkers alike.
“Karen hasn’t been here since May,” a waitress told me on one of the Rum House’s last nights of existence, which was also my first visit. For years I’d heard whisper of the Rum House’s divey charm. “It’s like how Times Square used to be,” a fellow dive lover once told me. “Remember Howard Johnson’s?” During my early New York years, I was a habitué of HoJo’s.
Hunkered on the corner of West 46th Street and Broadway, Howard Johnson’s was a relic of the atomic age. The all-night diner had a sea of booths and a swell of ne’er-do-wells crunching clam strips, licking ice cream cones and slurping $3.25 happy hour cocktails. For me, HoJo’s was a tether to the Times Square of jiggling titties and blood-splattered cinema. After spending eight hours answering phones, I’d hit HoJo’s for a cocktail, preferably four. It was equal parts daily escape and a portal to an earlier era. HoJo’s died in 2005. In its stead: American Eagle. The following year, my other favorite time-soaked Times Square haunt—McHale’s, located a block further west—also bit the bullet. In its stead: a skyscraper as smooth and shiny as an American Eagle model’s chest.
Now it was time to say hello and goodbye to the Rum House. My fellow dive fan Aaron and I sat in sunken seats. I sucked on a stiff gin and tonic; him, draft Yuengling. The beer tasted stale, most likely because it was pulled through tap lines as dirty as a New York politician. “Blech,” Aaron said, making a face like a toddler swallowing medicine. “You broke the cardinal dive rule,” I said, tsk-tsk-ing like a schoolmarm chiding students for forgetting long division. “In dive bars, you only order bottled or canned beer and mixed drinks, no more than two ingredients.”
Lesson complete, we settled in to our adult beverages. The TV flashed sports of some sort while tourists thronged the bar, their arms strained with bags full of the clothes and luxury goods keeping our city’s economy afloat. Martinis were ordered, martinis were consumed. “Everyone is in such a good mood,” I remarked to Aaron. After work, most bars in Midtown are stuffed with suits and office workers bitching about their workday while self medicating.
The cloud of crabbiness does not abate until the third drink. But in a touristy hotel bar—especially an affordable, shabby-chic dump such as Rum House—spirits always soar.
“It’s a nice reminder that people can, you know, have fun in this town,” I told Aaron, who’s a bit burned out on big-city living. Spend too long in New York City and you suffer tunnel vision that only allows you to see swirling trash, cattle-car sidewalks and screaming subway preachers. “It’s not a bad dump,” Aaron conceded, ordering another Yuengling. He pointed to his beer. "You get used to the taste."
Spend too long in New York City and you suffer tunnel vision that only allows you to see swirling trash, cattle-car sidewalks and screaming subway preachers. “It’s not a bad dump,” Aaron conceded, ordering another Yuengling. He pointed to his beer. “You get used to the taste.
Given time, I could’ve gotten used to, and even adored, the Rum House’s cheap drinks, characters and strange stench. But I was too late, like professing undying love to a college crush on her deathbed. By now, the bar is gone. Its replacement will likely be shiny and plush, perhaps employing a mixologist. Hotel guests will clink glasses, remarking how they would never dream of spending $15 on a cocktail back home.
You can call this progress, but I prefer a different word: loss. Times Square’s sinful cinemas are gone, as are most of the strippers. The dive bar is next on Midtown’s endangered species list, like a sort of alcoholic bald eagle. Where remains to get tanked on the cheap? Outside of Port 41, Dave’s Bar, Holland Bar, Jimmy’s Corner and Rudy’s, there’s little to recommend for a slumming tourist, or New Yorker, lusting for the low life.
It’s news enough to drive any Midtown toiler to drink—likely at T.G.I. Friday’s or Red Lobster.