Dive Bar

NY Press' Gut Instinct: Remembering the Rum House

The Rum House, in happier, drunker times.

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.

Read--and vote for--the original article at the New York Press website.

New York Press' Gut Instinct: So Long, Fred

Photo: Kelly Neal/Metromix

By the time many of you read this, the end will have come for Prospect Heights dive Freddy’s. Its destruction has been destined for seven years, ever since developer Bruce Ratner announced plans to bulldoze swaths of the central Brooklyn neighborhood and build luxury skyscrapers and a stadium housing the New Jersey Nets, which, happily, just completed one of the losingest campaigns in NBA history.

Sure, the lawsuits, rallies and ham-fisted eminent domain gave residents and businesses dwelling in the Atlantic Yards footprint a kernel of David-versus-Goliath hope, but really: Ratner had billions of reasons to shoehorn this project into the neighborhood, doling out political donations like Halloween candy, soliciting sweetheart tax breaks and enlisting the slobbering boosterism of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. “Please, come on out and support your Nets, Brooklyn,” I can hear him beg, as local interest flags after another 12–70 season.

But the pleasure I’ll take in watching Marty drown his sorrows in Junior’s cheesecake is trumped by the sadness I feel at Freddy’s closure. This quirky, curios-strewn tavern, where you could catch a banjo player one night, before building dioramas the next and participating in a spelling bee, will serve its final pint on April 30. After seven years of fighting, and staring down the wrecking ball, Freddy’s owners’ resignedly accepted a settlement from Ratner.

“We’re little guys. We can’t run our business into the ground as Ratner has and still survive. We have a lot of mouths to feed, and we are not billionaires,” manager Donald O’Finn said in a press release, which announced the bar’s hopeful move to Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn’s burgeoning bar district (Mission Dolores, Pacific Standard and 4th Avenue Pub all reside on the stretch.) “We… are looking forward to moving out from under this sword of Damocles.”

I admire Finn’s optimism and indefatigable spirit, as well as the fact of Freddy’s continued survival. However, it’s a tall order to re-create the scuffed charm of a structure that was once a bowling alley, speakeasy, cop hangout and clubhouse for employees of the former Daily News printing plant. Freddy’s will endure in spirit, but the patina that the patrons created will be lost in the rubble. Because I’ve lived in Prospect Heights since 2003, Freddy’s demise hits close to home, as does the coming construction nightmare (a dream for the jackhammering workers that will descend on the neighborhood like locusts to a crop). I will not pretend that I was a dyed-in-the-wool Freddy’s regular. But I did like having it here. I did like popping in for a pint of properly poured Guinness and letting the hours dissolve as easily as butter in a hot pan.

You see, Freddy’s was as comfortable as an old sweatshirt, enveloping musicians and off-duty policemen, curmudgeonly oldtimers and young bucks—like me. Freddy’s was among the first bars I visited upon relocating to New York City, and thus holds a special slot in my liquor-besotted heart. Back in October 2000, I was a bright-eyed newcomer living in Astoria. I knew few folks save for Brooke, a collegiate classmate who lived in Park Slope.

Freddy’s was as comfortable as an old sweatshirt, enveloping musicians and off-duty policemen, curmudgeonly old-timers and young bucks—like me.

“Come to Freddy’s and have a few beers,” she said on my second or third night in town. I agreed as quickly as a corporate yes-man, and soon I was navigating the bowels of the subway system. When I emerged an hour later, I found myself amid stately brownstones and disheveled bodegas. Like a lighthouse appearing in an ocean’s dark, roiling distance, neon-soaked Freddy’s stood out like a beacon. Inside, I found refuge with cheap beer, friends’ cheer and the warm embrace of a brunette whom I’ll call Stephanie—less out of embarrassment than the fact that, 10 years and 10,000 beers later, I’ve forgotten her name.

“I just moved to New York,” I said. “That must be really overwhelming,” she said, rubbing my hand.

“Do you want a beer?” I said, engaging in my time-honored courtship routine. My purchase of three-dollar Budweisers, combined with my then-optimistic outlook (“I want to start a magazine that’ll revolutionize journalism”) and lack of shoulder hair, conspired to work their magic. Soon, we were holding hands in the bar, followed by a rooftop after-party at Brooke’s apartment. A kiss. A question.

“Want to get a cab back to Astoria?” she asked. I did. I told the cabbie my address. He took off. We started smooching. A couple days in New York and already this? I could learn to love this town, I thought, so caught up in making out that I didn’t notice the cabbie steering us in a costly direction that took every dollar in my wallet.

Read the original story here!

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.

Gut Instinct: Laverne and Surly

“Now listen here,” says the lady in pink, eyes bouncing like lottery balls. “That’s Laverne. Don’t kill her.”

I sip my Corona and carefully select my nouns and verbs. “We’re not going to kill her,” I say, pointing to a leafy, globe-size plant topping the rickety table. My drinking companions nod vigorously. We are many things—drunks, emotional cripples, Midwesterners—but not murderers.

“I named that plant after my mom,” she says, her pony-tailed head bobbing like an oil well.

“My mom also named a plant after her mom,” I say. My inquisitor looks pleased. I continue, “The Grandma Alice. My parents have had her for decades.”

“Is it still alive?” she asks. Translation: Are you a homicidal maniac?

“Still blooming,” I say, owing more to my dad’s green thumb than my black, wizened digit.

She smiles, satisfied. “I’m Devondra, the daytime bartender.” She extends her festive fingernails. “Welcome to the Stop Inn.”

This 34-year-old dive (432 Nostrand Ave. betw. Madison St. & Putnam Ave., B’klyn) blends into Bed-Stuy’s low-slung landscape like gum on a sidewalk. There’s no awning. Dim lights. The only identifying characteristic is a hand-painted red stop sign. I’ve pedaled past frequently, watching folks drink, converse and—

“Can I help you?” asked a fedora-topped gent one eve.

“No, no,” I mumbled, a shamefaced Peeping Tom. I biked away with haste, my tail or something floppier tucked between my legs.

But tonight, curiosity has finally sent several cohorts and I across the buzzer-entry threshold. We nod to seasoned, middle-aged drinkers—“Mmmhmm,” says one—and peruse the booze. Dusty champagne bottles sit beside a fridge filled with Corona, Guinness, Heineken and Bud. The floral-shirted bartender drums her long, brown fingers. Behind her awaits a sturdy baseball bat.

“What’s your specialty?” I inquire.

“Beer and liquor,” comes the answer. I deserved that.

We order a domestic-beer trio: $10. Not bad. Even better, the bartender pops our bottle tops and wipes the mouths with white napkins, then tucked inside like a Molotov cocktail.

“Enjoy, sweeties,” she says, passing us bottles like they’re brown-bagged school lunches. Lord, mom-aged bartenders are the best.

We escort our beers to a deep booth, near the window, when Devondra shuffles over. “I’m not going to lie,” she says, wrapping up her Laverne lecture, “but I’ve had a bit to drink. I’m not crazy; I just talk a lot. You tell me when I should go.”

“Stay, stay,” I say. Alcohol enhances any story. She leans over our table. We lean forward.

“You really got to pluck out Laverne’s dead leaves,” she says. “It’s a lot of work.” Well, alcohol enhances almost any conversation. Nonetheless, Devondra is a good-natured blowhard with an easy laugh. Her motor-mouth discourse eventually winds from horticulture to love (“Treat your women right!”) to speakeasies.

“Nostrand Avenue was once lined with after-hours clubs,” she says, her eyes misting over with early-morning reminiscences. “But they’re all gone. We almost were too, after a fire a couple years ago”—that explains the fresh paint, the unscuffed tables—“but we survived. We’re licensed. We can sell beer and liquor, but no mixers.”

“Why no mixers?” I ask.

“You know what?”

“Uh...”

“Today I won $7 in scratch-off tickets. And I want to buy you all a drink.”

Really? Typically, no one wants to—or should—buy me another drink. She purchases beers and a plastic cup brimming with ice and Jack.

“Can you handle that?” she asks, appraising my straw arms and chunky specs.

“Please,” I say. I swig whiskey like water, which is my eyes’ response. She nods, pleased. A soul song comes alive, something bass-heavy and sensual, and Devondra sashays to her barstool.

We drink our freebies, our smiles unaided by booze. Many moons have passed since I’ve visited such a welcoming watering hole. Stop Inn belongs to a dwindling breed: It’s a neighborhood bar built on bonhomie, not the bottom line. Sure, there’s danger (no baseball bat to my forehead, please) and kooks, but I’ll take eccentricities and inexpensive drinks over another TV-packed tavern or techno-pumping cocktail lounge.

“Where are you going?” Devondra asks, as we bus our empty bottles. Home. Sleep.

“You’re not leaving before I kiss everyone,” she says, puckering up.

I point to my lips. She nods. Does this constitute cheating?

“No,” she says, chiding me. “I’m not that kind of woman.” 

One by one she smooches our cheeks, her lips leaving their pink mark. “I’ll see you soon,” she says. “And when you come back, don’t kill Laverne!”