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.

Gut Instinct: All Work and No Play Makes Josh a Fast Eater

New York City has made me a creature considerably more loathsome than the lowly cockroach: the whiny workaholic.

“I’m so busy,” I’ll complain to friends’ deaf ears, eyeballing my BlackBerry as I feign weariness typically associated with mono sufferers and scandal-plagued politicians. “I’m completely overwhelmed.” Naturally, I’m ignored like a screeching subway preacher.

I receive zero pity because I toil until my eyes mimic an eyeliner-mad raccoon’s. My shoulder muscles become Boy Scout–knotted. And I snap at loved ones like a rabid poodle. I’m diseased by this sick, mutating notion of making it.

Five years ago, making it meant buying fluffy Charmin. Now, thanks to penny-filled coffers, I fantasize about visiting far-flung lands—Vietnam, Hong Kong—where folks with nimble fingers will sew me cheap, chic suits and serve me greasy skewered meat carved from cuddly, yet impossibly scrumptious critters.

To fund such follies I burden myself like Atlas with work, which cuts my lunch hour to 15 or 20 minutes. This allotment is scarcely long enough to wolf a sandwich while sauntering down a street. Irritating? No, I consider this time crunch a game-show challenge.

(Cue bombastic announcer): “Today on Workaholic Lunch we have Joshua M. Bernstein. Joshua, do you believe you’re too busy?”

“Yes! I’m so stressed out!” I blurt, twitchy from my daily pot of obsidian-black Gorilla Coffee (“bowel movements in 10 minutes or less, guaranteed!”).


“Yes! I have the hunger!”

“THEN”—the audience chimes in—“LET’S…START…EATING!”

My recent trial run for Workaholic Lunch took me to the southeast corner of 46th Street and Sixth Avenue, home to Biriyani Cart. Inside, two Mutt and Jeff men—one skinny and old, the other young and plump, both sporting identical green smocks and brim-less white caps—fashion two-for-$5 kati rolls. They’re griddle-cooked chapatti flatbreads filled with veggies or flesh. Select from five, including spicy chicken buradi, lemongrass-y chennai and curried-potatoes-and-cauliflower aloo gobi.

“Hey, buddy, what can I get you?” the chubbier cook asked.

“Buradi and chennai,” I chirped happily. I’m a big fan of being called buddy, man or, be still my withered heart, hombre. Makes me feel wanted and loved, even if my only winning quality is my wallet.

“You got it, buddy” the chef said, working griddle magic. In minutes, I received rolls folded like Cuban cigars. Down tourist-choked Sixth Avenue I stumbled, chewing buttery, chewy chapatti and fowl that was fragrant, fiery and faintly gristly. I spit half-gnawed cartilage onto the sidewalk. A complaint? Heck no; it’s hard to quibble when only paying an Abe Lincoln.

The next day, my thriftiness—and need for human kindness—boomeranged me back to Biriyani Cart.

“Hey, buddy,” the cook welcomed.

“Hey, buddy,” I replied, “give me a couple aloo gobi.”

He did. I walked-ate the rolls, so relishing the zesty potatoes and cauliflower that I didn’t notice creamy red sauce leaking down my white T-shirt.

“Good lunch?” my boss asked at the office, examining my splatter stains. I looked like I’d just attended a pig slaughter.

I nodded sheepishly. How old is too old, I wondered, to wear a bib?

I aimed for cleanliness during another abbreviated lunch, sourced inside a dingy ex-newsstand (1013 Sixth Ave. betw. 37th & 38th Sts., 212-840-3767). It had transformed into an international food court including a sandwich deli, a soupy Latin-comestibles station and Khodiar Lunch Services. Its steam table specializes in northwest India’s veggie-heavy Gujarati cuisine.

“Thali?” asked the counterman. The $6.99 set meal included several mounds of veggies, soup, four roti pancakes, cardamom-flavored rice and a foil-wrapped salad of tomatoes and lettuce.

“Yup. Gimme something with heat,” I said. The counter guy ladled up several baby-food blobs, colored brown and purplish—mixed veggies and eggplant, respectively. I walked to a wobbly table, beside glum men wearing rumpled button-downs, and spooned up my mushy banquet.

One bite later, I considered kissing the cook. The veggie mash was fiercely flaming, while the okra possessed complex currents of curry. The feast was fit for two men; so obviously, I cleaned my plate in about seven minutes. I waddled officeward, feeling like a second-rate competitive eater about to, pardon the expression, lose his lunch.

But I’m a binger, not a purger, baby. I wedged myself into my desk, burping into one hand as the other massaged my belly mound, pregnant with food and the understanding that winning Workaholic Lunch would just be a tastier form of losing.