“Where is everyone?”
At 12.40 on a Sunday in September – football season – the bar should have been heaving. The regulars would be a fair way through their half pints of Budweiser. (The smaller glasses ensure it stays cooler, I eventually realised.) And the transplanted Steeler fans should be assembled in front of the choicest screens.
I almost didn’t come. Watching a Jets game generally meant relegation to the small TV at the far end of the bar, away from my normal spot at the angle, closer to the door. Yet some of my favourite Sundays have been here, particularly the days with London games, when the fella with the Italian bakery would pass around his lard bread (as good as it sounds) as we tried to make it all the way through to the late game.
This day, Bobby, the Brooklyn barman, who is so old-school he turned down Jimmy Kimmel when his show came looking for old-school Brooklyn barmen to be on TV, looked at me as if I was a cretin. Not for the first time.
I knew the bar was closing next month. I knew the owner was sick and wanted to cash in and enjoy his retirement. But what I had not realised was that this sports bar – the dark, wood-panelled spot that I considered MY bar – had not renewed its NFL TV package. For the first time in a long time it would not be showing every game of the season, just the ones on local cable.
The owner was stationed close to the door so he could explain to the steady stream of (mostly Steeler) fans who entered that the package was all-season or nothing, so it wasn’t worth buying just for a few weeks. They were sent on their way with a recommendation for a place around the corner.
Still, a reasonable crowd of regulars made it in. We joked about Jimmy Times, who said he was so looking forward to seeing Steeler fans being turned away that he had planned to come early and sit outside.
There were other benefits. So many screens were now free that the Mets game was on one TV and the Jets on the next. With the commentary turned on. Unheard of for a football Sunday.
We should have done this long ago, was the gag.
Yet there was a sadness too. This was a slice of old Brooklyn in a long gentrified neighbourhood. While the brownstones were now affordable only by bankers and the coffeeshops had become the preserve of mums with thousand dollar strollers, my bar was a throwback, favoured by construction workers, cops and the occasional journalist.
Of course the clock was ticking. The second hand bookstore had gone a couple of years earlier when the owner was made an offer he would have been dumb to refuse. And the new bookstore went soon after, unable to afford the escalating rent. It was all smart sandwich shops, estate agents and women’s clothes shops these days with just a handful of hold-outs.
I moved away a couple of years ago for cheaper climes. When I returned I was unsurprised to see a food truck selling waffles and sushi. No joke.
This is the story of New York. Where things come and go so fast in a race to the dollar. It should be no surprise.
Yet the bar had hung in there for 30 years. A lifetime in these parts. It felt permanent and with that came a sense of place, of belonging, for its customers.
What happens next? We talked about other bars. Without much gusto. We wondered where the staff – all longserving Brooklyn pros – would move next. Did they have anything lined up?
And then we stopped discussing it. We had arrived from different neighbourhoods. It was the bar that brought us together, a disparate band of football fans and beer enthusiasts. The others, I suspect, knew each other better. But I had never once met any of these people outside our haven. I didn’t really want to think about us all going our separate ways.
My burger arrived. Thick and juicy, from one of the old Italian butchers around the corner. Always the same. Familiar. My regular order. Unadorned other than a slice of cheese. A metaphor in a bun.
I pulled my phone out to snap a picture. Bobby noticed. He raised an eyebrow and maybe the corner of a lip. Old school.