The Last Bar Standing?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because no one ever got laid by a stranger they just met in their apartment.
By Anthony DiMauro
When I first moved into my Brooklyn apartment, I had a standard checklist, the kind most people run through to get familiar with their neighborhood: grocery stores, banks, coffee shops and, of course, bars.
You have to locate the essentials.
Across from the Parade Grounds and next to a small plant nursery is Shenanigans, the neighborhood dive bar. It was here that my girlfriend and I decided we’d go for our first drink after quarantine — mostly because of it being within walking distance and a few Yelp reviews suggesting unusually cheap drinks.
When the day came, we walked to the bar. It was in an evenly windowed fourplex lined with neon shamrocks and various bits of Americana. The bar occupied the lower level and was a single, dimly lit room leading to a square concrete patio in the back.
A nurse collapsed on the floor of the bar, a number of strangers begged for a hug, a man confessed to domestic violence, another explained why he hated his kids.
The bartender immediately started chatting me up, as we were doubtless his first customers of the day.
“First time here? I’m Terry. I’d shake your hand, but you’re not supposed to do that.”
By the time I’d gotten around to actually ordering my $4 beer, I had heard a brief oral history of the bar and how it operated since the lockdowns. It was harrowing.
Turns out the watering hole is locally owned and has been around for more than 80 years. Like many businesses in the service industry, the bar has suffered a great deal from the pandemic. The third generation owner of Shenanigans has had both her father and brother die of the virus. Horrifically, her brother died while she was at the funeral service for her father. And financially, business was a mess.
However, Terry — their now sole full-time bartender — tried to help keep the place afloat. He worked 70 days straight, taking only the tips he made as payment.
“I couldn’t stay at home anymore. I was sinking into a bad mental place,” Terry told me, a complete stranger.
In April, when the pandemic was in full swing, he tested the waters and opened Shenanigans’ doors, handing out lemonade to anyone who walked by — ultimately as a reminder that the bar hadn’t closed for good and that take-out drinks would be available. The response wasn’t what Terry expected: He received threats, had people take his picture to report him to the news or police. He was also accused of attempted murder, and even had milk dumped on him.
My girlfriend eventually extricated us from the conversation and brought me to the back patio where we got a table. We ordered a couple of rounds.
It was amazing to be drinking outdoors, at a bar. This social art is generally lost during months of drinking at home, unless you have company, but the pandemic had forbidden even that possibility, and weeknight drinking alone became an alarming habit.
On what was going to be probably our third round, my girlfriend went into the bar, fully masked, to ask Terry for drinks. They both came out, Terry following close behind with a cigarette.
“Mental health is the biggest forgotten story in all this,” Terry told us without being asked, as he blew smoke out of his nose and into his beard. “People were socially deprived. I actually let people step in and speak to me instead of only window service. It became a very emotional experience for me, these conversations.”
We learned about a number of incredible events he experienced. A nurse collapsed on the floor of the bar, a number of strangers begged for a hug, a man confessed to domestic violence, another explained why he hated his kids.
Eventually Terry left a blank open notebook on a table near the entrance, and let everyone know that if they wished to get something out that they were welcomed to write it down. The book soon filled, its pages scrawled with stories of anxiety and depression. On repeat.
This all had taken a toll on Terry, who had been grappling with his own mental health. So what had started off as a fun night and a significant step toward some former state of normal had turned into an emotional workout deeply connected to the damage caused by COVID-19.
Moreover, for all the social neediness of others that Terry had bathed in, his sudden disclosures suggested his time for listening had reached a limit.
The conversation ended as two new customers entered the bar. Terry flicked his cigarette into a metal ash bucket and went in, pulling up his mask to serve them. I was glad, as I thought the arrival of a new party would liven up the night.
I was wrong.
The new patrons were a pair of middle-aged women, who had clearly already been drinking. After ordering mixed drinks, one of them started to cry. Her friend had recently died from COVID-19.
She gulped the clear liquor and stabbed her finger at the online obituary she flashed from her phone. The woman’s friend was in her early 50s, had an impressive sense of humor and was a regular at Shenanigans.
Terry eventually came back out for another cigarette and heard the news. He knew her, and offered a cautious hug to the woman.
The entire night was one upsetting story. Of course, I still enjoyed being able to drink at a bar, but I recognized this custom was different now. Bartenders still hear the world, and while that resonance would normally include a mixture of hearsay, local gossip and drowsy one-liners, it has now become a storm of collective struggle.
“I’m glad for the community of support around medical workers,” he said, as I stood by the exit, my first post-quarantine buzz beginning to wear off, “but I fear we’re forgetting about people working in this industry that’s getting smashed.”
At the end of this uncertain thought, I turned to leave with a strange feeling. I felt I had just gone to a group therapy session, but had one too many beers to properly take part.
But what is the future of the bar post-quarantine? And the bartenders who tend them and all of us who have found some measure of measurable relief there? Sort of a question you’d ask a bartender. If only we could.
- Anthony DiMauro, OZY AuthorContact Anthony DiMauro