Basement Bars
Forty years ago, when your average Working Joe saved up enough cash for that down payment, his job with The Company secure enough to sign a twenty-year mortgage, he and the Missus abandoned the city and high-tailed it to the suburbs. In the sprawling suburbs, Joe soon discovered that there isn't a bar on every corner. And the corner bar had been Joe's urban town square, a place to meet his buddies after the whistle blew, talk politics and sports, and stagger home to kiss the little lady. So stranded, every Joe opened his own bar in the basement, a place to host a weekly poker game, talk politics and sports with friends, and teeter upstairs to kiss the little lady. Or, if his pals couldn't swing by, the basement was the perfect place to shirk parental responsibilities; or, better yet, sit the kids at the bar and teach them how to play cards. Factor in the popularity of the high society drunkards in the early 60's, and you end up with architects working overtime to squeeze a six-seat bar into the basement of every suburban duplex.
The basement bar is a has-been on the American landscape, and I lament its loss. You just don't find many new homes constructed with built-in bars anymore. Sure, you'll find fiber optics pre-installed in every room, but you'll rarely find a leatherette bar tucked away in the basement. Where you once saw ads for mini-fridge tap systems in Popular Mechanics -- the perfect size to keep a pony keg fresh for weeks -- you now see ads for the latest all-in-one fax/copiers designed to make your telecommute more efficient. The Home Bar has been soundly replaced by the Home Office.
Finding a commercial bar with a comfortable, "basement bar" feel is difficult in the city. Wrongly lumped into the "old man bar" category, a basement bar is, essentially, a place to go when you really want to talk with your friends. Not casual conversation where you're constantly looking over each other's shoulders at the pretty people walking around. Not conversation where the only purpose is to kill time until one of you manages to lure another person into the booth. Not a place to "people watch." If you bring someone to a basement bar, you'd damn-well better be ready to drink and talk, because there's nothing else to do. And if you go alone, you'd best expect a little solitude. The Basement Bar is a Bar, pure, bland and simple. There's often a pool table and a few crazy regulars--just like your favorite old timer place--but there's nothing in the way of atmosphere, just like your Dad's basement.
The bar known as Lys Mykyta, or Sly Fox, happens to be situated below street level, in front of the Ukranian East Village Restaurant on Second Avenue (between St. Marks and 9th). It certainly seems the perfect place to attract a hip crowd--empty, downtrodden and cheap. But on the Saturday night that Tom, Amy and I dropped in, it was dead. Decorated with bare walls, white linoleum, and ugly wooden booths, the Sly Fox was actually the perfect place for us to talk over a few drinks. The only crowd was a pair of guys sitting in a booth, deep in genuine conversation; the bartender watched TV on a small portable at the end of the bar. We stayed for an hour or so, caught up on a few months, and left for a more lively joint, to a place where we could peak at people over each other's shoulders.
Amy and I returned to the Sly Fox on a Saturday night a couple weeks ago. We expected to sit at a booth, have a drink or two, and talk without interruption. Then, of course, we'd head somewhere else. But something went wrong--I think it was the number of people in the place. It was the perfect number of people for the wrong atmosphere: no one was standing, yet there were no empty seats. It felt like we'd walked into someone's living room uninvited. That's the risk of a good Basement Bar--it's awfully easy to feel like an outsider. It's the same risk you run when you drop by a friend's apartment unannounced--sometimes you don't feel welcome, so you leave. No hard feelings.
I went back to the Sly Fox the next day for a Sunday afternoon drink, 3:00 pm. Closed. Same thing on Monday at 6:00 pm. And Tuesday 4:00 pm. The hostess at the Ukranian restaurant told me that the Fox is open after 6:00 pm, but only on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Oh well, no hard feelings.
But my heart was set on a quiet, afternoon drink at a new bar, so I headed east. I found the Old Homestead.
Located on 1st Avenue near the corner of 6th, the Old Homestead sits chameleon-like between a laundromat and McDonalds. You'll probably find plenty of hip-types waiting on their laundry at the corner, but, fortunately, few seem to notice the bar next door. At least that's how it was at four on a Tuesday afternoon; I can't vouch for a Saturday night.
It's a Polish bar without a heavy-handed presence other than the bartender's accent. The checkerboard pink and yellow linoleum is casually dirty, the faux-carpet wallpaper is interrupted halfway up by a nasty, Italian-dining-room red and silver pattern. The bartop is fake wood, and the pool table plays with a mean slant.
I wasn't planning to stay long--just a drink or two--but, as these things usually happen, the jukebox got started up with just the right music: The Don Wonjtila Band filled the room with "Simcic's Waltz," a traditional polka that hit me with a smile out of left field. Grinning, I chirped for another McSorley's -- a $2 mug -- and silently exclaimed, "Fuck those Ukrainians -- these Poles know how to run a goddamn bar!"
Five drinks down, an hour and a half spent, I step into the East Village dusk. It's an ugly light, and the smell and humidity from the laundromat assaults me, reminding me of the pile of dirty clothing I'd planned to conquer that evening. The misfire of the Sly Fox is erased, and I feel pretty fucking good about the whole afternoon.
Eat a slice of pizza, hit a pay phone and ask a friend to join me at another bar, one close to home. We meet there, sit for an hour or two, chatting casually, without obligation, watching all the pretty people walking around outside.