I miss bars.
I miss the noise, the jostling shoulders and the promise the night offers. I miss a long, dark pour of Guinness and the gleaming liquor bottles standing sentry behind the bartender. I miss the crush for the ladies’ room, graffiti decades thick. I miss the endless possibility in conversations overheard, lives intersecting.
The last plan I had before the lockdown began in March was to meet a friend for a late-afternoon beer. He lives in Brooklyn and I live in Queens, so we planned to meet halfway, either at Dutch Kills, that glorious dark antechamber of a bar in Long Island City, or Greenpoint’s Capri Social Club, with its ancient oak bar riddled with decades of cigarette burns.
At the last minute, I couldn’t make it, and a few days later, the city went on “pause.” But, in the two months since, I don’t think there’s been a single day when I haven’t longed to make that date.
But what I miss most, with an almost lacerating intensity, are New York City bars.
I miss day drinking at the Ear Inn in SoHo, 200 years old and full of ghosts. I miss late-night drinking at the Black Rabbit in Greenpoint, with its “snugs,” deep wooden booths with swinging doors that promise privacy.
I miss the changing crowds of a Manhattan bar, which can fold over from a craggy and delightful crew of regulars in midafternoon to a surge of post-work office desperados a few hours later, their antic energy uncorked and shots flowing, to the nightlife crowds pushing their way through the doors fresh off adventures unknown.
I miss Milano’s on East Houston Street, a narrow pocket of a bar thick with Christmas lights, where you can hear, and feel, the subway shuddering under your feet. I miss all the bars where you can feel the subway above or below, the sense of the city chugging along.
I miss the bars with jukeboxes, like Rudy’s Bar and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen (even if it’s always so loud I miss my songs when their turn comes), or SoHo’s Spring Lounge, or the Blue & Gold Tavern in the East Village, with its above-bar menu dense as a textbook. Pick your poison and, as the sign says, with just the right clunk: Mix It, Shoot It or On Ice.
I miss the bars that came into my life because of their proximity to my favorite city haunts, like Film Forum (the Brooklyneer, get the pickle plate) or MoMA (Connolly’s, with its first-rate Guinness pour and heady mix of tourists and seen-it-all museum members) or the Metrograph (the 169 Bar, with its leopard pool table and “ol man cans” of Genesee Cream Ale) or the Quad Cinema, after which I always end up at the Spain (established 1966), its shaggy elegance irresistible. It’s where I went after my first viewing of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and my 10th viewing of “Body Double.” I miss chatting with its aging, courtly bartenders in stiff coats. I miss the plates of sherry meatballs and patatas bravas they pass around with toothpicks and cocktail napkins, and which taste especially great with a cold bottle of Estrella Damm beer.
In this precarious moment, the bars I find myself missing most are those that transport me to the past, to the New York City of 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago or more. Bars that endured three or four wars, Prohibition and the Great Depression, and “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Bars that endured the Spanish flu and thus seem to whisper a promise to me that they’ll endure this pandemic, too.
I’m thinking of places like the bar at Keens Steakhouse, where I long to sit with one of its signature bloody Marys (with balsamic vinegar) during happy hour as the bartenders whirl out tiered trays of hard-boiled eggs for all to try. I miss the sense of community that follows as patrons buzz around the bar, hungry and happy, peeling their eggs under the hypnotic gaze of Miss Keen, the informal name granted to the rapturous lounging nude woman in the painting above the bar.
I’m thinking of the lush interior of Bemelmans in the Carlyle Hotel, a bar I first visited when I sold my first novel and have forever ordered the same drink since: a gimlet, with gin, of course. There are few New York experiences that can sweep you into the past as profoundly as nestling into one of Bemelmans’ banquettes, a wildly expensive cocktail in hand, as you admire the sweep of the bar’s famous Madeline murals and enjoy one too many of its exemplary complimentary potato chips just as the sound of lilting live piano begins for the evening.
But most of all, I miss Jimmy’s Corner, my favorite bar and one that seems to encompass all that’s improbable and beguiling about New York. It’s a neighborhood joint that has been around for nearly 50 years and sells $ 3 beers in a part of the city — Times Square — where it should, by all rights, have been flattened years ago by the crush of Disney, countless corporate chains and sleek, soulless hospitality group lounges.
And yet there it remains, its plain, faded blue awning like a perpetual beacon to me.
Founded by a former boxer and cutman, Jimmy Glenn, it’s a place heavy with history, from the sheaf of dollar bills tacked behind the bar to the scores of prizefighter photos, handbills and old newspaper articles papering the walls from floor to ceiling.
Laminated on its few narrow tables are Polaroids of Jimmy himself, arms flung around customers, celebrities, forgotten men in gleaming tracksuits, women planting kisses on Jimmy’s cheek. Prizefight posters hang crookedly, ambered with age or honey-thick with old beer. Sometimes I touch the lip of the bar and imagine a story for every grain in the wood.
Since I first moved to the city 25 years ago, these old bars have been a lifeline for me. You can walk inside and feel connected to the “true” New York in an instant. Even if the feeling is fleeting, you’ve latched on somehow to the great perpetual current of the city. And, as you sip your drink and absorb its hectic energy, it carries you with it for an hour or two, until eventually you set foot back on the street and begin again.
Without these bars, I feel unmoored, lost. I miss my city.
That brings me to the last thing I miss: the bars we’ve already lost. To gentrification, to escalating rents and sometimes just to time itself.
To love a New York City bar means forever steeling yourself to lose it. It means always being prepared to say goodbye. That makes this moment feel even more perilous: What about the bars that won’t come back?
When I recall over the phone to my friend that we were supposed to meet for a beer the day before the lockdown, he reminds me of what I keep forgetting. A few days later, he became very sick. He’d contracted the virus, but now he’s OK.
The other day, I felt my heart clutch when I saw that Jimmy Glenn contracted the virus, too, and didn’t make it. According to his son, Jimmy’s Corner will reopen. When it does, I’ll be there, belly to the bar.
Megan Abbott is the author of nine novels, including, most recently, “Give Me Your Hand” and “Dare Me,” which was adapted into a TV series.