A few weeks ago, my band was fortunate enough to be asked to play music in Tompkins Square Park. The four of us arrived punctually (an impressive feat for an old-school punk rock band like ours).
The sun was blazing but standing in the shade brought sound respite. Having consumed copious caffeinated beverages in transit, I headed for where I knew the public restrooms were located.
The men’s room was locked. A nearby restroom was marked for use only by children. It was also locked. Park workers admonished men looking to use the boys’ restroom, and referred people to the closed men’s room even after being told it was locked. A Parks Department employee told me to use bathrooms at a nearby Starbucks or 7 Eleven, and acted as if she were doing me a favor.
Nearby on Ave. A and 9th Street, there was not a Starbucks or 7 Eleven in sight. Doc Holliday’s was open though.
Even though I long ago left the drinking life, I had the good fortune to drink at many of New York’s most excellent bars before I did. Doc Holiday’s is one of the East Village’s surviving dive bars that did not sell out or lose its character, and has stayed the same quality dive bar that it was meant to be.
As the name implies, Doc Holliday’s could be called a country bar. While by that measure it could easily be lumped in with other “country” bars such as the now-defunct Hogs & Heifers, it’s a bit more subdued and nowhere near the same kind of tourist mecca. It may be a far cry from where David Allen Coe would drink (if anyone knows where David Allen Coe goes to drink when he’s in New York, please tell me), but it’s the closest thing to a country dive bar surviving in the city today.
When a cheesy movie came out about rival bar Coyote Ugly in 2000, Doc Holliday’s celebrated the fact that its name was not associated with such a flop. They had several drink specials and posted scathing movie reviews of Coyote Ugly on the walls of the bar.
For a while when I worked in SoHo, I would bring coworkers to Doc Holliday’s for beer—after the after-work beers we had at work, of course, and it never disappointed me then. I would be one of the last of my party to depart, stepping strongly buzzed into the bright twilight of a New York Friday night, ready to conquer the world some more.
About 10 years later, when I decided to leave the bogus “secret restaurant” located in Crif Dogs rather than take off my hat, I went to Doc Holliday’s where friends were waiting. Three boroughs and many, many drinks later, I made it through that night with few memories but few regrets.
But now I was returning to Doc Holliday’s as someone gone from the drinking life nearly a decade, a frustrated park goer unable to find a decent bathroom. Would I be welcome back to this hallowed place where I had spent so much quality time in the past?
The bartender was chatting with three people at the bar and the place was otherwise empty. There was no crowd to blend into if I pretended to be a customer. She looked to me, expecting me to order a drink. I decided to come clean and admit I was there just to go to the bathroom. I explained my situation to the bartender. Could I use their bathroom?
The bartender told me yes and thanked me for asking. I walked back to where the bathrooms were to find that Doc’s had done some remodeling and the restrooms were not in a state of filthy disrepair. By dive bar standards the new men’s room was pretty luxurious. I left a five-dollar bill on the bar in my way out and got a friendly smile.
I returned throughout the day and was warmly greeted. It was good to be welcome and enjoy the dive bar scene again. Even removed from the drinking life, our bars are cultural markers that can offer a guide to the state of society. Doc Holliday’s confirms there are some pockets of righteous goodness left in our city.
The secret to a good bar has nothing to do with what beers are on tap or what its décor looks like. The only valid measure of a bar is its character, it supersedes all other measures. I’ve been in bars that reeked of piss and fruit flies that were a thousand times better than the cleanest, sleekest pre-fabricated gastropub.
Dive bars are often the best bars to visit. One of the finest pubs in the recent history of New York was the Village Idiot, which closed its doors in 2004 and had the most eclectic crowd ever. My first visit there a 6-foot-plus transvestite played pool with some tipsy yuppies while construction workers drank at the bar. Mars Bar had bathrooms that were even filthier than CBGB’s bathrooms, which were legendary for their filth. But it didn’t matter. Mars Bar and Village Idiot brought some of the most interesting varieties of people to drink together.
Of course there’s a certain hip cache to the dive bar now, but you can tell which bars are faking it and which bars aren’t. I like to think I’ve visited enough bars to be able to tell the difference without too much effort, but I’ve been out of the drinking game for more than five years now and my visits to bars are few and far between.
And New York City has lost some of its best dive bars. There are a few though that are keeping things alive. Nancy Whiskey, Rudy’s and The Patriot are all the real thing: good dive bars with real character.
But great New York bars are not restricted to the five boroughs, and one of the finest bars ever recently hosted its last hurrah.
The Alumni Club just outside the city limits in New Hyde Park, New York is a place I discovered through my wife, who was a long-time regular and used to tend bar there. It sat among a row of storefronts and its location was generally unremarkable. You needed a car to get there though theoretically you could take a Nassau County bus.
The Alumni Club was a bar that was both eclectic in its clientele and without pretension. While it had its population of longtime regulars, no strangers were ever made to feel unwelcome. I don’t even drink and I was welcome there. I would even bring in large beverages from the 7-Eleven across the street and no one would mind. I’d always ask the bartender if he or she wanted anything. I’m convinced the bar lost no money on my account; my wife could drink enough for both of us.
There was almost always some offering of free food and the owner or bartender encouraged visitors to eat. Once I went there to catch the end of the Georgia Bulldogs game and found they were in the midst of a “casino night” themed evening. The bar had some system worked out where they weren’t technically gambling there but I wasn’t sure how it worked and I figured the less I knew the better.
But the best part about the Alumni Club was the character and good atmosphere. It was not in a trendy part of the city and had nothing to prove. People who went there were working people who wanted to drink, not people who wanted to be seen drinking.
Needless to say a bar of this caliber of excellence tends to have many loyal patrons and when the bar announced it was going to be shutting its doors, employees and patrons alike began planning the farewell party.
The last Saturday this May was the Alumni Club’s big blowout party that included a lot of food and copious amounts of alcohol. T-shirts made for the event read, “We drank it dry.” Patrons lived up to the boast: when bartenders showed up for work the next day they found that the place had run out of beer.
This week Alumni Club will close its doors for good. Guests and employees will remember their alma mater with pride.
The great green retardation is upon us once again. St. Patrick’s Day should be a sad day for Irish people. The day has been reduced to an excuse to get drunk. Getting drunk is fine, but drinking to celebrate Irish culture is like smoking crack to celebrate Black History Month. The Irish Americans, for all the good they have done this country, are quick to embrace the worst in themselves. No other ethnic group I can think of so joyously trumpets its own most negative stereotype.
Celebrate April 24 or June 20 instead. St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic saint’s feast day. Catholicism has had a tremendous influence on Ireland and I’m sure some of it has been good. But for the most part Catholicism has helped keep Ireland divided and promoted poverty and child molestation. The Catholic influence is such that in the Republic of Ireland divorce wasn’t legalized until 1996 and abortion wasn’t legalized until 2013. It will be a tremendous help to divorce Irish identity from Catholicism. And if you are the religious sort, I don’t think too many people left in the world have a holy or religious association with St. Patrick’s Day anymore. If you let the day be just a saint’s feast day once again, Irish Americans can join with everyone else in puking their guts out on Cinco de Mayo.
Since we celebrate America’s Independence on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, let’s celebrate Irish heritage with the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, which is April 24. It took longer before most of Ireland was free from British rule (we’re still waiting), but that was the beginning of the end of most of Ireland leaving the U.K., even though the rebellion was quickly crushed and most of its leaders executed.
If you’d prefer a summer Irish celebration, June 20 is the birthday of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the leader of the 1798 United Irishman Rebellion. The United Irishman Rebellion failed miserably (it would have worked if the French had gotten to Ireland in time to help), but Wolfe Tone (who happened to be Protestant) is considered the founder of Irish republicanism.
Read some Irish literature. Ireland has produced more poets and playwrights than you can shake a shillelagh at. Go try to wade your way through the more problematic James Joyce, but read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners first. In fact, June 16 or Bloomsday would be another great Irish national holiday in place of St. Patrick’s Day.
So read Brendan Behan’s plays and Yeats’ poems. Did you know that Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, was Irish? Did you know Irish playwright Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school? It’s true. Go see a Beckett play or a Martin McDonagh play. Impress your lady friends with some witty Oscar Wilde quotes. You will be a better person for it.
Learn some Irish (aka Gaelic). Like most Americans, I am not fluent in the indigenous language of my ancestors. The Irish language had been called Gaelic for a long time, but since there are other forms of Gaelic, such as Scots Gaelic in Scotland and Ulster Scots, a form of Scots Gaelic spoken in parts of the North of Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language is now just called Irish. There are classes at the Irish Arts Center in New York and in many cities around the U.S. It’s a beautiful language and learning to speak Irish will do your brain more favors than downing a fifth of Jameson.
Revive Irish nationalism. Padraig Pearse famously said, “Ireland unfree will never be at peace.” Ireland is still divided and while the paramilitary violence that plagued it over the past several decades is over, there is still residual sectarian violence and breakaway paramilitaries fighting for their causes. If Irish Americans were as united in pursuing a united Ireland as Jewish Americans are in advocating for Israel, we could have united Ireland next week. What will happen in two years from now when it is 2016, 100 years after the Easter Uprising, and we still have a divided Ireland? Also, self-proclaimed Irish nationalist groups in Ireland have failed to address and in fact have supported large-scale immigration to Ireland. Ireland has seen massive immigration of similar scale that has already had very dangerous effects in places such as England and France. Irish Americans, who were instrumental in supporting the struggle for Irish freedom for centuries, should help revive Irish nationalism in Ireland once again.
Hoffman was a highly celebrated actor and I had the good fortune to see him on stage several times. His most well-known role was his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Capote. My personal favorite Hoffman film performances were his turns as the millionaire Lebowski’s assistant in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski and as the furiously masturbating crank phone caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness.
Heroin is one of the absolutely dumbest drugs you can take. It is horrifically addictive and even people who have been rid of it for years find themselves drawn back to it, as was apparently the case with Hoffman. I can think of several good people I knew, people I thought were too smart for it, people who were streetwise and experienced and with a lot of talent to offer and good years ahead of them, who have overdosed on smack. It’s one of the most senseless and undignified deaths imaginable. It’s an admission to the world that you were weak, that you let a small envelope of powder determine your fate.
It is immensely frustrating to see people with great talent and success piss away their lives with drugs or alcohol. But they have done so endlessly. The litany of great artistic drunks and drug addicts outnumbers the roster of brilliant teetotalers immeasurably.
One can argue that for big movie stars like Hoffman, arrogance and success drive them to drugs. I disagree. Hoffman likely began his life with drugs when he was little known. Most of the artists who die from drugs and alcohol are not famous people but nameless nobodies without much to their name.
Artists are drawn to substance abuse because they are constantly seeking transcendence. That’s why they are artists; they want to exist outside the humdrum of everyday life. Every creative person, myself included, has a star-gazed idea of themselves that rarely matches reality. Creative people almost always want to be something other than what they are. And for an artist, the worst thing in the world is to look in the mirror and realize that you’re a normal person like everyone else. Drink and drugs can keep that fun-house mirror in front of your face a lot longer than your brain can by itself. That’s the deadly trap of getting drunk or high. It’s a lot easier to sit in a pretty café and drink yourself into oblivion like Hemingway than it is to sit over a keyboard and write a novel like Hemingway.
As one of the world’s legion of frustrated writers, I have spent most of my adult life on the drunk list but became a teetotaler in recent years. I can say with confidence that you can excel at being creative while not indulging in substance abuse. I like to think that if I can quit drinking, anyone can quit anything (and without becoming a religious Alcoholics Anonymous zombie either, but that’s a topic for another time). Even Charles Bukowski, who made his reputation on being a habitual drunk, was able to quit drinking later in life without it damaging his writing output. A biographer quoted him as saying he hardly missed it.
Some people are determined to be junkies or drunks. There’s no excuse for it. Trying to make sense of it will break your heart. It doesn’t degrade the art they leave behind, but the loss of their talent makes their passing much more contemptible.