Getty Images News/Getty Images/Adam Berry Getty Images News/Getty Images/Adam Berry
By Virge Randall

It’s encouraging that the Subway Inn is battling the ‘Real Estate Zombie Virus’ — that urban scourge that sucks the vitality out of NYC — but it’s rough. Nature abhors a vacuum; developers abhor ‘low rent’ dives selling cheap booze in unpretentious settings. Apparently neighborhoods need upscale joints — like Pranna — so drunks can puke higher quality booze worthy of newly-gentrified curbs. For everyone else, even those who don’t consider each cocktail onion a vegetable serving — dive bars embody NYC’s heritage.

The Statue of Liberty expressly invited wretched refuse to come here. They have to drink somewhere

The Endangered Species Act protects coral by preserving its habitat. What about urban habitats? Dive bars are more essential to NYC than coral is to oceans.  Nobody’s filming police procedurals about the ‘Great Clam Heist.’ We need dives — dark, open mornings, possessing a meth lab’s atmosphere without the hygiene, saturated with a beery mist permeating the very toilet paper in the sporadically cleaned bathrooms. How else can we build up our immunity?

Where but Tap-a-Keg could patrons form a drunken kick line to “New York New York” when the Giants won the Superbowl? Where but long-gone Mickey’s Bar in Tribeca could strangers dance in an elevator-sized space for a birthday and give the gift of a potential misdemeanor or two? Not anywhere with bottle service!

Everyone has favorites: Vazak’s, the Old Town Bar, the Ding Dong Lounge; but there was only one Night Cafe, where Mark the bartender (AKA Johnny Vegas, Elvis impersonator) could leap over the bar in seconds to break up fights when a disgruntled patron lobbed a cue ball or a bottle at someone. When we heard loud and angry voices outside, we became like gazelles at a watering hole when a lion roared: heads jerked up, eyes widened, glances exchanged, a tense silence and then…back to drinking.

Yelp called it “The diviest dive bar in the city,” but it had standards…the “One person at a time in the ladies room” sign, for instance.  Outside, the smokers met a stream of random peddlers of suspiciously used electronic equipment, or, one night, a washing machine, but inside, the ‘atmosphere’ came from Brian, proprietor and Jeopardy champion, and from staff and patrons — a diverse crowd of locals, anarchists, Columbia University students, teachers, lawyers, and writers, gathering for Brian’s Sunday Night Trivia Quiz.

Michael and I would come early to grab a seat and scope out the field for teammates or competition: George the opera fan, Gavin the scientist, Kevin the map dealer, Todd the composer and Carla on foreign culture, sports authority Satish, Jonathan the English professor/musician, Roger the pop culture journalist, Helen the Jeopardy champ, and Brendan the Lit expert. After the game, we’d argue with Moustafa about scoring, commiserate about missed answers (we said “D’OH!” more often than Homer Simpson) and catch up on Jon’s book and Helen’s engagement, or hang out with Ruthie, or Rosie, or Raoul, the courtly Marine.

The game took off when Michael suggested guest hosts. He specialized in themed quizzes with byzantine connections or music puzzles, which he considered public education. When one annoyed millennial asked about using music from this century, Michael said, “When you know Aretha Franklin wasn’t Ben Franklin’s daughter.”  I liked quirk…like giving everyone jellybeans for a flavor quiz (“Do sausages next!”). Not all guest hosts were successful. Jay, a brilliant anarchist with the social skills of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, would introduce a Physics category with “You all should know this one.”

It didn’t matter. I was relieved to have something to think about besides what Michael’s doctors said.  He’d wake me up with “I’ve got an idea for a new trivia category!” and ponder which tie he’d wear when we’d host. It was more fun to look forward to next week’s quiz instead of the next day’s medical appointment.

Rumors about the bar’s demise accelerated when Morningside Heights began its turnaround. Michael’s hospital stays accelerated, too, but no matter how poorly he felt, we came week after week, hosting when he felt up to it, playing when he didn’t.

We knew the end was near when the New York Times sent a reporter, and the bar closed shortly afterward, around this time of year. Michael went to Florida to improve his odds for a transplant. His ‘last call’ came just over a year later; I put the NYT photo on the cover of his memorial booklet, hunched over a high top as we figured the names of all 12 Angry Men (We won that night, our third in three weeks — it was great to leave with a hat trick, Michael said).

Back in NYC, I met the regulars at the site of the Café — now reincarnated as an unrecognizably bright, airy, fern bar. We toasted his memory and I gave away the ties Michael wore when we hosted. But the first night I hosted a trivia challenge alone, at the game’s new location, everybody showed up.

They all wore Michael’s ties.

It wasn’t trivia after all. And it wasn’t low-rent, either.

But don’t get me started about THAT.

4 Responses to Don’t Get Me Started: New York’s Dive Bar Heritage

  1. avebaby says:

    Damn, and now Smith’s bar on the west side is closing after 60 years and Taylor Smith is NYC’s Ambassador. There are puke stains in the ladies bathroom that are older and have more NYC tenure.

  2. Roger Hitts says:

    Wonderful reminisces, Vir…

  3. Arthur C. Hurwitz says:

    When I frequented the Night Cafe during the early 2000’s, I thought it a remnant of the run down New York of the 1970’s, interesting and dynamic and forlorn, but above all, to where everyone was invited…….

  4. ORPO1 says:

    Sounds like bars I like to go to……………………

Leave a Reply