New York on a hot day in June felt like mid-August, with the heat shimmering off the sidewalk; there was little shade in midtown. Walking by open doors blasting frigid air made it seem even hotter. Close to noon, the thought of a cold beer crossed my mind.
In my mind’s eye: the beer, ice cold, golden amber, in one of those Coca-Cola like glasses, condensation on its side, droplets of water running down to the cork coaster sitting on a glistening polished mahogany bar, the glass topped by a perfect crown of frothy white foam.
The place itself was cool and dim with the shirt-sleeved bartender eager yet distant, ready to please — in other words, the corner saloon of yesterday.
With that in mind I started searching for an honest beer and a corner saloon in midtown. New York claims to be the place where one can find anything and everything, except the local bar, the corner saloon that is almost no more, soon to be extinct.
Used to be that every neighborhood had at least one and more than likely two or three; they were as ubiquitous as today’s Starbucks. Their character reflected the demographics of the local population. A nice touch that made you feel right at home.
Corner saloons were to be found everywhere; every town had them, even small ones. In smaller towns, many lacking corners at all, they were just simple joints with a bar, a place to congregate and have a beer. Thank God the North Fork still boasts one — the Broken Down Valise at the end of Love Lane, across from the railroad station in Mattituck.
The Valise and I go way back to the mid ’60s when my family first moved to the North Fork. It was the place to duck in to get out of the cold while waiting to be picked up at the station or a cool place to wait for the noon train. On winter nights when most places were closed for the season it was the place to meet your local friends. Then it was the only game in town, just a corner saloon, Mattituck’s very own joint.
My first legal experience with a corner saloon — there were some earlier illegal ones — was on my 18th birthday. Draft card in hand I walked three blocks from home to Parsons’ Inn, on a corner, albeit a rounded one, in Flushing, N.Y. At the bar were two retired Schrafft’s waitresses of the Irish persuasion having Manhattans at three in the afternoon and a guy nursing a beer reading the Daily News. I ordered a 15¢ draft beer and that was my adult rite of passage. I could drink, be drafted and die for my country, but not yet vote.
For a while I lived in Greenwich Village. At the corner of Barrow and Bedford was Chumley’s, my corner saloon. The joint had been there since the 1830s catering to the neighborhood locals. There was no sign outside, no way of knowing it was a bar, harking back to the days when it was a speakeasy. The West Village then and for quite some time before was a haven for writers, the literary giants of the day. This was their corner saloon, with authors’ photos and book dust jackets prominently displayed on the walls.
Chumley’s is now closed. An interior wall collapsed six years ago and whether it will reopen remains in doubt. Others like PJ Clarke’s and TGI Friday’s are now franchises operated by faceless corporations. I wouldn’t be caught dead there. The lesser known saloons are being driven out of business by escalating rents and gentrification.
Last Christmas Eve, I had a beer at JG Mellon’s, an old bar on a corner of New York’s Third Avenue. Mellon’s is an institution that’s been around since the 1920s, when it was first a brewery, then a speakeasy. It used to be under the El, the old elevated subway, before they tore it down. Back then the trains rumbled by above you, rattling your drink and teeth. Now it is smack dab in the middle of the classy Upper East Side, bracketed by two fancy expensive French patisseries.
But Mellon’s hasn’t changed much. It’s still cash only, no credit cards accepted thank you, living up to the old motto “In God we trust, everyone else pays cash.” The bar was decorated with some tinsel and lights and the bartender was sporting a Christmas tie, the only concessions to the season. It was late afternoon and people were dropping in on the way home, exhausted from shopping, for a quick pick-me-up before dealing with Christmas.
That was what a corner saloon was, a place to drop by, familiar and comforting. A place to take a load off your feet, meet with friends and be greeted as a regular. The corner saloon is a vanishing breed. Those that remain should be considered an endangered species to be protected, nurtured and cherished.
I never found that corner saloon in midtown Manhattan. But on this year’s rain-soaked July 4th I wandered, once again, into the dim, friendly welcome of the Broken Down Valise. I shook off the raindrops, mopped my face and ordered a beer. It ain’t changed much after all these years but it has. Sitting in the window seat was a young Frenchman all decked out in skinny jeans with his Chinese-American girlfriend rooting for home team France. Next to me was a real old-timer drinking boilermakers, shots with a beer chaser. It was still the old corner saloon; only the neighborhood has changed a bit.
Deyan Ranko Brashich was a longtime New Suffolk resident and is now a frequent visitor. He is the author of “Letters from America” and “Contrary Views.” Contact him through his blog, “Contrary Views,” at www.deyanbrashich.com.