For our bar story series, we have invited some of our contributors to share a story, an episode, an experience that took place at a particular bar–a place that they hold in their memory for one reason or another. We hope you will enjoy reading these stories as they appear each Monday.
by Sari Botton
Bars and I didn’t get off to such a good start. The first time I went to one – the Buckboard in Baldwin, Long Island, in 1981 – I had to sit outside in a jappy classmate’s car the whole night while the other girls tossed back pitchers of kamikaze, thanks to my baby face and unconvincing fake I.D.
Weeks afterward, I managed to sneak into Speaks, a nightclub in my hometown of Island Park, only to be fished out half an hour later by a bouncer who knew my father, then a fifth grade teacher at the local elementary school. With the drinking age repeatedly being raised every single time I became legal – 18, then 19, then 21, and with no grandfather clause – going out in college naturally became fraught with anxiety.
It wasn’t until I was 27 and going through a divorce that I found a watering hole I felt comfortable in, the Ludlow Street Café. I went to that Lower East Side dive for the first time in the early nineties, and kept going until the night it closed, in the summer of 1996, when I covered its shuttering for The New York Times.
The first time I went was in the final months of that first marriage. I dragged my husband on the LIRR from Long Beach to see an old camp friend of mine play with his band. It was just one more awkward step toward an uncomfortable but crucial awakening: my suburban life didn’t fit me, and, most painfully, neither did the college sweetheart I’d married too young.
Something about stepping inside the Ludlow Street Café that night button-holed it, and I don’t think it was just my growing fascination with my cute, womanizing musician friend, who often played – and drank too much – there.
Within the bar’s messy, poster-strewn walls, I felt instantly at ease in a way I’d never felt at college bars. The place was well worn like a favorite pair of shoes or faded denim. It had a classic old mahogany bar with an antique cash register, a beat-up floor and scratched-up wooden benches. There was something authentic about its shabbiness that somehow made me feel as if I could be authentic, too; so far I hadn’t felt authentic in my adult life. There didn’t seem to be any pretension in the mostly acoustic bands that played, like the country-rock act Beat Rodeo, nor in the grunge-chic crowd. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t much of a drinker, either; I still felt as if I belonged.
I have many fond memories of the place, even though I endured some painful evenings there with the musician. The worst was the snowy winter weeknight when only three other women showed up for a solo acoustic set, plus a couple of regulars at the bar.
I arrived late and ordered a Corona.
“How’d you like to play a round of my favorite game, ‘Guess who he’s fucking?’” asked one of the guys at the bar. I looked to both sides to make sure he was talking to me.
“It’s the only way I know how to tolerate singer-songwriter types like Mr. Sincerity over there,” he said, laughing. Mr. Game Show Host paid for my beer before I could. “Come on, let’s play,” he begged. “It’s easy – a dead-give away. These guys are all the same. They’ve got at least three women in every audience that they’re fucking, and often, those women are the only ones who show up, like right now. So, I’d say it’s safe to say he’s doing all three, but we could play to figure out which one’s the understanding girlfriend with low self-esteem and who just fits into his weekly rotation.”
I blanched, wondering how I might gracefully go over and sit down near the stage without that guy knowing I was one of the ones. “Thanks for the beer, and good luck with your game,” I said, as I slinked away.
It helped knowing that at the end of the show, the musician would drive me home and stay there with me. That’s what he’d done for the few months we’d been seeing each other. I had the distinction of being The One He Goes Home With After The Solo Shows, which made me officially less pathetic.
But then, at 11:30, he lifted the newish one, a tall, young blonde called Jessica, into his beat up van before helping me in with just a friendly hand. We’ll drop her off first, I thought.
No. That night, for the first time, my apartment was the first stop. Then the musician and Jessica were on their happy way. It took a little while before I could go back to the Ludlow Street Café, but I did, again and again.
Sari Botton’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, The Village Voice, MORE, Marie Claire, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and many other publications, as well as on WAMC radio and NPR. Her website is saribotton.com and she blogs at www.rosendaleramblings.com