My New York Obsession

The Bar That Was Once My Living Room

Life, love, and longing in the last days of the East Village.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Kirsch

For 15 years I lived in the same apartment at the corner of East 5th Street and Bowery. Every morning after showering, I stood in the kitchen window wrapped in a towel, looking out, leaning against the hot water pipe that got so hot it left shiny welts on my shoulder. Across the parking lot, my neighbor and later friend, writer Hettie Jones, hung her laundry on a line strung across the roof of her building. She’d emerge from a skylight, barely 5 feet tall, and stretch bedsheets and colorful printed pants against the sky. Across Bowery waved the blue flag of The Village Voice, where, I told myself, real writers worked, making the weekly newspaper people lined up for every Tuesday night to get early access to the real-estate listings. I’d found my apartment in the Voice on just such a Tuesday in 1996, $935 a month for a one-bedroom walk-up painted all white, even the floors. If you used your imagination it felt a little like a weathered Nantucket beach cottage. There was no sink in the bathroom, so I had to brush my teeth in the kitchen.

If I drank enough, I’d meet a guy and we’d flirt and I’d make out with him outside the door to my building and hope he’d call.

The apartment was four floors up from the Scratcher, an Irish bar that served the Doorstep Sandwich—thick slices of white bread layered with hunks of cheese and ham—and Guinness on tap. It’s still there, but it doesn’t serve food anymore. I referred to the Scratcher as my living room. It was where we started every night out, friends and friends of friends colonizing a couple tables. I could drink four to five vodka sodas in those days. If I drank enough, I’d meet a guy and we’d flirt and I’d make out with him outside the door to my building and hope he’d call.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Kirsch; exterior photos by Sayaka Ueno

Jasmine across the hall was an editor at the fashion magazine Mirabella, and we would run into each other reading the paper at Mission Cafe, where they sold steamed eggs with salad for $3. You were paying for the ambience—mismatched pastel-painted tables and chairs, Morrissey soundtrack—because you could get a $2 breakfast at the grubbier 7A or Sidewalk a few blocks away that included eggs, salad with carrot dressing, toast, and a tiny glass of orange juice. On the first floor was Dan, who had a crush on my friend Vanessa, and David, who had a Rhodesian ridgeback named Rosie, short for Roosevelt. Vince, the super who called himself a “licensed garbologist,” had installed a hidden camera behind the trash cans to catch people who didn’t recycle.

Scary Mary lived downstairs and slept in a loft bed a few inches from the underside of my scuffed white floors. Once she left me a threatening note that said I had “the footfall of a baby elephant,” that I clomped around the apartment like I was “stomping down Second Avenue.” I was enraged, but she was right. I stomped up and down Second Avenue with the exact carriage of an elephant calf. “Here I am, world, 22 years old and possible,” my footfall said. “What is this savanna, what new landscape is this that I’ve been born into?”

I was obsessed with the church’s groovy priest, Father Frank Morales, a conspiracy theorist and pioneer of the squatters movement. He played electric guitar during Sunday services.

At Second Avenue and 7th Street was the Kiev, a Ukrainian diner where you went drunk late at night (or early in the morning) for mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy and pea soup. On Second Avenue and 10th Street was St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, the Episcopalian church where Patti Smith first performed in 1971 and which, unlike most places I remember, is still around. I was obsessed with the its groovy priest, Father Frank Morales, a conspiracy theorist and pioneer of the squatters movement. He played electric guitar during Sunday services.

Hettie Jones was part of the scene at St. Mark’s in the 1960s. A poet and activist, she moved into her apartment in 1962 with her husband, LeRoi Jones. They divorced and Hettie stayed for more than 50 years. Until 2017, when the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation installed a plaque declaring as much, you wouldn’t know that Hettie and LeRoi published the Beat magazine Yugen from there.

Hettie’s building was only four stories and ramshackle. My building was a typical East Village tenement, brick face zippered by a black iron fire escape. Between was an empty lot surrounded by a cyclone fence. On the first floor of Hettie’s building was an auto-body shop that never seemed to be open and the spot Jasmine and I called the Date Rape Pizzeria because there was only ever one sketchy young guy seated in the faux wood Formica booths. The lighting was fluorescent and devastating. Some time in the early aughts, the pizzeria closed and Village Karaoke opened. Village Karaoke was the default second location for the guys you met at the Scratcher, where you’d sit bewildered in the banquette in the tiny linoleum-floored rooms while your captor belted “Welcome to the Jungle” on his knees. I went there with a guy whose biggest selling point was that he was wearing “the Prada suit k.d. lang wore to the Grammys.” That was enough.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Kirsch; exterior photos by Sayaka Ueno

Across 5th Street, in the lobby of the Jewish Home for the Aged, I voted for Mark Green for mayor four times—the second vote didn’t count because I’d cast it on September 11, 2001. I left the voting booth and walked out onto Bowery, where groups of people stood staring downtown. I took off my headphones and asked what was happening, and a man said, “There’s a fire” and pointed.

On weekends we went east, to Alphabet City, which no one says anymore. Our places were everyone else’s places: Limbo, the coffee shop on Avenue A where Ethan Hawke gave a reading from his novel The Hottest State; Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B, where a guy said he’d gotten the gash on his forehead because he’d dared set foot on Avenue C. Late nights we wandered down to Save the Robots, a basement club where everyone danced and did drugs.

When the construction started in the parking lot outside my kitchen window, I installed a shade and kept it drawn against the workmen. I’d peek out and see that Hettie was still hanging her laundry, but the new building was a slow-rising tide that threatened to swallow her house. I knew what was happening. I had celebrated enough birthday parties in the garden outside of Miracle Grill, a Mexican restaurant on First Avenue where you’d be sitting in the garden outside, horribly drunk after one sip of margarita, and you’d look up at 20 crooked tenements with their windows shut tight, bent venetian blinds pulled tighter, and you’d think: Oh, my God, who actually lives there?

I had no unifying theory of New York City then, no idea that whichever New York exists when you move there will always the best New York.

I had no unifying theory of New York then, no idea that whichever New York exists when you move there will always the best New York, the ideal city, the grittiest and most authentic version. New York Before It Got Ruined. The bars then will always be the best bars, the scene the best scene. I fetishize the 1990s in New York when no one had cell phones so you had only one persona to manage and that was your real live self, not the parallel ones who live on Instagram and Twitter. Everything witty you said you said to your friends, not your followers. You were this one, rich and complex person and that was all you had to maintain. No one was annotating their experience in real time.

When we turned 30, everyone moved to Brooklyn. I tried to keep them in Manhattan by turning my apartment into a “speakeasy.” I stocked the “bar,” a bunch of bottles of liquor I kept on top of the fridge, telling my friends they could come by at any hour, just ring the bell. For a few months they did, but it wasn’t the effortless hang I was trying to cultivate. I wanted a salon, an easy flow of colorful people, Gertrude Stein on the Bowery. I took Polaroids of everyone who came and made them sign a guest book. The Scratcher was still downstairs, but it became a place where bloggers met up and they wrote about it like they owned it. None of them ever knew it had once been my living room.

new york city 1990s
Photos courtesy of Melissa Kirsch; exterior photos by Sayaka Ueno

I was always trying to engineer a life in those days that would sound beautiful and impossible when chronicled decades later. Before the endless refresh of the Internet, you had to wait a long time for nostalgia. Now there’s a digital record of everything, and last night is already a facsimile of a faded Polaroid; if you don’t have photos, no one cares. No one cares that I ran into Lauren Hutton when we were both buying mousetraps in Shapiro Hardware on Lafayette. They don’t care about the Laundrobot, a coin laundromat at 6th and Bowery owned by a Ukrainian man whose gold cap was on a different tooth every time you went in. Or the Cooper Square Diner at Second Avenue and 5th Street, where you always saw Quentin Crisp sitting in the window, or Jill Anderson’s boutique on 9th Street, where she would custom make you an Italian widow’s dress, A-line with a deep V-neck and a zipper up the front in the fabric of your choice for a couple hundred bucks.

The Date Rape Pizzeria has been replaced by the entry hall to a hotel. The Village Voice is now a private school.

When I left the apartment on 5th Street in 2011, the rent had risen to $1,400, which is still achingly cheap, but the walls were closing in. New York is dynamic, transformative, constantly renewing, but you miss out on the dynamism when you don’t ever move while everything and everyone else does. I stopped standing in the window looking out at Hettie’s house because the hotel opened a third-floor outdoor bar just inches away. A friend compared me to a turtle, carrying my house on my back. When I heard about a brownstone floor-through opening up in Cobble Hill, I took it.

Have you been to the Standard East Village? It rises 21 stories over the Bowery, a tower whose chief architectural influence seems to be Dubai. When Hettie turned 80, she had a party in the penthouse that overlooks all of Manhattan. The hotel was built around her house, which still stands, a tiny brick building persisting amid the glass and steel, like a dandelion pushing up through asphalt. The Date Rape Pizzeria has been replaced by the entry hall to the hotel. The Village Voice headquarters is now a private school. You can rent a studio apartment on Avenue D starting at $2,800 per month. Baby elephants still clamber down Second Avenue, a new herd colonizing their own new world.

Melissa Kirsch is the editor in chief of Lifehacker and author of The Girl’s Guide (Workman Publishing, 2015).