Thursday, May 27, 2010

Crawling Onward: A Literary Bar Crawl Part II

With two stops on the crawl under our belts, Ben and I schlepped down to the West Village to check out The White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas legendarily had his final drinks before dying a few days later at the age of thirty-nine. (Thomas was one of several patrons who made the bar notorious in the 50’s and 60’s. Jack Kerouac was also known to frequent the bar—he was also kicked out of it for misbehavior. It was also where the idea for The Village Voice was founded.)

While their beer list makes the cut (they offer 8 beers on tap and thirteen bottled beers) we were a little disappointed by the menu, which was all pretty standard bar food (our potato skins were quite reasonably priced at $6.95). This was not nearly as underwhelming as the Dylan artifacts, which were considerably less authentic and relevant than the ones we had found at Pete’s. The white horse figurines behind the bar and a giant oil painting of a white horse were eye-catching, sure, but they all looked new (which was confirmed by the date on the plaque under the latter: 2005). The most arresting image by far was a black and white photo of Aeronwy Thomas, Dylan’s daughter, taken at the bar in 2008. Though she isn’t smiling, her eyes—which stare directly into yours upon approaching the photo—betray a lively spirit. It was a haunting and strangely moving image, but still not a relic from the age the bar was meant to celebrate. Figuring we just a needed a guided tour through the place’s history, we asked our harried but friendly waitress where we might find the famous “get out jack” sign that was posted on account of Jack Kerouac’s frequent escorts out of the bar. She told us it was supposed to be in the men’s bathroom, but she was pretty sure that that was “just a tall tale.” A quick trip into the men’s bathroom by Ben confirmed its absence. By then we couldn’t help but have noticed the modern-looking, computerized juke box that looked advanced for our time, nevermind Dylan’s. Not far from it a TV was playing America’s Funniest Home Videos. The only other TV in the room was playing the Miss America pageant. (As Ben cracked, only half kidding, “there’s nowhere to look!”)

On our way out we took a tour around the empty back room (most of the patrons were making good use of the sidewalk dining under beer-festival-type umbrellas) where there were enough posters of Dylan to make a person dizzy. While these, too, were added after his death (a fact made obvious by the small declaration of his birth and death dates at the bottom of the posters) and struck me as a little cheesy, they didn’t leave me totally devoid of sentiment. Seeing picture after picture of the great man who gave us incomparable lines like “rage, rage against the dying of the light” I couldn’t help but notice how conscious Dylan was of the cameras he was mugging for, smoking that cigarette just a little too artfully, clothes just a little too stiff. It had never been clearer to me that these writers who inspire us all and keep alive mediocre bars across the city were just like so many of the city’s current generation of young and aspiring creators—conscious of their contemporaries’ and peers’ opinions, hoping to think of something witty for the friends and fellow writers they’ve come to meet for a drink, just trying to leave some small mark, sometimes succeeding beyond their wildest dream.

On that note, Ben and I decided to put a contemporary spin on our last stop and hit up a bar that featured in a great novel, and a recent one at that. In Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, one of the book’s protagonists claims that everyone who drinks at the Brooklyn Inn “is someone else’s assistant: a district attorney’s, an editor’s, or a video artist’s. The dressed-up crowd at the inn gabbled and flirted every night of the week until two in the morning, oblivious to the neighborhood’s past or present reality, then slept it off in their overpriced apartments or on their desks the next day in Midtown.” While this is delivered with more than a bit of disdain in the book, a concentration of young people willing to work crazy hours for bad salaries in pursuit of a field that inspires them can’t be all bad, right?

Nestled in between rows of cozy, historic brownstones in Boerum Hill, the Inn’s mirrors were all clean, and there wasn’t a picture of a dead writer in sight. It was filled with young, sun-kissed people in funky clothing and colorful sneakers, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that more than one of them had a novel in progress up his or her sleeve. When we struck up a conversation with a young man with a sketch pad and tin set of colored pencils under his arms seated next to us at the bar he told us about the photograph project he was hard at work on. When he found out that Ben and I worked in publishing he had a million questions for us and told us about some writer friends of his. Later, one of our good friends who happened to be nearby popped in for a drink and told us about new songs he and his band had in the works. Everyone was focused on their own projects, instead of those that came to fruition a million years ago.

The verdict seemed to be staring us in the face: if you want a literary bar, write a story and go have a beer somewhere.

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