BY KATHRYN ADISMAN | I nearly fell off my barstool, er, chair, when I recently read, in another local newspaper, that Barrow’s Pub “literally has no demographic.” The blue-collar joint I called the only redneck bar in the West Village hailed as Cheers!?
The Barrow’s I remember was a cop bar dedicated to an Irish/Italian demographic, where Brat Pack actor Andrew McCarthy was one of their own; where on Gay Pride Day, the pub at the corner of Hudson and Barrow, along the parade route, welcomed an influx of outsiders by hiking beer prices; and where, for two months, June to August 1991, I was Katie the bartender.
In August, Barrow’s marked its 40th anniversary. The owner is a woman. Missy Di Franco bought the bar in 1993 from two retired transit cops: Pete, the short, squat one who hired me, and Sal, the bearded, handsome one who ignored me.
REWIND: 1991. I quit my job as adjunct instructor of English at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College and enroll in the American Bartenders School, where I learn “Sex on the Beach” and exotic mixed drinks nobody orders. When I wander into Phebe’s on E. Fourth Street in search of a job, the “barmaid” — let’s call her Polly — instructs me on the merits of suits versus blue collar.
“Give me a blue collar any day! The cops all leave $5,” says Polly, and sends me to Barrow’s, where I’m hired on the spot.
“We’ll call you: ‘Katie.’” It’s like I’ve been issued a passcode into the club. I have two shifts: Wednesday and Saturday nights. Saturday in summer, you’re lucky if two regulars show. The trick is getting them to stay. Back then, pre-World Wide Web/smartphones, you entertain the customer with bar “tricks.” Smoking is allowed. This is 10 years before 9/11 — hard to imagine now!
1991… That was the year that … Rodney King, a Black man, is beaten by police for drunk driving. All four cops are acquitted, which sparks the L.A. riots. Pete is interviewed on Larry King about police brutality… . Paul Reubens a.k.a. kid-show host Pee-wee Herman is arrested in an adult theater for masturbating … . St. John’s University jocks are acquitted of gang rape! After Barrow’s, I get a job at Sports Page, at Fifth Street and Avenue A in the East Village. A sign on the wall boasts: “We’re Saint John!” That’s the atmosphere of the times.
Barrow’s is the hangout for the local police precinct. All the bartenders are “girls” — many training to become cops. I feel like an undercover cop myself, staking out a social club: PBR country. Small-town vibe. Stickball day. Welcome to America!
TimeOut in 2010 says: “Part of the charm of a dingy dive bar is its indigenous wildlife, the regulars who give the place its soul.” Barrow’s was a menagerie of authentic “characters”:
CARLTON (“Who loves ya?”), the manager — who’s around to close, for the girls’ safety, ironically — I have to pry off me and scratch my own face, drawing blood. In the sexist, good old days, you don’t report that stuff. This is pre-#MeToo, too!
TOMMY, who mans the wall phone (remember those?). I ask Carlton what Tommy did. “He’s a Damon Runyon character.” Damon Runyon wrote “Guys and Dolls” about gamblers in Prohibition-era NYC. Translation? Tommy is a bookie.
JON (“Hey, Katie! Can’t you take a joke?”), the middle-aged customer who resembles a giant stuffed panda and lives on the block with his mother and shares his scatological fantasies, which I won’t repeat, stacks bills on the bar like cards and rips the deck in two, offering me half.
JOEL (“How old are you?”), the undercover cop in baseball cap and lumber jacket, who’s pitching a book to a “Hill Street Blues” actor, based on his time on NYC’s task force units, detects I’m older than I appear.
JACK (“The Captain”), the old-timer who wears rubber gloves.
FROM THE NOTEBOOK OF KATIE THE BARTENDER:
June: My first night. They all produced badges. Seven or eight badges thrust in my face … . The Captain had his rubber gloves on and got up on the bar and started twisting. From behind, you saw his gun. They left all this money on the bar. (Polly’s right!)
July: Wednesday night. When Pete lifted the heavy iron gate as we closed and I saw the red light through the grating, I thought, This looks like the gate to hell and Pete said, “This is hell and I’m the devil!”
August: My last night. I was fired, I can’t sleep. Pete said it was because Coppers (their Tribeca bar) was closing and they’d made a commitment to two employees… .
In the end, my passcode is revoked. Katie or not, I’m not one of them. Did I violate an unspoken code? There’s the night I stay after hours with Carlton and the gang… . There’s the incident with the ice scooper: I leave it in the machine; it’s buried. Sal has a s— fit. (“The scooper goes in the bucket. Think you can remember that, sweetie?”)
But my big mistake was to fall in love with the place. What was I in love with, exactly? Not the decor (if you could call it that); Barrow’s, with its well-worn wooden benches, bare floors and bar chairs, had the comfy feeling of home. The Barrow’s gang was a surrogate family. I was desperate to belong. When I lost my job, it felt like losing my childhood home all over again. Cast out! I was heartbroken.
FAST-FORWARD: 2023. I go back, disguised as an old lady, and step inside a time capsule. Nothing’s changed in 32 years, except me. “A tried and true watering hole,” bartender Emily describes Barrow’s. “Working class — my union boys and people from the neighborhood.”
The pool table still dominates the space. But the wall phone is gone; an American flag hangs above a mirror. I don’t recognize anyone; nobody yells, “Hey, Katie! Welcome home!”