It’s Always Going Away: Losing the Places We Love – Nina Smilow

Image by Elliott Blair via Unsplash

New York is often unfairly maligned for being unfeeling, but that’s just what we call uncontrollable things, which the city is. It tumbles on, transforming a million times over the course of a decade before remaining stagnant for far too long. Occasionally, shifts rise rapidly from seismic events. I’ve seen sudden pivots in the wake of 9/11, the crash of 2008, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, all of which moved the city in different directions.

Covid-19 has been different. The pandemic is a robber. Even with all my confidence in my hometown, the speed with which it shut every borough down and left storefronts and restaurants empty felt like a sucker punch. Among the countless losses, one of the most poignant is that of our third places, the ones Ray Oldenberg defined in his 1982 book, The Great Good Place. The ones that are not singularly ours but feel like they are. Ask any New Yorker for a recommendation of their favorite bar or coffee shop and they will deliver a slice of themselves.

At least a chunk of me lives at Swift Hibernian Lounge, an Irish bar on East 4th street, a relatively quiet side street between the bustling avenues of Bowery and Lafayette. I’ve spent so many hours there – days that turned into nights, and nights that only ended with the creeping assault of day – that parts of me must literally still be in the deepest crevices of the old wood in the building: skin I shed unknowingly back in the days where we could be cavalier about leftovers. As much as I grew up in my mother’s house on the Upper West Side, I became an adult hiding out on a stool behind wooden doors and a red curtained entrance in NoHo.

Swift is still hanging on, with limited capacity and a small outdoor set up surrounded by space heaters and flaming lamps. Early on in the stay-at-home days, I was convinced that I would only mourn if it closed, but I’m realizing I’ve been grieving for a while now.

The first time I went, I wasn’t quite allowed to be there, but had already spent enough time in bars to know a really good one. Largely unchanged from when it was founded in 1995 by three Irish natives, it’s named after the writer Jonathan Swift and aims to invite conversation and introspection. There are no TVs or kitschy arcade games, nothing to distract from the place itself, where dim lighting gives the impression that its source is the decorative tealight candles on every surface. Built with the dark wood of reclaimed church pews, there’s even a pulpit in the back that functions as a stage for poetry readings on Sunday afternoons and live trad music on Tuesdays, even serving as a DJ booth on Saturday nights. These events are filled with familiar faces; the same people who sat clapping along to Irish ballads throw their bodies around to thumping bass four days later.  

Not everyone who is a fixture lives in the neighborhood, but part of its success is still a matter of location. As one of the few places that served more-than-decent food and drinks until four AM, it was a gathering spot for everyone who worked in restaurants in the area. In the first six years of my twenties, I worked at three different places in the ten-block radius of Swift. After the service ended at every one of these, employees would move from closing duties to their spots at the bar. We sat and unpacked everything that had happened serving other people while being handed a drink. On Monday afternoons, which so many of us had off, a group would inevitably make the journey from varying neighborhoods and boroughs to continue discussing the debauchery of the weekend and then turn towards increasingly personal conversations, things shared more freely as daylight waned.

I spent most of the time leaning over the two feet wooden barrier. One of the bartender’s hands would be in mine or in my hair, part of him always firmly holding a strand of me. People treat it like a well-worn trope of your twenties; dating a bartender, particularly one with an accent. Nearly everyone I knew when I worked in restaurants was either dating or sleeping with one, so I wasn’t aware of how the fact of him would become an anecdote in itself. It negates the reality of the thing. The dichotomy between conversation fodder and what two people make when they spend the daylight hours entwined.

This is like watching a soap opera, another regular amiably commented to me, watching us perform a relationship one night. My beer was refilled and then the bartender walked away. My next round would appear continuously until closing, at which point I’d throw down tip money, more for the rest of the staff than him. All through his shift, I’d watch women lean their bodies over to shout orders in his ear, giving him a good angle. Sometimes they would still be there at the end of the night, asking what he was doing after. One time, an actress from a popular Netflix show pulled my hair on her way out when she realized he was leaving with me.

I understood. He is beautiful in a way that’s impossible to describe without sounding trite. The kind of beauty guts respond to before intellect can get in the way. I was in a feral state of mind about him, echoing so much of what working in restaurants is about; desire met by instant gratification. Midnight omakase or oyster feasts when most people settle for fast food. A shift drink from an unfinished bottle of triple digit wine and endless pours of crémant for the staff. We’d carry all that decadence over when we stumbled through Swift’s doors.

Relationships that develop in these circumstances are equal in passion. My memories of them are blurry and halcyon, made in bodies and flavour. It’s difficult to make out details, but I try to, drifting back most nights. When I’m struggling with all the things no one can control, I find comfort in living with things that ended.

I was in-between things most of the time I spent laying claim to my corner spot, which made it one of the only constants in my life. The bartender himself was more permanent than most of the relationships I’ve had. We knew each other for years before I ever saw him on the other side of the bar, let alone with his eyelids fluttering during a dream.

The first few months of courtship were surprisingly chaste, filled with hands being grazed and allusion filled correspondence and the resulting intimacy we created was accidental. It was born of too many hours spent together and inconsequential chatter that adds up; the reliability he offered was the same as the bar itself, constant in its being, and inconsistent in everything else. The crowd could be tame one night, boisterous the next, and downright unpleasant on the one after that. Sometimes the air conditioning blew out or the heat failed, and once a flooding drain closed the place for the whole weekend, leaving all of us confusedly wandering around, looking for a temporary substitution. Long before the first time he picked me up like I weighed nothing, he would tell me stories about his days off.

I got so destroyed, I fell asleep on the pier at Coney Island, he said, running cold bar wipes over his bright red arms, which were already starting to peel. I slept with her again, he whispered as one of the servers walked by without exchanging even a head nod. I know, I know, but I was absolutely fucked, and I thought it would be fine. We were yakked out until, like five AM when I remembered I had to be here at eleven, he admitted, spilling my drink on the bar as he handed it over. I think I’m probably still a little fucked up. His eyes were blue, but mostly red in the daylight.

Somewhere in all these anecdotes, I forgot to take him seriously. When he would come to me, so drunk his eyes were becoming crossed, and express things everyone has – feelings, dreams, fears – I didn’t know where to put them. Does it matter that his favorite cheese was Irish cheddar and his favorite flower was a daisy? Only when I think about how long he would go without seeing his family back in Dublin and how often he spoke about his brother. Does it make any difference that he was one of the first people to encourage me to apply to writing programs? Only when he sent me a photo of a poem that I had long forgotten writing, wrinkled, but saved and transported in his recent move.

Eventually I started building things out of concrete action, instead of false passivity. I focused on returning to school and getting my Master’s degree, a feat I’m prouder of than a new relationship that closely followed, though both were influential. The last time the bartender and I spoke outside of the bar was when I told him about it. He asked for space, which friends found to be a hilarious indictment since he’d been dating a different person for over a year and still waking up in my bed repeatedly. But I understood. We were undefined, built in muddled hours and conversation, which made it difficult to know when to call it a night. Anyone debating their next move at closing knows how hard it is to just head home.

So, I stayed away from Swift when he was working and maybe there was a comfortable middle ground to be found, but just when I started taking my seat at the bar again, greeting the bartender like the old friend he was, the whole city changed, faster, more dramatically, and devastatingly than anything I could foresee.

Swift’s heavy wooden doors were shut for months and watching it struggle to even remain open through this winter has been unnerving. So is the revelation of how much of what I love about the bar, what keeps me dwelling in nights which passed years ago, started disappearing long before the pandemic. The period where I was younger and less responsible was fading before every sniffle or cough gave cause for panic. The conversations there circled around who we were all going to be and what we were going to do. It could never remain the same when we began to take action, which comes with reasons to be clear-headed or, at the very least, awake before noon.

Even before the city shut down, it was unchanged on the surface; Irish coffees and hot toddies in the winter, penicillins and snake bites in the summer, and even the same faces behind and in front of the bar. But, while many of my friends still worked at places in the neighborhood, most were now in managerial roles which had them leaving their shift before closing and arriving before opening. Others moved careers or even states away. We all started heading home long before the sun carried us there.

When we would gather, it felt like we were preservationists. As much as I used to think my memories of him and the bar were the only things I’d get to keep, there are a myriad of leftovers. A skull piggy bank he brought me back from a trip to Mexico on my desk. The Christmas Mardi Gras bead chain and an elf hat from the holiday spent happily with chosen family, sitting in a basement with other things I don’t know how to dispose of. A t-shirt from a tequila company folded neatly in my drawer from when the representative got drunk and started giving them away. A Jabba the Hutt mug that I almost came to blows over keeping, but don’t actually remember how I came to be in possession of. And the memories, condensing themselves into one extended fading of light sky to dark and back again.

When I pick up any of these things in my hands or head, I wonder if what I miss is just the temporary nature of it, which tricked me into thinking that when it would all disappear, I wouldn’t care, but knickknacks accidentally become keepsakes.

There are a multitude of places I long to access the way I used: the coffee shop on my corner where I could always count on a free pastry at the end of the day, the bodega where the owner is friendlier to my dog than to me, or the sushi restaurant where they know every member of my family’s names, as well as those of our significant others, past and present. I know every New Yorker has places like these, that they were never just ours, but always felt that way.

But I also know that even if the cursed “new normal” disappeared and everything opened up again tomorrow, we don’t live in that life anymore. Even before the national tragedy, I was making a thousand adjustments, big and small that would end up seismically shifting me. I’m trying to remember that’s why the city seems not to care. It knows we will be changing as much as it does. But New York doesn’t fight the transformations the way that we do when we notice them, sometimes nobly, mostly out of fear.

Swift was becoming more like a blue-eyed friend from a specific time in my life; someone I’d always have inside jokes and intense memories with, but our commonalities waned. The hardest part, before March, was knowing that when I ceased to claim ownership over my seat in the corner, the best-case scenario is that it would belong to someone else. Eventually, I assumed, my friends who still work there would no longer want to spend four nights a week awake until dawn and some new, early twenties Irish bartenders looking to live in New York will come in. I didn’t doubt, when that happened, there would be a girl I don’t know, but recognize, spending way too many hours there forming a friendship that becomes something infuriatingly ineffable. Now that’s what I hope for.

I worry about how the places we love survive at all with such limited capacity and so much fear. All of this highlights our individual uncertainty: the scariest part of change, even when we instigate it and more so when something like the pandemic occurs. Things will be changed dramatically. Maybe for the better; rents that have been skyrocketing might veer back towards the reasonable. Perhaps New York will feel less corporate, homogenized, and wealthy. But I’m realizing more and more, we all made something in the city that was. We’ll be left with its leftovers and memories. I don’t know if that’s enough, but in the early days of all this, my phone lit up with a number I didn’t have saved but knew by heart.

I just wanted to make sure you were doing well.

I am, in the way we all are, so deeply susceptible to things and the marks they leave. No matter what happens to that bar and despite all my platitudes on the value of letting go, I hold on to so much. My life is built on the events that took place on green leather topped stools over too many drinks. It was a gift to be all bound together with near strangers, so tightly they became more.

The only thing the city offers with certainty is an expanse on which to create memories that become integral to our beings. It will continue to do so, even after this crisis passes. It won’t look the same, but I’m learning the truth behind the changes I claimed cavalier acceptance of. I’m not the same either. None of us will be after this, but we were already becoming different. The only thing I can safely hold onto is that is the faith that, like New York, we’ll still be there when it’s over, even if we’re not on those exact same seats. 

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Nina Smilow is an unpublished author, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence’s Writing MFA, and a lifelong New Yorker who still loves bars. 

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