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Leaving Degraw Street — O’Connor’s

4 Jan

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and very generously gave us a reasonable time to vacate — he told us of his plans four months ago.

But now the countdown begins: 27 days . . .

5 — O’Connor’s

Back in 1988, a pub crawl along Fifth Avenue between Flatbush and 9th Street would take you to three bars: O’Connor’s, Jackie’s Fifth Amendment and Smith’s.  Timboo’s lay on the other side of 9th Street, and 200 Fifth (between Union and Sackett) had recently opened, but was technically a restaurant with a bar.   Soon after moving to Degraw Street, my then-boyfriend Carl and I decided we needed to explore the drinking possibilities.  After all, we were (and still are, of course) poets.  Since O’Connor’s was the closest, the staggering-home-proximity was optimal.

As we entered the the place for the first time we were mightily impressed by the darkness; it seemed darker inside than it was outside.  And every object inside was dark, too: dark wooden booths and tables on the right side, dark stools and bar on the left, dark walls, dark ceiling, dark moose head hanging above the bar.  (I think we might’ve only noticed the moose head on the way out, actually.)   Men were hunched over the bar, no one was talking, a single crutch leaned against the front wall under the window, and it was hard to see where the room actually ended.   It might’ve stretched into an infinity of bar-ness, or dropped off into a black hole. The thought crossed my mind that maybe this was a black hole.  Or at least a darkness that had emanated from the Old Man Bar Realm, the kind of darkness to which Old Men Who Drink are native, like the eyeless fish that swim in ancient cave pools.  Even trying to find the bathroom yielded a dream-like surprise: there was a whole other room on the other side.  They were using it as a storeroom, so there were boxes and crates piled up everywhere, but with the streetlight filtering in through a small window — and plus the overall darkness — it looked like the sarcophagi-filled basement of a long-shuttered natural history museum.

There was no tap, all beers were bottled and, if I remember correctly, all the bottles were two bucks (Sam Adams was probably $2.50).  I want to say the beers were a dollar, to add to the antique charm of the place, but I think that might be stretching it.  And speaking of antique charm, the bar itself was worn in places where elbows had rested for many, many nights.  You could run your fingers inside the grooves in the wood.  The bartender that night was the owner, Pat O’Connor, who introduced himself to us with a faintly suspicious air: “Never seen you two before . . . ”  We told him we were writers, and he said his favorite writer was Graham Greene, and had we ever heard of him.  Just then a song came on the jukebox; it was Frank Sinatra:

“When somebody loves you, it’s no good unless he loves you  . . . all the way . . .”

“All The Way” — it was the song that my dad, dying of cancer back in Chicago, had always talked about when I was a teenager:

“That music you listen to . . . it’s nothin’ but a mass of confusion.  Confusion music, that’s what it is.  You wanna hear somethin’ good, some real music?  Go listen to Frank Sinatra singin’ ‘All The Way.’”

Of course I figured it couldn’t be any good.  I was listening to the Dead Boys and the Stranglers.  I was a nihilist, and Frank (also my dad’s name) was no nihilist.  But hearing that song in that bar for the first time?  It was one of those moments when time stops.  Sinatra’s voice was my dad’s voice, floating out from the long-gone corners of our old neighborhood, Back of the Yards, from a time of sports shirts and big cars and pitching pennies in front of the drugstore, a time of living, a time before even the idea of dying:

When somebody loves you

It’s no good unless he loves you

All the way . . .

Happy to be near you

When you need someone to cheer you

All the way . . .

Carl and I were having problems; in fact, we’d break up within the year.  Finally hearing — and listening — to that song that my dad had told me to listen to so long ago, I realized that Carl didn’t love me like in that song, and he never would:

When somebody needs you

It’s no good unless he needs you

All the way . . .

Through the good or lean years

And for all those in between years

Come what may . . .

But my dad loved my mom like that: strong, clear, full of emotion, unabashed.  He’d gone AWOL from the Navy to be with her, and even got his mother to lie as to his whereabouts.  One time, back in Chicago, when we lived in Uptown, Carl left for a trip to New York and took all the solid food in the house with him (peanut butter, bread, potato chips).  I had the flu, and had to call my parents and have them bring supplies.   When I had dysentery in India he’d go out sightseeing while I stayed in the hotel.  I was so dehydrated my urine was red.  I wanted someone to love me like that.  My dad would want someone to love me like that: the way he loved me, no matter what I did.

I decided right then I’d apply for a credit card at the table set up in the bookstore at school, so I could fly to Chicago a couple of times a year, to see my dad as much as I could before he died.  Allen Ginsberg had told me: “Go into debt, lose all your friends, do whatever you have to do to be with him now, because it’s the last time you’ll be able to tell him what you always wanted to tell him.”

I’d tell him that I loved him.  And I’d find somebody who loved me like that, and I’d find him before my dad died.  I wanted him to check the guy out first.

I eventually did meet that guy, and I took him home to meet my dad, who gave him the thumbs-up.  Later, we got married, and he designed the cover of my first fiction collection.  O’Connor’s appears in that design, and I gave a copy of the book to my favorite bartender, Bart.  For a year or two it sat behind the bar, leaned up against the mirror, alongside a couple of Graham Greene paperbacks and some menus from Calexico and El Viejo Yayo.

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