Our Styrofoam Youth: An Ode to Rosemary’s Tavern

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If you’re not looking for it, there amid the swift, monochrome rustle of long-legged, wan hipsters and waifish bearded men in old-timey hats rushing here and there into bánh mì shops and bodegas, you won’t find it. But if you know what you’re looking for—that particular configuration of Christmas lights strewn in that haphazard zigzag arrangement across the tiny, unassuming bar front—you find yourself standing in the doorway seconds after you emerge from the subway. Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern, known affectionately as “Greenpoint Tavern” or “Rosemary’s” or “Rosie’s” has been in this same spot on Bedford Avenue since the 50s.

In college, when I earned eight dollars an hour working in a coffee shop, Rosie’s made me feel both rich and civilized. Four dollars could buy a 32-ounce styrofoam cup of Budweiser, filled to the brim. An hour of making coffee, mopping floors, and chasing mice around could buy me 64 ounces of beer, or four pints. Another hour of coffee, mopping, and mice could cover tips for a few drinks, a song on the jukebox, and a game of Erotic Photo Hunt.

But the economy of Rosie’s has always been more complicated than this. When you walk over the threshold with your fistful of dollar bills out and ready, you sign a contract to be an accomplice to whatever strange scenario is about to unfold in the bar that night. You sign a contract to settle in among the tough old lady bartenders and the aging, gray-haloed regulars who are in love with them, and the warm swirl of drunken activity that reverberates outward from this epicenter. You don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re in it with Rosie’s.

The bartenders and the regulars are like the constants in a weird science experiment where a lot could go wrong. Sometimes it does.

One night in college, a man began to pay unwanted attention to a friend of mine who was celebrating her birthday, following her around the bar and buying her drinks that she didn’t ask for. Another friend quietly intervened and told him she would kill him if he didn’t leave our friend alone. He smiled.

“Have you ever killed someone?” he asked. “Because I have.”

It was easy to forget, once you were inside the bar, about the logic and laws of the outside world. Blinded by the frenetic web of lights and tinsel hanging from the ceiling, you’d forget that you had a safe, warm bed somewhere. You’d forget that you could leave anytime you wanted. The only things that seemed important were the friends you were with, whatever song was playing on the jukebox, and how many more dollar bills you had left in your pocket.

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