It was after my sophomore year of college that my mother gave me a copy of The Tender Bar, journalist J.R. Moehringer’s sprawling memoir of growing up among the drunks, kooks, and crazies of his neighborhood bar in Manhasset, New York. Moehringer, a Pulitzer-winning reporter who started out as a meek kid in a destitute home with an absent father, found paternal guidance in the rogues’ gallery of patrons who attend his beloved Publicans. That bar, from the way Moehringer describes it, had more of an impact on his life than any college or internship at the New York Times ever did, born on the back of a simple battlecry: “Be a man.”
Bartender therapy is as well-worn as the old fashioned, and the memoir’s colorful anecdotes are wide-eyed exercises in bildungsroman, but Moehringer’s book runs deeper than the traditional regulars-as-family yarn. More importantly, I didn’t realize that less than a decade later I would find myself almost exactly in Moehringer’s shoes: an aspiring writer (lol), broken and demoralized, burdened by failure and uncertainty, and slouching to the same alcoholic sanctuary day after day in search a moment of existential solace. Performative nihilism is in vogue in the Brooklyn media set, but I can honestly say that this is the one time in my life where I’ve actually tried to drown my sorrows in alcohol.
It was Noorman’s Kil, the dark and homey whiskey-and-grilled cheese joint on Grand Avenue, a dejected stagger from my first New York apartment that beckoned from the minute it turned up in my email the week before I arrived. The bar boasts 250 whiskeys and a dozen interpretations of the eternally comforting grilled cheese, and I first inspected the place during my second week in the city, when I finally came to grips with the horrible mistake that was my new job. Soon, I’d sojourn from my apartment to spend hours working my way through the heavy leather drink menu, a brown liquor tour of Kentucky and Scotland and Canada and Japan, before weaving my way through a few games of Galaga at the nearby Barcade and then home to pray I didn’t wake up the next day. Though my jobs, apartments, anxieties and failures changed, my sanctuary did not.
It was the bar that saved me, but not the same way Publicans saved Moehringer. Through each crisis, firing after firing, and heartbreak after heartbreak, the bar’s patrons weren’t surrogate fathers to me as they’d been to him. Instead, the bar itself was my support system, my home base, my man cave, even if the bartenders and other boozehounds didn’t know it. There’s a phenomenon coined by German sociologist Erving Goffman called “civil inattention” where we enter the chaos of public spaces and instinctively retreat into the privacy of our inner world, like entering a crowded subway car or waiting in line to see Star Wars. At Noorman’s Kil, the bartenders were kind but unobtrusive, the food and drink toothsome but not exotically distracting, the decor and atmosphere like a long conversation where everything else just blurs away. Nobody knew my name, but the civil inattention of of the bar had the same soothing effect on me as a hard run or long nap. I was nobody, and that was just fine by me.
But it’s not just the salutary neglect of Brooklyn’s most welcoming bar that let me find solace in the cracks between other people. Friends would come, in two and threes and sometimes one-on-one, to listen and talk and mainly listen, to make sure I wasn’t completely isolated and drifting. I had first dates with new loves there and mourned those I lost at the bar’s scarred wooden countertop. I celebrated the end of old jobs and plotted new ones. Nearly a year ago, it was a glass of Bulleit bourbon and a ricotta and Nutella that helped me climb out of an abyss of despair. In his bar, Moehringer found the people who cared about him; in mine, I found myself.
I see other bars now, obviously, from my favorite bitters joint in Alphabet City to the speakeasy in Kips Bay where I finally felt like the optimistic, enthusiastic man I was when I first read about Moehringer’s love affair with Publicans all those years ago. But everyone has a bar like Publicans, a tender bar, where they return to restore themselves to a state of glory. For Moehringer, returning to that ramshackle dive in Manhasset meant a reminder to be strong and be firm, to “be a man.” When I return to Noorman’s Kil, the mandate’s different, but not by much. I’m there not to embrace some pastiche of masculinity, but simply to restore myself to more than a shadow of my former self, swaddled in the glorious inattention of Brooklyn’s finest whiskey joint. And for the grilled cheese.