Jun 6, 2016
Sunny’s Nights: How a Red Hook Bar Became Brooklyn’s Most Magical Spot
When Sunny Balzano died in March of this year, Red Hook—and the entire city of New York—mourned the loss of a man who, to many, embodied a kind of quicksilver Brooklyn magic. He was the charming proprietor of a lost bar on a lonely, harborside street where intimacy and spectacle and serendipity intermingled. He was captain of the kind of place that New Yorkers tell themselves can only exist here, and perhaps even then only briefly. Writer Tim Sultan first stumbled into Sunny’s Red Hook bar one night in 1995, and remained for years—becoming a bartender, and later an escort for Sunny’s various doctors’ appointments. His memoir, Sunny’s Nights, which was published shortly before Sunny’s death (Balzano was able to appear at Sultan’s BookCourt launch), tells the story of their friendship and of Sultan’s evolving relationship with a bar—and a neighborhood—that has experienced radical change. It’s a lovely, lyrical, and reflective book, one that mixes equal parts nostalgia and skepticism. We spoke via email about his memoir, about Balzano, and about the city that continues to shift beneath our very feet.
Part memoir, part biography, your book feels most of all to me like a love story. How did your relationship with Sunny change over the years?
Sunny was and always will be a major figure in my life. I loved him from the beginning and at the end. He was thoughtful and concerned, contemplative, intensely humane, wise with sophisticated insights into our psychologies. He was also mulish, rash and irrational, destructive in his personal habits—something that occasionally extended to his personal relationships. I experienced all of these facets, and more. He was a widely known but little-known man.
It’s hard to depict the fluctuations of a twenty-year friendship in a few short words here—I think my book better serves to answer that question. His attitude toward me was paternal, maternal and, above all, fraternal—despite the thirty-some years that separated us. Sunny was thoroughly comfortable in my company. Like many highly charismatic people, at times he tired of having to perform, of matching people’s expectations. He never wanted to disappoint those who came to Red Hook expressly to see him but more than a few of those intemperate nights absolutely destroyed him. This is not to say that Sunny’s hospitality, his ebullience, was an act. He truly loved people, in all their vagaries, and he had a seemingly bottomless reservoir for conversation, for communing, for connecting (and, regrettably, for drinking). But there were times when he enjoyed nothing more than saying nothing—something he could always do with me without apology.
If one were able to ask him now which times in our friendship he valued the most, I’m certain he wouldn’t even mention the bar. That was, after all, a shared space. Public. But rather, he would bring up our phone conversations and his periodic visits to his urologist to which he usually asked me along for chauffeuring and for company. We always made a day of it, offsetting the unpleasantry of the anatomy inspection by going out for a mid-day breakfast afterwards at a French café with an indoor garden on Court Street. We talked about personal matters, bar matters, this book. Much of my fact-checking took place over coffee and eggs Benedict. They were uneventful days and yet, he would often say how much he looked forward to them. No hospital visit is agreeable and I am gratified knowing that I made these experiences more palatable—for both of us. In recent years, I certainly saw less of Sunny as others took on these commitments and events were taking us in different directions. Too, he was turning inward and expressed several times this past winter that he had begun to feel intensely lonely.
Though Sunny had gradually withdrawn from the bar several years ago, Red Hook—and Brooklyn as a whole—felt his loss deeply when he passed away this past March. Your book was released shortly before his death and in some ways prepares its readers for it. Did Sunny get a chance to see the book before he passed away? How has your relationship to the book changed since Sunny’s death?
Yes, it’s striking how elegiacally the late pages now read. They are written in the past tense though Sunny was still alive; I was, at that point, surveying the past, summing up what he, what it all meant to me. My perspective on the book has gone from anxiety, as to how it would be received, to fulfillment. I know I completed a remembrance that has a permanence and that I did so to the best of my ability.
You referred to this as a part-biography but I consider it a very subjective portrait (of both of us.) Some elements of his history I sketched in thinly—with a pencil, if you will—and others are painted in. Sunny was not an educated man in the conventional sense—he certainly would like to have been but he suffered a lifelong reading disability and so, he was his own oral historian. We spent many hours going over passages of time, passages of pages. Confirming or correcting my memory of his recollections.
Sunny saw the book, of course. His last real public appearance was at BookCourt, on the evening the book came out. He took the podium and…well, he was just so very pleased. He adored Mary Gannett, BookCourt’s owner, it was a full house and he knew that he was the main event. The turnout was for him, as much as for the book. He veritably lit up the room and anyone who was in attendance won’t forget that night. My great regret is that Sunny didn’t have a chance to read the book in its entirety. As I mentioned earlier, Sunny was not a reader or writer—I had read him passages during the fact-checking phase and three complete chapters. Two having to do with his childhood and an account of the evening we met with George Plimpton. He cried at this. My hope was that he would listen to the audio book, which was narrated by Bobby Cole, an actor whom Sunny had mentored in various ways over twenty-five years and had been perhaps his closest confidant. Sunny loved performance and I knew that the experience of listening to Bobby—doing Sunny—would be a kind of theatrical justice. But time ran out, on his body, on one’s plans.
You took an extra eight years to complete the book. How did the book change in that time?
I set out writing a more conventional history of Red Hook and this bar’s relevance to that history, but realized after a year or two, that this was a completely misbegotten idea. I’m no sort of historian and others are better equipped for this sort of project. In time I narrowed the scope largely to two lives, Sunny’s and mine, to writing about things that I alone would have knowledge of. To paying tribute to various souls I had served and who had served me. I would take an additional six years because certain real-life events hadn’t fully unfolded. In some ways, this is a classic story of infatuation, maturation and, eventually, moving on. The moving-on part hadn’t taken place yet though I could sense that it would. I’m a novice book writer–the most meaningful writing for me took place late in this book after a long period of evaluation, of coming to some conclusions that are more sweeping than an account of a man, his bar and one of its tenders. I’m a slow learner—of my own mind.
What do you see as Sunny’s legacy? How will the bar continue to change? Or stay the same?
Sunny’s legacy is substantial but it’s not a thing of substance. It’s certainly not a bar. I had stopped associating Sunny, the man, with Sunny’s, the place, some years ago. (And he, himself, said something very telling at the BookCourt reading to an old customer. “Robbie, let’s start a new Sunny’s.”) His role had become ceremonial and that is not a knock on today’s bar. He no longer had the health and the will to play a great part in its operations—or was running a business ever one of his ambitions. The bar was a family structure that, for a time, ran through his hands and now has passed on to others. Sunny was perhaps the least acquisitive person I’ve ever met. He didn’t care for possessions and he didn’t consider the bar to be one. Sunny’s legacy is, of course, whatever echoes remain in the memories of those who knew him. Some echoes don’t begin to fade for a long time.
Red Hook has changed a lot since you first explored the neighborhood in 1995. So much of Brooklyn, in fact, has seen dramatic change over the past two decades. How do you grapple with change, as a person and as a writer who clearly loves engaging with a place’s history?
I tend to be drawn towards places that are mostly unchanging and to places that I can consider ‘my own.’ To a large degree this is what the book is about—that is, the predicament of holding on to this worldview. The diminishment of Brooklyn is the result of low interest rates as well as the Information Age, which by its nature, has shed light on most of its darkened corners. Simply said, it’s become harder to find our private places—a transformation that goes far beyond Brooklyn’s boundaries.
I’m not sure whether all readers interpreted this as I intended but toward the end of Sunny’s Nights, the only place left in Red Hook where Red Hook still existed for me—that is, as a place of wonder, was beneath the river water. In that vein, Brooklyn, which by day has become so terrifically congested retains its wonder for me largely at night, when the streets have emptied out, the boardwalks have emptied out, the waves have emptied out. I have more than a little stray cat in me.
There may never be another bar like Sunny’s in the nineties, but I wonder where you are a regular now. Are there any places (whether bars or neighborhoods) that remind you of Sunny’s, or perhaps appeal to you in the same way Sunny’s did? What’s your favorite place to get a boilermaker these days?
Sunny’s was of a place and time in the way Toots Shor’s was of an irretrievable period. It relied on the personality of the owner, in this case, a most forbearing man. To be fair, Sunny’s way of doing things probably wasn’t sustainable. But each person needs to find their own paradise. Paradise doesn’t have one address. It’s wherever one feels most happy in one’s own skin or, conversely for some, a place where one forgets oneself.
But to answer your question more directly, yes, I have two bars that I go to the exclusion of nearly all others. I’ll name one—Towne Café on Avenue Z. After nightfall it’s a largely Russian crowd and it could hardly be more different from Sunny’s. It’s frequently gloomy, the doormen can be sinister, many of the customers are outright menacing and their male counterparts only a little less so. Yet, put enough hours into the place and it reveals itself to be far more.
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