Who are the people in your neighborhood?

I have a bar. I don’t own it — I’m an English professor in the most expensive real estate market in the world; it will be many, many years before I own anything — but I feel proprietary nonetheless. I’ve had friends who had bars, including a place called Charmers in Chicago (I don’t think it exists any more), and I heard plenty from them about life at “the bar.” But until last year I never really understood what it meant to be a regular, to be able to walk in, ask for a beer, and have the bartender know that for you a “beer” means an Anchor Steam: what it means to have a place — you knew this was coming — where everybody knows your name.

Eggplant sandwich anyone?

Fresh Salt opened a year ago Labor Day. The owners took the name from the peeling painted advertisement on the red brick facade out front: “Fresh, Salt, and Smoked Fish.” But its proximity to the old Fulton Fish Market, nestled within the historic seaport district, has always made me think that “Fresh Salt” should be understood in contrast to “Old Salt.” Fresh Salt was the new kid hanging around the slips, sea struck.

Before Fresh Salt opened, the 1885 warehouse at 146 Beekman Street had been a coffee shop called Pepper Jones. It was the one decent cafe in the neighborhood, which since the mid ’80s has been held hostage by a tourist trap of a mall — a conglomeration of bad retail stores (what’s worse than the Gap, J Crew, and Abercrombie except for the Sharper Image?), flavorless restaurants, and — especially after 9/11 — hordes of pink midwesterners wearing Old Navy American flag t-shirts. Except for an occasional stop on my way to the grocery store, though, Pepper Jones didn’t offer me much in the way of community. I was vaguely aware that it had regulars, but coffee shops tend to cater to folks absorbed in their newspapers. The lighting was too bright. And they had a corny gift shop to boot.

The first time I set foot in Fresh Salt, by contrast, I realized my relationship to the neighborhood would change: Sara, one of the owners, had Broken Social Scene on the stereo; she served coffee, pastries, and sandwiches in the daytime, and the table up in the corner looked like the perfect quiet place to finish writing my book. Quiet except for Friday mornings, that is: the “fish guys” used to get off work around 8:00 a.m. and come in for morning drinks, which could last until 3:00 that afternoon, complete with several Sinatra singalongs. Even then, I’d sometimes take the table up top and listen like an ethnographer, since they and their market were a dying breed. The neighborhood had already changed a lot since the ’80s, one of the guys told me one morning. He was about my age but looked ten years older, face red and puffy. He’d worked down there since he was fifteen. God knows what he had in his system to keep him up all night. “You know what they used to have down here?” he said, cocking his head toward South Street. “Girls. Down on the dock. Waiting for you when the shift was up. You know what I mean?” He made eye contact. “You know what I’m saying, right?”

To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize I had a neighborhood until the bar opened. To the south we have the Financial District: hundreds of thousands of sharp-suited American Psychos who swarm the streets at morning and evening rush hour and who make the area’s few viable restaurants unpleasant Monday through Friday, especially at lunchtime. The seaport mall itself is beyond unpleasant — a shame, considering it inhabits some of the best historic architecture in Manhattan. We’d lived down here for just over three years, but it wasn’t the sort of place you found new friends. That changed fast.

Don at work

That’s Don, one of the captains of the historic schooner Pioneer. He lives with some of his crew out on one of the bigger ships the Seaport Museum owns. He was one of the first regulars we befriended, or who befriended us — an old salt if Fresh Salt has one. Salt of the earth, in any case. He’d come in mornings for coffee and a bagel, read his paper, chat with Sara. Later his daughter joined the bar staff, and he’d come around nights for tea and conversation. Once you’re down with Don you’re in.

For a while, though, the emerging group of regulars coexisted warily, especially in the daytime, when most of us were working or just on a lunch break. But it didn’t take long before the crew started gathering. Here’s who you’d find if we were characters on a sitcom: there’s the sardonic thirty-something entrepreneur, a rabid libertarian when it comes to politics; there’s the woman down the street who use to bake cupcakes and sell them out of the bar until she took a new magazine job; there’s her husband the ad guy, who donated a set of his dad’s old encyclopedias to settle disputes. There’s the event planner, the sound engineer and his posse, an odd assortment of chefs and other restaurant folk who live downtown and stop by on their way home from work; there’s the new kid from Texas and his girlfriend. (Later I learned that I was known as “the professor” until we were all finally on a first-name basis.) By the beginning of Fresh Salt’s first summer, the rest of the regulars had staked out their spots at the bar. People brought their kids on weekend afternoons (mine have a fondness for pineapple juice with marischino cherries). We watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the street or from neighbors’ rooftops. We celebrate our birthdays there. Some of us started to hang out off hours, go see movies or shop together, catch dinner. All summer long we organized neighborhood sails on the Pioneer, whose crew made up another set of familiar faces.

neighborhood sail

look closely ... there's a neighborhood in there somewhere

In the beginning, some of us worried a little whether the bar would make it. It’s a tough neighborhood for small businesses, especially good ones. The area around the waterfront was too expensive for the artists who’d congregated in lofts down here once upon a time, priced out of Soho and Tribeca. The old seaport culture — Sloppy Louie’s fish-and-egg scramble for breakfast — had long-since dried up. The fish market finally headed up to the Bronx, taking the last of that with it. Not that the neighborhood was dying. For better or worse, we’re still talking Manhattan real estate here. In the last year the high-end rental development virus has spread. The neighborhood’s flipping: when we first arrived, Front Street still had old sofas and abandoned office chairs on the sidewalk, hypodermic needles stuck in the armrests. Now it looks like Main Street USA. Far from fretting about Fresh Salt’s survival, we’ve come to worry about being able to elbow our way up to the bar during Thursday or Friday happy hours. I think we’ll hold auditions before we let any newcomers into the inner circle.

Because sitting at the bar — literally — is what it’s all about: Jason, Sara, Mary, Jessica, Rebecca, Sandy, and others who’ve been in and out — these are the finest bartenders in town. (One of them was also listed as Manhattan’s “most unspeakably handsome bartender” by the Village Voice. Paper magazine just called him “cute” after a reality show filmed an episode there. I’d tell you which bartender I’m talking about, but he’d beat me up, and besides, it’s unspeakable. If you ask the fish guys, though, they’ll tell you the ladies are the real draw.) The best nights they’re not too busy to talk, which is nice, since you’re really there to find out how their day went, to see what the neighbors are up to, catch up on local gossip. You’re there for your kind of music, your kind of people. If it’s your kind of place, you get what I’m saying. If not, head around the corner to the other bar, the one with an abundance of frat boys sitting in a sour smell, an odd assortment of abandoned bras spinning from the ceiling fans. You deserve it.

One night last year I realized what a proprietary sense being a regular carries with it. Friends were in town — and by now, most of our friends are more than honorary regulars too, even the ones who live in other cities. Heading home at the end of a night out, they said goodbye to us as we stood out front. “Love your bar,” one of them said. Another regular, standing nearby with a few of his friends, gave a sharp glance. “Your bar?”

11 responses to “Who are the people in your neighborhood?”

  1. pandora brewer says:

    What a wonderful essay Brian! It evokes all the senses–and a few unsettling pangs of jealousy. How ironic that amid huge cities there are pockets of true warmth and connection, all the attributes usually touted by smaller, “gentler” places in America. In suburbia, where people drive to get coffee three bolcks away and the same woman asks you blankly if you want a muffin even though you have never bought a muffin in the two years you have stopped there, there is a constant feeling of brittle frontier. I am always reminded that I live in a made-up town establsihed to flee diversity and odd smells 50 years ago and really just wants to be left alone still. There is a palpable isolation in these “border” towns. I love your images of people comfortable with the mix, the mess and the hearty drink of true community.

  2. thanks, pandora. i need you guys to visit soon. we had fun last weekend — armory show, etc. — see dave’s post. but it’s never the same without you. xo — bw

  3. skippy says:

    I want to see the boob pics, I here you gottem there.


  4. it’s true that one of the regulars (who shall go unnamed for legal reasons) has a thing for sneaking or soliciting cleavage shots, but i will not be associated with such juvenile activity. you’ll have to hit him up yourself.

  5. […] From there we hopped back in our friend Gill’s Land Rover (which made the trip to nether-Brooklyn much more convenient) and made our way back to the city. Man, I hate the Lower East Side on weekends. I can see why people go to Brooklyn to begin with. We sluffed from place to place, all packed with bad music and worse clientele, bridge-and-tunnel boys in untucked striped dress shirts, girls with too much makeup and a starved greyhound look in their eyes. All of this to confirm once again why we more often than not stay cozied up at Fresh Salt. We finally settled into a nasty little place south of some park. (Sorry for the lack of specifics; it had been a long night already by this point.) A band was setting up and they looked just horrifying enough that we couldn’t help but want to hear them. Plus there were big, soft couches and only about half a dozen other people there (we doubled the crowd when we arrived). I can’t remember the name of the band, but they were from Michigan: four or five barely legal emo kids who hadn’t quite shed their baby fat but looked like they worked out a lot, trying hard to get it to go. Most amazing of all was their hair. In silhouette it looked like they were going for Robert Smith (though none of them wore eyeliner or lipstick, at least not that I can recall). But they all had the same bleached-out frosting job. We decided they must be called “My Mom Owns a Beauty Parlor.” Come to think of it, those hairdos resembled something you’d expect to see on a slightly overweight suburban Michigan hairdresser. The kids sounded tight, though, even if the genre was unbearable. You had to give them credit for bringing their act to the city; I’m sure this was a momentous event for all their friends at home: on tour in New York! Who knows, they may very well be on Disney channel next year, at the top of the iTunes charts, buying overpriced real estate in that very neighborhood. Dave took 400 pictures that night; I’ll ask him to upload a couple later today so you can get the full effect. […]

  6. […] On the water, my friend Don was at the helm. One of the more colorful characters in our neighborhood, Don lives on board the Wavertree, one of the museum’s tall ships. He’d recently shaved his beard, had only a bushy moustache left, and was sporting a broad-brimmed straw hat. I’ve heard him say before that he categorizes men based on the kinds of hats their faces can get away with, and Don, let me say it, is the kind of guy who can sport a range of hats, and this particular hat delivered the goods. How it stayed on for our entire sail, I have no idea, but stay on it did. Don called orders to his crew, and we motored out from the pier, heading up the East River toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where we would turn 180 degrees and hope to catch wind down river toward the Upper Bay. […]

  7. bryan says:

    Happy anniversary to Fresh Salt! It’s no mean feat to keep a bar open in Manhattan for two years, so hats off to Jason and Sara. We’re on our way down to the party, having just come from a sunset sail. If you’re in the neighborhood, come on down. If not, it won’t be the same without you.

    xo — bw

  8. […] Of course with all the other analogies we drew between Manhattan and Amsterdam, we had to keep up the quest for the spiritual sibling of our own Fresh Salt. And we did find it — again and again, in brown bar after brown bar, though a couple clearly stood out as our favorites. Our ideal places had age, character, kindly locals, and plenty of space for a group our size, inside or out. They were the places a family might show up on a Saturday morning to play board games with the kids or where people drop by to say hello to the bartender while they’re out walking the dog. […]

  9. […] We’ll miss the proximity to the seaport as well, though we’re reassured by the fact that the new apartment is only a 20-minute walk from Fresh Salt. Our neighborhood friends, our sails on the Pioneer, my relationship with the Seaport Museum’s staff, the walking tours I love to lead for students and family members — these things will remain a significant part of our lives. I’m not sure we’d have been able to move, otherwise. […]

  10. A says:

    Enjoyed reading this. I wanted to let you know, that Capt Don, passed away last monday. Apparently he had a stroke, whilst mowing his grass. It doesn’t seem a fitting end to such a character as Capt Don. He will be missed.

  11. […] Taube — some call him Captain Don — was a fixture in our seaport neighborhood. He lived on a ship in the harbor. He drank tea and talked and checked his email at Fresh Salt, […]