30.10.08

The Moon Under Water

4th Avenue is a wide thruway for Brooklyn that will take you, start to finish, from Fort Hamilton, Bay Ridge, to Sunset Park, past Greenwood Cemetary, Park Slope, and Gowanus where it ends at the frantic intersection of 4th, Atlantic, and Flatbush Avenues. Up at the Gowanus portion, 4th Avenue sits between the self-congratulatory perambulator-pushers of 5th Avenue and neglected 3rd Avenue.

Near its terminus at the Williamsburg Savings Bank Clocktower and the big intersection, 4th Avenue is a throwback to the Gowanus that Jonathan Lethem's Dylan Ebdus, from "Fortress of Solitude," grew up in. Gentrification drips on 4th Ave, from the exorbitant antique shops on Atlantic and the patioed restaurants on 5th, but mostly 4th Ave is bodegas and incense pushers. Drug addicts and wanderers. Double-XL T-shirt salesmen and halal hole-in-the-wall restaurants with no seating. It's not Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, or Park Slope. As Dylan's mother tells him in "Fortress": "'If someone asks you say you live in Gowanus,' she said. 'Don't be ashamed. Boerum Hill is pretentious bullshit.'"

Between Bergen Street and St. Marks on 4th Avenue, is the 4th Avenue Pub. I found it, I'm somewhat embarassed to say, by going to Yelp.com and sorting the city's bars by highest rank. 4th Avenue came up first, not because it was the highest rated bar (it's a 5-star system - lots of bars had 5-star ratings), but because its name started with a number and the sorting was alphabetical. My roommates and I met there for a drink and began a pub night on Wednesdays.
In 1946, George Orwell published a piece in The Evening Standard called "The Moon Under Water" about his favorite city pub:
"My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights. Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of 'regulars' who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer. If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its 'atmosphere.'"
Orwell goes on to describe the qualities that make him frequent Moon Under Water before revealing at the end that there is no such pub as the Moon Under Water; he made it up to describe what his ideal pub would look like and bemoan the fact that one with those qualities does not exist. But I could do no better than George Orwell's opening paragraph above to begin a description of the 4th Avenue Pub.
I can't say whether I put the atmosphere of the 4th Ave Pub ahead of its beer. I think they run equal. I can say that I've not encountered a bar with a better selection of beer in the city. 4th Ave has about twenty beers on tap, another thirty or so bottled, and the menu changes weekly. Terrific stuff. Unfiltered Belgian lager; dark, Gulden Draak Belgian Triple; Sixpoint cask ales; Youngs Double Chocolate Stout; Maudite... It is difficult to exhaust the menu before a new set of kegs arrive.
I've not encountered a bar with a better atmosphere either. This starts with the bartenders and then the regulars. I think a good bartender attracts good regulars. Atmosphere is also setting. 4th Ave is dark, unglamorous with floors sticky from the free popcorn and booths that are worn, dark. A painting, a portrait of a fat man with a glass of beer and a fine suit, is the only art I can recall on the pub's walls. It is back by the bathroom door. The garden in back is more spacious than the indoor space and a good option when the weather is clear.
Usually I wind up at 4th Ave with friends, but I sometimes prefer to go alone and have time to talk with the bartenders* and patrons. Of the bartenders, Mel is young, 24-ish, and lives on the LES. She is slight and warm, with an easy smile, and engaging eyes. Frank knows good music and what beer you want, or should be trying for the first time, before you do. Sarah is funny and a little awkward, she runs the bar like a champ and is unflappable on the busiest nights. These are the three who I see most often. There are two others who seem like good guys but I've only just started to get to know them. The proprietor has sharp features and an offbeat wit. Frank told me he ran out of change one day and called Mike, the owner, to let him know he needed more. Mike called back a while later and asked if Frank still needed change. Frank said yes, he did. Mike said, "Oh yeah? Then vote Obama."
A few doors down from the 4th Avenue Pub is another bar, Pacific Standard. I've gone there a couple times and find it the antithesis of 4th Ave. The clientele is older, mid 30's, with strollers. The interior is bright and crisp with a large room in the back with a projection screen for sports events and political speeches. The atmosphere is sterile, the bartenders are fine, but seem removed, the beer is good with some interesting variety but everytime I've gotten one, I've only aimed to finish it quickly and return to the 4th Ave Pub.
The idea of being a regular at someplace in a big city, it goes, is to make the city manageable; to create a community of your own when the one presented by the city is too large for the individual. Certainly being a regular at 4th Ave has this effect. But becoming a regular at a good pub is, I think, important for another reason.

There is an insularity that exists in this city. I mean this on the individual level. When we are around other people, how often do we go to lengths to separate ourselves from them and contain ourself within our own bubble with space for only one person? We wear headphones on subways and buses to block out the crowd; attach ourselves to cellphones in stores and ignore the clerk; we whip out our laptops on trains and planes and forget our seat-mate. In the past, we might have had a book instead. In which case the person to my left on the G-Train could say, "how do you like that book?" But the earphone, the cellphone, are a sort of statement: I will not speak to you, and you will not speak to me.

As David Foster Wallace said in his commencement speech to Kenyon College grads a couple years ago: "There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real."
But the 4th Avenue Pub is not a place for an I-pod. There is no wireless service. When it's quiet, a person on a cellphone would seem out of place and rude. So instead you talk. To the bartenders, to the regulars, to the irregulars. I've met a Sarah Palin fan from Jackson, Mississippi (both the only person from Mississippi I've met, and the only Sarah Palin fan); an Australian living in New York and soon to move to Kyrgyzstan to work for an emerging markets firm; a pair of sisters, Brazilian, who work as lawyers in Sao Paulo; a French DJ living in Fort Greene with whom I discussed... whatever, with, until 3am.
People who live in New York like to talk about its multiculturalism. The boiling pot. But we go to such lengths to shut it out when we're around each other. And when we take our headphones off, too often it's only to talk to who we know or people we don't know in a place where the chances of variety aren't great to begin with. Our default setting when we're in the small spaces of the city crushed up against its multicultural inhabitants is frustration and a thought along the lines of, what makes these dirty animals think they've got the right to cohabit MY space.
So you go to a pub with great beer, bartenders, regulars, and atmosphere and you meet the other people that live in this city and visit here. I can see George Orwell liking the 4th Ave Pub. They've got plenty of those stout beers he liked.

*(Names changed to protect the innocent - I didn't ask their permission to use their names)

4 comments:

Will M. said...

The profuse praise for 4th Ave Pub is warranted and supportable, but I think you're a wee bit harsh on Pacifica. Either way, I've had similar thoughts about people in the bubble, particularly while on the subway. Iproposed to my roommate that the MTA should start piloting a couple "social" cars on each train for people who are willing to talk to each other during the journey. Unfortunately, I believe that such a program would fall flat on its face in this city.

dbow said...

I also wholly support 4th ave's praises. And I also would defend Pacific Standard - there have been times (mostly weekend nights) when 4th ave is over-run by loud non-regulars, and I've found Pacific Standard very quiet and relaxed. Catching a baseball game in that back room can be very pleasant.

But in general, nobody's a bigger 4th ave fan than i am - I have such fond memories of arriving early to happy hour on wednesdays, back in the winter when 4th ave was reliably quiet at that time.

Maybe I prioritize quiet too much... but I think there's a positive quiet that helps interaction between people. Loud, crowded, noisy bars make me feel less inclined to talk to someone.

Ol Mucky said...

It's true 4th Ave has its nights when the place is way too crowded. And I've enjoyed a ball game at Pac Standard with you guys in the past. I think what gets at me about Pac Standard, and I didn't make this explicit in my post, is that it feels like 5th Avenue bar on 4th Avenue. It's just too clean and I'm too able to see the features of the clientele due to their well-lit interior. I prefer everyone shrouded in shadows. Mostly though, I don't like think it fits with the vibe of 4th avenue in that area and that bums me out about it. Also The Real World Brooklyn filmed there the other night....

muffine said...

wonderful words for a great place. it's one of the only places in the city that feels genuine...or maybe it's where i, along with our friends, have found a sense of humanity that (still) exists in the face of all things tech. so yeah, i agree with what you've all said. i also second al's opinion that pacific standard feels like a 5th ave bar on 4th ave.. although im not even sure i'd say 5th ave... what's brooklyn 5th ave +upper east side+ with a little bit of hip in its step? (also, some foreigners for those futbol matches they're so keen on)