Economy & Business

How Publicans Survived the Pandemic

Bartender Shane Buggy, 34, serves Nik Wylie, 50, at McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan, N.Y., May 3, 2021. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Bartenders speak out about what they and we lost in Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars.

‘Today your life is going regular,” notes a bartender named Willie McIntyre as he reflects on the catastrophe that overtook New York City last spring, “and tomorrow it just isn’t that.”

When the history of the pandemic is written, the interviews collected in the documentary Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars, produced and directed by Johnny Sweet, will constitute a small but useful source for a slightly underacknowledged perspective. With all of the discussion of the stresses facing front-line workers on the one hand and work-from-home types — back-line workers, I suppose — on the other, there has been too little attention paid to people who were abruptly unemployed, and in many cases forced away from their careers for extended periods. In Queens, the Sparrow Tavern is still shut to this day; many other well-loved New York City restaurants and bars have closed permanently. “My entire industry,” someone notes sadly, “got laid off in a day.” And what a bitterly ironic day that was in New York City: St. Patrick’s Day. For publicans, it was like canceling Christmas as Santa was loading his sleigh.

Sweet’s film has no cinematic flair whatsoever and isn’t particularly wide-ranging or thorough, even within the narrow ground it stakes out in its subtitle. The handful of people we meet in this low-bore documentary mostly come from one of three bars: The Sparrow and Diamond Dogs in Queens and the late, lamented Coogan’s in upper Manhattan. That last one announced it was closing forever last April.

Still, as they discuss the toll that economic restrictions took on them and their beloved businesses, Sweet’s interviewees exhibit a lot of grit. They frame matters in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and always compelling. “We’re essentially on the front lines without being recognized for being on the front lines,” notes Jena Ellenwood, a longtime bartender at The Sparrow. “Every day I touch something someone had their mouth on.” (A friend notes that she is rarely unready with a pithy comment: “I love Jena. She never shuts the f*** up.”) Thrown into uncertainty, Ellenwood has carved out a second career as the host of a series of instructional videos celebrating the art of making cocktails. Before that, “I think my bank account hit 20 bucks,” she says.

The bar workers don’t dispute that closing their establishments was necessary. They merely ask that we pause a moment to consider the loss. At Coogan’s, which stands near a hospital that serves many children in extremis, the owners and bartenders considered the place not just a business but an important ongoing service for a constantly self-replenishing cast of emotionally wounded parents. “They found an oasis here,” someone recalls. “We gave them a break.”

Employees observe that barrooms are leveling places where people of all classes mingle and neighbors who might not otherwise exchange many words get to appreciate one another’s character. A New Yorker writer interviewed in the film notes that people need a third place to establish themselves, apart from home and office, and not infrequently, the local barroom is that place. And, unlike in a java joint, people don’t come to bars with the intent to disappear into their screens but to enjoy one another’s company. The Sparrow is in Astoria, the section of Queens notable for its Greek immigrants, and one of its employees notes that everyone misses “our old Greek crotchety neighbors who play classical music and talk to their birds.” Bartenders speak fondly of their “work spouses,” people they collaborated closely with for many hours a week going back years.

All of these amiable traditions collapsed at once. Bar workers near the hospital in the Elmhurst section of Queens, one of the hardest-hit places on earth last spring, recall how the streets went deadly silent except for the unnerving and constant wail of sirens. “Our hospital ran out of body bags,” notes a doctor at the hospital, who says up to 85 percent of the patients there suffered from COVID.

“The virus — it’s like trying to win a fight against the wind,” notes McIntyre. “Your mind and body want to do something about it, but the only thing you can do is the absence of anything.” Still, he managed to build his rap career during his laid-off period, completing three albums under his nom de rap, Skech 185. He offers this stirring rebuke to pessimism: “I’m black in America. I’m not gonna complain about that s***. I’ll make it work. We always f***in’ have.”

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