Friday, November 2, 2007
On view until November 7 at the 2/20 Gallery (220 W.16th St.) are a series of evocative, grainy, black-and-white photographs of men and women seated at a smoky bar. They were taken by bartender Jeff Sheehan at the Corner Bistro on W. 4th. I went there to see if I could talk with him.
I arrived too early to find Mr. Sheehan, but I did find a place that felt like the sort of place where Richard Yates, or one of his characters, would go to meet a girl or get away from a girl, but anyway to get drunk. That’s not difficult at the Corner Bistro because the drinks are liberally poured. After a couple, I left a bleary note for the photographer and he got in touch.
Mr. Sheehan comes from a long line of Corner Bistro habitués. His father tended bar in the 1960s, his grandfather drank there in the ‘50s, as his great-grandfather did in the ‘30s. Jeff got the job behind the bar 10 years ago. When he first heard about Bloomberg’s smoking ban, he knew things were about to change, so he began taking pictures.
“With the photos I have attempted to capture a sense of history and timelessness,” he says, “Some of the photos I imagine could have been taken when my dad stood behind the bar or when my great-grandfather stood on the other side.”
Shot with a 40-year-old Polaroid land camera, the images are like windows into a distant past, when barroom faces were softened by smoke instead of being “lit by the small LCD screens they endlessly peer into” today.
Like many of us, Mr. Sheehan experiences the current rapid changes to the city as disturbing. He recalls walking around New York with his father and hearing stories about the places that used to be there 50 years ago. Now, he says, “I walk around and tell anyone who will listen what was there 10 years ago, 5 years ago, 2 years ago, a month ago.”
The Bistro hasn’t changed much, but then again it has. Crowding the long-time patrons are swarms of young people Mr. Sheehan says have lots of money, little soul, and nothing better to do than “complain that their belly buttons are too high.”
Early in my evening at the Bistro, I enjoyed the spaciousness of the acorn-colored bar and the quiet that allowed me to read a book in the rare company of other barroom readers. Soft mambo music played and made the waiters switch their hips as they turned fat burgers in the broiler. I had a warm, lazy feeling that was deeply satisfying. Then those crowds began to flow in, spilling over from the Meatpacking district.
An abrasive-voiced girl who kept bumping me with her giant handbag explained to a boy what she does for a living, something in sales or marketing. “I do whatever the client tells me to do,” she shouted, “It sounds boring from the outside, but really it’s not.”
“No, no, it doesn’t sound boring at all,” the boy insisted.
But it did sound boring. Very boring. I paid my bill and left the Bistro. Next time, I'll make sure to go even earlier. I will drink my drink in the amber warmth and comfort myself with the thought that someday, when the Bistro has become a bank or a Marc Jacobs store, we'll still have Jeff Sheehan's photos to remind us that, one time, not long ago, the city wasn't such a very boring place.