Friday, November 2, 2007

Jeff Sheehan & Corner Bistro

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 habitu├ęs. 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.


Rambler said...

I used to to Bistro when I lived on Horatio Street back in the late 80s. Loved it. It is way too crowded now (as is the city),
but while that sucks it also means the place is making some money and hopefully will be around for awhile. Be nice if they'd redo the bathrooms.

Hope you don't mind I'm a serial commenter. I'm enjoying your blog.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for your comments, i enjoy getting them. you're right about bistro--it's one of those catch-22's--like with mcsorley's and other places--you're glad they're making money and staying alive, but wish you could have a little quiet there. i hear the weekdays for lunch aren't bad and before 7pm was okay, too.

Anonymous said...

Funny you mention McSorley's. A buddy of mine cooked there in the early '90s, so I got to see the joint from the inside (sometimes too much so--on more than one occasion I found myself waking up on the sawdust-covered floor, often with the house cat Red, one of a succession with that name dating back to the Joseph Mitchell days, perched on me). Even then it was what I called a "clip joint theme park," a throwback to a halcyon New York long gone. The waitstaff, all lifers, most of them AA with their habit now transferred to the ponies, would serve the wide-eyed frat boys who were their meat round after round of the trademark light and dark pours, carrying ten of the small mugs in each hand and dropping them noisily down on the carved-up tables. After a few of these rounds, some creative accounting usually took place, and very few were the patrons sober enough to respond intelligently to a padded bill. (The J. Geils Band supposedly ended up in that condition one night and paid their tab with a gold record, which for all I know may still be there, much like the chair Lincoln supposedly sat on after giving his famous Cooper Union speech.) And despite--because?--of this, there are still lines to get in on a weekend night. Back then, the door was run by retired NYPD detective Dick Buggy, who once appeared on "To Tell The Truth" as the first cop to dress up in woman's clothes to catch bad guys in the park. I'm not much for exclusivity, but it was always a gas to walk past the length of the line from Third Avenue on a Friday, listen to Dick tell the first guys in line again that someone needed to come out for him to let them in, and then be greeted and waved in as the thirsty sputtered in outrage behind me. And you're right: like most tourist traps, the best time to be at McSorley's is the afternoon, the light streaming into the front room, the calm before the storm.

House of Jules said...

Ahhh, the Bistro! One of the places I miss most about living in NYC. Best burgers in the city. Even better when you get them "to go".

Love your blog.

House of Jules

Anonymous said...

Love the bistro and think that having to wait in line is part of the charm (so long as they have reasonably priced mcsorley's to help one pass the time).

Unknown said...

Great post, Jeremiah. My mother used to eat, drink, n smoke at the Bistro in the 50's. when she was broke. It's nice for me to revisit places I know she liked. It'll be a sad day when that place vanishes...they just tore down my childhood apt on Vandam - beautiful brownstone building. NYU probably snatched it.