Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Grassroots Tavern


The Grassroots Tavern had been on St. Mark's Place for 42 years. It closed on New Year's Eve. The rent was too high. The space will be taken over by someone who runs a chain of bars that have been compared to “Euro Disney’s vision of the classic Irish watering hole."

On it goes.

I rarely went in to Grassroots. Just a few times over the years. It wasn't my bar. But I went in before the closing, as I often do, and wish I'd gone more often.

It's a weekday afternoon between Christmas and New Year's and the place is quiet. A couple of customers sit at the far end of the long bar. No one is playing darts or looking at the silent television. The music is classic rock. "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Don't Stop Believin." The bartender is a woman with tattoos on her arm and a vivid, multicolored black eye. I take a seat at one of the tattered stools, order a drink, and come into bracing contact with the smell of the place.

The feral stink of any old dive is the same from bar to bar, years of sour beer soaked into the floor boards, the organic rot of old wood. It tells you that you're in a place that's been here for a long time. But Grassroots has something extra, a musky base note that shifts in the air, lifting and then fading. At first I can't place it. Then my association goes to the one time I inhaled the residue of a dead body, in the hallway of the Elk Hotel on West 42nd Street. The pungent odor of profound decay. And since I seem to be drawn to the odor of decay (old books, dead leaves), I keep trying to catch it, but the longer I sit here, the more I lose it. (Later, at home, I will find it again, clinging to my sweater.)

Flies buzz the air of Grassroots. Fruit flies and house flies that land without hesitation on the book I am holding (Heidi Julavits' The Folded Clock), rubbing their hands together to groom themselves. I wave them away and drink my drink.

Two older men sit at the near end of the bar, by the window where daylight is dying. They talk about "all the perverts in Hollywood," the creeps getting ripped from the woodwork. A young man takes a seat and opens a paperback copy of Semiotics of the Cinema. As the sunlight fades, the bar blushes red with neon from the GRASSROOTS sign in the window tangled in houseplants.

A woman walks up and down, taking pictures of the place. When I ask her about the pictures, she introduces herself and it turns out we know each other virtually, blog to blog. Her name is C.O. Moed of My Private Coney, aka It Was Her New York, where she has shared her memories of the Grassroots. I interviewed her back in 2009.

So we sit and talk. I ask her, "Do you smell that incredible odor? Like a dead body?" She replies, "It's a million rats rotting in the walls." Her definitive answer settles it for me and now I can forget about the smell and move on to other things.

C.O. has been coming to Grassroots since she was a teenager in 1976. Her mother brought her. Her mother was a bohemian pianist, "eccentric as hell and wild." C.O. says, "I like to think of New York as a mother. The streets are your mother and your mother is your mother. And you have to survive both." So she turned to Grassroots for survival. It's home.

"I was here the night after Trump was elected. I was here the night before my mother died and the night after my mother died. I was sitting at that table, right there by the window, when I saw the first suit walk down St. Mark's and I thought Oh shit. That was 1978."

C.O. grew up on Grand Street and never felt like she belonged anywhere or to anyone. "Grassroots was a place I could go and sit down and be safe. No demands here. You could come in and people liked you. It was a place I kept returning to. I fit here. It's declasse--in the literal meaning of the word--there's no class here. Whatever you are, you're here. It had a big gay following. Vietnam Vets. Actors. NYU students. Black people. Whatever you were, you got to be a part of it."

She calls Grassroots a "touchstone" in her life. "I germinated here," she says. Like many New Yorkers who've been here awhile, and like many newcomers who come looking for New York, she laments the passing of the city's soul, the vanishing of places that feel authentic and open.

"I don't have any place in my life like this," she says. "When you want to leave your apartment, where do you go? I don't know anymore. But who the fuck am I not to have diaspora? You love what you love. Go forward."

I ask her what she means by diaspora. She means loss.

"You lose your homeland," she says. "You lose your mother tongue. You lose your friends. Who the fuck are we to be excused from loss? And yes, it feels awful. Do you miss your home? Does a fish miss the water? I don't know any place like this."

As the afternoon darkens, more people enter. Younger and older. An older man at the bar says to his friend, "The Times had an interesting article about how more and more stores won't take cash." They talk about this and then it's back to the perverts in Hollywood and how young men, especially, don't know how to talk to women because they spend all their time on smartphones. The friend says, "They need to watch a few Cary Grant pictures."

A trio of hefty young men in flannel shirts walk in and order pitchers of beer and bowls of popcorn. A young woman comes in wearing a brown beret, combat boots, and smart glasses, an unwashed New Yorker tote bag on her shoulder. I think: My people.

"There are kids who get this place," C.O. says. "They're the well-read outliers in this world. This place is their clothing. You know when someone puts on something that looks like they should be wearing it? They're smart, bookworm, rare, unique beings. Look around. This place is inter-generational. It serves your heart and your soul. This is not a bar for an idealized self. This is for when you have nothing left but your heart and your soul. It's no bullshit."

She turns to the young man reading Semiotics of the Cinema and asks him why he comes to Grassroots. He explains that he's always come here, since college, that it was just the right place for him to be.

Though a few suits were walking down St. Mark's Place 40 years ago, the street continued to be a counter-cultural zone for decades. Until now. Today, when she looks at St. Mark's, C.O. thinks, "We're fucked."

"Neighborhood people, who are not one-percenters, people who need to go someplace safe with their heart and soul, have nowhere to go. Look. You go to a place and there are micro-layers a foot long between you and everyone else, distance between your bone and their perception of you. Race, class, gender, all that. Here there is no distance. Here you don't have to defend, validate. At Grassroots, it's like being alone, only you've got company."

We talk about the new bar that is going to replace Grassroots, the one that's been compared to "Euro Disney’s vision of the classic Irish watering hole." Will it be welcoming to the same clientele?

"If it's not," says C.O., "St. Mark's is -- well, maybe it's not dead, but it's deadened. Maybe it's been Botoxed. I feel erased. There's no place that fits me now. So I'm solitary. Yeah, I can be myself without Grassroots. You can be yourself without your mother and father. But a part of you is gone. People want to say New York is always changing? This is not change. This is obliteration."

At night, the bar fills up, mostly with young people. Girls in chunky eyeglasses and more berets. Boys in flannel shirts and tattoos. A few punks with half-shaven heads. The odor shifts again as the bar warms from all the body heat. Now it smells of winter coats wreathed in cigarette smoke, and hot cider from the hot cider pot, and popcorn from the popcorn machine. Someone is fragrant with pipe tobacco. Grassroots smells very much alive.

An older man dressed head to toe in Army camouflage orders a pitcher of beer and one mug. He leans over and asks one of the bartenders, "This place is closing?"

The bartender says, "It's got a new owner. I don't know what's gonna happen. They seem like nice guys, so maybe they won't change it much. Put a kitchen in the back. A few upgrades. It'll be pretty much the same."

I think: We'll see about that. Too many times, I've seen what the new people do--those "nice guys"--how they say they'll preserve a place and then they gut it, raise the prices, change the clientele. So we'll see. Whatever happens, you can bet the place won't smell the same.


Mykola Dementiuk said...

In the 1980s got punched a few times at the Grassroots but also I returned the punches very well. Also the smell was part of the Lower East Side, ah breathe the air, was heavenly!

Unknown said...

Wonderful piece of writing! Marnie Mueller

Marc J. Hampton said...

Lovely article , thanks for this. My favorite: "who are we to be excused from loss". Just finished your book over the holidays and have recommended to many other people...while I don't agree with everything, I'm very much onboard with your thesis. (we part ways on the revitalization of 42nd street...If it had to happen, Im glad it was done during a very brief era that had SOME regard for preservation...i.e. the New Amsterdam Theater, the facade of the Empire, and the New Victory. If it had been done in the 80s we would have a street that looks like 6th ave with Brutalist "plazas" no one would ever go into. And if it was done right now the whole block would be leveled and be soul-destroying glass condos with subway tile and edison bulbs in every lobby. So I gaze at it now and think...well...at least its crowded and somewhat alive and has operating theaters).

Unknown said...

Thank you Jeremiah for just being there!
When I read your blog sober I get mad.
When I read your blog drunk I get sad and cry.
I never imagined greed could take such a toll.

Unknown said...

This has gotta be one of your best blog entries ever. Kudos.

Brad said...

For those interested, there's a terrific book called "St. Marks is Dead" by Ada Calhoun.

Unknown said...

I started hanging out at the Grass Roots in 1978. Frank O'Conner taught me how to play darts there. I remember the guy who used to bring his hound dog in every night. He would sit on the stool next to him and sometimes drink beer out of a mug. I remember when the bartenders would get up onto the bar and dance whenever New York New York would play on the jukebox. St Mark's Bar was also an option, but 1st Ave seemed so dangerous. The Holiday, around the block, had cheaper beer (I never drank anyway), but most stuck with the Roots most nights. While we're at it, the Kiev for kielbasa and eggs at 4am when the Roots had to close was also a thing:).

Scout said...

I remember the Grassroots well from Alphabet City days in the 80s. Learned to avoid it, as there was just too high a percentage of aggressive antagonistic drinkers. Lots of fights broke out there - if that was what you were seeking, it was a good place for it. But we weren't seeking senseless violence at that time.

Just as a side note - it's fun to make up our own definition of words, but it eventually becomes an impediment to communication within the community. For instance, "déclassé" doesn't mean "without class." It means "fallen in social class" or "degraded." And "diaspora" doesn't mean "lost," but rather "a dispersion of any people from their homeland."

Dr. Brian said...

Hi Jeremiah, first time posting, love your blog and book.

I've been coming to "roots" as most regulars call it for over 25 years, half my life, and it feels like yet another part of my life has fallen off, like shedding skin, but not for renewals sake.

A lot of us considered the bar a home away from home. It welcomed a remarkably diverse crew of artists, LGBTQ, actors, musicians, etc. Always great conversation. It was always a good idea to come early, as most regulars did and leave before the bros showed up, but twilight there was always "the magic hour" as filmmakers call the perfect time to shoot a scene.

And what a scene it was!


ps: The bartender with the black eye is Maria. She has worked there for 27 years and was given two weeks notice that the bar was closing. The new owners have promised nothing to the former bar workers and management has kept them in the dark.