MAY 11, 2016
IN THE SUMMER of 1988, my girlfriend found a sublet in Brooklyn Heights. Then, less than two weeks after I showed up with my suitcase, she flitted away to Europe and I was left to pay $250 a month on a Pineapple Street studio across from the Hotel St. George. The former pride of Brooklyn had survived as an SRO, weathered tenants panhandling from lawn furniture in front of the lobby and a strip club, Wild Fyre, operating in the basement. (Before she left, my girlfriend visited Wild Fyre in drag, breasts bound and a moustache inked above her lip.) To make my nut, I found a job at a health-food market a few blocks away. The middle-aged owners, Jacob and Sarah, still dressed and talked like the hippies they’d been, although they’d wholeheartedly embraced the “greed is good” decade by acquiring Red Hook real estate. The original impetus for the investment was Jacob’s plan to build a water park with a channel to the sea so that he could commune with dolphins. (Jacob smoked a lot of pot.) Less stoned, Sarah kept buying Red Hook property at fire-sale prices. As their pack-mule, I spent August days mucking out the garages and apartments of their budding slum principality. Some of the apartments had full closets and dirty plates stacked in the sinks as if the tenants had evaporated one night after dinner. I found intriguing mementos, including a collection of pornographic paperbacks with titles like An Orgy for Mom and The Devil’s Sperm Is Cold. One of Sarah’s garages faced the largest neighborhood business — a methadone clinic with a line of disgruntled customers stretching down the block every morning. Red Hook seemed like the end of the world, terra incognita, a place to disappear by accident or intention. Last Exit to Brooklyn was actually shooting around the corner that summer — I signed on as an extra but my scenes didn’t make the final cut. In the fall, I went back to Westchester to finish my senior year of college. I didn’t return to Red Hook for a decade, not until the night a friend insisted I join him at an unusual bar. “It’s only open on Fridays,” he said. “This old homeless-looking guy owns it. All the drinks are the same price and you pay on the honor system at the end of the night.” Sunny’s was the kind of secret you couldn’t help but share.
Seven years after my first summer in Brooklyn, journalist and editor Tim Sultan was driving home to Park Slope after a late screening in Manhattan (Bullets over Broadway), when he missed his turn and ended up in Red Hook. Most New Yorkers would have pulled a 180 and sped away from the desolation — at the nadir of a 50-year decline, Red Hook deserved every syllable of its bad press — but the 27-year-old Sultan kept going. “Deliberately getting lost had been a pastime of mine since early childhood,” he notes on the first page of his recently published memoir, Sunny’s Nights. Drawing closer to the waterfront he passed a sign that read, Animal Hair Manufacturing Company. Further along another sign declared Bar. “I had come to a place, it seemed, where the world was returning to its most elemental properties.” He parked outside of Bar and opened a door onto the next 20 years of his life. Soon he was spending every Friday night amid eccentrics — a bagpiper in full kit, a transvestite on a tricycle singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” aging mobsters, and the occasional femme fatale. Eventually, he wound up behind the bar.
What Sultan found at Sunny’s in 1995 was unique, and not just because it only opened on Fridays and didn’t appear in the Yellow Pages. The owner, Antonio Raffaele Balzano, was equally sui generis. A Red Hook native with a bohemian disposition, Balzano had left home as a young man, first for the Air Force, then on forays into the New York theater world and a stint among the Abstract Expressionists before pursuing a discipleship at an ashram in India. At loose ends in early middle age, Balzano stumbled into managing the bar that his grandfather had opened in 1920 as a speakeasy. Charismatic and a natural raconteur, Balzano held genial court to an assortment of misfits seeking refuge in a neighborhood left behind. In Sultan, Balzano met his Boswell, and their intricate relationship provides an omphalos of memoir to a genre hybrid that also incorporates history, biography, and journalism.
By the time Sultan arrived, Red Hook had been dead for years. Opposite Manhattan on the protected Upper Bay of the East River (actually a tidal estuary), Red Hook boomed as shipping destination in the mid-19th century. In the 1920s it was the busiest port in the world and ground zero for generations of immigrants. Yet with the rise of containerization in the 1960s, Red Hook lost its traffic to the deep-water ports of New Jersey. Even in palmiest days, Red Hook had acquired a louche reputation stemming from dock gangs and other general lawlessness. H. P. Lovecraft portrayed the neighborhood as a cesspool of degenerate subhumans (“The Horror at Red Hook”), while for Hubert Selby it was an Id monster of drug abuse, violence, and murder. In 1990, Life magazine labelled the depopulated neighborhood the crack capital of America. All across the United States, rust-belt communities were falling into terminal decline; what made Red Hook different was that you could walk to the waterfront and gaze at the towers of Wall Street.
With his portrait of Balzano, Sultan joins a pantheon of writers who have mined the characters and locales of gutter New York: Stephen Crane on the Bowery; Claude McKay on 1920s Harlem; A. J. Liebling on the “low life” of con-artists, touts, boxers and jockeys, to name a few. Above all, Sultan channels Liebling’s brother-in-arms, Joseph Mitchell. At The New Yorker, Liebling and Mitchell exploited elastic job descriptions to follow offbeat inclinations. For the two journalists-cum-flâneurs, the “man on the street” wasn’t a faceless atom of a homogeneous mass but an individual, with quirks and foibles more alluring than those of any celebrity.
Like Mitchell and Liebling, Sultan cultivates and analyzes street-level modes of interaction and engagement. His inclusion of a posthumous encounter with Mitchell (“One of the features of living in New York was that while one may not be able to meet many of its illustrious figures in life, one could often go to their funerals”), serves as a not-so-subtle nod to an influence as much stylistic as thematic. As with Mitchell’s work, nostalgia pervades Sunny’s Nights. Yet while the former was nostalgic for Depression-era solidarities evaporating in the white heat of the post-war boom, Sultan eulogizes the post–World War II New York that offered shelter and opportunity to eccentrics well into the 1990s. Balzano’s anachronistic indifference to the Darwinian demands of the contemporary metropolis is one of his greatest charms, yet as his biography makes clear, the democratic possibilities he seized have become scarce in a Bloomberg city of billionaires.
Like Mitchell, Sultan is a painstaking craftsman and a classical storyteller. His account subordinates moments — a sloppy kiss with a stranger, tensions with Balzano’s wife — to an overarching structural unity. At first glance, the narrative meanders but there are underlying chronological and contextual links the slow reveal of Balzano’s life and the gentrification of the neighborhood are woven into various adventures, including an auspicious encounter with George Plimpton and a near-fatal kayak expedition. As Sultan delves into his material, he also discreetly reveals the writer behind the keyboard. All too often, memoirs serve as occasions for self-aggrandizement and score-settling, while even the most self-lacerating examples contain an element of pride, or as Nietzsche observed, “Even one who despises himself still admires himself as one who despises.” Yet although “memoir” lies in “memory,” memory is not only a record of what affects us directly: in a more expansive sense, memoir encompasses everything we find important. Sultan effaces himself as a character to present Balzano and Sunny’s in a New York City shrugging off the last relics of the industrial age for the excesses of global finance, a place where virtual communities are replacing physical ones. Always Nick Carraway to Balzano’s Gatsby, Sultan’s tempered interpolations of his personal life — nude midnight swims in New York Harbor, the droll evisceration of his magazine job — add emotional context to his relationship with the loquacious bartender. (At times, you’d like Sultan to relax his guard: his evocative anecdotes about his childhood in West Africa are too infrequent to provide anything more than impressions.)
Debased nostalgia becomes a platform for blinkered and stifling judgements — graybeard griping about “kids these days,” a version of Steinbeck’s “Oh, the strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!” Such reactionary griping is easily swept aside: ideologues of progress aren’t wrong to counter complaints about gentrification as nostalgia gone awry, noting the gruesome crime rates and decaying infrastructure of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s. “So those were the good old days?” However, there’s more than nostalgie de la boue to my bittersweet reminiscences of Pineapple Street by recalling an era when a college kid working part-time could afford to live alone in a New York City apartment, something that has become impossible for the generations that followed mine. But the fact that things were different yesterday means they could be different tomorrow: nostalgia can also be a reservoir of hope. Sultan declines to take an explicit stance on hipster Brooklyn but his prose serves as a counter to the Panglosses of civic progress. (In fact, unchecked progress played a huge role in depopulating New York and driving it to fiscal catastrophe. When Robert Moses gutted working-class apartment buildings to erect housing projects and leveled a series of middle-class neighborhoods in the Bronx for the Cross Bronx Expressway, he condemned a large section of the borough to poverty and despair for a half century, while also shrinking the city tax base. “Either Trump Towers or Taxi Driver” is a false binary.)
Although Mitchell is Sultan’s most relevant point of comparison, a central difference separates the two writers. Mitchell’s interest in his subjects is inevitably tied to endings, with death the final and most fascinating end of all. His fatalism coincided with the postwar explosion of the suburbs and American triumphalism: mourning, after all, was an appropriate response to a nation that had turned its back on its cities. Antonio Balzano passed away on March 10th of this year. As Sultan notes, “[He] had a thousand ways to make a person feel like a million bucks.” Even so, Sultan moves forward from the loss of Sunny’s, emphasizing continuity over defeat.
I did in time chance upon another bar, deeper in Brooklyn, a diamond hiding in plain sight, where nobody knew me and all was new. Beneath elevated train tracks and along a particularly grim stretch of avenue where all other businesses within a half-mile in any direction were shuttered at night (in other words, in a highly compelling locale), it was disguised as a very ordinary sort of place. […] By congregational agreement, one only went one night a week, in this case Sundays — a people after my own convictions.
No matter how much New York changes or how unpleasant those changes may be, for Sultan there will always be another place a few stops further out on the L, the G, the N, or the R, each subway exit opening onto new possibilities. The lasting allure of Sunny’s Nights rests in the confidence it gives readers that, not only can they read about Balzano’s haven, they can find a Sunny’s of their own.