Chumley’s. The origin for all things “86″ in this business. I’ spent many a late evening here. Yes, it was real - replete with no signs, multiple points of egress, cops on the take, trap doors – covered with sawdust – on the floor, bookcase doors, shady customers, after-hours imbibing, blaa, blaa, blaa. The bar flourished, even in the Quality-of-Life deprived, big club raiding Mayor Giuliani days.
I spent many a quality evening in this place after long shifts toiling on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets. It was just the shit. There really is no other way to put it. Before every other storefront in Willamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side purported to be a hidden room, dimly-lit, no-sign-having speakeasy, there was Chumleys. It was indeed born of the Prohibition days, as many other freak bars were. But, this one survived intact.
It was the genius of Leeford Chumley. Unfortunately, it closed for good a few years ago. In my handful of walks along Bedford St. recently, it seems that – like many other historically spectacular properties with immeasurable social impact – it’s fallen prey to modern economics. Specifically, short-sighted land-owners and social-impact-deprived developers have conspired to rip apart Chumleys living history and convert it into yet another member of urban blight: condos.
I died a little bit inside, recently, when I finally accepted that Chumley’s would never reopen and return to what it once was.
I spent 14 years living in LIC/Astoria beginning in 1995. My folks had sold the house I grew up in and fled, like so many other New Yorkers, to Florida’s Gold Coast. It became, and still feels like, my home. For two or three decades now, Astoria has been overun by Eurotrash cafes, where everyone is rolling deep in Benzes, BMWs and Range Rovers, incessantly smoking Marlboro Reds, and indulging in a massive overuse of hair product and Drakkar Noir. Among them, there is an unnatural obsession with image and name brand recognition. At the dime-a-dozen sidewalk cafes, you can often see a table of clowns sipping espresso in the morning, only to return from work in the evening, and see the same ones guzzling crap-ass Heinekens. The M.O. there is to collect rent money from suckers – no one actually holds down a real job.
For a long, long time, nightlife there consisted of nothing else but a sea of Ed Hardy-sporting Greeks, Croats, Serbs and the odd Albanian, all fist pumping to obscure, crappy, repetitive house jams. Few of them have any desire to intermingle. Thrown in for good measure, were a handful of trashy, old-man, Irish pubs – none that you would dare venture into – remnants of another time.
I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but I’m huge fan of all things Speakeasy and Prohibition – peepholes, derbies, spats, suspenders, and paperboy hats. I’m sucker for dark, mysterious, low-key, unpopular, undiscovered and thus, sexy. I’m particularly in lust if they have a mechanical NCR register, in lieu of the now ubiquitous (and ghastly) touchscreen Point of Sale systems. Toss in some dim lighting, exposed brick, rustic copper ceilings, a hipster-approved 3-piece band with upright bass, aged Mahognay – and I’ll never, ever leave.
If you’ve noticed my Pub Crawl, you’ll see that most of my favorite haunts are somewhat befitting of those descriptions. If I could have chosen my birth, I probably would have selected a period somewhere between post-Civil War Reconstruction and the turn of the 20th century. Simplicity and authenticity were king. Massive opportunities were left and right for the taking. The Man pretty much let you do your thing as you pleased. I would have thrived with my “can-do” disposition.