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Is Manhattan's Morning Drinking Scene Drying Up?

Exploring the dying tradition of New York bars opening their doors at 8 AM.
July 29, 2015, 4:00am

The exterior of Rudy's. Photo by Alex Norcia

On a weekday in July, I woke up in my Fort Greene apartment, meandered through the downtown Brooklyn streets flooded with young mothers pushing their strollers and attractive couples walking their mixed-bred dogs, and commuted into Manhattan to drink beers. A friend of mine with a night stint in radio, from 1 AM to 9 AM, recently told me about his mornings sipping cheap house lagers, and I decided to accompany him. I wanted to explore the subculture of overnight workers populating the city's dive bars. I hadn't been tipsy around breakfast since someone in college insisted kegs and eggs was a good idea, and I had never planned to be so again. But I'm not a stubborn man. I'm willing to make exceptions.

"Once you hit Ninth Avenue," my buddy instructed me, "you look for the pig."

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I got off the A train and searched for the hog in question, which turns out to be a statue that stands outside Rudy's Bar & Grill, a staple of Hell's Kitchen since 1933. Inside, red duct tape covers the booths and might be part of the furniture's structural integrity. Above the small, 7/11-like grill that cooks free hot dogs, photographs of Groucho Marx adorn the stained wall. (According to Rudy's lore, the comedian supported himself there as a server before finding fame.) We ordered a round of three-dollar pints of Rudy's Blonde, the bar's specialty beer. A couple of career alcoholics occupied battered stools and demanded Bud Lights, and a handful of men and women in casual business attire gulped hard liquor before leaving for their offices. And a group of CBS News employees gathered in a nearby booth—they had recently finished their shifts.

After an awkward introduction, we chatted for more than an hour, only breaking when my large iced coffee and Rudy Blondes mixed somewhere in the regions of my bladder, triggering a string of bathroom trips. The two with whom I spoke the most, Amy Bucknam and Brendan McHugh, detailed the pros and cons of such a professional routine. They defined their daily grind in constant opposition to the nine-to-five: For them, the subways aren't as full, the laundromats aren't as busy, the grocery lines aren't as long. However, being constricted to such an obscure schedule obviously affects their availability to hang out.

"You end up partying a lot with people from your job," Bucknam said. "It's fun, but the rest of my social life has suffered, without a doubt."

Inside Rudy's. Photo by Brian Flaherty

There are few remaining Manhattan dive bars that lawfully begin operating at 8 AM (about ten of them, from my count), and more and more of the city's historic watering holes—Milady's, the Subway Inn, the Ding Dong Lounge—are now closing for good: The rent becomes exorbitant, or the building's owners force the tenants out in favor of more lucrative businesses. It seems like just a matter of time, then, before the legitimate options for a morning brew completely disappear.

Clearly, this eventuality isn't much of a surprise. In his blog "Vanishing New York," Jeremiah Moss chronicles how the city is "going extinct," and tracks how longstanding cultural institutions—record stores, coffee shops, and, of course, dive bars—are all too commonly knocked down in favor of high rises. I understand his pessimism, but when it came to bars, I chose to ignore it. I stayed hopeful, and I developed a theory: I thought the mornings would be the one part of the day when dive bars retained some of the character that initially defined them. Surely, the tourists that crowd Times Square and Ground Zero in the early hours aren't searching for PBRs.

At Rudy's, there were distinct personalities, the type of men and women you come to expect at an old-school pub. The theater-goers and amateur softball teams that flood there in the evenings were naturally absent around breakfast time.

Another morning, I journeyed down Ninth Avenue and dropped by Billymark's West in Chelsea and Holland Cocktail Lounge near the Port Authority, where a senior citizen still believed it was all right to smoke indoors. Both places, however, were pretty empty.

The ceiling of Jeremy's. Photo by Alex Norcia

On another day, I stumbled into Jeremy's Ale House along the South Street Seaport. There, bras dangle from the ceiling, and magic marker covers the plaster. As in most dive bars, it gives you the sense that, like covering a chair in fluorescent tape, someone's drunk idea has now become the trademark. In short, Jeremy's holds onto its heritage, despite the changing circumstances.

Before 10 AM, though, I was the sole patron—since the Fulton Fish Market moved in 2005, the dockhands aren't around to take advantage of their best deal: Jeremy's "Eye Opener" Happy Hour from 8 to 10 AM, when buckets of Coors Light go for $1.75. The bartender was wearing a shirt that stated, "Beer Isn't Only for Breakfast," and when a pack of what appeared to be summer camp children entered, he provided each of them with a soda. When I questioned him about the guests that usually arrived before lunch, he shrugged his shoulders, rambling off occupations notoriously associated with the graveyard shift: police officers, firefighters, steamfitters.

"Some days they're here," he said. "It depends."

Twenty-four hours later, at the Spring Lounge in Nolita, I learned the morning rush there is "streaky" as well, a painful shot to my waning optimism. Again, I was alone, despite this joint's true promise. Decked with Christmas lights and models of sharks (it's nicknamed "Shark Bar"), the Spring Lounge fully embraces the "ancient tradition" of morning drinking—the motto is"Life Is Short. Drink Early," and its website features a brief history of the "sophisticated" ritual, as well as some much needed encouragement to continue it: "As a number of our regulars have noted, washing the taste of toothpaste out of your mouth with a quality craft beer leaves one feeling like anything is possible."

The author's Early Morning Drinker's Society membership card

The Spring Lounge's site also invites you to apply to its elite organization: the "Early Morning Drinkers Society." I was curious about joining the club, and luckily, I didn't have any trouble finding out the particulars in doing so: Jay, the white-haired man pouring my Miller Lites, hailed from the dying species of sage-like bartenders, and displayed an impressive breadth of knowledge, ranging from the dangers of the Tour de France, the intricacies of college football's Patriot League, and the best cleaning techniques for keg lines.

After I inquired about joining the Society, he handed me an official card, noting that I had to come between 8 AM and 2 PM in order to be stamped. Now, I'm 14 visits away from obtaining my T-shirt, and 29 from becoming a full-blown member who receives a dollar off his morning libations. Following his thorough explanation, Jay urged me to stop by as often as I could. In the hours we talked, we became so friendly I felt bad asking him for another round.

"You have to think real hard about bars open at 8 AM now," he said. "It's a sin."

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By 11 AM, other people started arriving, and it wasn't difficult to be social. I chatted with an advertising executive who claimed that, a decade ago, you'd run into way more people at this time.

"In Little Italy, the factories have shut down," he said. "And the union dudes have left. Along with the Italians."

But nostalgia, in the end, can't sustain a business. Where were the hotel doormen, the post office sorters, the orange-vested Con Ed guys I always saw on my road at night? Did I simply choose "off" days? Has the supply decreased from the dwindling demand? Or did I show up two decades late? I felt as if I were a stranger in a forgotten era, harboring romantic visions of a part of New York that has long begun to fade. I didn't quite know what to conclude, and really, I still don't. I lost track of time, and I departed the Spring Lounge in a hurry, thanking everyone for their generosity.

Though I said I'd return in the morning soon, I worried, whenever that was, it wouldn't be soon enough.

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