We had coffee the other day at a little place in the West Village called The Brewbar with a man named Chistopher Hacker, who used to work there. Past The Brewbar's red-painted window frames, traffic careened silently up Eighth Avenue. The sky persisted with its threat of a Noreaster, but in here Carmen Miranda was doing a tiki-version of "Fever," and it was cozy. The place is small (five café tables and a padded banquet) and in spite of the weather achieved an airy feel. There was a display case of breakfast pastries and a basket of H&H bagels, a sign announcing, "Ask about our Panini!" nearby.
A young man with a scribble of facial growth stood behind the register in a black apron, staring out the window.
Mr. Hacker had plenty to say on the changes he’s seen over the years in his neighborhood in general, and The Brewbar in particular.
"Where we’re sitting right now," he said, tapping the marble table. "This place seems at first glance like just another one of the new, posh alternatives to Starbucks that’ve been cropping up in the past year, like the Chocolate Bar and that place down the street over there. But it’s been around for a long time, I’d say almost fifteen years now? I used to work here. It was my first job after graduating college."
ON ACTOR WITH THE SCRUFFY DOG
We returned to our seats after ordering a slice of carrot zucchini bread, just as a woman entered with a wheezing pug. The young man behind the counter informed her that she would have to leave her pet outside before he could serve her. She did an about-face and called her order—tall hot chai—before ushering the dog out the door and securing it to a parking meter.
Mr. Hacker said, "They used to be dog-friendly in here. We even had a cookie jar up by the register there that had free dog biscuits. It would be a stop along the way for owners on their morning walks. Our boss, Stass, knew all the dogs’ names. But not the owners."
Was Stass incapable of remembering human names?
"He’d remember the names of people who didn’t have dogs. Maybe he could only keep in his head one name per customer. ‘Oh, here comes Champ,’ Stass would say. And we’d have his latte and white chocolate bicotti ready and bagged before the owner even got to the register."
Do you actually still remember the order?
"There are some things you can’t forget," Mr. Hacker said. "So it was all going fine, according to Stass at least, until the incident with Kevin Spacey."
Mr. Hacker is a notorious name-dropper, and never hesitates to mention to all who will listen that he knew Vin Diesel growing up, when the superstar’s name was Mark Vincent, and claims they were sparring partners at a Montessori Karate class in the neighborhood. On the name-dropping front, today was no exception.
He said, "Kevin was a short americano with half-and-half, and Stass, true to form, knew him only as ‘that actor with the scruffy dog.’ Pip was the dog’s name, I think. Stass didn’t like Kevin and was always very curt with him because Kevin let his dog do whatever it wanted in the store. Most owners were grateful to have them allowed in at all that they’d treat the place with an almost church-like respect, heeling their dogs, and scolding them with a stern tug on the leash if they so much as whimpered. Not Pip. Pip ran free. He jumped up onto the counter. He found his way back behind the food display, under occupied tables, and up customers’ skirts. Stass wasn’t the confrontational type, and had trouble asserting Pip not do these things. He might say something like, ‘You really need to keep that dog on a leash,’ and Kevin would apologize and tell him next time he would, but next time he never did. One day Pip was particularly lewd to a customer, and the following week Stass found himself in possession of a health code violation.
"And that was that for dogs in the Brewbar. The sign went up in the window, which seemed to give Stass the courage to confront Kevin about it the next time he came in. He just pointed to the sign and was like, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing I can do.’ Kevin would afterwards try to sneak Pip in and I was forced, when Stass wasn’t around, to tell him Pip wasn’t welcome. He wasn’t the only celebrity dog I kicked out. There was Ed Burns and his min-pin. Who else? I don’t know what it is about actors and their dogs. I once saw Vincent D’Onofrio get into it with a Starbucks barista about his little Jack Russell terrier, and at another place I used to hang out at, Molly Ringwald would get all paranoid about leaving her little Pomeranian outside too long for fear of someone stealing it. Like anyone would want that little rat of a dog."
ON THE ORIGIN OF THE BREWBAR
Steve Austin is the money behind the Brewbar venture. He met Stass when they were both living in San Francisco in the seventies. Stass had just arrived from his native Greece, penniless and all of eighteen. They became a couple and moved to Seattle. Steve was involved in a real estate deal there which proved very lucrative. Mr. Hacker had the following to say:
"This was way before the coffee revolution. Seattle was it. I don’t think even Starbucks was there, or if it was, it was just another one of a thousand little places. This is all according to Steve who loves to brag about how he was the one to put coffee on the map in New York. It’s true though. They came to the city in like eighty-eight, eighty-nine, I think? and opened this place. Steve bought the whole building. The storefront is the Brewbar, and they’ve converted the rest into a B and B. The Abingdon Bed and Breakfast."
"Steve’s the behind-the-scenes guy. You don’t see much of him. I’ll point him out. He tall, emaciated—for the longest time I thought he was sick, but that’s just the way he is. Sunken, pock-marked cheeks. He stoops and wears these granny glasses on a chain around his neck, always talking into his cell, taking reservations for the B and B, and dealing with money stuff. Stass on the other hand, was the face of The Brewbar. He was everywhere, compulsively tidying. He fluttered around with his gelled-out hair, neatening and straightening, rearranging the bagels in the basket, adjusting the pecan bars on their plates. Customers knew him. We all who worked there thought of him as a kind of mother hen. He’d nag us, get worried if we were late for a shift or didn’t show up, be disappointed in us if we had a customer complaint. But often he would take our side in a dispute at the expense of the business, which was really nice."»
We wondered whether they were open about being a couple.
"Steve and Stass were a neighborhood fixture. Everyone understood. Even though Steve was almost two decades older than Stass, even though they kept separate apartments, and even though Stass was a flirt, no one ever questioned it. They were a perfect fit. It was something about their temperaments. They were monogamous, no question. Married even. They’d bicker, Steve scolding Stass, or Steve trying to repair Stass’ hurt feelings about something mean Steve had said. In addition to being a flirt, Stass was a gossip too, and most customers who cared to know would learn more than they wanted about the ups and downs of his marital life with Steve."
ON THE REGULARS
"Everyone was a regular. You could tell the ones who weren’t. They’d be on a coffee break from a construction site, restoring some brownstone down the street, and they’d come in looking lost. ‘You guys got cawfee? Gimme one light and sweet.’ They’d look at the sip-top with suspicion, ‘what’s this?’ and the plain white container. When you’d tell them it was a dollar twenty-five they’d be like, ‘what are you, nuts?’ and leave the coffee on the counter and go to the deli next door. But the regulars, they’d come in, get the same thing every day. Every single day. You’d get to put their face with their drink after a few times and have their order ready when you’d see them through the window coming up the street. They’d love that. They thought we were psychic. But it was the only way to handle the rush hour rush. I worked the six to noon, so I’d set up, open the doors at seven, and until nine o’clock or so I’d have a constant stream of them. They snaked out the door here, and out onto the sidewalk. There was this constant panic during the rush, this blizzard of orders, like being under fire—bagels on the grill, espresso orders accumulating, tapping at the register keys like you were gunning for a high score. We had to keep the line moving so people wouldn’t get fed up and leave, but for two solid hours it was a factory of cappuccinos and americanos. It was more impressive back then, in ninety-five, I think, because gourmet coffee wasn’t part of the culture yet, part of its fabric, words like ‘latte’ and ‘macchiato’ hadn’t entered the common lexicon. There was still something kind of mysterious about what we did, and almost, I don’t know, glamorous?"
ON WHAT’S GOING ON THESE DAYS
We’d finished our coffees and got on our coats. Mr. Hacker gathered the empty cups and dropped them into the trash. It had remained empty for the whole of our stay. There was no sign of the crowds Mr. Hacker had mentioned or Steve or Stass. He was quick to point out, however, that this wasn’t the time of day for them. A little bell above the door jingled as we left into the hard, dark December afternoon.
On our way up Eighth Avenue, Mr. Hacker said, "I ran into Stass not too long ago. I’m living in Brooklyn now, but my mom still lives here, and sometimes I come back to the neighborhood to visit. Like today. Stass seemed, I don’t know, older. A lot’s changed, and he told me about it." Mr. Hacker looked around and lowered his voice. "There was a certain regular who’d come in, a doctor I think it was. This doctor had his practice in the area, and he lived across the street. He was handsome, single, gay. He and Stass would flirt, nothing new for Stass. But this guy was persistent, and he wooed Stass into an affair.
"They managed to keep it a secret for a while I guess, but Stass, the incurable gossip that he is, couldn’t keep it to himself anymore, and confided in someone, another regular, who in turn, no doubt, confided in someone else. There were rumors that Steve was being cuckolded. Stass tried to stop it from spreading, but eventually the thing got back to Steve, maybe some regular who didn’t like the looks of what was going on. Stass thinks it was one of the dog owners getting revenge for not being allowed in with his scruffy pet. Who knows—it could have been Pip’s owner himself.
"There was an ugly breakup. Steve barred the doctor from getting his chocolate-dipped biscotti at the Brewbar anymore but, amazingly, Stass continued working there. The employee turnover, though, which has always been extremely low—I myself had been there three years—suddenly began rotating weekly. There was a final fight, and Stass was fired. Steve said he never wanted to speak to Stass again. Stass looked exhausted talking about it. If they’d been married, no doubt Stass would have been entitled to some portion of the business, but Stass got nothing. He’s unemployed now, or at least he was the last time I saw him. He’s still with the doctor, and lives with him in that apartment right there across the street. He says he’s always running into Steve and it’s very awkward. They’ve taken to crossing to opposite sides of the avenue to avoid each other."