The Bartender

by

10/09/2001

Smith St & President St, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Cobble Hill

“I’m a sponge for everyone else’s emotions,” says Amy, a bartender in Cobble Hill, “but I feel like I can’t release any of my own.”

It’s a Saturday night after the World Trade Center disaster and though it’s only six o’clock, the artsy hipster-ish Smith Street hangout is pulsing and loud. The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” is playing on the jukebox.

Amy, 30, a tall, willowy blonde who asked that her last name not be used, was working at the bar on September 11th. She woke up around nine, got a phone call from her family, and watched the World Trade Center collapse from her rooftop with her boyfriend Steve. Then, at 3:30, as she does every Tuesday, she went to work.

She filled the ice bins, put Cat Power’s “Nude as the News” on the jukebox, and at four o’clock she opened the door. The smell in the air was so awful she had to shut it, but that didn’t deter business. People immediately started streaming in – regulars who stopped in after walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, and people she’d never seen before who just needed to drink.

“One regular came in,” she says, “with dust on his shoes. I could tell he’d been crying. He had been in the basement of one of the buildings with a client and they escaped. When they got out he walked the client all the way to the Upper East Side where the guy was staying, and then he walked back downtown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the first place he came. His eyes were all red and he just started talking because he had to get it out. I went around and gave him a big hug.”

Later one of the other bartenders came in, not because she had to work but just because she didn’t want to be alone. She brought a TV and put it in a corner in case anyone wanted to watch – but most people turned their backs.

“We had people who stayed all night and didn’t leave,” Amy says. “Some were hardly drinking at all. They just wanted to be around other people. Others were drinking nonstop and staying the whole night. One guy who had just escaped ordered his usual, a vodka cranberry. Usually he has a few, but this time he didn’t even have a second. I felt bad. I said, ‘Come on! You deserve it!’ but when he finished he just wanted to go home.”

The stories Amy heard that night were so morbid she wasn’t sure she didn’t have to hear them. “A guy who was in the second building when the plane hit the first told me he could hear the screams of people in the elevators as the cables snapped and they all went down. That was something I hadn’t even thought about. Others were telling me” – she puts on a neutral, deadpan face – “‘All these bodies were coming out of the windows.’ I knew they were in shock to be saying that calmly. I just stood there nodding and said, ‘So what can I get you?’ I had to be really comforting to everyone else so I didn’t have any time to focus on myself.”

At two in the morning, reality finally set in. A sponge can only soak up so much. “I was staring into the beer cooler,” she recalls, “trying to figure out how many bottles to put in for the next day and I just thought, ‘What does it matter?’ I felt like crying but I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was get out of there, decompress and let everything go.”

Though it was two hours before her usual closing time, she gave last call, the customers left soon after, and she locked up. When she got home she got in bed next to her boyfriend, cried for the first time all day, and fell asleep.

Business since then has been busier than usual, she says, and the mood is different. People are more on edge. Some are drinking heavily and both she and the other bartender have had to cut people off – although she hasn’t seen any fights yet. Mostly what she sees is strangers striking up conversation.

She points to three guys conversing at the end of the bar – a preppy white guy, a young Hispanic guy, and a thirtysomething regular. “They each came in alone,” she says, “and within ten minutes they all just moved toward each other and started talking.”

Since the bombings she’s also noticed more male customers than usual. “I think women stay home with small groups of friends, whereas men want to be out.” Everyone, though, “is tipping really well.”

The drinks have changed along with the mood. She’s been serving more shots lately. “Somebody just came in and ordered a Three Wise Men – Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Johnny Walker. I’d never made one before in my life.”

The door to the bar pushes open and a woman with short hair and a harrowed face comes in. Amy rushes over, hugs her and asks how she’s doing. The woman shakes her head sadly and says she hasn’t been out much lately. Amy asks, “Glass of Cabernet?” The woman nods.

Later, when the shorthaired woman gets up to leave and waves goodbye to Amy, her face is drawn and she looks even worse than when she came in. “Are you all right?” asks Amy. She shakes her head no, her face crumples in despair and she starts to sob. Amy crosses around the bar, says, “Come here!” and embraces her. She pulls her aside, they talk for a few minutes quietly and she convinces her to stay for one more glass of wine. The woman relents. She doesn’t seem to need much convincing.

“Normally you go to a bar to meet new people, or let steam off,” Amy says, as she uncorks the bottle. “But now it’s not about socializing. It’s about not being alone. And no one wants to be around a TV. They watch TV to get a connection to the world. When they’re in a bar they get the connection without the news. People need to be around people,” she says. “They don’t want to go home.”

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