It was 1 p.m. on a Saturday in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan. Six friends gathered at an outdoor bar near Battery Park. Our goal for that day was simple: have a drink each borough of the city.
If you're familiar with New York geography, you'll understand why this feat is a tricky one. From Riverdale to Tottenville, Gotham runs 35 miles in diameter, spread over a small armada of islands and peninsulas. The boroughs (Bronx excepted) were originally entire counties, home to cities, towns and villages like Bushwick and Greenwich. Bridges, subways and highways have since roped it all together into one functional unit, but casing the place in a day is still impossible.
That partly cloudy Saturday, the 1st of October, we intended to experience the magnitude of America's largest metropolis firsthand. Our point of departure was South Ferry, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan.
New Yorkers recently discovered that boats are awesome. Water taxis, tragically impractical yet incredibly fun, have sprung up to take you to all sorts of (yuppy) places like IKEA and Green Point. But the Staten Island Ferry was doing this sort of thing long before it was mainstream. A ride past the Statue of Liberty to the forgotten borough is 100 percent free. They even serve beer.
The far end of the Ferry is a no-nonsense transit hub were you can connect directly to buses and the Staten Island Railroad, an odd mixture of subway and commuter train, that shuttles commuters down the Eastern shore of the island.
A few stops in we disembarked in Concord and climbed the stairs to find ourselves in leafy suburbia. Our official Staten Island "borough chief" checked his phone for bars in the area. There were none. Undaunted, we crossed the street and walked through the parking lot of a small strip mall to a nearby Italian restaurant.
It was that awkward time between lunch and dinner when these sorts of establishments are desolate. We grabbed some stools at the bar, and the bartender, a young immigrant from Albania studying finance, leaned in to inform us the sole other group in the restaurant was a movie director and his crew. They were on the island to film a movie about a DC serial killer.
The restaurant featured ornate Grecian columns painted sky blue with streaks of puffy clouds. Overly-saturated frescoes of Italian landscapes betrayed the white table cloths and wine glasses to give the joint a rather hokey feel. The term Guido gets tossed around rather loosely these days, but it definitely applied to this joint. And so after a swig and a brief chat with the wait staff we were on our way.
We boarded the S53 bus in Concord for a hop over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In cities like Paris or Rome urban streets effortlessly traipse across the Seine or the Tibre on ornate, arched spans. In New York, the craggy islands left behind by an ancient glacier require a touch more no-nonsense engineering to stitch together. The Verrazano is a perfect example of this: the longest, tallest suspension bridge in the Americas.
We rose above the landscape, the Atlantic to our right and the harbor to our left. At the opposite end of the harbor, towering over the misty scene was Lower Manhattan, our place of departure. From this vantage point we saw the lengthy island face-on, as a narrow keep of glass-and-steel turrets, recently conquered by the ever-growing One World Trade Center. Somewhere deep in the cracks between these towering structures, the Occupy Wall Street protest was mobilizing. We later discovered that at the same time we were crossing the Verrazano, the protesters were storming the Brooklyn Bridge, into a police trap. But from where we stood, the castle seemed dormant.
We touched down in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Spot Bay Ridge on a subway map, at the extreme southern end of the R-train, and you might suspect low-lying warehouses and strip-malls. But the high bluff overlooking the water is home to bustling avenues and an increasingly diverse population ranging from the established descendants of Norwegian immigrants to newly-arrived Russians and Syrians.
Soon we found ourselves in Lonestar Bar & Grill, a sports bar replete with longhorn silhouettes and American flags. Step out the back door and you pass beneath an enormous American flag, tethered to the fire escape of twin tenements, into an enormous backyard patio. Soon we had wings, onion rings and pitchers of beer. Multiple football games were playing on enormous flatscreens. It was all very... Texas. Despite all this the owners, husband and wife, were born-and-raised in Bay Ridge and nearby Bensonhurst.
We were invited to stay for the Yankees game, but figured the logical place to be for that was the Bronx. We were only two boroughs into our journey and already feeling pretty far gone.
We descended underground into the R train. So far our tripy included ferry, railroad and bus. But for interborough rapid transit, the subway is king. Our journey from Bay Ridge to Astoria was by far the longest single stretch of the journey. Along the way we passed under Sunset Park, Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. We climbed over Dumbo and the East River, over the Lower East Side and under Chinatown, Soho, the Village, Midtown and Long Island City. This was not a thorough exploration of neighborhoods and culture. This was not even an end-to-end trip across the city (we never made it close to such far-flung places as Coney Island and Jamaica). Our goals were far less lofty: one stop per borough. Next up was Queens.
By the time the N train had pulled above ground in Queens, it was after dark. We lurched through Astoria with the skyline as our backdrop, disembarking in the northern reaches of the neighborhood. We headed to the Bohemian Beer Garden.
When I was younger, our family routinely performed the American hadj to Disney World. My favorite park for a time was EPCOT, where you could visit 11 countries of the world in a single day, in a park centered around an enormous futurist Fullerene dubbed 'Spaceship Earth'.
Queens is like a real life version of EPCOT. Pick a country and Queens has a neighborhood for you. There's even a giant globe surrounded by fountains at the center of it all. A proper salute to the borough might have involved visiting Flushing or Jackson Heights. But a celebration of New York must also celebrate the thousands of yuppy suburbanites, like myself, who descend on the metropolis after college to pack places like Williamsburg, Murray Hill and Astoria. And so we found ourselves dancing at the beer garden, fittingly enough on the 1st of October, surrounded by everyone from toddlers to the elderly. But mostly white twenty-somethings.
Beer Gardens are spreading faster than influenza these days. I have been to very few of them, to be honest, but I tell you with firm conviction Bohemian is the best: a live band, a dance floor, tents of picnic tables, scattered about a sprawling yard beneath towering old oak trees. My last time there, I pissed off a stranger sitting next to me so much, she spilt an entire pitcher of Czech beer over my head; And even that was fantastic.
Things were getting a bit hazy for our band of intrepid tipplers. We set out to conquer New York, but by our third borough, it seems New York was winning. At each stop, the folks we talked to greeted our mission with enthusiasm and free beer. We weren't curing the ills of capitalism or overthrowing Arab dictators. But at the end of the day when you head out to the pub, you're not looking for a superhero or martyr for company -- just some drinking buddies.
Although dancing beneath the stars until the wee hours was tempting, we were on a mission. We grabbed the bus and headed across the Triboro Bridge. A hop, skip and a jump later we found ourselves at Yankees Stadium.
As official "Bronx Borough Chief" of the crawl, I wanted to do justice to this oft-misunderstood place. Given no time constraints, we could have visited a pub in Kingsbridge, or an Italian bar on Arthur Avenue. A dockside haunt on City Island or the highly recommended Throgs Neck Clipper could have also been fun. But the South Bronx is the heart of the borough and the Yankees its most illustrious tenant.
And so we found ourselves at Stan's Sports Bar, across the street from the stadium on the night of a home game, surrounded by pinstripes and navy blue caps. Game one against the Tigers was commencing, and what seemed like a loyal gang of regulars gathered around the bar to watch.
The South Bronx saw apocalypse, as neighborhoods were abandoned, buildings burned and the crime rates soared. A New Yorker cover from a few decades ago depicted the stadium being airlifted by military helicopters out of a decepit city into New Jersey, like a scene out of the fall of Saigon. But despite talks to the contrary, the Yankees never left. Today a brand new stadium stands tall as a firm commitment to the slowly rising neighborhood. And there in its shadow, beneath the rumble of the 4-train, is Stan's, ready as always with a beer on game night.
We came down on the 4-train into East Harlem for the final borough of our crawl.
Manhattan is the most densely packed collection of Americans on the planet: a narrow island crammed full with frenetic neighborhoods each with a distinct personality. Our hood of choice for the crawl was West Harlem.
Harlem has an excellent bar scene. That shouldn't seem surprising. But the dynamic range of this scene might. Increasingly, everything from the casual beer garden to the serious cocktail bar can be found here. It's gentrification, to be sure, but a version devoid of flannel and Pitchfork.
A proper cosmopolitan salute to Manhattan might have been an expertly crafted negroni at the Red Rooster, or a gin cocktail at the Lenox Lounge. But four boroughs into the crawl, we were a mess. So our approach was a bit more unorthodox. We grabbed a six pack from an anonymous bodega and headed to Amy Ruth's on 116th and Lenox, a 24-hour soul food powerhouse for chicken and waffles.
Take fried chicken, smother it in gravy, stick it on a waffle, and add maple syrup. If you don't consider this the perfect drunk food, you clearly haven't tried it. The collision of sweet and savory has been on the rise recently: salted caramel, bacon-infused ice cream, spicy/sweet cocktails, etc. Chicken and waffles was the ancient prototype of this concept. Or something.
Our day of island hopping debauchery had come to a close. And though our livers may be worse for wear, the day was fantastic.
If you're one of the millions of Americans guilty of worshipping monotony, know that you too can break free. Take a Saturday to explore your environs. Grab a map of your city or town or county and look for places you've never been. Then go there and find a bar. Positive results guaranteed.