See first of the series Bars of New York here: Farrell’s
Nancy Whiskey Bar is located just off the Canal Street A train, in an odd zone between Tribeca, Soho, and Chinatown. I used to go for happy hour when I worked in the area because they had one of the best around – 2$ a pint – and a couple of tables where you could sit on the little patio and watch rush hour go by. The regulars were an curious assortment of off-duty cops from a nearby precint, college kids, and out and out drunks, and fluctuated with shift workers from the nearby Post Office and the AT%T building. The bar had a pinball machine, a shuffleboard, Irish and American flags over the faux wooden roof behind the bar, and an old tin ceiling, painted brown and so low in the terrace in the back you almost had to stoop over.
But the best thing about the bar, aside from happy hour, were the bartenders who, on a good night, provided pure entertainment. I can’t remember them all now – there were a few – but the one that stands out was Barry, an Irish guy who’d been in the States for years. One night, when I went in with a friend, he was wearing a Toronto Maple Leaf t-shirt. I’d just come back from Toronto so I asked if he was a Leafs fan. He looked at me askance: “No, no – it was the only clean shirt I had around . . .”
Me being Canadian did get us a free round. We paid for the next then he stopped taking our money. A stack of bills sitting by the old metal cash register kept falling onto the floor and when we pointed them out, he’d waved us off. “Ah, never mind, I’ll get them later.” Some suits had been playing shuffleboard and one of them came over. He’d left his card behind the bar to run a tab and wanted to know how much the drinks were, so he knew how much he’d spent.
“Sure. I’ll see at the end of the night how much you’ve drunk then I’ll know how much your drinks are!”
The guy looked perplexed, then evidently putting Barry down as a character, went back to his friends without his bill or his card. When the guy’s back was turned, Barry gave him the finger, hissing “Fucking yuppie pricks!”.
We stayed five hours. Two blonde girls sat down and ordered some wine. They told him they were from the Midwest somewhere and had dropped in by accident. He drained one wine bottle then when that one was emptied, he opened another. I didn’t see him take any money. Before their glasses were finished, he kept topping them up, and when I talked to them one hour in, they were both totally drunk. He rummaged around behind the hard liqour bottles and found two more dusty bottles of red. “We don’t get many orders of wine in here, I’m afraid,” then topped up the girls again. They went behind the bar and took turns posing with Barry and one of the wine bottles he’d retrieved. By the time they left, three hours in, they could barely stand up and he had to call them a car service. About halfway in, he started filling our pint glasses the same way, grabbing them when they were half-finished and filling them up and when we called for our tab we were nervous about how much it was going to be. He said:
“How much do you want it to be?”
“How does twenty bucks sound?”
Twenty bucks sounded fine. I think we had a shot for the road and tipped him another thirty or fourty or so. We were both hammered.
I went back a few more times but, like a lot of dive bars, it could only occasionally – and by chance – approach that kind of levity. It was on a circuit that included the Old Town, the Ear Inn, and a couple of others which had since been taken over. Nancy was such a dive, I was sure it would never be gentrified but the other night when I went back, the college kids were out in force, and I got the sense from the absence of anyone over the age of 25 that this was the norm. The shuffleboard was still there, along with the paraphernalia along the bar (a sign, probably there before Barry: “Hiring – but no Irish!”), but it had the feel of a college bar. I asked the bartender, a blonde woman I’d seen before, if Barry was still around.
“Nope. He was let go. A couple years ago now.”
I can’t imagine what his relationship was with the owners, but he was part of a New York that’s likely passed, when bartenders could get away with passing out free drinks to customers they liked, and you repaid their generosity not only with a healthy tip, but by coming back again and again for the show they put on, the atmosphere they generated.
A couple of reviews: New York magazine gives it 10 out of 10
Addendum: In case you don’t check the messages – a reader writes that Barry is still tending bar at Hudson Yards, 35th and 10th, Wednesdays through Saturdays.