Sunny acts as though everyone who arrives at his bar on Conover Street is a guest at his surprise birthday party. He is lean and a little stooped from a life of leaning into upper-body hugs, and when he looks into your eyes, you feel he forgives everything you’ve ever done. He’s in his sixties, and looks like a Botticelli angel.
Over the bar hangs a portrait of his grandfather. It is the same Italian face, but where Sunny has long grey curls, his are plastered flat from an Edwardian center-parting, and the mouth turns down in the look of a man who has a business to run. A serious matter, photography, in those days.
There’s another picture behind the bar, a cartoon of Sunny and his young Norwegian wife, arms stretched up to catch a blonde creature who flies like Superman against a night sky. It is Oda, their daughter, who became a three-year-old recently and was feted for a week. The caption is “Oda Kom Fra Stjernene”. I think it means “Oda Comes From the Stars.”
Sunny lives in hope that Oda will sleep a few extra hours some day. This week it hasn’t happened, with all the birthday excitement. “My God,” he says, shaking his head, “it’s ex-haus-ting.” But he knows he is a lucky man.
The bar is marked by a sign that says “BAR”. It was added in 1910, fifteen years or so after grandad opened the doors. Inside, the lit-up Schaefer Beer sign is a reminder that this borough was once a brewing capital, back when half the world’s trade was unloaded on the docks here at Red Hook, and this bar served longshoremen and sailors.
The well-loved junk has taken on the patina of four generations. A Gentleman Jim figure stands high in a corner, ready to come out fighting. Below him hangs a pair of ancient, cracked boxing gloves. There are bad frescoes of lighthouses and a painting of a mermaid and a dusty model ship. The orange Choking Victim poster, mandatory in all New York bars and restaurants, predates the striking graphic fishbone you see in the shiny new Smith Street places. Christmas lights are strung from a row of Toby jugs and caricatures. The vinyl booths are patched with duct tape, and the walls, beneath Sunny’s own paintings, are the color of Ambrosia Creamed Rice and flaking. Oda’s Pokemon is propped up on the whisky bottles, near a package of Barilla Orzo with Sunny’s face stuck on the front.
On the first Sunday of the month, Gabriel Cohen, a local novelist, organizes a reading at Sunny’s. I go to plenty of readings around New York, but this is the one I look forward to. Readings are better with beer. Readings are better with beer in Red Hook. Gabriel is married to a poet and teacher who helps at the readings by tending the bar. Though I don’t know either of them, they look blessed to be together. She is grace itself. When the star writer arrives to find the place empty but for me, she slips Gabriel a shot of Jameson. It gives him the courage to explain that nobody ever finds Sunny’s easily. There are no subways here, and no street grid. It always takes them half an hour longer than they think.
He’s right. They arrive in twos and threes, filling the front bar. It’s a beautiful crisp Marathon Sunday, and before the reading starts people keep disappearing outside to look at the late afternoon sun on the waterfront. Red Hook is an urban wilderness, where retreating industry left the picked-clean carcasses of civil-war era warehouses. Some streets are still paved with cobbles laid in a circle, and here and there the sidewalks are littered with broken glass and grass that grows knee-high in the cracks. This is where yellow schoolbuses go to sleep, lined up like ducklings. Parked outside is a van with a windshield slogan “AINT SKEERED”. At the end of a Red Hook pier, on Coffey Street or Van Brunt, you feel you’re on the tip of the New World. It’s the most romantic neighborhood in New York.
Gabriel has set up free coffee and Italian pastries from Court Pastry in the back room. We listen to the readers, and clap, and chat. My friend Jake joins me for a long drunken chat about scientists and cities.
The bar is only open on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and a few unpredictable Sundays. A long-time Red Hook resident told me that just a few years ago, Sunny asked people to pay what they felt like for their drinks, though that has stopped now that the neighborhood is changing–wealthy people give less. He is still generous with free shots and beers. It’s his living room.
“Would you like a candle?” says Sunny as it gets dark, and the way he says it makes clear that he is not offering a tealight in a glass as much as warmth, light, and sustenance to a traveler who has come a great distance, from the other side of the BQE(Brooklyn Queens Expressway). “And these people came all the way from France,” he marvels, waving at a new knot of friends at the bar. They’re here to support a marathon runner. He hugs them and tells them how honored he is that they would visit his bar, and in his excitement, his own Brooklyn accent slips into theirs.