Cheapshots (and Beer,) arguably the best bar in New York—and all subjects become increasingly arguable the longer you stay in there—has been closed by order of the city for “illegal activities.” According to Allison L Arenson, the attorney prosecuting the case, “The community has severely suffered, and continues to suffer, as a result of the illegal activities…interfering with the health, safety and well being of those who live, work and visit in the surrounding neighborhood.” I don’t want to be unnecessarily negative, here, but there is no way we’re going to win this one. The attorney for the plaintiffs obviously has a made-up name, and chances are Cheapshots will never see trial. It’s just going to wake up in a basement somewhere and see Bernard Kerik with a car battery and three feet of lamp cord and confess to everything.
It’s possible that some of you have not been to Cheapshots and will be forced to imagine it from the photo above. Fortunately, the interior is mostly the same. The whole place is approximately sixteen feet wide, which seems like a lot until you put a bar and bathrooms and, inexplicably, picnic tables in there. Also air hockey. On weeknights, the place is choked with NYU students; weekends it’s filled with diagonally-striped Jersey trash, liquoring up on the way to Webster Hall.* The bar’s signature drink is the Truck Bomb, which is like a car bomb with a pitcher of beer instead of a pint and a tumbler of whiskey instead of the shot of Bailey’s. The wall is festooned with Polaroids of people who have successfully consumed the truck bomb, many of whom are captured in mid-vomit.
In other words, it is a disgusting bar. I personally have punched and been punched in the face, held the air hockey table for ninety minutes while making increasingly derogatory remarks about New Jersey, been choked unconscious (consensual,) been ejected (nonconsensual) while loudly apologizing for not realizing it was a gay bar, and consumed approximately 1,000 Pabsts on the premises. You went to Cheapshots to have an unwanted evening; it was the kind of place that gave you license to be someone more interesting than yourself.
In that way, it resembled New York City itself. Part of the attraction of Cheapshots, admittedly, was that it was located fifty yards from my work. The first few years I lived in New York, I worked at Performance Space 122. Cheapshots is to bars as PS 122 is to avant-garde performance art, if you’ll follow the analogy. The East Village, at that time, was on the cusp between dangerous and trashy. An assiduously drunk and irresponsible person could still get mugged, but for the most part it was safe bohemia for a generation of 25 year-olds who were as poor as artists but had very few actual works of art to show for it.
At that time, everyone I knew had moved to New York to be some kind of artist. The really bourgeois ones* went into publishing, but they still painted on Saturdays. Most of us were from other parts of the country, but we had been raised on a sort of cultural presentation of the city—distilled from Lou Reed, memoirs on our parents’ bookshelves and Michael Keaton movies—as the natural home for the young artist. It was the place you went to enact your plans for the future. Even at that tender age, I knew it was largely bullshit, and that “artist’s neighborhood” was realtor code for “place where Dan cannot afford to live.” Still, I myself was largely bullshit, too, and the East Village—with its weird Ukrainian bars and its basement stages—was the socio-economic reification of my psyche. It was the neighborhood that aspired to authenticity.
Anyone who has been there recently knows that it is something else now—perhaps more authentically that something, but certainly less aspirational, except in the “you can put hardwood floors in here” sense of the word. When Allison L Arenson writes that “It can not be denied that the subject premises is a public nuisance, and as such should not be allowed to remain open even one more day,” one suspects that she noticed while she was having tapas with her friends from law school. The East Village, like the rest of New York, is the site of a fierce territorial battle between second-year analysts and toddlers backed by golden retrievers. The sad irony of Cheapshots is that anyone who needs it has to commute.
Such changes are nothing new. New York City is predicated on change; it is, as Walt Whitman put it, “an unrelenting teardown fuck-show.”* Unless you’re Dutch, any nostalgia for the “real” New York is necessarily false. My own fond memories of Cheapshots and what it represents are irreparably compromised by the sad fact that it didn’t exist until 2004. By the time I walked through the door, I was an urban professional with a master’s degree and a six-figure income.
Now, of course, I am not. The fact that I had to leave New York in order to make a living as a writer is part of a long change in the city—not to what it is, but to what it purports to be. Gone is the New York that was often unlivably expensive but still argued for itself as a gritty bohemia. The present New York is one that openly regards places like Cheapshots as a public nuisance. You can tell a lot about a person by his attitude toward cheap liquor, whether affected or not. For better or for worse, New York would rather drink a cosmopolitan than a truck bomb.