Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World
By Tim Sultan
276 pages, $27
By Michael D. Langan
Here’s a quiz for writers who’ve been known to quaff a beer. Is it possible to create a literary classic about a neighborhood bar? In my view, it’s already been done. Look no further than Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “The Last Fine Time” written in 1991.
It’s a terrific read and an elegy about a Polish-American bar in Buffalo called Eddie’s. Eddie was Klinkenborg’s then father-in-law who started the bar after WWII. It effortlessly described a changing, ethnic Buffalo by showing how a family bar scene mirrored Buffalo’s declining neighborhoods over decades. Klinkenborg currently teaches at Yale and has been a member of the New York Times Editorial Board.
Now a new chronicle about a bar and its owner pops its cork: “Sunny’s Nights,” by Tim Sultan. It is the story of a dive bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that Sultan “discovered” in 1995. Of course the bar was around for decades earlier. Sultan, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ and The Spectator, befriended the owner and began working behind the bar for him.
“Sunny’s Nights” is a commemoration of a waterfront joint that was opened only one night a week in the same, now-desolate spot for years. Well, it’s made a comeback, open six nights a week, and is featured in a recent New York Times half-page piece called “A Spiritual Holdout Against Gentrification in Red Hook.”
“Sunny’s Nights” has a great beginning. It starts this way.
“There’s a corner turned, a direction taken. There is a door opened in everyone’s history that they can identify as a moment in life, for better or worse, took a different course. Eve bit an apple. Dante saw Beatrice. … For me, that corner, that direction, that door appeared late in the winter of 1995. The place was Red Hook, Brooklyn, the hour late, the mood desolate.”
The bar is next door to the Animal Hair Manufacturing Company, a place that “processed horse, cow, and boar hair for brushes and brooms and violin bows.” It had a certain odor.
Sunny was delivered in the upstairs of the bar by a midwife in 1933. For many years he has served as barkeep, actor, painter, and philosopher-king for its various patrons. His style is to keep a cigarette “continuously lit and often tilted his head back to blow plumes of smoke in the air. He sipped whiskey out of shot glasses that looked like thimbles in his hands while telling stories about rats he has slain at various times in his life.”
The owner wanders among occasional nautical farrago, a Blatz Beer boiled-egg dispenser, and plaster mannequins of stars like Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Jimmy Durante and Mae West.
The bar counter is marred with cigarette burns of generations of patrons. hese included a bagpiper, a trio of characters called the Gowanus Canal Boys singing “Cold Cold Heart,” and other assorted eccentrics like neighborhood character John McGettrick, whose mustache extended to his knees, imbibing and half-paying attention.
How did the bar stay open, running just one night a week for all those years?
It wasn’t easy. When dockworkers’ waterfront activity receded into history, replaced by container cargo, the bar and its owner, Sunny Balzano, hung on. Sunny took over the family place from his uncle in 1987. The Irish, Italian and other, later arriving immigrants moved to where the new jobs were.
Even the gangland scene moved out over time. The “Black Hand” and its successor, the “White Hand,” with stories of “drinking, gambling, brawling, shooting, and stabbing matches” left Red Hook. Red Hook was a place to dump garbage and corpses, according to Sultan. Think Al Capone, Albert Anastasia, Joey Gallo, and others. They all became status conscious and moved away.
But Sunny endured. You have to wonder who would go there, given its restricted hours. The answer is a fair number of misfits. Sunny’s is a place where “artists, mobsters, honky-tonk musicians, neighborhood drunks, nuns, longshoremen, and assorted eccentrics rub elbows.”
And, of course, people like to drink. The author writes, “In a community like Red Hook, a law against liquor consumption would have been as enforceable as a ban on nocturnal erections. It’s only a mild overstatement to say that every adult male who lived in this quarter of Red Hook was what today would be considered an alcoholic.”
Sunny is the major attraction. Now 83 and retired, he recounts how he even did a bit of gambling in his life. He’s careful to make it seem like “not so much.” “I am probably the unluckiest gambler that there ever has been. I am the gambler that has known the near miss,” he observes. Not any longer. He’s a success.
About his last 50 years at the bar he says, “You remember the things you’d think you’d forget. You don’t forget. In fact, the older you get, the more you remember the stuff with clarity that you could never conceive you would have. You remember with regret, but what you remember is the poetry of it. I mean all these things that have taken place, it’s what you are. You are everything you’ve ever done.”
With Tim Sultan’s cooperation and adulation, Sunny is a big winner with “Sunny’s Nights.” The memoir is captivating with perhaps too many asides to make it cohesive. But who wants cohesive at a bar? And, it’s more than a touch ribald. Still, it’s a classic story about a local bar.
All bars are local, even Harry’s Bar in Paris and Havana’s El Floridita.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News. He remembers Iroquois and Simon Pure Beer on tap for a dime at the Hotel Lackawanna in the 1950s. They were served up by his bartender uncle, Babe Laffey.