Bar School

Lessons From My First Home Bar

How a home bar kicked off a lifelong appreciation for cocktails and spirits.

One of the first useful lessons I learned about drinking (the first being “don’t try to drink it all at once”) is the satisfaction of maintaining a well-stocked bar in your home.

In the fall of 1981, I was taking a little time off from New York University to pursue a career in trashing hotel rooms, dating fashion models, jumping up and down on stage in front of stadiums full of my young peers, and tormenting my electric bass guitar at Pratt & Whitney volume (the only part of the program I had actually achieved). I had a $5-an-hour job as clerk, messenger, and process-server for a Midtown law firm that specialized in organized crime—defending it, that is—and an apartment across the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey.

I didn’t want to live in Jersey City; back then, I don’t think anyone there did. Jersey City was where you went when you were making $5 an hour. Where, when you got off the plane, you went to plan your assault on the American dream. Where, when that turned to shit, you went to lick your wounds. It was tired, rundown, poor. Parts of it—unpredictable parts—were very violent indeed.

I shared my apartment, up in the heights near Journal Square (“Urinal Square,” we called it, not inaccurately) with Bruce, a fellow NYU student who was as broke as I was. We each paid $135 a month in rent, plus utilities. For that, we had a ground-floor apartment in a two-story, four-unit frame house on a block where no two buildings were alike; where tarpaper shingles and peeling paint vied with chipped bricks and scabby stucco.

The apartment came furnished: a sagging sofa, a couple of worn armchairs, some teetering shelves. The carpet was a nasty baby shit brown, the cheap fiberboard paneling was buckling in a dozen places and the linoleum was the only thing that wouldn’t stick to the kitchen floor. There were roaches, some of them large.

But on the third or fourth day that Bruce and I were in the place we were walking back to the apartment from the PATH train—basically, a trans-Hudson extension of the NYC Subway—that connected us to Manhattan. Somewhere between the women’s prison and the house we came across an art-deco fireplace sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. On closer examination, it proved to be a bar: the middle panel, under the mantel, folded down into a mixing tray, exposing a compartment with space for six or eight liquor bottles and a little rack for cocktail glasses. (Thinking about it now, I realize it must have been from Prohibition, when if you had a bar in the house you didn’t want everybody to know about it.)

In any case, we carried it home, installed it against one of the walls, and decided that if we had it we should stock it. We even set a policy for it. After having been at various friends’ houses where all they had to drink was Yukon Jack or Midori or some other highly promoted liqueur that was left over from the last time they tried to make drinks, we learned our lesson. We wouldn’t experiment. We’d stick to the basics, and avoid the bottom shelf, making up in quality what we missed in trendiness. Sure, good booze was expensive, but there wasn’t anything else to spend money on in the neighborhood and it would save us from blowing even more cash on going into Manhattan to do our drinking.

That meant imported Stolichnaya or Finlandia vodka for our Bloody Marys, Bombay or Beefeater for our G&Ts, Bacardi for our Coke and Jack Daniel’s for, well, whatever. We even made sure to always have a bottle of good Scotch on hand. In fact, it was strictly single malt for us. That meant Glenfiddich or The Glenlivet, even at $25 a bottle (there were only a handful of malts available back then). There may have been a bottle of Myers’s Rum for Hot Buttered Rum (Bruce was from Maine and so was my mom’s family and that’s what you drank in Maine when you were cold). When one of our five or six bottles was empty, we’d replace it the next day, or at least the next payday.

Having our little bar stocked also meant we could have a progression of drinks: a G&T before dinner, a Glenlivet after; Bloody Marys on Sunday morning, Rum & Cokes during the shank of the afternoon; the right drink at the right time. We didn’t have to try all the ridiculous mixtures of the day to make our bottle of vodka interesting because when vodka began to pall we had whiskey and gin and rum.

That malt whiskey really came in handy on Roach Night. When I mentioned that we had roaches, I didn’t mention how many. We didn’t cook a lot and generally kept the place fairly clean, particularly for a couple of 20-year-old males, but at least one of the other tenants must have been a real slob, because the building was teeming with the verminous little sonsabitches. And by teeming I mean, turn on the kitchen light and watch the wall move. Clearly, this was intolerable.

These days, we have frighteningly effective roach traps. Back then, we didn’t. We had to come up with a strategy. Roach Night was that strategy: Every few weeks, when the insects were getting completely out of hand, we’d go to the hardware store and each buy two big spray cans of kill-’em-dead roach spray, the kind that has to actually hit the insect, but when it does it is good night sweet Blattella germanica. Then we’d wait. When it got good and dark outside, we’d tie bandannas around our necks, pour ourselves each a hefty glass of Scotch and sit in the ratty old armchairs with the lights out, passing a joint back and forth in the dark and sipping that nice, rich whisky. After half an hour or so, we’d pull the bandanas up over our noses and mouths, suddenly flip on every light in the place, and launch ourselves into a frenzy of two-handed roachicide. Every surface, every crack, every dark and nasty place was fogged with poison, all in a couple of minutes. When the cans were empty, we’d drop ’em on the floor, run choking out the front door and spend the next couple of hours drinking beer and shooting pool at the Dominican-Filipino biker bar across the street. Then it was air the place out, sweep up the dead roaches, have another drink or two and begin the cycle all over again.

After four or five months of this, I got in a harder-working band and Bruce got a steady girlfriend in the city and we more or less let the bar slide. Then one of our lunkhead friends sat on the mixing tray, and rather than look at the busted bar we put it out on the curb. But while we had it, I felt like Nick Charles or Bertie Wooster or some other character out of the elegant age who when he wanted a drink didn’t go to the fridge for a bottle of Rolling Rock and try to flip the cap into the garbage but rather stepped over to the sideboard, poured some expensive whisky into a tall glass and fizzed it with soda water. In 1981, there wasn’t a lot of that, anywhere. But, at least for a little while, there was a bit of it on Chestnut Avenue, Jersey City. Even if it took the occasional Roach Night to get there.