The Trencherman: Punched in the Face by the Ghosts of St. Marks

“The William Barnacle Tavern on St. Marks is like a geode in the East Village: mostly empty but filled with gems”

William Barnacle Tavern, Theatre 80 St. Mark's
The William Barnacle Tavern and the Theatre 80 St. MarksJAMES AND KARLA MURRAY

Ever wonder why a barfly sits so still? Both the question and the answer came to me at once one night last week. It’s the fear of falling over. I was sitting on a tall stool at the long bar in the narrow room. Not unlike the millions of other quiet Atlases that have done and will strike the same hunched-over pose, I was weighed down by the weight of the world. Events had knocked me off course. Nothing a stiff drink couldn’t solve, I thought, ordering one off the lengthy menu at the William Barnacle Tavern, the singular institution at 80 St. Marks Place between First and Second avenues. But the stool was high and the legs were slender and my guts were still so much in turmoil, I didn’t want to tempt fate by moving around too much. So I sat like a gargoyle and watched other people in the mirror.  

There was a lot to see and more to think about. The bar, adjoining the lobby of Theatre 80 St. Marks, is a geode in the East Village, mostly empty but filled with gems: vaguely nautical-themed, small ships sitting on shelves, next to a skull with a top hat, an Irish hand drum called a bodhran, and a stringless harp. The bartender that night, Jodie, a woman between the ages of 24 and 65, tossed off a Maggie: A Girl of the Streets vibe. There was a story there, somewhere in the eye shadow. Her rocks-and-gravel Irish brogue recalled the times when her Hibernian kinfolk filled the neighborhood, and what is now the William Barnacle Tavern was the speakeasy hideout of the king of bootleggers, a Bavarian gangster named Frank Hoffman.

Lorcan Otway of William Barnacle Tavern DAVID CHOW

So much had transpired since then and now, and in the last few months of my life, that we all — me, the block, the world, that Old Fashioned laced with absinthe Jodie pushed across the bar — were all mixed up. I ordered a hot dog from a young guy named Tristan, who occupies a phone booth–sized corner of the bar with a small service window facing the street that sells Feltman’s famously snappy Coney Island hot dogs. It was a Monday night, and there was a seisiún of Irish musicians, an informal trio who blew their fifes and strummed guitars, at a table nearby. It was a peak tavern moment. The bar’s owner, a man named Lorcan Otway, is an old Irish Republican, ponytailed and bearded with seen-it-all eyes and a famously inexhaustible appetite for telling tales of the building, about how his father, Howard, a Quaker playwright, bought it, about how Walter Scheib, an underling of Hoffman’s, took it over after the gangster split so suddenly he left a clam dinner (and $2 million in gold certificates) in the then-speakeasy’s safe. He tells stories like cherubs pee from water fountains. Always fun, always refreshing; let the words wash over you.

The hot dog did indeed possess an impressive snap and a juiciness not often experienced this far north of Coney Island. I was just finishing the thing when Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead, pulled open the doors. Tall and blonde, she was by far the most glamorous thing in the place. The small bronze nymph lamp holding a red globe on the bar offered no competition. She walked toward me and offered me her hand. I’d told her I’d be the guy at the bar with the mustache. She’d said there would be many of them.

In the event, I was the only one with a mustache. In fact, besides a couple talking about how to launch a podcast, I was nearly the only one at the sparsely sat-at bar. And as for whether the mustache is an ironic hipster one, the answer is that it isn’t. There is a sincere mustache on my upper lip and it’s there to stop the tears. The truth is, and this may be a little oversharey but it is true nonetheless, that everything in my life is falling apart. Well, maybe not everything, but family life has certainly got real hinky of late. Without getting into it too much — because a) the situation is fluid and b) I’m not the only one in it — the home I thought would be mine, and the future that flowed from that happy home, is breaking apart and dissolving.

St. Marks Place, 1936NYPL

That’s destabilizing enough. What is lost isn’t just all that one holds dear but the millions of future selves and future holdings-dear too. If JDS was listed on the stock exchange, his futures would be way down in premarket trading. And it wasn’t just that the world I had built for myself — we, ourselves — had come apart like poorly assembled Tinkertoys. It was that I, the Creator, was fraying too. I’d recently been diagnosed with borderline personality order, a mental illness affecting 2 percent of the adult population. It’s not a big deal but it’s also not not a big deal. Obviously it has thrown me for a loop. To see all the things I struggled with for so long writ down there in the DSM-5 makes me feel, I don’t know…it just makes me feel, I guess. It makes me feel that I don’t know where I end and the diagnosis begins. And so this mustache, hideous even to my own eyes, is some sort of reclamation. As a friend put it to me the other day, beards happen, but a mustache you choose.

You can see why I was sitting on that stool so still and scared. But Calhoun — who grew up on St. Marks, attending gallery openings and firework shows with her father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and mother, Brooke Alderson, and now lives in Williamsburg with her eleven-year-old son and husband, performance artist Neal Medlyn — has a big laugh, a warm smile, and 400 years of St. Marks in her head. Soon she was undressing time. Peeling back the layers of the years, she recalled cutting class to watch old movies in the theater next door. (Otway owns the entire building, which includes the theater and, on the second floor, the Museum of the American Gangster.) She pointed across the street to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, recalling how a very underage Mike D of the Beastie Boys used to order there before he could even reach the bar. With casual deftness, she Enigma’d Barcade — a block west — wending backward through time until it was Kim’s Video and before that the St. Marks Bath. She can do that with nearly every address over the surrounding three blocks, presto chango–ing condos to guild halls and sushi joints to performance venues. Both her book and her conversation are studded with names and addresses that once meant something to somebody but now are words as foreign-sounding as the Mourner’s Kaddish.


But Calhoun is not a nostalgist. She greets these changes with a certain cheerful equanimity. Bemoaning time past is the eternal pastime of St. Marks. “It doesn’t matter when it was,” she told me, “people always just think it was better before.” In fact, she said, you can pinpoint this time not to some unspecific era in the past but to the time they were nineteen. I stayed quiet, too ashamed to say that I too remember being nineteen and walking down St. Marks and that the street to me seemed like a gilded manuscript and that I was so full of hope and happiness I was practically floating, because she’s heard it all before. And even though she was too polite to say it, I wasn’t special then, and I’m not now.

New York punches you right in your face with its impermanence. Nowhere in the city does this better than St. Marks, which Calhoun writes has “spun like a wheel for the last 400 years.” Nowhere on St. Marks does this better than the William Barnacle Tavern. It’s a scuzzy, numinous satori engine, the Heart Sutra of the East Village. To sit here and contemplate these three blocks and all the lives lived within them, everyone from Trotsky and Warhol to Hoffman and Scheib to the vastly more numerous whose names mean nothing to us now; to pause, letting the stories stacked on stories, born of bricks and decades, rise to a chorus; to gaze at the bar, worn smooth as worry beads by the friction of elbows, and over the bar at the mirror; to see something solid and then to realize this sense of dumbass solidity is the same feeling all the ghosts before you felt — all this is to understand that nothing lasts, or even properly is. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.

That goes for bars and blocks and buildings, me and mustaches and marriages. And nights at the Barnacle too. You think you can sit still and nothing will happen, but everything inevitably ends. There’s nothing left to do but settle up, slide off the stool, and step foot again onto St. Marks.