Lost in a Haunted Wood:
Remembering the Holiday Cocktail Lounge
The Holiday Cocktail Lounge at 75 St. Mark’s Place has reopened. My first reaction — especially when I saw the craft cocktail menu — was to puke. The Holiday was my favorite bar. I drank there a lot in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. I had some of the best bad nights of my life there. If you lived in New York City before it turned into a frozen yogurt shop, you know how great the place was. This revamped Holiday? I don’t know, man. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Seems like the people behind it have some good intentions. They’ve preserved the wooden phone booth and a mural, and the awning is the same. Bartender Michael Neff has asserted that their goal is to “honor the past without trying to duplicate it — that would be Disneyland.” But it still feels a little like theme park dive bar shit to me. Isn’t death by natural causes better than some puffed-up zombie afterlife? Then again, shouldn’t we be grateful there’s not a Starbucks or a bank taking over the location?
I’m not here to pass judgment. I’m a sad bastard by nature, and I’m not surprised when the good old things go away. I’m not surprised by New York City as a strip mall spectacle, by frat bros playing beer pong on First Avenue, by the closing down of all the old bars and diners and restaurants, by seeing everything that made the city the city just vanish. (Even fucking Love Saves the Day.) When you expect a glossy wreck, it takes a lot to shock you. We’ll probably live to see a Starbucks in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a fake ‘70s street scene where you can ogle dramatizations of muggings like the goddamn Indiana Jones show at MGM.
I’m just here to remember the Holiday. And Stefan Lutak, who was the Holiday.
* * * *
The story of how I started drinking there begins with a girl. It’s a long story — one that involves us going to Ireland together and me fucking everything up and coming home to Brooklyn broken-hearted. I was twenty and dumb. When I got back, I looked half-heartedly for a job. I typed letters to the girl. I listened to a lot of Tom Waits. One day, walking around the city, I ran into my friend Josh at Kim’s on St. Mark’s. He was working at a junkshop called Space Age Bachelor Pad at the time. He told me about the Holiday, a place he’d only just been for the first time, and we went there for a drink. We fell in love with the joint. We went back every day. It was a beautiful dive, the best ever. I felt like I could stay there until the world crumbled all around me. I made the Holiday my job. I drank up all the money I had left from Ireland.
* * * *
In a 2006 article for The New York Times, Caroline H. Dworin nailed, in part, the draw of the Holiday:
There is great poignancy in the case of the New York City dive bar. In such an ever-shifting metropolis, whose streets, like rivers, are never the same streets twice, whose heights rise ever upward into taller, better, sleeker plains of steel, those small and stagnant pools may be the only place left where a man can see his reflection. [. . .]The dive is un-self-conscious, beautiful in its gloom. Greater than the sum of its parts, it is as spare as a Raymond Carver story, as lean as a haiku. Sentiment condensed, it is a poem, an elegy, perhaps, that hangs in the air as a testament to an anachronistic New York. One of the very best of the dive bars is the Holiday Cocktail Lounge in the East Village.
Dworin goes on to describe the Holiday as a “bad-smelling little bar” and “a place for heavy drinkers, old souls with hardy livers.” “It is not,” she writes, “a place to take a date. (A man who once ordered a tequila sunrise was threatened physically.)” She recounts what it looks like from the street: an awning with its name in plain letters, three steps down to a heavy door, a front “dressed simply [. . .] in corrugated iron.” And there wasn’t much more to say about the exterior of the Holiday. You could never really feel if the place was full or empty, open or closed. Not until you tried the door or saw someone fall out.
The inside of the Holiday was pretty typical for a dive. A horseshoe bar. An old-time cash register. A small TV crammed up in the corner by the window. Booths and tables in the back. A jukebox. The phone booth. A mural back by the bathroom, painted by a regular, showed owner Stefan Lutak behind the bar with a few guys huddled around him. The place mumbled with life. Thirty or forty people could fill the Holiday out comfortably, but I’d seen it packed way beyond that.
Stefan was the real draw. He was eighty when I started drinking there. Dworin describes him as “thin but hardy, his hair still impressively full and white.” He wore a black shirt, black pants that hung loose on him, and black slippers. The first time I went up to the bar, he threw a coaster down in front of me. “What do you want?” he sang. Not said. Sang.
“Guinness,” I told him.
“No!” he said, pointing to a wall with four beer bottles lined up: Bud, Bud Light, Heineken, Heineken Dark.
“Bud,” I said.
It took him ten minutes to get the beer. I tried to pay, and he threw the money on the floor. “I looooove you! I looooove you!” he said, putting the beer down and knocking it over. “I hate you! I looooove you!”
* * * *
Stefan died on February 3, 2009. My last visit to the Holiday before that was in late December of 2008. I went to see a movie at the Angelika with some buddies, and we went for a drink at the Holiday afterward. Stefan wasn’t there. It didn’t feel like the same place.
My last visit to the Holiday when Stefan was there was at the end of July 2008, a week before my wife and I left the city to move to Mississippi. I met some friends there. We got drunk and played the jukebox. Stefan was sober. He said hello and acted like he remembered me. But he just lumbered around the bar all night, wiping things down with a bleach-soaked towel, clearing empty bottles. He looked weak. He closed the bar at nine-thirty, and we said goodnight. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. As we walked away from the Holiday, I looked through the front window for one last glimpse of Stefan. I didn’t see him. The lights went out.
When Stefan died, I was living down in Oxford. A month passed before I heard about his death. An old friend from college who I’d turned onto the Holiday sent me an e-mail. He wrote: You hear that Stefan’s dead? And he gave me a link to Stefan’s obituary in The Villager. I read the obituary. It was a couple of paragraphs, and it drew heavily on a New York Press article that had been written about him years before. I Googled Stefan’s name and found obituaries on twenty or thirty different blogs. Most of them were the same. They talked about how the Holiday was the best dive around. They talked about how Stefan was the greatest bartender in the world, the last of a dying breed. I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t even get on a subway or bus and go to the city for a memorial drink there.
* * * *
W. H. Auden was a regular at the Holiday in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He’d knock off a whole bottle of VSOP cognac in an afternoon, while he sat by the window, writing. He occasionally entertained guests like Allen Ginsberg. No one else — none of the well-known writers, artists, and musicians that passed through the Holiday — seemed to make any sort of impression on Stefan, though. He only cared about — and remembered — Frank Sinatra (who visited the bar a few times in the ‘80s) and Auden. When he found out that I was a writer, Stefan opened up about Auden. I remember him pointing to the stool in the corner next to the window. “You want poet?” Stefan said. “You want writer? The best sat there.”
I bought Auden’s Collected Poems one day on my way to the Holiday and started to read it at the bar, but mostly I just cared about drinking. I was drinking because I felt a hell of lot better when I drank. I wasn’t drinking because of the girl I’d fucked up with, though I probably thought that was a big part of it at the time. I needed Stefan and the Holiday because my father had cut me out of his life, because I thought I had no future, and because I felt inadequate and dumb and hollow. Others said, “Stop drinking. Get your life on track.” Stefan didn’t say things like that. One day, as I chased shots of Jack Daniel’s with Bud, Stefan looked at me and said, “You’re sad?”
“It’s okay,” he said. “We all get sad.” He put his hand on my shoulder. Then he drank some whiskey with me and sang: “I sad! You sad! We all saaaaad!”
At some point, I decided I did need to get my life back on track. I was almost broke and had no prospects and there was still some time before I went back to college. I slept until noon most days, and my grandparents were disappointed with me. I wasn’t an alcoholic, but I knew I needed to lay off booze and run and eat better and get a job. So I went to Long Island College Hospital in downtown Brooklyn with the idea that I’d check myself into the detox center there for a couple of weeks. I talked with nurses, signed papers, and waited for them to check me in. While I was waiting, I had second thoughts. I snuck past the nurses and escaped down a staircase at the back of the building. That day, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge straight to the Holiday. I started drinking at three. Friends met me there at five. I made other friends. I kissed a girl in the phone booth. Stefan pinched my cheeks, sang to me, sang at me, and everything felt right.
* * * *
When I go home to Brooklyn, I always take a trip into the city and get falafels at Mamoun’s and then walk over to 75 Saint Mark’s. It’s like seeing a bit of what the street used to be in the middle of all the unfamiliar newness. The reopened Holiday looks enough like the old Holiday to fool you into something north of nostalgia. The promise of something good and old and true maybe. But it’s a promise — no matter how genuine the intention — that can’t truly be paid off.
I always think about Stefan. I remember one time — I was drunk and he was drunk — he leaned over to me and said, “You’re a good kid.”
“Thanks, Stefan,” I said.
“It’s okay you get depressed,” he said. “I get a little depressed too. We all get a little depressed.” And then he reared back and sang, “You don’t know the life! You don’t know the true! When you start to sing, I say uppa you mouth!” He lowered his voice. “I looooove you. I looooove you. Oh, I looooove you.”
“I love you too, Stefan,” I said, laughing.
“No, no,” Stefan said. “You know? I am barman. I am nothing. Nothing!” He slammed his glass down on the bar.
The New York Press profile of Stefan ends with him saying: “I look at men my age, they say they can’t work anymore. I feel like I’m fifty years back. My generation, we had a reason to kill ourselves. This generation, they kill themselves for no reason. Not easy, killing yourself for no reason.” Once that would’ve made me happy, the fact that I was part of a generation that wanted to die for nothing.
There are a lot of days when I wish I was that dumb kid again, drinking with purpose at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Stefan singing behind the bar. I miss that perfect darkness.
And I’ll tell you this: I can’t imagine trying to recreate it.