Chumley’s Not 86'd — Yet
“Fitzgerald is dead. Faulkner is dead. Steinbeck is dead,” he said. Each sentence piercing my heart a bit deeper. “The people who support Chumley’s want those writers and others like them to come back to the West Village. They won’t.”
He’s right, I thought, because writers and artists like to spend time around interesting people and places. And he and the homogenized utopia he dreams of creating are about as interesting as the off-white eggshell painted walls of his living room. That, and the fact that, well, they’re dead.
I knew what I was in for. The warm basement. The metal chairs. The heated tempers. The machinations of local politics. I had no skin in the game, living just outside of Community Board Two’s jurisdiction, but I wanted to support those who had fought so hard during the past seven years to bring back something wrongfully lost.
Life is unfair. Things perish. Times change. Through fate or actions or happenstance, good things leave us. I, more than most, know that. But here was something struggling to survive. Something clawing its way back up the hill. And that, that is something worth showing up for and providing support. New York is Darwinism in action. If something weakens, every pressure is applied to remove it from the whole. As long as it fights back and is strong it deserves to survive. Chumley’s is fighting back, and so I attended.
Aware that the meeting might not go the way I hoped, I gave myself time on my journey to enjoy parts of the older, non-polished New York that are slowly fading away. I walked down West 4th Street and had a quick McSorely’s Dark at the Corner Bistro before crossing over towards Macdougal to grab a falafel at Mamoun’s and head south. I finished my dinner, hot sauce staining my hand, as I crossed Houston and arrived at the meeting just as the doors were being unlocked.
I entered the basement and stood at the back of the group. At the top of the Chumley’s portion, the Chair made a statement about passions running high because Chumley’s holds a certain place in West Village history. Someone in the audience yelled, “Don’t care!” Another asked a stranger, “where are you from?” When she replied, Upper West Side, they pressed, “Why are you here?” Fair point if not a bit provincial. Even though it’s a local issue, Chumley’s is a city treasure, not just a Bedford Street speakeasy and it has touched people far and wide. There was a lot of venom in the room and the speaker list was large.
An argument that I heard more than once was that the supporters were only worried about nostalgia and that only those against had real concerns, not just sentimentality. They are wrong. It’s not about nostalgia, but about continuance. It’s about being able to be somewhere and know that someone else has walked that trail before. It’s important to know that we are only a small blip on a very large timeline and that we are not the center of the universe. We don’t have many places like that in America.
Eight months after 9/11, I happened to be in Rome. I looked across the Forum at the Collosium and for the first time began to feel comfort. Here was something that had withstood the fall of multiple empires, survived two world wars, and had faced every doomsday prophecy uttered. It reminded me that there is survival and that life continues and that we are part of a bigger whole. It taught me the importance of keeping our past while we move forward into the future.
To sit in a London pub that dates back to 1546 and raise a glass in a room where countless others before you have done the same is important. To have coffee at Les Deux Magots in Paris looking out the window wondering what Albert Camus was thinking is important. And for those of us who love American literature, to sit where some of your heroes once sat, and dream of words unwritten is important.
At the end of the night, the Board strong-armed Chumley’s to reduce it’s operating hours once again from 1:00 AM during the week and 2:00 AM on the weekends, to 12:00 AM and 1:00 AM respectively. In the last meeting, Chumley’s had already agreed to reduce the closing time from 4:00 AM which their original license allowed, and which they never used, to the 1:00 AM restriction, but it was made clear that this last compromise was needed to get the Board’s non-opposition. Chumley’s agreed. And so, the fight now moves to the entire Manhattan Community Board Two Meeting on Thursday, October 22 and then on to the SLA.
Having had my fill of New York City local politics for the evening, I left directly after the decision and began my walk home in the cool October night. I stopped by Porto Rico Importing Company, for a pound of coffee before walking across Bleecker and reminding myself that I need to pick up some duck at Ottomanelli & Sons for cassoulet once the weather turns cold. As I passed Barrow Street I thought about how nice it would be to pop into Chumley’s once again, someday. If for nothing more than to look at the books and take solace in the fact that they were written by those who had once sat there looking up at the same hill I am trying to climb and continued on. If they could do it each day, so can I.