Last Call

Saying goodbye to a New York City drinking institution—and to drinking

The bar where I learned to drink — like really, really drink — closed this week. It was called Fetch, a saloon tucked beneath a ballet school and an easy taxi shout from the intersection of 92nd Street and Third Avenue in New York City.

Fetch had a blue awning extending to the sidewalk’s edge, with the bar’s name printed in lowercase letters on each side. It had an American flag decal stuck on the front door, a tiny vestibule and, beyond that, a little vending machine for dog treats and a table with fliers advertising dog adoptions and events and fundraisers. Beyond that was a split-level dining room. On the lower level — down two steps and separated from the dining room by a wall punctured with a long rectangular window — was the bar. Framed pictures of dogs (“No owners, please,” read Fetch’s open solicitation for photos) covered most of the walls. They fit like puzzle pieces, mysteriously, all the way to the ceiling. My favorite featured a terrier of some kind charging through snow in a flash-lit nightscape. But the photo is old, and I’m sure the dog is gone now, like the bar where it found posterity.

Fetch was a true local — as much a local as exists any more in Manhattan. You showed up after work and drank and chatted and maybe watched the game and nibbled on Pepperidge Farm Goldfish that the bar provided in pint glasses. A trap door in the floor behind the bar concealed a ladder down to the basement office and supply room. Kitchen workers and barbacks disappeared downstairs, then would knock on the underside of the door and wait for the all-clear signal—“Bring it up”—from the bartender or a server or sometimes a customer before raising the door.

You got a buzz and a few buybacks and might have heard a few last calls. You invited friends, and then they invited their friends. “Let’s go to the dog bar,” they’d say, and you’d gladly oblige, year after year, until this week. No more dog bar, and one less local.

These kinds of places are dying. This isn’t news. Everybody has read about and lamented the closure of some neighborhood watering hole that throws in the towel after a rent increase or a buyout or an owner’s death. Usually, though, it’s a rent increase, or a collapse in lease negotiations, or some other strenuous overture from the landlord urging the bar to vacate. Fetch wasn’t exempt. Maybe it becomes another bar or restaurant. Maybe it becomes a shop. Maybe it becomes one of those Duane Reade Express places, to really twist the knife.

I hope I never know, and there’s a good chance I won’t, since I left New York in 2013 and don’t have occasion anymore to make that five-block walk along Third Avenue from my old apartment in Yorkville. I doubt I possess the nostalgic will to pass by Fetch’s grave on a later visit. Still, as I drove my moving van over the George Washington Bridge last summer, glancing south at the hazy infinity of spires and ghosts and light, I said out loud, “I used to live there.”

It wasn’t the apartment or New York City that came to mind. It was Fetch.

(Photo by Justin Lee)

Fetch occupied a sliver of the spot where Hell Gate Brewery manufactured beer for a century after the Civil War. The brewery ran the lengths of 91st to 94th streets from Second to Third avenues, running up against the steel ribbon of elevated track that carried commuters and travelers on the Third Avenue El until 1955. Prohibition effectively ended the brewery (though a brief revival followed the law’s repeal), and cars effectively ended the El. The track was dismantled and removed, and the brewery property was razed and redeveloped in the ’60s and ’70s.

Decades later, new to the neighborhood and the city, my wife and I wandered into Fetch for dinner on a Friday night in late summer. We sat at the bar and ordered beers —two Harpoon UFO hefeweizens, hers garnished with a lemon, mine without — and cheesesteaks — hers with onions, mine without. Danny, who tended bar Wednesday through Friday, asked what I had against produce. A chalkboard that hung between two old-timey registers on the back bar said Fetch got the sandwich rolls in fresh every day from Amoroso’s bakery in Philadelphia. The steaks were pretty good, and the beer never disappointed, so we went back and back and back. Even after we moved to Jersey City in 2007, we’d periodically test the limits of rush-hour public transit to see if we could make it to Fetch by the conclusion of happy hour at 6:30. Grove Street PATH to Fulton Street 4, express to 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. Walk fast.

Danny. (Photo by Ariella Goldberg)

“We made it!” I said.

“Made what?” Danny said.

“Happy hour,” I said. “From Jersey.”

“What were you doing in Jersey?” said Danny, a Jersey native and resident himself. He lifted his hand to preempt a reply. “Two UFOs, one with lemon?”

It went like this until I got divorced, moved back to the neighborhood, and started going to Fetch by myself a few days a week to write or read or just decompress. I didn’t talk to anybody. Then Justin, who I’d seen hanging out with his girlfriend at the elbow of the bar for months, nodded in my direction one night and mumbled something over his bottle of Bud Light.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“I said I don’t know how you can read in this place.”

And so I stopped reading and got to know the guy who’d become my best friend, who in turn introduced me to people who became some of my other best friends. You never stopped meeting people at Fetch — a smart and diverse bunch anyone would be lucky to acquaint himself or herself with, let alone drink with: Jillian, the Latin and Greek tutor who launched the bar’s famed, formidable trivia night. Ariella, the ballet instructor from upstairs who brought her colleagues around for cocktails. Jessie, Justin’s girlfriend who was working her way through school and subleased my apartment one summer. Tom, the aspiring personal trainer who subleased my apartment the following spring and ate all the Thin Mints in my freezer. Kwame and Cassie, the Bronx school teacher and downtown lawyer whose wedding portrait perched behind the bar. Paul, the music publisher who visited me in California. Iris, the therapist. Allston, the sculptor. Jim and Carol, a couple of radio DJs. Pelle, the psychiatrist who had either two Manhattans or two martinis after work on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Marguerite, the attorney. Pam, the masseuse. Kevin and Ed, the couple who’d both worked at Fetch before reestablishing themselves as regulars. Pete, the retired teacher. Mike, the salesman who lived in the building next door to me on 87th Street. Steve, another salesman. Bobby and Renata and Connie, all retired. JR, in his 90s, also retired. One guy had a sideline in drugs; one girl worked part-time as a nanny for LA Reid. One of the servers quit after filming a multi-episode arc on Boardwalk Empire. Her character died in the end.

We lost a few along the way, too. Manny moved to Philadelphia for love, if you can imagine. Vernon flipped his car on the LIE and was killed instantly. Joanie fell to cancer. Glenn, an MTA engineer, read the Daily News and drank himself into an oblivion of bad jokes and barstool slumber until one day he simply vanished. These are just the ones I knew or can remember. Any memories from years drinking are accidents or blessings anyway, so I hope I might be forgiven my oversights. “A bar has a longer history than a country” is something Mark Eitzel once sang, and the more time you spend at a bar like Fetch, the likelier you become to forget all the history that you witnessed in your blip in the timeline.

Then tomorrow disappears. Every fall, Fetch staff hung dozens of Christmas stockings decorated with the names of its past and present regulars. Last week, when I heard the bar was closing, I sent a text message to Danny: “Be honest. You’re just trying to get out of hanging the stockings this year.” He replied that someone at the bar had just made the same joke. It was reassuring to know that minds don’t have to be great to think alike; they just have to have had spent time drinking together under the same bar lamps that embed the same psychic wavelengths days and weeks and months and years at a time.

Fridays grew into a Fetch ritual. I started calling it “Blackout Friday,” which was about right. All week, working 60 or 70 hours at the worst job I ever had, I watched and waited for the high tide of alcohol that would wash the anguish away. I needed that purpose. Ultimately, though, I needed the people.

Closing night at Fetch. (Photo by Mike Ryan)

I couldn’t tell you what clinically defines an alcoholic, and I couldn’t tell you how many clinical alcoholics frequented Fetch over the years. But I can tell you that nothing had me more addicted than the celestial camaraderie of that place. “Where everybody knows your name” is the default cliché that describes this phenomenon, but that’s the narcissist’s version of things. Where you know everybody else’s name and couldn’t wait to talk and drink with them was the Fetch version. The truly great bars have this in common. People at Fetch trusted each other in a language of empathy and intimacy and ball-busting that you had to learn fast. Justin’s father Kenny once lifted a full pint glass of Goldfish I was snacking from and dumped the crackers into his jacket pocket, just to piss me off. When I saw him a month later, he picked up a whole night’s bar tab. Blackout Friday backed into Brownout Thursday flowed into Wet-Brain Wednesday and then the next thing I knew it was Monday or Tuesday night at 9 and the Knicks were losing again and I slouched there at the near-empty bar like a puppy, lapping my beer and watching the door and whimpering to myself about nobody coming home to play with me.

Whatever. Barroom bonhomie aside, alcoholism cost a lot. It hastened the end of a great romantic relationship and put me way behind financially: My checking account records from 2007 to my last visit in 2013 indicate I spent $25,605.90 drinking, eating and tipping at Fetch. Figure maybe a thousand dollars more on the account I had prior to that, a few thousand more in cash tabs, plus however many hundreds I charged to what was supposed to be an emergencies-only credit card in spring 2012, when I was free-falling toward bottom. These were trade-offs, painful ones.

One trade-off, however, was awe. Try finding awe on Third Avenue, especially above 86th Street. (Papaya King doesn’t count.) You didn’t have to drink to reel from some of the miracles that transpired at Fetch. One chilly fall Tuesday night, going to meet my friend Mat, I saw the lights of emergency vehicles churning and flashing a few blocks up Third Ave. As I neared the scene, it looked serious — at least two FDNY engines, a battalion chief, a couple NYPD cruisers — and it looked like it might be near Fetch. A block away, I realized it was Fetch. Firemen with axes had smashed away the left side of the façade after smoke from an unknown source had tufted into the dining room. (It was later discovered that a cigarette butt had smoldered back to life beneath the sidewalk and exterior wall.)

Rob. (Photo by Ariella Goldberg)

Rob, the manager and lead bartender, had evacuated the joint after calling 911. It wasn’t a very busy night, but there were enough open tabs on the floor and on the bar — and the damage was light enough (the firefighters had caused almost all of it with their implements) — that Rob resolved to reopen immediately. No sooner had the first responders trundled away than Rob told everyone Fetch was open for business. It looked like a car had driven through the wall. A few minutes later, he was pouring beers for Mat and me as a freezing draft filled the room. Within an hour, a work crew showed up with a tarp and plywood boards to seal the front. They rebuilt it with new windows and light fixtures and paint inside and out within a week.

I still don’t know how Rob accomplished that, or even more impressively, how he managed to keep Fetch open against all odds in the week when the neighborhood needed it most. After Hurricane Sandy, untold numbers of refugees from downtown came to live and work with friends, relatives, lovers, colleagues and even strangers with open bedrooms or couches or other accommodations on the Upper East Side. Fetch offered one of those accommodations.

I walked in at 1 p.m. on the Wednesday after the storm and saw laptops lining the bar and encircling the big corner table, a weird midweek bustle of beers and brunch and work. At night, when most of the surrounding bars and restaurants were shuttered from lack of supply, Fetch kept the kitchen open and the drinks coming. The place teemed with regulars and newcomers alike who just needed company. “I’ve never worked harder in my life, bro,” said Rob, clambering downstairs to work the phones for precious liquor and food deliveries between splitting bar duties with Danny.

Even a drunk can be proud of a place like that. Still, I felt like I’d caught glimpses of The End. I’d seen Fetch emptied and ravaged; I’d seen its pinnacle. In between, I got in fights and fended off cops and celebrated a couple of my favorite teams’ championships. Mostly, I just walked in, sat down and drank. The longer you live and deeper you get as a barfly, the higher and heavier the frequency of the idea that nothing lasts. That’s why the demise of a bar is so bittersweetly enchanting. Either it goes or you go. Even amid the illuminated glassy tiers and rows of alcohol we summon to mask and submerge and sometimes forget The End, it’s always there, repeated by the bartender every night like a lie that wants nothing more than to be true.

And then suddenly, it is: “Last call.”

(Photo by Justin Lee)

Every bar is a church and every drink is a prayer. I lost my faith seven sodden months after I left New York. Since then, I’ve almost got eight months sober. Is it mawkish or overdetermined to say I owe my sobriety to Fetch? Maybe. So what? It’s a fact, because no bar in the city where I live now comes close to replacing it. It was literally my bar to end all bars. I’m in a fine drinking town, to be sure. But when the God of Alcohol stops listening, like He apparently did somewhere on the George Washington Bridge, it’s always better just not to believe than to plead.

Still, I would have liked to be at Fetch when it closed. I would have liked to know that the last time I left the place really was The Last Time, not just the last time until The Next Time That Never Came. I would have liked another fistful of Goldfish and another Knicks game, however terrible. I would have liked another cheesesteak with no onions, this time with a Diet Coke. I would have liked another opportunity to yell “Bring it up.” I would have liked to see everybody at my local before the groaning vacuums of progress and convention devoured it. I would have liked to see that framed shot of the dog in the snow at night, caught in the flash, happy to be anywhere at all, if only for an instant.