In the spring of 2021, when New York City was coming back to life after the worst months of the pandemic, I was single and living alone in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. Although I had friends in the city, I was spending most of my time by myself. My office was still closed and if I didn’t make an effort to be social, I could go days without hearing my own voice. It was around this time that I started going to Jimmy’s, a dive bar a few blocks away.
I usually arrived in the early evening. I would sometimes sit quietly and watch the bubbles in my beer, but mostly I would stare at my phone, reading articles or essays I felt I never had the time or focus for during the day. My thoughts were always better at the bar. At home I couldn’t think clearly. I was struggling at work and although I seemed to spend most of my waking hours in front of my laptop at my kitchen table, my attention span had shrunk to a matter of seconds, and I was behind on all my deadlines.
There were people at Jimmy’s who were just like me, seeking at least the relief if not the contentment that comes from perching on a bar stool and sipping a beer. Always someone would talk to me. Always about nothing. “An IPA drinker I see,” or simply, “How was your day?” In seconds, strangers became friends and in minutes these new friends would be telling the bartender that “Nora’s next drink is on me.” That spring I spent many drunken nights at Jimmy’s. I always said I would limit myself to two drinks and be home early but that never happened.
Jimmy’s is very small. It’s one of those half addresses. The bar itself seats about ten people but behind the stools there’s a little ledge for those standing to rest their drinks on. This makes for two rows: the orchestra and the mezzanine. I’m sure it must be written up online in an appealing way—maybe on a top-ten list or something—because it attracts a diverse crowd. There are solo drinkers, couples, and groups of friends. There are locals, people from different parts of the city, and the odd out-of-towner. There are older men with stiff joints, underage college kids with fake IDs, and everyone in between. The vibe is always changing because patrons can control the music from an app. You can be halfway through Illmatic and then Dolly Parton will come on.
Like every dive bar, Jimmy’s has tattered posters and memorabilia all over the walls. Strings of little colored lights frame the mirror behind the bar and drape over the expensive, never-touched bottles on the top shelf. There are tacky lights on the walls meant to look like candles. Apparently, years ago, there were real candles, but when a collection of Burt Reynolds portraits scribbled on cocktail napkins and pinned to the wall caught fire, the candles were replaced by plastic replicas.
That spring I got to know the cast of characters who frequented the place. There was Jonathan, a sweet soft-spoken guy in his 50s with a ponytail and sad eyes. There was Ryan who, when he scrunched up his face, looked a lot like DeNiro. I know this because he did his “you talkin’ to me?” and “I’m walkin’ here” impressions often. Paul, the bartender, was a skinny Irish guy who never smiled. He was very chill, but because he never stopped crushing ice to slip through the small neck of his metallic water bottle from which he sipped constantly, he never let you forget he was working, and you were drinking. There was—and I shit you not—a guy with an English accent who used to wear a panama hat and a three-piece suit. A reliable regular told me in confidence that the gentleman in question was actually from New Jersey and the accent was just a bit “his version of drag.”
When someone bought a round before you were ready for another drink, Paul would place a chess piece in front you to indicate your next drink was already paid for. When this system failed there was also a little chalk board behind the bar to keep track of who had bought whom a drink. It had columns for the name of the buyer, the recipient, and the drink to be redeemed at the next visit. That spring, “Nora” appeared on the board frequently (I’d like to think more often in the buyer column than the recipient column, but I can’t be sure).
I liked Jimmy’s because no one there ever asked me what I did for living. I spent a few hours a week in video calls in which everyone’s professional demeanor was so stilted and false it left me feeling lonelier than ever. The mandatory thank-you-for-the-excellent-presentation statement before pointing out to the presenter all the ways it was not-at-all-an-excellent-presentation grated on me even though this was the work culture I’d comfortably lived in for years. Jimmy’s, with shots of tequila, filthy innuendos, endless stream of freaks coming through the door, and the occasional nasty fighting type getting tossed by the bouncer, was a healing oasis. The bar small talk was sometimes utterly idiotic. One tall friendly divorced guy would get drunk and cheer, “Who’s better than us?” The answer he was looking for was “two of us,” and then he would explain it: “You see, we’re the best, so two of us is the only thing better!” So stupid, it’s mind-numbing, really. But I was there for exactly that.
I know I liked Jimmy’s because I was popular there. I was a young woman, in a sundress and flip-flops, drinking alone and oozing sadness. Not that anyone in the city has time to notice or take interest in anyone else, but that spring I’m sure discerning souls could spot my loneliness from miles away.
A few months earlier I’d been through a heart shattering but embarrassing breakup. I’d fallen in love with a much older Spanish man I had met on holiday immediately after breaking up with a boyfriend I’d been living with for years. We had a fun little fling—the perfect rebound—and sort of kept in touch. When the pandemic began, we talked on the phone every day and almost immediately I went to Spain to be with him.
To me, in those months, he was perfect. I had that kind of love-fever poets write about. Unlike the more stable relationships of my past with men who were my friends as well as my lovers, the Spaniard and I were never friends. Instead, we were worshippers, passionately exalting the ground the other walked on. Being with him made my entire life make sense. I felt that every experience I’d ever had had crafted me into his dream woman. And while the gods were busy shaping me a certain way, they were doing the same to him, preparing him to meet me. We were like two old wooden puzzle pieces that had been cut, chiseled, and sanded to fall perfectly into place. Not religious, I started to feel in touch with the divine. God did have a plan for me. It was infatuation, pure puppy love, but I was 35.
We planned our lives together. If his request to transfer to his company’s New York office was denied, I would resign and move to Madrid. He introduced me to his family with much ceremony, announcing the only other woman to meet his mother was his ex-wife and I spent more time with his nieces than I did with my own. There was no holding back. I opened my rib cage, scooped out my heart, and placed it right in his hands.
When I finally came back to New York in the fall despite his tears at the airport, his repeated oaths of love-yous and see-you-soons, he called me to say he was getting back with an ex I hadn’t known about and that our romance was over. And just like that, he was gone. We never spoke again. Even when, weeks later, I emailed him to ask if I might call him, he never responded. It’s true I had been extremely lazy and didn’t unpack my suitcase immediately after returning home, but because of this, it’s also true that he dumped me before I unpacked. An outrageous, undignified detail.
The winter months that followed were dark. New York was deserted and the only place to catch up with my cautious friends was on patios with heaters. For a while, I cried every morning over my coffee, then again, every night when I bundled up and walked around the empty streets listening to music. I smoked a lot of cigarettes out my kitchen window, ordered heaps of greasy takeout, started and stopped a lot of meditation apps, and watched the few grey hairs I had seemingly breed with each other and spawn new populations. Patting moisturizer on to my cheeks at night, I would look at myself in the mirror and think of The Scream by Edvard Munch. I reread Anna Karenina or rather I listened to the audiobook, and I was more sympathetic to Kitty’s character this time around. After getting dumped by Vronsky, she basically convalesces for a year in Germany, bedridden from her broken heart. Totally. Reasonable. Behaviour, I thought.
I sometimes went out, usually for just one date, with men from dating apps. They were all attractive, all kind, but I never once developed even an ounce of interest. Occasionally, I would get very drunk and go home with someone only to ghost him the next day. I remember waking up in the East Village, looking at my phone, and seeing that at some point in the night, probably while hunting around for Advil in a stranger’s bathroom cabinet, I must have drunkenly searched for the exact words to a familiar Edna St. Vincent Millay poem about missing lovers whose names she can’t remember. I recall gazing at the sleeping man beside me and thinking he already counted as an “unremembered lad.”
By the spring I had come to realize the Spaniard was a total fraud and I was a total fool. I came to view my crazy behavior with tenderness—“poor little idiot, you got carried away”—but I didn’t feel I would ever fall in love again. My heart was a gooey pancake on a highway, squashed by the recent hit and run. The tire tread marks were still fresh. With a shovel I scraped my flattened organ off the concrete, slid it into my purse, and took it to Jimmy’s.
While I never told anyone there about my breakup, I did pour my soul out to a few people and many more did the same to me, fueled by anonymity and alcohol. A Finnish woman and I swapped stories about the devastation of watching our dads die, that included, strangely, the fact that neither of us had menstruated for almost a year from grief. The first night I met a young regular named Martin, he struck me as the kind of guy people want to fight: lithe, long hair, backwards cap, too friendly, too chaotic. But that night we covered every topic that makes up one’s psychology—our upbringings, our relationships with our siblings, his tendency to disrespect his girlfriends which he believed stemmed from his own self-loathing, the reasons I had stayed with men long after I stopped loving them. I spent a lot of time at Jimmy’s hearing myself say, “I get it” or “Totally,” and many strangers said the same thing back to me.
Don’t be confused and think Jimmy’s is just an adorable haven for gentle eccentric souls. It is, after all, a bar and thus a place for drinkers. I have spent enough time in church basements at Al-Anon meetings to have an idea of the dark side of drinking. I know I was drinking too much in those months. Even though I lived two blocks away, sometimes on my way home, with my stomach full of beer, I’d rent a CitiBike (sundress and flip-flops be damned) and ride in the middle of 14th Street which was closed to car traffic. This was a habit I had picked up during the winter when I noticed that riding a bike down the middle of the road while totally hammered and listening to loud music, made me feel an iota of something other than complete shit.
I would often leave Jimmy’s, realize I hadn’t had dinner, and get myself a slice of pizza. It was always in those two minutes of waiting for my slice to heat up, under fluorescent lights, that I’d feel real panic about my life. Everyone I knew was getting married, having kids, getting promoted, and buying property. I was not just every cliché of a sad single woman in her mid-30s but a drunk, pizza-eating one at that! I was managing a mild hangover much of that spring but a mild hangover, I told myself, was better than waking up still drunk in strange men’s beds, unable to recall the previous evening.
That summer I moved out of the neighbourhood to the east side to get away from the apartment where I’d spent those rough months. Eventually, I got my act together. The usual stuff: I started running, I stopped smoking, I drank less. I started dating someone and in a recent discussion with him about the city’s bars I mentioned Jimmy’s. Before I really considered if I wanted to go back, we were already on our way there. As we arrived, I suddenly felt nervous. Nervous Paul would be bartending, nervous he wouldn’t be. Nervous I might recognize some people, nervous I wouldn’t. Such arrogance—I knew no one, of course. Step into a river twice and all that. We got our beer and went to sit on the plastic chairs outside. “Adorable,” my new boyfriend said. “A real shit hole.” I agreed and we laughed, but I felt a pang of melancholy. Even though it’s impossible to be out of place at Jimmy’s, somehow my new boyfriend had managed it. He was a tourist from a happier place.
I went to the restroom and seated on the toilet I was face to face with graffiti and stickers that were very familiar to me: “dreamers” in white letters with hearts, “BABEZ” in red, and, my favorite, “Kevin get in me!!!!!!!!!!!!!” which I had always thought was a particularly efficient way to put things. My heart quivered a little, recalling a different, suffering version of myself who had become so familiar with this restroom wall. On my way out I glanced at the chalk board. I didn’t see my name, naturally, but I was glad to see the board was full and someone named Mike had bought drinks for at least ten different people, bless him.
Jimmy’s is not unlike every dive bar in the country, pouring drinks for patrons who collectively nod or exclaim when the first chords of a good track are played. It’s just like any spot where a bunch of flawed mortals can assemble and ring up a tab, but for me it’s special. I’m secretly comforted to know it’s there for lonely people who need a drink and some company. A bit of human connection, to help endure the rain that into every life must fall.