NEW YORK, NY – Short Matt graciously offered me this week off so, of course, I politely declined. It’s not that I couldn’t use the break, it’s just that one life rule supersedes all others, and that rule is: Do the opposite of whatever Short Matt asks you to do. Besides, what kind of MTM correspondent would I be if I took a sabbatical during perhaps the most important week on the sports calendar? Who else would be here to cover 13 days worth of mind-numbing
Super Bowl Big Game hype or the Pro Bowl or the NHL All-Star Game or tonight’s College Basketball grudge match between Peru State and Nebraska Omaha at the Lee & Helene Sapp Fieldhouse? OK, so maybe I don’t need to be here, but since I am, I’d like to take a moment to mark the passing of a venerable New York watering hole: the Holiday Cocktail Lounge.
This past weekend, New York’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge served its final round of semi-cold beer and last gulps of b-level booze and bottom-shelf rotgut for discerning palates. For those of you not fortunate enough to have visited this Dive Bar siren, she was indeed something to behold.
Located on St. Marks Street and First Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village, the Holiday beckoned bleary-eyed boozers down its short-yet-incredibly-difficult-to-navigate-while-overserved staircase like an old friend who had just puked on his shoes and was not so happy to see you except for the fact that you might buy him a drink or three. Once inside you were met by championship-caliber malcontents, sweaty (even in winter) drifters, and even the occasional woman who looked like she’d been rejected as an extra in the movie Barfly because she was too over-the-top. I know what you’re thinking, and it was… a great bar.
Running the whole show was an angry old guy whose name I never learned until this week. Until then, he was always just, The Angry Old Guy who runs the Holiday. Anway, his name was Stefan Lutak and he hailed from Ukraine. (Don’t ever call Ukraine weak, whatever you do.) He passed away a couple of years ago, just shy of his 90th birthday. Prior to that he ran the Holiday with an iron fist, opening the place whenever he damn pleased and closing it at a moment’s notice if it became too populated with annoying college kids. As one story goes, someone once tried ordering a Tequila Sunrise at the Holiday and was lucky to escape with their life.
It’s authentic skid row aesthetic aside, the bar also boasted one hell of a jukebox loaded with great offerings from The Stones, Otis, Creedence, Iggy, Dylan, and countless others. Strangely enough, it was an obscure Billy Joel song, The Downeaster Alexa, which proved to be the only thing that could magically soothe Mr. Lutak’s ever-present rage. The guy must’ve liked sea shanties.
As for sports (you knew I was gonna get there eventually), they were talked about in passing both bar-side and in the tattered back booths. But the lone television, a 19-inch once-color, now more yellow-green hued set only occasionally showed a ballgame. It was the kind of throwback joint that E.B. White lamented losing, in his brilliant 1948 essay, Here is New York, as it slowly disappeared from the city’s landscape. When White wrote, “Men go to saloons to gaze at televised events instead of to think long thoughts” he couldn’t have known just how bad it was going to get. At least a few bars still fight the good fight, albeit one fewer.
So there it is, the Holiday’s over. So too are the days of laying a twenty on the stick to buy a round of whiskey and beer for friends and getting change back. In truth, it had been some time since I had last been in the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, and maybe I said my goodbyes that second consecutive time I went there with my friend Paul and the bottled Buds we were drinking from smelled faintly of vomit. It matters not. Tomorrow, it will be business as usual in New York, with folks talking about the
Super Bowl Big Game and deciding where to watch the big game on Sunday. That destination never would have been The Holiday, and Amen to that. May she rest in peace.