Morningside Nights


I met my last boyfriend at a Columbia neighborhood pub, at a reception for my ill-fated foray into a doctoral program. He was leaning on the bar, gulping Brooklyn Lager. I sauntered over with a whiskey and was pointedly ignored as soon as I revealed I wasn’t a medievalist. He stopped ignoring me a couple months later, but I’d already developed mixed feelings about Morningside Heights lounges. Nevertheless, having recently left both the doctoral program and the medievalist, I thought I’d give those watering holes another chance. Maybe I’d been so wrapped up in Derrida and domesticity that I’d missed their collegiate charms.

So I smoothed on some lip gloss, convinced a youthful friend—we’ll call her the Spenserian—to tag along, and began the crawl. The Spenserian had agreed to be the well-drink guinea pig, sticking to vodka tonics while I majored in mixology. At the Abbey (237 W 105th, 222-8713), I put away a whiskey sour ($4.25) generously poured. The Spenserian’s VT ($3.75) was just as potent, but the vodka was lousy. Though it sports monastic stained-glass and wooden beams, this Abbey does not impose a vow of silence. We eavesdropped on overdressed coeds comparing boys at their gym and grizzled men dissecting the baseball game.

Numbed with booze and boredom, we lit out for the Night Cafe (938 Amsterdam, 864-8889), which boasted a rowdier crowd of locals, ratty mosaic floors, a decent jukebox, a Thursday ladies’ night, a Poetry Night on Sunday (one dollar off Murphy’s!), and a pool table. While “Let’s Get It On” played, charming bartender Michael mixed the Spenserian’s drink (better vodka, but less of it) and a peculiar mélange of Chambord, triple sec, and Absolut Citron for me ($4.25 apiece—suspiciously low for so much premium liqueur!). While I visited the restroom, a friendly young man informed the Spenserian, “You two are really ice.”

We early-modernists expect a more careful blazon, but we had smiles on our lips (like twin buds of May!) as we tripped to SoHa (that stands for South Harlem, 988 Amsterdam, 678-0098) and were asked to present our IDs for the first time that evening. Unfortunately, SoHa had been the scene of that fateful doctoral reception, and though the smartly dressed student crowd seemed affable enough and the plump sofas most inviting, I couldn’t stay.

Across the street at Saints (992 Amsterdam, 961-0599), however, we found sanctuary. Saints is the neighborhood’s only gay bar, and we might have been the only two women in it, but we were greeted warmly by the bouncer—the only other person to card us—and by the karaoke-night host, who encouraged us to sign up. We selected “Leader of the Pack” and decided, in the Spenserian’s words, to “drink ourselves beyond shame.” She downed her weak but tasty VT ($4) while I slurped a watermelon martini ($4.50). On our way to the stage, the Spenserian whispered in my ear that actually she didn’t know the tune very well and, having left her glasses at home, doubted her ability to read the monitor. The next several minutes are best left unrecorded.

Humiliation, once endured, can prove an intoxicant all its own, and we were in boisterous spirits as we entered 1020 Bar (1020 Amsterdam, 531-3468). Those spirits must have been infectious, as a pair down the bar sent us a couple of kamikaze shots. I fended off the advances of Khallid and Raoul while the Spenserian jousted with a cynical would-be writer.

Unwilling to intoxicate these roués any further, we raced to the West End (2909-11 Broadway, 662-8830), the de rigueur Columbia bar since long before Jack Kerouac ever chomped a burger there. We could have chomped a burger ourselves at that point, and were rather put out when cute Brooklyn Brewery rep Dave, seated next to us, wouldn’t share his hors d’oeuvres. But while the Spenserian sipped her Ketel One and tonic ($5—a girl can only stand so many house drinks) and we watched the antics of baseball-hatted Columbians, we warmed to Dave and he to us. As we left, he presented each of us with a Brooklyn Lager T-shirt. That had been the medievalist’s favorite beer, but I’m not one to look a gift shirt in the sleeve.

Stumbling home, we thought fondly of Night Cafe’s implausibly cheap drinks, of 1020’s gratis kamikazes, of the free soft drinks at What Bar (995 Amsterdam, 866-1030, too pathetic to otherwise justify inclusion), of our new casual wear. I had been missing something last year: For a single girl, these Columbia bars are a real bargain.