Donald O’Finn has spend a great deal of time talking about his bar’s struggle to survive a city-backed development plan that would see the beloved drinking hole flattened. But now, he says, the time has come to think about what Freddy’s Bar & Back Room was first meant to be: a place for artists to showcase their work to the community. A retrospective of the last 13 years of Freddy’s art opens this Sunday.
Describe the retrospective you have coming up.
In the chaos of this fight, I’ve been trying to remember what has happened, what’s important and all that. We’ve had really amazing visual artists that have shown in the back room. The next show will be a retrospective of Freddy’s artists. It’s called: “Gone But Not Forgotten: A Retrospective of 13 Years of Freddy’s Back Room Art.”
What is the status of Freddy’s with regard to the Atlantic Yards project?
The status is exhaustion. We’re doing great, but as far as I know, right now, we’re waiting for a judge who’s in chambers to see whether or not the Empire State Development Corporation can use eminent domain, as the state has given them the right to do. Since they tried to file this document, which was followed up by a large outpouring from the public, the judge has been asked to hold off to see how all these other [eminent domain] court cases turn out. [It’s a question of] the bonds being issued legally, things like that.
When do you expect an answer?
I don’t have a clue. And I’ve given up trying to figure out when things will happen or what will happen. It’s been hanging over our heads for so long now, it’s gotten to the point of being ridiculous. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to run a bar that’s not under constant threat of destruction.
So, looking back, what’s been your favorite part of running a bar?
It’s been a dream come true, in every sense. Even in the sense of what has happened with the Atlantic Yards project. It was the ultimate test of the bar as a community. A good bar is a community. So, whatever happens, we just totally passed the test.The neighborhood, the people who come to the bar, everyone has just impressed me so much with their intelligence, how hard they worked for the right issues. When you start a bar, you’re so concerned about whether it will work, and then those nights happen where you get absolute confirmation that you’re the hottest game in town. And it’s just such a wonderful feeling when the room is just throbbing with life and people and music… It’s a wonderful thing to see that something is completely maximized. I don’t think you could squeeze anything more out of Freddy’s.
How did you get into the bar scene?
Well, my father was a big drinker. And I’ve always had a fascination with bars. There’s something about a great bar. One day, it hit me: It’s a hard-to-describe thing, like a piece of art. But you develop a muscle for [recognizing it]. That, and I’ve always had a capacity for high consumption of alcohol while remaining a really nice guy.
Is there a certain type of neighborhood bar that’s disappearing from the city?
Totally. It’s what people call a dive bar. And I hate that term because, in my day, a dive bar meant a place that was not kept up, not looked after. I like the term “saloon.” And that’s what’s disappearing. There are pretenders, people who open a place that looks like one. But [the real thing] is a place that has a community. That is definitely disappearing — in part, because of the cost of things in this town, which is getting ridiculous. We’re supposed to be in a recession, but it doesn’t seem reflected in real estate prices. Then, people become so focused on the cost of their overhead, that it all starts to be about money and not the quality of the business.
If Freddy’s is forced to close, will you open a new place somewhere else?
Yep. Freddy’s II. Son of Freddy’s. I think Freddy’s is an idea, not an address. If they hadn’t thrown us out, we might have considered moving anyway. It’s like someone saying, “You can’t sit there.” You’re like, “Wait a minute. Of course I can sit here.” Then, you’re stuck in some ridiculous argument about being allowed to sit [where you want]. It’s about the law.
What’s the worst bar trend you’ve seen in hit the city?
I think it might be the fault of my generation, that we didn’t train people right. When I came up, some old timer took me under his wing and trained me on how to be in a bar. And I don’t think my generation did that [with the next]. What’s been lost is the respect for the bar, and the way to behave in a bar.
Do people tell you their problems when you’re behind the bar?
Not as much as you would think, but I work busier shifts. After a few years in a bar, you get really tired of people trying to make you their psychoanalyst. I have told customers that I’m being paid to serve them drinks and not to solve their problems. Nicely, but I have pointed it out.
What’s your favorite hangover cure?
Not drinking the night before. Really, it’s all about how you drink. For a while, I thought I would cut back by just drinking beer instead of whiskey. But I always drank whiskey with a water back. So, when I switched to beer, I got worse hangovers and more drunk because I forgot about the water thing. Water is really important. And aspirin before you go to sleep.