By Hannah Palmer Egan
On a recent Tuesday, Sunday Wright sits at a table at the back of Goodbye Blue Monday. The room is dark: lit with colored bulbs, brick-a-brack and the afternoon glow of 10 or so day-drinkers, conversation keeps to a quiet lull as warm notes of jazz noodle through the air. Later, performers and poets will take the stage in a weekly open-mic that draws artists from the neighborhood and beyond; for some of them, tonight will be their first time performing in New York. Outside, J and Z trains clatter over Broadway; the bar/junk shop/music venue toes the line between Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, inside, all is an insulated hush.
But crisis simmers subsurface, and eavesdropping casual bar chatter reveals a space is in crisis:
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Wright tells me: at the end of the month, Monday’s operating permit expires, and to renew it, the venue — or rather, the rag-tag team of twenty-somethings who run it — needs to pay off $7,000 in fines and violations, some of which accumulated before any of them ever set foot in the place. It’s a paltry sum, but for these kids, who make rent selling $2 pints of PBR and $8 burgers, it’s an unfathomable sum.
Even if they get the cash, which is looking more and more possible – an online fundraiser through GoFundMe is inching closer to its $7,000 goal, and they held packed benefit shows all weekend — Wright says the lease is up June 1, and they expect their rent to double.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Goodbye Blue Monday founder Steve Trimboli owned Scrap Bar in the West Village, a fabled metal bar and preferred watering hole for a laundry list of New York City rockers. Trimboli ruled the roost with a strict set of mores, and when Scrap Bar closed in 1995, he decamped to Brooklyn, to a space leased by his friend Richard Pogostin. Pogostin still owns the building, and several around it, to this day.
Back then, Broadway was a burnt-out channel through the nether-reaches of a dangerous, drug-ridden North Brooklyn, but the space was cheap and big, the lease long; here, Trimboli could store his things: records, artwork, electronic equipment, antiques, whatever else.
Zak Vreeland is a musician and archivist who used to live upstairs from the space and remembers the early days: “Steve was in here selling comics and dirty pulp novels on Ebay,” he recalls. “Slowly stacking it with the debris that fills it today, and the basement…He was like, ‘I’m going to open something in here,’ and we were like, ‘No you’re not.'”
Trimboli dubbed the space Goodbye Blue Monday (an alternate title for Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions) in 2005, opening incrementally as a coffee shop, performance space, and bar, still selling whatever he could. Anyone could play and there was never a cover. He also brought Scrap Bar’s tough, take-no-prisoners leadership style to Brooklyn
Clear Plastic Masks frontman Andrew Katz says his band played their first shows at Monday’s. Now, they’re based in Nashville: a signed, traveling band who recently opened for Woody Nelson, heading out on tour with Hurray for the Riff Raff this summer. But they still play Monday’s whenever they’re in town.
Katz moved to Broadway as Trimboli eased into business. “Steve had a set of rules,” he says. “Once you walked in that door, everybody followed the code, and it was really tough love; if you pissed him off, you fucking knew it. But there would be gangsters and crazy motherfuckers who would go in there…We were just kids, trying to deal with it, but Steve was the bottom line. And he had this dog — this big brown dog — and he didn’t give a fuck. He would stare down and talk down the gnarliest fucking dudes, with pistols in there; you could see their guns. The landlords were just happy to have white people in there, because they wanted to flip that shit. And Steve was a big reason a few of us started moving in there…It was like Oliver Twist or something.”
A Dickensian fable, set in a battered Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification. “It’s what I grew up thinking New York should be like, as a kid in the midwest,” Katz says. “It’s like the last vestiges of that really gritty, New York thing…But as soon as a real estate office opens on a street, you know that it’s doomed,” Katz says. “You know the script; it’s just like they’re plugging in a CD or a tape that’s just been played over and over in New York, especially in the last 15 years or so; I’m just waiting for the Starbucks and the Capital One Bank to show up.”
The kids loved it, but Eden was sinking; Trimboli gave up the venue in 2010 during bankruptcy proceedings, and within 18 months, he moved on to grittier pastures in Detroit, leaving a stand-in owner in care of the space. The kids behind the bar picked up the torch, Wright says the new guy is a silent owner. “He’s been trying to get out,” she says; “He was going to sell last summer. He has his own life, his own job.”
Monday’s cook Dylan Blackmon, a baby-faced 25-year-old, says Wright defaulted into a leadership role. “When our last manager quit, there was no supervision, so [Sunday] just kind of took it on. It was like either she stepped up and took control of the situation, or it was just going to go…She’s the business manager, the bar manager, a cook.”
I follow Blackmon to the backyard, sun sinking behind newish mustard-yellow condominiums next door; a warm, waning-winter day. Beyond a plywood construction wall, scrawled with paintings and graffiti, more buildings are going in; a construction site consumed much of Monday’s backyard last summer. A handful of people shiver in sweaters, smoking and chewing the fat.
Blackmon says he met everyone in the neighborhood here. “This was the focal point. Now I actually know all my neighbors; all different ethnic groups, all different financial groups.” He found his apartment through people here; met his band here; they play here often.
Wright compares it to a living room: “The people that live upstairs, across the street, you know, within this little area…Anytime anyone needs something, they come and see who’s here, or where so-and-so is. Even to the weird bums and crazy people who sit in here and listen to music, who aren’t going to sit next door [at Lone Wolf] and watch people drink. It’s something for anyone to partake in.”
That anything-goes attitude, Blackmon says, also makes it a great place to work: “[Sunday] is not really a boss; she’s more like the captain; everyone’s on her team. Everyone goes above and beyond what they’re required to do for their job to keep the place running.”
And as is so often the case, the reward for that very hard work is nothing but the continued ability to work very hard; to keep pushing forward. Blackmon says, to him, the place represents a more inclusive model for gentrification: “People who have lived here their whole lives, and others who just moved in, we all kind of approach each other on a level basis. Instead of superimposing a new community on top of the old shit, it’s like integrating everyone into a single thing. You can’t stop the wave of people wanting to move in, and the rent going up,” he says, but seems to believe there’s a decent, more holistic way to do it.
The immediate future looks bright. Wright says she’s been shocked by the support they’ve received in the last few weeks; donations are trickling in, mostly in sums of $10-$50 apiece, and she says she was overwhelmed by people approaching her about the place.
“I’ve been bombarded by people who want to buy in,” she says, but rather than jumping into something with a stranger, she’d like to take some time to sort out a sustainable future for the place, that remains true to its approachable, come-one, come-all ethos, yet is able to swim in Brooklyn’s rising-tide real estate market, and with the right partner.
As we chat, she visibly tangles with the issues: on the one hand: how to keep the place going and not have it change. On the other: it has to change to remain alive. “Maybe we can’t do open booking every night of the week,” she says, her small, wide-eyed frame heaving an exhausted sigh. Maybe we can’t do that…Because we don’t make any money. That’s why we’re all in this situation. And you know, there are people that play, that every person that’s sitting down just gets up and walks out because no one wants to listen to experimental jazz while they’re trying to have a beer.”
“I have no idea what’s going to happen;” she says again, “I just want to find a way for us to stay open, and have live music.”
Andrey Osypoff sits alone at the back of the bar. He drinks coke (maybe with a little sneaky something extra), and keeps to himself, but seems familiar with everyone. He’s lived down the street since he emigrated from Ukraine (Russia, he says) years ago, and says he comes to hear music he won’t find anywhere else: “This bar is a time machine,” he says. “Look what’s popular right now: Jay Z, Little Wayne, all this shit, it’s like, ‘I fuck everyone, I fuck all the girls,’…The people who play here, they are true musicians. They don’t do it for the money, because they can’t: They play what they like to play.”
M. Lamar is one of those musicians; a singer and pianist at a table illuminated by laptop glow. Now, he often books bigger venues like (Le) Poisson Rouge or Joe’s Pub, but Monday’s was his first New York stage, and he still performs here to work out new pieces onstage to a forgiving audience. “I’m an artist that is not trying to bid to market forces,” he says. “Having these rooms where you can try anything is really important; and it’s such an important place for musicians that are coming in, to be able to perform a lot here, and get their feet wet, and get into the culture of music in New York.”
The experimental stage is also home to Matthew Silver, that bearded, wild-haired performer who you’ll often find, flanked by confused tourists in Union Square, screaming about anything from anxiety to politics to therapy. Trimboli gave him a chance a couple years back, now his clowny variety show (very much NSFW) is a bi-weekly occurrence. “It’s the only place that doesn’t ask for a cover,” Silver says. “And that makes it accessible to artists who need experience. An artist needs experience. They need experience being criticized.”
But Lamar says the open-booking policy is both blessing and curse: “That’s also why a place like this would be in trouble,” he says, “Because it’s not trying to bid to markets.”
But if the ship is doomed, no one’s ready to let it sink just yet. “The way it runs right now,” Blackmon says, “It’s not a realistic business model, but if we get enough funding, we can actually rethink the way we do business so that the place can maintain itself as what it is, and still make some sort of profit so it can continue to exist.”
Landlord Richard Pogostin remembers Steve as a good friend — even says he likes the bar — but says, if the rent goes up significantly, “It’s simply because, you tell me what’s happened in that neighborhood in the last decade, across the board. I wish my taxes were stuck in 2002, too. It’s economics.”
Economics are a powerful force for change, and Sunday Wright is willing to compromise to stay afloat. “I think there have to be three nights a week that are bands that draw people,” she says, “Because even if we just make sure those days are really big, it wouldn’t make such a difference what plays on a slow night. It isn’t going to impact business so much, but you’ll still have an open stage.”
As I leave, I see Sunday walking back from the grocery store in the late afternoon sun, bags of groceries casting long shadows on the sidewalk, ready to spend the night in the kitchen. On the street, a stream of musicians trickle in, guitars slung over their backs, carrying trumpets and clarinets and books and instruments; it’s open mic night, and to make the stage, you have to get there early; rush hour for hopes and dreams.
Osipoff says they’ll never make it. “Years ago, they may have been huge. These days, they’ll never be famous. They’re only going to be here at this bar. They’ll be lawyers, drivers, bartenders, whatever, but none of them are going to be stars. You won’t get that anywhere else.”