Last Call

Written by Andy Seccombe on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


 

If anyone thinks that Brooklyn booze baroness LeNell Smothers has been run out of town, he’s got another thing coming.

“I’m not packing up, living in a shack in Alabama and crying in my moonshine,” explains the Fort Payne, Ala., native. “I still think that I’m going to find my ideal spot and it’s going to be a bigger and better situation. I just have to be patient.”

One of the best-loved liquor stores around, Smothers’ shop (named LeNell’s) is closing down this Friday, but its owner is adamant that the situation is only temporary. After the renowned wine and spirit boutique lost its lease last May, an eight-month struggle to remain at its Red Hook location ensued—complete with a legal dispute. In late January it became clear that Smothers and her stockpile of specialty bourbons and wines would have to move on. Smothers says she’s shutting up shop but sure as hell isn’t shipping out.

The store has been popular over the last five years with liquor enthusiasts who’ve enjoyed the range, decorations caption (single malts are showcased in a vintage baby carriage) and unpretentious atmosphere (the store’s toll free number is 877- NO-SNOBS) at the shop.

“I count most of my customers as special moments,” says Smothers. “You get to know people, their dogs, babies, when mama’s coming to town—all that one-onone that you don’t get in a big, huge franchised store.”

There’s one local, however, who Smothers has had a more prickly relationship with. A new landlord bought the building in 2005 and Smothers enquired about his plans for the space. After six months, he finally revealed to her that he wanted to open his own business there and that she would need to relocate. Smothers says they ended up in court after her lease expired in May. “I continued to stay in the location and forced him into throwing me out,” she says. “He told the judge that he was going to relet the space, that he could get $12,000 for it and even the judge laughed.”

Smothers continues to look for another store location, but the red tape involved with her liquor license has made the search a difficult one. “A lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is to deal with a liquor license. It’s not like I could just move anywhere I want to,” she says, explaining that state liquor laws require her to move within 1,000-feet of her current location (at 416 Van Brunt St., betw. Coffey & Van Dyke Sts.) and 200-feet from a school or church. She also has to make sure that a new location is a reasonable distance from other liquor stores, as the four closest ones get the chance to protest the license.

Though the last year has been a stressful one, the 37-year-old Smothers says she has received huge support from her devoted clientele. “There’s been an incredible amount of supportive emails and customers who’ve just stuck by me, bought me flowers or left me little notes,” she says. People from “all over the frickin’ country” shop there, Smothers explains, including San Francisco Chronicle cocktail columnist Gary Regan, the principal bartender at Brooklyn Heights’ Jack the Horse Tavern, Maxwell Britten and bartender Jim Meehan (formerly of Gramercy Tavern).

And although the current Van Brunt Street store will come to an end this week, Smothers is continuing her search for a new location (which she hopes to own) with a small army of brokers, attorneys and consultants. “Ideally what I’m looking for is a double storefront, which is making my search really hard. But I’m committed to this,” she says, explaining that at the next location she’ll open a new store and her own bar, “side-by-side or one-on-topof-the-other.”

She says that at times the myriad logistics of the new venture are overwhelming enough to make her contemplate abandoning the search, however her dream of a specialty liquor store always wins out. “Of course I have those moments. Everybody would. [But] I’m tough as nails,” she says. “I never opened this business thinking ‘this is just some cute thing to do to fuck around for a few years.’ So if it takes me a longer time to find the ideal situation, then so be it.”

After the Feb. 20 closing, Smothers will be pursuing opportunities in Europe for a few months with plans to travel to London to take up guest bartending roles at Notting Hill’s Montgomery Place bar and local hotspot Portobello Star. During her stint there, she’ll also be working on photography for her first cocktail book.

“While the store’s closed, I’m still just prepping myself for the future by training with the bar scene,” she says. After London she’ll head to Amsterdam to work with renowned bar and beverage consultant, Philip Duff, who has recently opened a bar there.

The store’s precarious situation has officially reached a conclusion though and Smothers says she’ll be hosting a couple of celebrations to mark the end of an era at the Van Brunt St. location. She’s planning an “open-door good-bye session” at the store Friday, Feb. 20 from midday until 9, and she’ll also be having a private celebration the night after with friends and family.

Smothers says she’ll be drinking absinthe to farewell her five years in Red Hook and mentioned that her customers simply need to stay tuned regarding the future of the store.

“I’m too stubborn for my own good some days,” she says. “And you ain’t seen the last of me yet…”

Last Call

Written by Matt Harvey on . Posted in Posts.


CLAAAAAAAACKUUUUK!

An explosive crack rings out, shaking the windows. Conversation stops.

“That was much, much too loud to be a gun,” Julie says, breaking the silence. I wonder why the slinky brunette with a low-cut top seems so sure of herself, but I agree. A bomb?

My hopes that The Eldridge, a vile speakeasy down the block, has been blown up are dashed when Square Jaw, a Lehman exec (and Julie’s boyfriend) looks out the window and tells us the smoke is clearing out of an apartment in the graffiti-mural-covered building across the street.
We need cigarettes and more beer, so I walk down to check out the scene. Some Hispanics are filing out of the graffiti-covered building as cops show up, sirens blaring.

“I heard it from across the street,” a black dude in a hoody tells me, as he trots out from the direction of the projects. “That shit was crazy.” He shakes his head, slowing down to light up a Newport 100. A cop in a baseball hat hops out of his SUV and starts shining a flashlight around into the drizzle and fog. He seems bored of his routine and tucks the flashlight into his tool belt.

Five-oh’s curiosity is satisfied and so is mine. I buy some beer and smokes in a dirty bodega as customers are chatting in relaxed Nuyorican Spanish with the owner. The cops drive off, and some kids from the projects in baggy jeans and loudly printed tees reappear out front.

Walking back to the party, I bump into some young Upper East Side finance types—Gap khakis, loafers and button-downs with Polo horses—coming from the Village Pourhouse. I know they’re looking for Doug’s. The party, the party, where’s the fucking party?

The chorus speaks: It’s Friday night and we need to get blitzed! It continues insistently: Allay our fears! Give us a beer, give us blow, give us give us give us… Wait, isn’t the party over for you guys?

“Lehman is finished,” Square Jaw’s girlfriend whispered to me earlier, dismissing the Barclays takeover. It’s the end of the life you know, and desperation is as thick in the air as tonight’s fog.

But come here and let me tell you about real poverty in Manhattan. ConEd shutting off the electricity and living on Nesquick—without milk. Spooning it in and washing it down with water. No time for my lesson? I can’t wait for your demise…

So I’m lost in thought trying to get up the stairs. A recent college grad blocks the way, her short silver dress shimmies on her legs. She complains about her boss at an asset management firm. “He’ll be talking to me, and start picking his fucking teeth with a paper clip. Dude, how can you be so successful and so unaware? I just want to stab you in the eye with your paper clip.”

I feel my nice warm buzz wearing off. Trooping up the second flight, I still hear the girl going on about the paper clip. How can anyone be so cute and so annoying? Oh, that nice feeling. So fleeting. It had nothing to do with the glass of wine I drained earlier. For a few minutes I’d been lost in time; I felt like I was back in the LES of old, before chic Thor shitholes sprouted, and gleaming glass high-rises paved it over. A momentary illusion, created by the police sirens wailing, the housing projects and the condos shrouded in murk. I’m finally past the chick with the authority issues and set a few six-packs down on the kitchen counter. Half-open bottles of booze are already lined up on the table. Fuck this beer. Pass the vodka, por favor.

Right before the mysterious explosion, we’d been watching the nominees’ snooze-inducing verbal one-upmanship. I’d been curious about Doug’s party ever since he’d announced the need for a bender when the Dow tanked and the company he worked for became the greatest symbol for arrogance and greed since Enron. He’s been clinging to big bad Lehman Brothers in the hope of getting severance and now here it was—time to get trashed.

Doug shares the three-bedroom railroad flat with Jim, a bed-headed Canuck who works for HSBC. A notorious womanizer, he also works in finance. Their weekly parties—before Lehman went into freefall—were known for a heady mix of low-level yuppies, Euros, poser aesthetes and lonely girls who’d fuck Jim and stick around. Tonight is the first chance for the old gang to get down, and they have plenty of substances to take the edge off their troubles.
Doug and I toast the crash, but he gets annoyed at my tone quickly since I’m hoping it will empty out the LES of yuppies—and he knows I’m kind of serious. My fantasy has the monstrous luxury condos being turned into housing projects. Cocaine is back in the bodegas again, and dope on every corner. I’m in full reverie now, and I see a funeral march of sharp suits shuffling back to Buffalo.

I feel comfortable telling all this to Doug, a tall, red-haired Canadian, since we became friends last year at the New School. He introduced himself to me after I read a whimsical reminiscence about growing up in the old, dilapidated East Village. It ended with some overblown anger about yuppies destroying the idyll. He was the only guy in class with a suit and briefcase, but afterward he told me he loved the piece. We became friends, and he invited me to his roof parties where I met a whole network of “Downtown people” that had never met a “real New Yorker” before.

One night, pushing our way through the swarms of assholes clogging up Stanton Street, after a night of downing drinks at Max Fish, he admitted that the neighborhood might be better off without people in finance moving there. He told me I was right to lament the past since what had happened to the nabe was “tragic,” and something should be done about it.

My friend isn’t having my nostalgia tonight, however. “You’re just naive, thinking you’re going to claim back some invasion,” he says. “People that make money are here to stay, and we want our creature comforts.”

He’s seen the inside of one of those new glass boxes recently—and loves the view. “That’s a beautiful building. I could just sit there and watch traffic all day. Who wouldn’t want an apartment like that?”

His roommate Bed-Head Jim pipes in that he’s been thinking of settling down with a girl and buying a glass box of his own. Some dancer named Zeba—with brown curly hair and cheap, torn flares splaying over her bare feet—ballet-walks over to us: “Plié, plié, plié…” She’s 20 if she’s a day. Something tells me that Bed-Head Jim isn’t taking her to the glass box with him. Although he lost 30 percent of his stock portfolio last week, Bed-Head Jim’s not sweating it too much.

“It’s fake money, eh,” he guffaws, throws his head back and grabs Zeba’s tit.
A rattling, distorted Velvets intro rumbles over the speakers. “I don’t know just where I’m going,” Reed sings.

“Good stuff, eh?” Bed-Head Jim asks me, referring to the music. Not only does this dude live in my old ‘hood, he listens to the Velvets, too. It’s too much for one guy to take. I excuse myself for a cigarette. “Away from the big city/ where a man can not be free.” Well maybe there’s something in this for the Canadians after all, I think, sparking my Marlboro light and climbing the ladder up to the roof with the butt clenched in my teeth.

It’s still raining lightly and so foggy I can’t even see as far as Houston Street, but I can hear the bridge and tunnel swarms gathering momentum. I used to cop drugs in that park over there on Chrystie; but oh, those were different times. I don’t belong down there, and I don’t belong up here.

Over the summer, however, I gave this world a shot: I’d come here once a week to help Doug cart up A/V equipment and watch artsy Hollywood movies. I wasn’t here to watch Stranger than Fiction; it was a great place to meet girls. I learned that 4 percent of Manhattan’s population consists of French nationals. Who knew? Bed-Head Jim did. He doesn’t know Tom Wolfe from Chekhov, but he knows where to find French women. He’s shameless, and girls dig it.

So I’d sit on a lawn chair, watching some Sam Rockwell vehicle flickering on the brick wall—thinking back to the movies projected on the building across from 2A in the ’90s—as Jim groped girls he picked up in subways, bars, on the street. I wondered where these bankers got off living in this huge, old tenement in my once-upon-a-time hood. Oh, well: To the victors go the spoils.

I feel a tinge of sympathy for the Canadians. If they knew it was the last summer of an era, would they have done anything differently? Fucked more women? Bet on more stocks? Snorted more coke? No, they were always busy with our hometown diversions. The city was their amusement park. They weren’t jaded enough for class envy and cynicism, but they were clever enough to play the game.

Back downstairs, the Europeans and 30-year-old art students begin to show up. Despite the formers’ ridiculously strong currency, the Euros are always bumming smokes and smoking Doug’s weed. They loosen things up, though. A short, curvy 23-year-old Parisian banker—in Capri leggings and a relaxed-fitting short black tube dress—only has to reach the top of the stairwell for some finely featured Gaul to drag her into the bathroom for a quick make-out session. He grapples with her against the sink with the door half open as I gawk. Bitter, I hope the Euro will plunge in value. Soon.

I feel someone tapping me on the shoulder. “See something you like?” my pal Maggie chirps in my ear.

A hard-partying I-banker, she looks like Kate Middleton and sounds like Drew Barrymore. Her lips are painted deep red. She’s wearing a lace black top and tight black jeans. She does a red-carpet twirl. “Um, Marc Jacobs?”

“Bonjour,” the Parisian banker waves to us, coming out of the bathroom and blushing while adjusting her top. “Bonjour, Chanel,” Maggie sings back, using the two French words she knows, then drops her favorite phrase for the first time of the night: “That’s hot.”

I grab some beers for Maggie and her friend, a celebrity flak with high cheekbones, and look for a place for us to hang. Who needs the pseudo salon when you have these two? We squeeze past a tall blonde in tight black jeans and big boobs talking to a dude—in a dot-com-era blue shirt—swigging on a 40-ounce in a paper bag.

“I work on the Street,” he tells her casually.

“Like handing out fliers?” she asks.

He explains that’s not the street he means.

“Oooh, you’re a drug dealer?”

He thinks she’s absurd. “No, Wall Street.”

I think they’re both absurd. Maggie thinks they’re hilarious.

Like Cat Stevens sang, find a couch and settle down. Maggie makes herself comfortable on her friend’s lap. She has Palin on the brain.

“I’m not going to vote for a dude who’s going to croak, so that a chick who makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be fucking president, hello,” Maggie begins to pontificate. “She is kind of hot, though. I bet guys could whack off to her—which is kind of cool.”

The flak admits that she probably won’t vote: Her parents would kill her if she voted for Obama.

The young banker sidles up to me blushing, and suddenly I’m feeling the yuppies. Maggie wants to tell me something that is “really, really hot.” She’s going to be Lindsay Lohan for Halloween, and her girl is going to be Sam Ronson. “I think Lilo being a lesbo is super hot.” I remind myself that this young woman is a liquidities trader.

When these girls move to a bedroom, dudes follow. Maggie complains about 14-hour days, having no identity and suffering from stress-related pain. “You don’t understand, Matt, I had pains in my chest. I had to go to the doctor they were so bad. I’ve been chained to my desk like cattle these last two weeks. I’m too young to be managing liquidities.” I try to feel empathy for the poor little thing with her West Village apartment: But I’ve heard it all before.

“I had to put a stop to my extracurricular activities,” she says in her cute voice. I look back, surprised for the first time. One of the dudes says that he has some decent weed.

“Pffft,” Maggie giggles. She doesn’t care about weed. “How can I keep up my habits now?” she wonders. At this moment, I do feel sorry for her.

Our host doesn’t though. Doug’s rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Hold on a sec, Doug-O, I tell him, I have to walk Maggie down the steps. I feel her lipstick smudge against my cheek as we stand wedged between the half-open door and the wall downstairs. “Are boys going to be able to take me out on dates in this economy?” she asks.

All I can do is sigh and say goodnight. I must remember: We’re from two different worlds.
Now, I’m back up on the roof with Doug, to hear what’s bothering him. Usually he’s such a gentle giant; it’s weird to see him annoyed. He usually teases me for my petty grievances. Bjorn, a scruffy, mustached jazz pianist in a T-shirt and suspenders is passing around a joint with the French banker and some NoCal hipsters with long, angular haircuts. Mustache Bjorn knows the apartment well; he was one of Chris and Jim’s pet eccentrics. He even lived on the roof in a tent for several months.

Bjorn is more laidback than usual, nearly catatonic; but he summons the energy to joke about jumping off the fire escape. A Left Coaster wearing a scarf and V-neck jokes dryly that Bjorn isn’t cool enough to try it. Never has the idea of suicide interested me less. The girl asks Doug about his hobby of jogging to airports and back. “You’re Forrest Gump, dude,” Bjorn drawls.  

Doug tells me he’s concerned for Maggie. “She’s so worried about shit. How can you be that worried and be 23?” he asks, crackling with intensity.

“Yeah, go run somewhere and shut the fuck up,” Moustache quips. I wish the dirty hippy wouldn’t talk at all.

“Yeah, away from here,” Doug says. He looks almost sheepish after it leaves his mouth, but it’s clear my easygoing Canadian is lost in some deep jag of gloominess. Maggie’s economic griping had hit a nerve.

An Asian dude who works at Lehman climbs up to ask me about a photographer who has tagged along to get some shots. “He needs to know what I have to lose!” The guy’s almost pleading, worried about his face showing up for someone to see.

By the time the nervous finance guy is assuaged and I go back downstairs, all the Wall Streeters are worrying about the possibility of indecent photos—except Jim, who proudly admits he doesn’t feel sorry for his friends in the game. If Bed-Head Jim had grown up in the projects across the street, he’d be a pimp.

Then, Jim’s boldness gets the best of him: He offers to hire Doug to work for him at HSBC. I feel the offer hit with a thud.

Doug is rumpled, and his white Brooks Brothers shirt is unbuttoned. He starts swilling more expensive cognac. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He has a bone to pick with Bed-Head Jim.

“Why didn’t you ask me to come on as a colleague?”

“Well, that’s not in my power to do that. I could offer you really, really good money. I mean really good money, and you get home at 6 instead of 9, and you wouldn’t have to deal with all the shit you hate, yeah really hate,” Jim is dripping with sarcasm.

Doug shakes his head and glares. “You equate salary with the recognition of the job.”

Jim, the would-be Master of the Universe (maybe Mister), looks positively triumphant, throwing his head back and letting out a loud laugh that could easily have sounded cruel.

“Exactly! For you it’s not about the money, it’s about the prestige and power.” He lingers on each word driving them into his roommate to make his point. “It’s about power, and for me it’s just a salary.”

Doug just shakes his head sadly and starts making out with a sensitive, sad-eyed girl who was passed on to him from Jim. That’s just how these guys roll—very FHM.

All the talk about economic woe is making the girl worry about losing her new Williamsburg condo as well. “It’s better that a depression happens now when I’m in my twenties,” she admits on a slightly more hopeful note.

It’s getting late, nearly 3 a.m., and I survey the scene. The sink is piled up with wine and beer bottles and the laconic pianist is spooning out pieces of hours-old Jambalaya from a pot. Whatever is said about these guys, their hospitality is endearing.

Doug, who’s relaxed a bit, takes a minute away from his girl to walk me downstairs. An African-American special-ed teacher (who makes 40K) and a chunky blonde intern in her late-twenties (who’s wearing aviators indoors) talk of Wall Street greed. Doug hears them and tenses up again.

“That’s populist nonsense,” he snaps in their direction as we start down the steps. As he slides his fist along the banister railing, he starts defending Dick Fuld, the incompetent criminal who cost him his job. After batting away my opinion with a talking point, he looks more thoughtful and pushes open the brightly painted, wrought-iron gate in front of his building.

“I’m struggling with the fact that he didn’t save our jobs when he could,” he says. I can see he’s agonizing again, but I really need to jet. He wants to tell me one more thing. “Smart people are drawn to Wall Street because it’s a powerful thing.” He repeats the phrase: “powerful thing” for emphasis. Then he slams the iron gate shut.

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