Searching for the Soul of the West Village

As I stroll the narrow and wandering streets of the West Village, a piece of New York City roughly bound by the Hudson River and Seventh Avenue, extending from 14th down to Houston Street, its character seems intact, much as it has been for decades. The Bohemian vibe, the 19th century red-brick homes, the eccentric avenues that defy grid-bound linearity.

I am a newcomer to New York, visiting the West Village to meet its spirits. (I’ve heard that Dylan Thomas’ ghost inhabits the White Horse Tavern, moving tables around and leaving brandy snifters in unexpected places.) I come to visit their haunts and hangouts and experience first-hand the ethereal energy they’ve left behind. I want to find the soul of the West Village.

I walk north on Hudson to 11th Street where I find a bar made famous by its noteworthy patrons — Norman Mailer, Lou Reed, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Ezra Pound, Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson — among sundry other writers, artists and revolutionaries. It’s the White Horse Tavern, and there are red and white striped umbrellas in front and a standing-room only crowd inside, drinking beer and eating pub food. Loud rock music blares from the dim interior, so I take a seat outdoors under a peppermint-stripe canopy.

The White Horse, I was told on a literary pub crawl two weeks previous, is the third oldest continuously operating bar in New York City. I learned that it was a longshoremen’s bar that became popular with writer- types in the early fifties. It looks old and rustic, as any bar established in the 1880’s would, but I can’t imagine longshoremen hanging out here now, after a long day on the docks (there are no docks nearby, anyway). The crowd is upscale New York, well-mannered urban types with disposable income, slumming, perhaps, in this old Bohemian stronghold.

I order an Anchor Steam beer, a favorite from my home town, San Francisco, and think — were I a writer in the fifties, toiling in obscurity to produce a great novel or other literary work, would I seek out a place like the White Horse Tavern, a bar frequented by rough-hewn working-class men? What would I be looking for, aside from cheap drink?

Creative work, I know from personal experience, is solitary work, and after long hours of isolated endeavor, socializing is called for — conversation, laughs, good times, aided and abetted by the mood-elevating effects of alcohol. I appreciate the pull any writer feels to hang out in a friendly bar and enjoy the camaraderie of one’s drinking buddies. If those drinking buddies are longshoremen, so be it.

The Tavern I see before me this warm Saturday afternoon, by my reckoning, provides nothing a lonely artistic type might seek. The masses of people, the music so loud you have to shout to know what you are saying; I can hardly imagine this as a bar where Norman Mailer or Ezra Pound would spend their free time. If Dylan Thomas’ ghost ever resided here, it surely fled the raucous cacophony long ago. After two pints, I leave for my second destination of the day, The Kettle of Fish, still hoping to commune with the spirit world.

I recall a charming quote about The Kettle of Fish, formerly known as the Lion’s Head, from the memoir of one of its old patrons, the writer Pete Hamill:

I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.

As I walk to the Kettle several blocks away, the streets and sidewalks are beginning to seethe with weekend crowds. I hope that those ghosts of the past still live somewhere within its walls, exerting an unseen influence on the bar and its patrons. I want to feel them, see what they saw, experience what they experienced, have the good times they had when they were real and corporeal. I want to find the hidden essence of the West Village alive and well amid the throngs of marauding twenty-somethings mostly oblivious and to its history.

The Kettle of Fish is a couple of doors from the famed Stonewall Inn, site of a recent gay bashing incident. A crowd gathers nearby for a rally and I can hear their call-and-response cheers as I step down into the Kettle.

The Kettle has the right feel — a warm and funky place with low ceilings and assorted paraphernalia on the walls. I take a seat at the corner of the bar and prime myself to soak up the ambience of the creative types, characters and eccentrics I hope can still be found here.

I order a pint of ale and ask the bartender, a large balding guy, whether he worked at the Kettle when it was still the Lion’s Head.

“No,” he says. “Those people weren’t my type.”

“What type were they?” I ask, wondering how he knew since he wasn’t there.

“They were assholes. They did coke in the bathroom, that kind of thing,” he says.

“Assholes? Like who?”

“I’m not naming names,” he replies, refusing to snitch on the reviled regulars of yesteryear.

So much for a connection to the past.

“Does this place look the way it did when it was the Lion’s Head?” I ask, hoping I could at least have a visual experience of the Kettle as it looked in bygone days.

“No, just the back bar.” He motions to the shelves behind him. “Everything else is different.” My heart sinks to the bottom of my pint of ale.

I drink, watching glumly as the Kettle fills with a college-age crowd. A couple of balloons with the number 30 in big characters float over my head, testimony to a landmark I passed eons ago. Good-looking women resembling sorority sisters flirt with beefy, beer-guzzling jocks and the juke box gets louder with each passing hour. It gets hard to tell whether I am at The Kettle or TGI Friday’s.

The bartender pours a round of Jameson’s whisky for some nearby patrons and offers me one on the house.

“You’re in the right place at the right time,” he says, smiling. No, I think, nodding appreciatively. This is not the right place or the right time.

When I leave the Kettle of Fish around midnight, I recall that Hamill quote about the leveling democracy of drink. I am, indeed, leveled — not only by the democratizing effects of drink, but by the realization that the West Village of yore is but a second-hand memory, lost to a generation that considers thirty old and the writers, artists and personalities who once gave it its special character merely assholes.

No ghost of a literary icon would want to live here.

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Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at tonygrocco.com.

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