New memoir brings to life iconic Red Hook bar Sunny’s
“There is a corner turned, a direction taken. There is a door opened in everyone’s history that they can identify as the moment in their life, for better or worse, took a different course. Eve bit an apple, Dante met Beatrice. Jack met Neal. For me, that corner, that direction, that door appeared late in the winter of 1995. The place was Red Hook, Brooklyn, the hour late, the mood desolate.”
So begins “Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World” (Random House), Tim Sultan’s powerful memoir of one of the last dive bars located in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Red Hook.
The first time Tim Sultan saw Sunny’s Bar, he was lost, thirsty and drawn by the single neon sign among the forlorn warehouses lining the waterfront. Inside, he found a dimly lit room crammed with maritime artifacts, a dozen well-seasoned drinkers, and, strangely, a projector playing a classic Martha Graham dance performance. Sultan knew he had stumbled upon someplace special. What he didn’t know was that he had just found a new home.
Sultan eventually quits his office job to bartend full-time for Sunny Balzano, the bar’s owner, “a vanishing breed of barstool rhetorician,” and one of the great characters of contemporary New York. A wild-haired Tony Bennett lookalike with a fondness for quoting Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, Sunny is the most original man Tim has ever met. “Born next door to the saloon that has been in his family for 100 years, Sunny studied method acting at the Actors Studio, kept company with Andy Warhol’s circle at Max’s Kansas City, was an intimate confidant of the Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh and became a self-taught abstract expressionist painter. But his greatest masterpiece is the bar itself, a place where, over the decades, a sublime mix of artists, mobsters, honky-tonk musicians, neighborhood drunks, union organizers and assorted eccentrics have rubbed elbows. It is a place where people come to share stories and to drink in good company. The bar operates according to its own rules, and inappropriate behavior is not tolerated. Sunny explains, “At my bar, people are able to be more than what they are, not less than what they are, as is typically the case in bars.”
Sultan’s attachment to the bar and its neighborhood grows and is perhaps best captured by his explanation of what it’s like to take a nighttime swim in Red Hook’s harbor and to behold the city from that perspective:
“I have looked at the city from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, from planes banking over the Hudson, from Central Park West penthouses. I would one night walk the suspension cables to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, risking tabloid headlines, Rikers Island and, of course, death, to have an unobstructed panoramic view.
But I would never feel more a part of New York than when I was drifting in its harbor and looking at its lights–the shore lights, the skyscraper lights, the bridge lights, the ferry lights, the moon light above, the phosphorous lights below and us out in the middle of it all, bobbing corpuscles in the city’s bloodstream.”
“Sunny’s Nights” is an enchanting memoir, a profound meditation on place and a beautiful story of an unlikely and abiding friendship.
Tim Sultan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Spectator and GQ. The son of a Foreign Service officer, he was raised abroad in Laos, the Ivory Coast and Germany. He is a graduate of Kenyon College and lives in New York City, where he works as an urban gardener.
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