The ghost bars of New Paltz

The New Paltz Fire Department and more than eleven neighboring fire companies battled hose freezeups during the February 1987 blaze that laid waste to two beloved New Paltz institutions: Chez Joey’s Pizzeria and The Thesis bar. According to Carol Johnson and Marion Ryan in their book, Images of America: New Paltz, eight firefighters were injured and 17 people were left homeless, but the rest of the lower Main Street businesses and apartments were saved. (photo by Benjamin J. Connelly | Courtesy of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection)

I’ve learned a few things about the nostalgia game recently. It’s like zucchini: You don’t have to grow it yourself. Just write “zucchini” on the side of an empty cardboard box and put it out by the curb. People will volunteer their own, enough to squash your entire summer: zucchini like torpedoes and bombs, land eels and horse dongs, alien embryos and bulbous baseball bats for carrot-nosed puppets to wield. To quote the Ass Ponys, “Earth to Grandma: What the hell is that?”

At the request of my editor – another eccentric New Paltz lifer – I wrote an essay about SUNY-New Paltz’s Spring Weekend and the California-shaped tract of swampy grassland known locally as the Tripping Fields. What nostalgia I allowed was of a strategic, lightly mocking kind: a self-effacing takedown of a false Golden Age symbolized by electric guitars (still my spaceship of choice) and the radical white hedonistas of the ’70s and’ 80s (author raises hand). The bulk of the essay addressed the paradoxical inverse correlation between academic standards and academic freedom and applauded the corrections made in Student Association budget allocations to reflect more fairly the diversity of the college population, even though said corrections (along with said academic standards) may well have snuffed Spring Weekend as we knew it in the day.

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Still, people read it as pure, breezy nostalgia and rosy bygones, and the response to my essay was…atypically responsive. I was flagged down in the streets and on social media so that folks might offer up their own Spring Weekend narratives, as if I might be collecting them still, perhaps for a book-length treatment. Look, man, get your own small-town pulpit. Mine is reserved for one thing only: whatever I want to say about whatever, and however I might want to say it, as long as I bleep a vowel in f*cking. They don’t pay me enough to tell your f*cking stories, dig?

Encouraged by the modest spike in web metrics, my editor came back with another subjective local color proposal: my Top Ten Favorite Things about New Paltz. The last time she had hit me with a Top Ten – best albums of all time, it was – I wrote an impertinent thousand words about my disturbing freshman year at a really bad college, tacking on a joyless list of seven or eight Beatles records at the end with an “anyway…” and earning the ire of one earnest and outraged reader who protested that Tom Petty, Van Morrison and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others, had also made great records and that I knew “not one thing” about music. Mark this well in the clickbait age: lists are the lowest of rhetorical forms, and “Top 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…” the lowest form of list.

This time, however, I surrendered and I slummed. I acquiesced not only to two things I typically distrust – local color and lists – but also to the universally recognized tone, the linguistic mode and narrative attitude of nostalgia. I granted myself a Wonder Years pass. I waxed rosy, invoked the white Wordsworthian glow of childhood and the lost innocence of cultural bygones. I chuckled warmly at the tenor of grumpy dads and the small miracles of small towns. Me being me, it got thorny and weird. I thrice called New Paltz “stupid,” referred to the local agri-elite as provincial Hapsburgs. I flipped the bird to our absentee slumlord IBM, dismissed the stone houses by noting that Europeans piss in pots that are three times as old and spent inordinate column space on the story of my first and only drug bust.

No matter, though. It immediately became my most read and shared essay in six years of feverish ranting in these pages. When one New Paltz friend, Rick Birmingham, shared the link on Facebook, and a friend of his responded with, “I hate this kind of sh*t,” I knew exactly what she meant. I bet she couldn’t even get far enough in to determine whether she hated the specific essay or me personally.

I like to think that she might have been pleasantly surprised had she read through, but no matter. Her hate was categorical: a puke reflex triggered a by stock gesture of memorial Americana in a stock, inherited voice. Ick, I hate it too, and I have been drowning in your zucchini ever since. People tell me I nailed it, right on the money, captured the essence of their childhood and our community. Really? Even the part about eating a sleeve of saltines while sitting stoned on a badly broken recliner? How could I possibly ever be mistaken for a poet of place? Write “nostalgia” on the box and the people will fill it with their own supply. This can be monetized.

“Bars of New Paltz,” she said this time – especially the bygone ones, the “ghost bars” as she called them: the Homestead, St. Blaise, Digger’s Town Hall, the Thesis, McGuinn’s, Zack’s Tavern, Coochies, Smitty’s. This is a dangerous nostalgia. Bars are dark and necessary and best kept in an occluded past. “Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler,” says Proverbs 20. Talk about your old bar days, and the bats fly out of your brain. Don’t expect coherence from me or from anyone else.

When I was in the developmentally appropriate bar-hopping years – which is to say 18 (the old 21) to sometime in my mid-20s – I disliked bars intensely. John Entwistle, a guitar-collector, reported that even he had had a couple of hundred instruments destroyed in the course of the Who’s protracted theater of violence. Likewise, I spent hundreds and hundreds of youthful nights unhappily in bars.

Why unhappily? Two pressurized frustrations: First, if you haven’t noticed, I love to talk and say silly things and spin out my theories about sh*t, and hear yours too. In bars, that is an undesired use of the human mouth. The environments are engineered against it. I like beer and I like friends, but my mode didn’t play in bars. I preferred to party in dorm rooms or on the shore of a lake, or under the haunted and whipping branches of a willow tree. The second, and, in retrospect, central reason I hated bars: I understood nothing – nothing at all – of courtship and girls. I yearned. They coupled. It sucked. Too much beer, and next thing you know you’re stumbling home alone with tears in your eyes. That was college. That was bars.

Where did I finally learn to love bars (for I truly did)? It started with coming home from school upstate to the old streets of New Paltz, reuniting with high school friends, feeling changed and adult, and going to McGuinn’s to dance to the Ulstafarians, to Coochies to marvel at Dry Jack or to the wonderful North Light (currently Nathan Ganio and Rosemay Smith’s wonderful A Tavola), where a nice restaurant made the full conversion to night club every night, and where talking was possible and encouraged.

The transformation from bar-hater to bar-lover completed when I was briefly “someone” in the New Paltz of the ’90s: a “young professor” as it were, but one with a band and an audio theater troupe. Bars are a little more fun when you feel like somebody. One night in Bacchus, shortly after I had left the college gig and the band had disbanded and I was putting on weight for the first time in my life, a friend (and former student) approached me and said, “John Burdick! Hmmm, funny: Bells used to go off when I would say those words, but now, nothing!”

Bars are also good for the drowning of sorrows. In my current role as an age-displaced musician, bars are just the office.

But the New Paltz bars, they are a feverish little story of change and same. It may be Adrian’s to some, Mr. Vogh’s to others, but we all agree that it is Snug and a Harbor: one of the real anchors of the scene and the preferred place to end a long night. Bacchus has changed a lot. It used to have a sign that said “21 and up” long before the drinking age went from 18 to 21. On my first few strolls through its corridor, all I remember is bearded dudes mumbling into their vodka. It scared me; then it became my home bar. The Homestead became McGuinn’s became the Thesis became the Gryphon…became Neko Sushi, where I couldn’t dine at peace because the echoes of my own sordid past were too loud, became, just now, Lola’s Café, with a complete refurb and the removal of some deeply haunted wood.

Coochies became Cabaloosa. The Sanctuary – a New Wave dance bar in the ’80s – became Oasis after some years adrift as a pack-and-send, a newspaper office and a climbing gym. Cocaine and its prosecution changed the topography of the downtown bar scene in ways that are still probably not safe to discuss, so I’ll shut up about that. Joe’s is a Joe’s is a Joe’s.

But the award for most dramatic transformation goes to the Thesis: the original Thesis on the corner of Main Street and South Chestnut, its long windows at street level and perfect for observing the craziness of that particular street. One February night in 1987, I got home from the first of what would be many trips to San Diego. I dropped Liz off at her Riverside apartment and headed home. It was 3 a.m. Traffic cones and flares and a fireman barred me from taking Main Street home, so I circled around on Henry W. DuBois. The next day, I learned that the Thesis had blown up: a gas explosion, a huge orange fireball that took out Chez Joey and the Running Shoe as well. I drove by in daylight. Thesis was simply gone. Only the top shelf, with blackened bottles, and the cigarette machine still stood.

Miraculously, no one was killed. My friend, the writer and actor and general California funny man Jeff Eyres, came closest, escaping from his upstairs apartment. He recounts seeing the orange glow under his door and recognizing it for what it was, but being so loopy from oxygen deprivation that he said to himself, “I’ll get up in just a few minutes.” His friend, the technical theater savant and volunteer fireman Greg Burton, came next closest, having to be rescued from his own heroic attempt to rescue his friend Jeff Eyres, who had already escaped. Both have gone on to do great things, so that’s nice.

And that’s what the bars of New Paltz are to me: the blot of an orange fireball in my mind. I have a headache. You’re going to have to fill this box of zucchini on your own.

There are 12 comments

  1. Tad Richards

    The North Light, when I first came to New Paltz, was The Shilling, a fraternity hangout. I believe it was owned or managed by Ralph Kulseng, who later became Mr. Homestead. Snug’s back then was not yet a bar. It was a luncheonette with a name like Village Restaurant or some such thing, but it didn’t matter, because no one called it that. It had a big sign out front with its name in small letters and OPEN in huge letters, so everyone called it The Open.

  2. Denise Luczai Shelton

    My parents had their first date at P&G’s, the year before it was called P&G’s. My sister and her husband had their first kiss there, too. My first illicit visit to a bar was to Bacchus. I was 15. (I used one of my sisters’ baptismal certificates as ID. I may be going to Hell.) The last night I saw Len Yusko, the night he died, we were in Zack’s. I was still there when the phone call came in. I met the man I’ve been married to for 33 years in St. Blase. The Womblers were playing Steely Dan’s “My Old School”–our song. But one of my best memories was of a hot summer night in 1976 when I swept into Smitty’s with a gaggle of my fellow waitresses from Mohonk. We were young, breathtakingly beautiful, and danced like there was no tomorrow, but only with each other. Witnesses included the bartender and a smattering of mountain men who no doubt assumed they were in the midst of a mass hallucination. I’m not even sure any of them tried to cut in. If they did, they were politely turned down. It was Girls Night. We were fierce, fearsome, and lit from within. Then, suddenly, we were headed out the door, leaving only the scent of sweat, patchouli oil, and Herbal Essence shampoo in our wake. I didn’t even have a drink.

  3. Stevie G

    I remember those days and places like it was yesterday. I worked at Bacchus, Thesis (the old one), Hannibuls, and Coochies. I went to SUNY New Paltz and worked downtown from 1975 to 1982. I paid for my college working in the bars to become a geologist (which I never became!). Besides having many college friends, my friends were regular customers, bartenders, and bar owners. It was a great time in my life. I’ve long since moved on, rarely drink, but will always have the crazy and fun memories of bar / college life in anew Paltz.

  4. Brad White

    Don’t forget the scurvy but rough Club Hub across from P&Gs and the Sanctuary hidden in the back ally…often hosting Dead cover bands alternated by new age/progressive rockers.

  5. Mark L

    Zack’s! I was trying to remember the name of that place; I seem to remember the bartender being as underage as I was and Kamikaze pitchers. Thanks John for the trip down memory lane.

  6. Jack Murphy

    North Light was not the Shilling, it was the “Tav”, or New Paltz Tavern, and run by a woman named Lillie.
    The Shilling was where what is now the Lemon Grass Thai restaurant, and it was co-owned by Ralph Kulseng and one of the Hansen brothers (Bobbie?)

  7. henry cavanagh

    *cabaloosa was the ‘oasis’ at some point.
    *the thesis started as ‘patsy’s’….a cool, dim, quiet ADULT place, with patsy nuzzio at the door as bouncer and greeter. allegedly mobbed up. the legend was that patsy was paid to take the fall, and when he got out bought some property and retired. chez joey’s-jerry nuzzio, and patsy’s.
    *the historic ‘spinelli’s’…owned and run since1963 or so by joe valenti, and still, as ‘joe’s’.
    *the quiet and comfortable ‘barnaby’s’, open at least 25 years.
    *the brilliant dump, also unmentioned.

  8. Joseph LaFiandra

    Foley’s, which became Murphy’s, had a carved wooden leprechaun outside the bar in the late 1980s. My brother and I entertained the idea of absconding with the leprechaun to his dorm, but we feared it would kill us in our sleep and haunt the college. Does anyone know what happened to the leprechaun?

  9. Roger Polansky

    There was also a place called Pantony’s out towards Highland on Route 299. A former girlfriend used to do singing gigs there. I never was there myself. It was owned by one of the Sorbello’s .

  10. Lisa

    I found this page because I was listening to Otis and remembering why I was a passionate fan when most white folks hadn’t heard of him.

    When I was going to Poughkeepsie HS, I was part of a little group of outsider white girls who used to hang out at a black New Paltz bar called Spinelli’s. I learned to dance by copying the incredible dancers around me. New Paltz in the 60s seemed like heaven to us.

    It’s wonderful to know that somebody remembers Spinelli’s!

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