City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. The first City Story takes place in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
My grandparents lived in the most boring place in the world.
Correction, my grandparents’ apartment was the most boring place, set in the middle of the world’s most exciting and vibrant city in the world. My grandparents’ apartment was on the 23rd floor of the western building of the Towers of Bay Ridge, right where the Belt Parkway splits from the Gowanus Expressway. My sister and I spent many a childhood weekend seeking some escape from the boredom that permeated from every corner of that apartment, including through the plastic-covered sofa.
As a child visiting this apartment – especially when it wasn’t Christmastime when at least there were new toys to play with – entertainment was hard to come by. Television was the preferred source of diversion, but it wasn’t always available to us as my grandparents were watching their programs, or otherwise forbidden us from watching. Taking out the garbage was always a welcome chore as it meant being able to drop bags of rubbish one by one down a chute to a compactor in the basement. After disposing our trash, we could keep the door to the chute open and if we were lucky we could see trash falling from higher stories and take the chance of trying to catch some.
Once these options were exhausted, my sister and I diverged on what to do next. She often ended up in our uncle’s former room, excavating old issues of Mad magazine that were still piled in his closet. I made my way to the terrace – what my grandparents called the small concrete balconies that clung tenuously to the brick facade of the Towers. From here I could get a view of New York City’s famous skyline, bridges, and even a tiny green dot I knew was the Statue of Liberty. I could also see a massive bus yard, where half-concealed by a building, I got a tantalizing view of what looked like red London-style double-decker buses, but could never verify for sure if that’s what they were. *
Eventually, one of our grandparents would have to take us outside. If it was our grandmother, we would typically end up in the Tower’s playground. The centerpiece of this playground was a geodesic half-dome one could climb up and dangle by one’s knees, knowing that should one fall, one’s head would be protected by a thin layer of rubber spread over the asphalt.
I always preferred it when our grandfather took us out. We would escape the Brutalist hellscape of the Towers for a stroll into the more human-scaled row houses and shops along Third Avenue. Our destination was The Three Jolly Pigeons. In the official nomenclature of restaurateurs, The Three Jolly Pigeons is classified as an “Old Man Bar.” True to form, the Pigeons (as my grandfather always called it) featured a long bar of a dark wood with a line of rickety stools, lots of oak paneling, and stained glass windows and light fixtures. The back room was separated from the main bar by a particularly attractive wood-panel and stained-glass partition.
My grandfather was an old man so naturally an “Old Man Bar” suited him. But I’m going to tell you something about my grandfather that I didn’t know. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and a particularly troubled one at that. One of my earliest memories of him was visiting the hospital after he crashed his car on Brooklyn Bridge. The “car crash” and “drunk driving” didn’t connect for me until years later. Children were not allowed to visit the patients’ rooms, so instead we stood outside waving at the window where purportedly my grandfather was waving to us. I was never quite sure that I actually saw him or was even waving at the correct window.
The stories I would later hear of his drunken anger and violence never matched the cuddly old man who’d bring us to this lovely oasis, buy us a glass of Coke, and give us quarters for the arcade games that we could enjoy while he spoke to his bookie. Yes, this is the other thing that I didn’t know at the time. It was not normal for one’s grandfather to regularly meet with a bookie, and I’d learn later that the other adults in our family were not aware of this habit. This is probably because he never said to anything like “Don’t tell anyone I’m seeing my bookie,” because then we totally would’ve ratted him out rather than going along as if it were normal.
But let’s return to those glasses of Coke and arcade games. The Coke was dispensed from a fountain over the rocks into a small glass. I can’t verify this, but it is my belief that the Coke served at the Three Jolly Pigeons was the best tasting Coke anywhere. The bartender would set our Cokes at the end of the bar for us to pick up and from there we made out way through the partition to the back room.
The entertainment equipment in the back room changed from time to time, but the mainstay was a coin-operated bowling game. The shuffleboard-style game was built on a long waist-high table (or shoulder-high table if you were under ten) along which one would slide a heavy, metallic puck. The bowling pins hung from a cabinet at the far end, and the puck wouldn’t actually come in contact with the pins, but you could knock them over if the puck slid over what looked like giant staples under each pin. The surface of the table was very slick and one could make the heavy puck move wickedly fast, smashing into the wall at the far end with a satisfying crash, and rebounding into one’s palm.
Over the years, I got very good at this game. Fueled by Cokes and quarters, I smashed my way into the ranks of shuffleboard bowling greats. Or so I’d like to imagine. I never saw another game like this until about a decade later while in a pub in St. George, Bermuda. I challenged my compatriots to a game and drawing on my skill honed at the Pigeons, I won a round of beer. In another timeline, I may have gone pro as a shuffleboard bowler.
In my memory, it was always daylight when we went to the Pigeons. The late afternoon sun shone through the stain-glassed windows with the multi-color rays tinted by smoke and dust in the air. I can still see the silhouettes of my grandfather and his bookie sitting across from one another at the table by the window in a mostly empty bar. But there’s one occasion I recall being at the pigeons after dark and in a crowded room, on the day after Thanksgiving when the sun sets early. I’ve never paid much attention to college football, but while waiting for another Coke at the bar, by chance I happened to look up at the tv to see Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass. There was some celebration among the assemblage of old men and I before they returned to their beers, and I returned to bowling.
Unlike many places from my childhood for which I have fond memories, the Three Jolly Pigeons still survives in Bay Ridge. Reading the reviews online, it’s hailed as a great place to see rock bands and karaoke, two things I could never imagine in the Pigeons of my time. But I like to think that in the dying rays of afternoon sunlight, the old men still gather to nurse a quiet drink, confer with their bookie, and perhaps buy a Coke for their grandkids.
* Seriously, this was decades before double-decker buses were used for sightseeing tours in New York City. If anyone could verify if and why these buses were in New York circa 1980-1984, I will love you forever.