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Imagine that Alice had walked into a bar instead of falling down the rabbit hole. In the tradition of J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar and the classic reportage of Joseph Mitchell, here is an indelible portrait of what is quite possibly the greatest bar in the world—and the mercurial, magnificent man behind it.
The first time he saw Sunny’s Bar, in 1995, Tim Sultan was lost, thirsty for a drink, and intrigued by the single bar sign among the forlorn warehouses lining the Brooklyn 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 his new home.
Soon enough, Sultan has quit his office job to bartend full-time for Sunny Balzano, the bar’s owner. A wild-haired Tony Bennett lookalike with a fondness for quoting Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, Sunny is truly one of a kind. Born next to the saloon that has been in his family for one hundred years, Sunny has over the years partied with Andy Warhol, spent time in India at the feet of a guru, and painted abstract expressionist originals. But his masterpiece is the bar itself, a place where a sublime mix of artists, mobsters, honky-tonk musicians, neighborhood drunks, nuns, longshoremen, and assorted eccentrics rub elbows. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly transforming city, Sunny’s Nights is a loving and singular portrait of the dream experience we’re all searching for every time we walk into a bar, and an enchanting memoir of an unlikely and abiding friendship.
Praise for Sunny’s Nights
“Fantastic . . . [Sultan takes] material that might seem familiar and [mixes] a perfect, insightful cocktail: full-bodied, multitextured and delicious. . . . Simply beautiful.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Sultan’s love of Red Hook shines through, and it’s hard not to be swept along on the ebb and flow of his emotions. . . . Sultan’s book is, among other things, a meditation on the fragility of the moment and the passage of time. . . . Wistful, funny and biting, Sunny’s Nights rewards you with its evocation of a certain place in time and, as Sultan calls him, ‘the most original man I have ever met.’”—Newsday
“An affectionate portrait of the idiosyncratic Sunny’s Bar.”—USA Today
“Sultan finds Sunny . . . a real character, a poet, a cinephile, a philosopher, bluegrass maestro and (Rheingold) beer server.”—New York Post (“Required Reading”)
“Captivating . . . a classic story about a local bar.”—The Buffalo News
“An enchanting memoir, a profound meditation on place and a beautiful story of an unlikely and abiding friendship.”—Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“[A] polished, affecting look at remarkable barkeep Sunny Balzano . . . In elegant prose, Sultan deploys laconic humor, an instinct for telling details, a taste for eccentricity, and above all, clear-eyed compassion for our all-too-human failings.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Beautifully wrought . . . an indelible portrait of an unusual man and a nearly forgotten part of NYC.”—Booklist
“More than an elegy for a bar and a neighborhood—it’s also a vivid and loving portrait of the larger-than-life eccentric who gave the bar its name and its spirit.”—Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers
From the Hardcover edition.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Sunny's Nights
There is a corner turned, a direction taken. There is a door opened in everyone’s history that they can identify as the moment life, for better or worse, took a different course. Eve bit an apple. Dante saw 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. I had gone to the night’s last showing of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and while driving home from the theater, mulling over the movie, I had half-absentmindedly continued straight where I usually took a left, slipping beneath an overpass and entering a neighborhood I knew only by its forbidding reputation. There were no other cars and no people and long stretches of shadow between the streetlamps. I drove on. Deliberately getting lost had been a pastime of mine since early childhood. I was raised by parents who only asked that I be home before sundown. By adolescence, I had lost my bearings in Laotian rice paddies, German forests, and a West African city where the practice of naming streets had not yet been widely adopted. In college one autumn, I courted a woman by inventing a game in which one of us would close our eyes and pretend to be blind, while the other made believe they were mute, and the mute person would lead the blind one by the hand on late-evening ambles through professors’ backyards and frosty Ohio pastures. By winter, we could have written dissertations on the merits of disorientation but we merely fell in love instead.
That Friday night in Red Hook I was twenty-seven years old, and again I found myself taking left and right turns seemingly at random, unsure whether I was sightseeing or soul-searching. A succession of low-slung industrial warehouses and towering fuel tanks gave way to darkened fields and from them the silhouette of an enormous building rose up, as still and monstrous as a pyramid. Bare trees bordering the road were the only living beings in sight. More turns. The pavement soon gave way to cobblestones and I slowed the car to a walking pace. Another building, vaguely Georgian, came into view. Its doorways and arched windows were sealed with bricks giving it the look of an asylum or prison or school, irrevocably shuttered. I deciphered white letters near the top: Shipyards Corporation.
Other lone structures appeared and melted away in my headlamps. I continued straight until I could go straight no farther. I had come to another corner. Conover Street, read the sign. Ahead, behind a rusty gate, stretched a barren lot and beyond that the water of the harbor shimmered faintly. To my right stood several satellite dishes, so immense they seemed capable of beaming their messages not only to New Jersey but to new planets. To the left more signs appeared in the gloom, one profoundly weird (Animal Hair Manufacturing Company) and the other weirdly spare (Bar). I pulled over and turned off the engine. I looked up and down the cobblestone street. There was no movement, no sound. I was alone and the sense of solitude that descended on me was as absolute as that usually only found in dreams. I wavered but a few moments before getting out of my car. Where bars were concerned, my spirit of inquiry always seemed to prevail over a sense of caution. I paused at the first building. Animal Hair Manufacturing Company. What could it mean? I walked on toward the next sign. Bar. I knew of a bar called the No Name Bar but I had never seen a bar that literally had no name. I had come to a place, it seemed, where the world was returning to its most elemental properties.
I took a few more tentative steps until I stood beneath one of two faded brown awnings. In between was a simple wooden door containing three peephole windows ascending from left to right as though to accommodate lookouts of varying heights. Two more storefront windows on either side of the door emanated a faint light and in this glow I could see a wooden ship and a black-and-white photograph of a sailor from an earlier generation resting on a ledge inside. The picture might have been taken during the Second World War.
I considered the forlornness of the area and of the night. I had entered a lot of bars in my life and rarely with hesitation. An early bloomer of a sort, I had my first tavern beer at fourteen and I graduated high school with the inglorious honor of being voted by my classmates as the student most likely to be found not in a bar—that distinction went to my best friend—but under a bar. While I had gotten dissipation out of my system by the time I was an adult, I still knew my way around bars in the way a person raised on a farm never forgets how to cross a livestock yard. I reached forward and pulled open the door and stepped inside. Every one of the two dozen faces in the room was turned toward me. Pale faces, male faces, their attention to my entrance so complete, I might as well have burst into act I, scene 2 at the Delacorte. It was too late to turn around and exit stage left without feeling the fool. And so, I let the door softly close behind me.
In the brief time it took for my eyes to adjust to the dim light in the room, I realized that the collective gaze was directed not at me but a movie screen that hung to the left of the door. A projector hummed in the rear of the room, its beam cutting through the gloom like a locomotive headlight. On the screen, opening credits were just beginning to appear. Martha Graham. Aaron Copland. Isamu Noguchi. Soon dancers in pioneer dress were swirling in black and white. Tinny classical music played. To the right, stools lined the bar. I slid onto the third one in and swiveled toward the screen. Among the several scenarios I’d considered moments before as I had paused on the stoop outside—most involving a roomful of repeat offenders as glad to see me as their parole officers—a collection of men quietly smoking and watching a classic of modern dance had not been one of them. Encouraged, I waved to a figure leaning back against a counter behind the bar and, in a low voice, asked for a beer.
“How about a Rheingold?” whispered the shadowy form.
“Sure. Rheingold,” I replied, and returned to the dancers.
My neighbors up and down the length of the bar and dotting the room were as absorbed by the show as an orchestra-row audience. Following suit, I, too, let myself be drawn in to the story of newlyweds starting out life on the American frontier. Appalachian Spring, like all of Copland’s cheery music, had always had the approximate effect on me of sour milk, but after a few minutes I decided that beer and a crude sound system improved him. Ballet, too, was made more tolerable when observed from a barstool. The pangs of torment I usually began to feel at such performances didn’t begin to set in even as I watched for a good twenty minutes. After the screen at last went dark, a middle-aged, bookish-looking man with a trimmed white beard and glasses quickly began exchanging reels. Before anyone had much chance to stir, the projector started up again and we were watching a documentary on Brooklyn bakeries that was narrated with the earnestness of a middle-school social studies film on the catacombs of Rome and appeared to have been made around the last time a general was president of the United States. As bread baked and yeast rose, seemingly in real time, I wondered a little where this night was headed. Not two hours earlier I had been sitting in an ordinary movie theater in a familiar part of town, taking in a light crime caper with a bucket of popcorn in my lap. Now I found myself in the dark of an entirely different kind of theater, one where the program seemed to have been chosen with the help of a roulette wheel. By the time the next selection, an abstract short by Stan Brakhage made with moth wings and leaves, was under way, I began to speculate whether there wasn’t a method to the madness. Ballet, bakeries, Brakhage—if we remained in our seats long enough, would we eventually move on to cabalism, calligraphy, Caligula . . .
But the final movies of the night were several silent cityscapes of 1970s New York, shot, our curator explained between reels, when he was with a girl who had a peyote habit. The girl appeared several times, sitting mutely on a couch, as the camera swung from one window to another, each a framed portrait of the city skyline.
The whirring projector stopped for good and a few yellow lights were turned on. I gestured down the bar for another round. As I waited for my beer and gazed around the room, a spindly, hollow-eyed man with a guitar in hand suddenly stood up and announced he was going to sing a song he had written in a Texas basement. His voice was resolutely unmusical and his guitar playing paid a debt to clanging radiators but the song’s refrain would have made greater and lesser poets despair with envy: “She’s not a vixen, she voted for Richard Nixon.” What a line!
I sat on the stool, twirling my now empty bottle, taking it all in.
The films. The singer. The nautical farrago that cluttered the walls and shelves. The trio of coffee urns the size of fire hydrants near the front door, the Blatz Beer boiled-egg dispenser, the plaster mannequins of stars of the silver screen—Bogart, Fields, Durante, Marx (Groucho), West, Marx (Harpo)—mingling in various corners. The bar counter was charred in places where cigarettes had been stubbed out. A painting of a horse hung on one wall in a spot where over time just enough sunlight must have fallen to bleach the head out: a headless horse in a nameless bar. A hook, which looked as though it once served as someone’s prosthetic hand, dangled from a chain of Christmas lights. And high above the bar sat several model ships in glass cases. There were no pinball chimes, no televisions turned to hockey, no machines at all (other than the projector and the stereo tucked somewhere behind the counter on which Julie London was now singing). The letters Avenue P pointed the way to the bathroom, but there was no signage that would give away the year or the decade we were in. Only the clothes of the customers revealed the era, and then only fitfully. The bar looked old and worn but not in the overly careful manner of certain New York saloons where amber beer seems to take on a whole new meaning.
My eyes came to rest on the barkeep. He was laughing, chatting, smoking as he made his way along his side of the bar with my next Rheingold. From a distance, he looked vaguely Native American, like Chief Dan George of Little Big Man fame. But he also resembled Tony Bennett, if Tony Bennett had last seen a barber in 1957. Up close, I decided that if one took Tiny Tim’s hair and put it on Gertrude Stein’s face, one would get a very good likeness of this man. From what little I had heard of his voice, he sounded kind of Irish, but when my beer arrived and I introduced myself, he said, “My real name is Antonio. Antonio Raffaele Balzano. But please. Call me Sunny.” He gripped my hand in both of his and leaned across the bar.
He was tall and very slim but the features on his face were large and rounded as a ship’s weathered figurehead. His eyebrows were two silver caterpillars that had come to a halt while walking Indian file across his brow. His fingers were as thick as a stout woman’s wrists. In the shadows, he had appeared a little otherworldly and a little epicene—less the ghost of the Ancient Mariner than that of the Mariner’s sister. But now he grasped my hand with the vigor and enthusiasm and curiosity of a man coming upon a compatriot after months lost in the jungle. It was a greeting startling in its sincerity and intensity, and one that I would come to see made to others many times. It expressed: “You belong.” To say that he exuded charisma would be like saying Mussolini liked to hear himself talk.
Antonio—Sunny—eventually continued on, stopping to speak with each person or party seated at the bar. I watched him and I watched how everyone else kept an eye on him, as if awaiting a turn to be in his company. He kept a cigarette continuously lit and often tilted his head back to blow plumes of smoke in the air. He sipped whiskey out of shot glasses that looked like thimbles in his hands while telling stories about rats he had slain at various times in his life. Though I only heard snatches, I assumed he meant the kind with whiskers and tails. He recited several lines of what I took to be Shakespeare. He pronounced words in a way I had never heard before. He might say, “I ate a plate of ersters and then I slipped on some erl on my way to the terlet.” He used strange words rarely heard in casual conversation, like “verbiage” and “personage.” And he used words strangely, saying for instance, “Within the framework that it is that it is that we’re existing in.”
I was certain that I had never encountered a more arresting presence.
I stayed awhile longer in the hope Sunny would come back over to where I was sitting but he was so deeply engrossed in conversation that eventually, I put my jacket and cap on and slipped out the door as quietly as I had come in, knowing I would be back.
But the next time I returned—and the one or two times after that—I found the bar dark, the door locked, the street deserted. I cupped my face against the window and peered into the inkiness inside, but there was no sign of Sunny, of the projector’s flicker, or of any of the drinking, smoking men who had been there that first night. The sailor in the photograph in the window was the only witness who could corroborate that the night had taken place at all.
Months passed, until one evening in September I was returning from a quiet dinner with a onetime flame in Manhattan and feeling that restive curiosity again. I decided to give Sunny and his bar one more try. I slowly drove down his block and as I passed the two shabby awnings, I thought I could detect a glow coming from inside. I parked by the Animal Hair Manufacturing Company. I walked to the front door and I saw that the colored Christmas lights strung up behind the bar were lit again and I entered and sat at the same spot, three rickety barstools in. Many of the same faces were there. When Sunny saw me, he strolled over, cried, “Timmy! How are you, my buddy?” and leaned across the bar to embrace me.
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.