Dives: Rudy's Bar & Grill
"In the corner of my eye, I saw you in Rudy's."
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So, You Want to Write a Book About Dive Bars?
It was around this time last year that I came to realize that, after more than two years of work, trying to write a book about dive bars (at least the kind of book I wanted to write) just wasn’t going to happen. In the past week alone several people asked me about the “dive bar book” and seemed sad that it wasn’t going to happen. Believe me, I know. It had the potential to be a great book. I still think Last Call is one of my best books (as did many others), and though it won a Spirited Award and was a James Beard Award finalist it just didn’t translate to solid sales numbers compared to Bitters and Amaro. And it nearly killed me. Sadly, I suspect the niche subject of Dives would’ve followed that same downward trajectory. It was a noble idea, but the reality of execution was just too quixotic.
This excerpt from my VinePair story, “What Makes a Dive Bar a Dive Bar?,” sums up the situation:
After Last Call I spent two and a half years working on a book about dive bars, but quickly learned that most dives don’t give a shit about talking to writers, let alone being featured in a book. Trying to identify, let alone actually contact, the right person to interview at these disparate dives was a Sisyphean task. There are no PR agents or websites with email contact information. Social media pages are woefully out of date and direct messages went unanswered. And when they did answer their phone (most had unlisted numbers or if they had a phone didn’t actually plug it into the wall) nothing came of my pursuit. I had to earn my bones by actually going to each of these bars, and even then it would take several visits before I introduced myself and made my intentions known. While I could take on this endeavor where I live, here in New York, this approach wasn’t feasible for cross-country research trips where I would have limited time at each destination. Time moves around a dive bar, but I had a deadline and was running out of time.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdown resulted in many permanent closures of dive bars, and it took a while for bars to get back to “normal,” or at least closer to how things used to be. And when it was time to get back out there and talk to the people behind these bars and plan traveling around the country with photographer Ed Anderson I encountered nothing but frustration and roadblocks. It could take weeks to establish actual contact and then even more time trying to set up interviews. I once rented a car and drove to a popular Montauk dive (now permanently closed) for a planned interview and photo shoot only to be unceremoniously stood up. I had a local Brooklyn dive bar owner refuse to shake my hand because I called his certifiable dive bar a dive bar. And many wouldn’t allow any photography whatsoever (“No way, I’ve got people in here having affairs.”) And you’d think I’d have an in with a certain famous Brooklyn bar I happen to live above but the owners politely declined my advances.
You can’t just roll up into a dive bar and expect people to be open and eager to share. You have to pay your dues over repeat visits before you can even approach someone to ask about the best way to talk to the owner. And dive bars aren’t too keen on having a guy with a camera documenting the scene and another guy asking a lot of questions with a notebook and digital recorder. But for every ten bad experiences, I would sometimes find myself actually welcomed. But even then, it would take a lot of effort and frequent visits and series of texts and phone calls to try to coordinate an actual interview.
And I admit I was continuously intimidated (by the project and the subjects themselves) and would have to rally myself outside a new bar, eyeballing the smokers huddling outside. Like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, I’d mutter to myself that I was getting too old for this shit, then take a deep breath and jump in. I was always anticipating that movie cliche record-scratch moment as the light from the open door spilled into the dark room (that only happened once). And many times people would look over in unison to see who just wandered in, but that’s a dive bar. And when I did grab a barstool, more often than not, the seemingly intimidating character next to me would spark up a conversation and soon I’d be regaled with stories about the neighborhood.
Rudy’s Bar & Grill, a Hell’s Kitchen institution, was one of those bars that warmed up to me. I stopped in at least a half-dozen times and among the many tourists got to meet some hardcore regulars and quirky characters. There was a tough-looking fuel truck driver in a navy-blue jumpsuit with a ring of jangly keys hanging off his belt who had parked his rig down the block to stop in for a beer and a shot after his shift. He wore sunglasses indoors the entire time he was at the bar. The words “OIL” and “GAS” were tattooed across the back of his hands. He told me about a bar in Queens where he was banned and when I asked him why he said, “Come on, that’s like asking a guy in prison what he did to wind up in the joint.” An older Puerto Rican man nursing a beer ended up telling me very wild and often violent (one in particular involving a drug-dealing hippie and a lead pipe) stories of growing up in the neighborhood. And an Irish guy shared hushed tales of the Westies that involved a bowling ball bag resting on a bar stool that may or may not have contained a pair of displaced hands.
And I got to meet Danny DePamphilis, manager of popular Hell’s Kitchen dive Rudy’s Bar & Grill, who took the time to entertain my many queries. While my profile of Rudy’s will no longer be memorialized in my book, I wanted to offer some excerpts from my interviews with DePamphilis, along with a few photographs shot by Ed Anderson that were intended for the book.