Ode to the Ludlow Street Café

By Sari Botton

As I was working on this essay I kept thinking about how much I miss New York City and the establishments where I came to feel most at home during my time there. Now it’s suddenly a different world where we are only in our own actual homes—for how long, we don’t know—apart from the tribes that helped us feel like we belonged. Ironically, social distancing is inspiring me to re-establish some of those connections, and to mend fences where they have been broken. I don’t know how many establishments will survive this, but I look forward to a day when I can again raise a glass with some old friends in person, at some cozy haunt in the city.”—Sari Botton

The first time I went to the Ludlow Street Café I was 26 and in the final months of my first marriage. I dragged my Jewish salesman husband on the Long Island Rail Road from the suburbs to that Lower East Side dive to see an old friend of mine play with his band. It was just one more awkward step toward an uncomfortable but crucial awakening: my suburban life didn’t fit me, and, most painfully, neither did the college sweetheart I’d married too young.

Something about stepping inside the Ludlow Street Café that night button-holed the sense that life was determined to take me in a different direction, and I don’t think it was just my growing fascination with my cute musician friend, who often played – and drank too much – there.

Within the bar’s messy, poster-strewn walls, I felt instantly at ease. The place was well worn like a favorite pair of shoes or faded denim. It had a classic old mahogany bar with an antique cash register, a beat-up floor, and scratched-up wooden benches. There was something authentic about its shabbiness that somehow made me feel as if I could be authentic, too; so far I hadn’t felt authentic in my adult life. There didn’t seem to be any pretension in the mostly acoustic bands that played, like the country-rock act Beat Rodeo, nor in the grunge-chic crowd. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t much of a drinker, either; I still felt as if I belonged.

My husband, however, looked entirely out of place in his polo shirt and chinos, as if he’d walked onto the wrong movie set. He made a show of checking his watch again and again, a reminder of the return train he wanted to catch — significantly earlier than the one I wanted to catch — and how much of his time he’d felt this activity had wasted. When we got home, we had one of our biggest fights ever. A few weeks later, I was gone.

In the months that followed, I moved to the city by myself and became something of a regular at that bar — even though as a one-drink-wonder I wasn’t anyone’s idea of the regular-at-a-bar type. I was fascinated by the real regulars, and loved to observe them; they had a casual ease about them that I’d never known. They were relaxed and comfortable and talkative with one another. An awkward outsider virtually everywhere I’d been so far in life, I was determined to firmly establish a feeling of belonging there. Sometimes I’d go alone and challenge myself to withstand my excruciating self-consciousness for as long as possible. Other times, I went expressly to see the musician play, with or without his band. Initially those nights seemed to hold the greatest promise. Maybe I would be seen, really seen, by the musician. Sometimes I was. More often, though, I wasn’t. Those nights grew increasingly painful.

The worst was the snowy winter weeknight when only three other women showed up for a solo acoustic set, plus a couple of regulars at the bar.

I arrived late and ordered a white wine spritzer.

“How’d you like to play a round of my favorite game, ‘Guess Who He’s Fucking?’” asked one of the guys at the bar. I looked to both sides to make sure he was talking to me.

“It’s the only way I know how to tolerate singer-songwriter types like Mr. Sincerity over there,” he said, laughing. Mr. Game Show Host paid for my drink before I could.

“Come on, let’s play,” he begged. “It’s easy – a dead-give away. These guys are all the same. They’ve got at least three women in every audience that they’re fucking, and often, those women are the only ones who show up. Like right now. So, I’d say it’s safe to say he’s doing all three of those chicks, but we could play to figure out which one’s the understanding girlfriend with low self-esteem and who just fits into his weekly rotation.”

I blanched, wondering how I might gracefully go over and sit down near the stage without that guy knowing I was one of the ones. “Thanks for the drink, and good luck with your game,” I said as I slinked away.

It helped knowing that at the end of the show, the musician would drive me home and stay there with me. That’s what he’d done for the few months we’d been seeing each other. I had the distinction of being “The One He Goes Home With After The Solo Shows,” which made me officially less pathetic.

At 11:30, he lifted the newish one, a tall, young blonde called Jessica, into his beat-up van before helping me in with just a friendly hand. We’ll drop her off first, I thought.

No. That night, for the first time, my apartment was the first stop. It took me a second to realize I was supposed to get out of the van so the musician could leave with Jessica. I no longer had my usual place there. When the reality dawned on me, it took my breath away, and I forgot how to form words. “All right, here we are,” the musician said as he parked the van and winked at Jessica. I quickly flung myself out. “Bye!” was all I could muster as tears welled and my throat closed, and I made a bee line for my building. Then they were on their happy way.

After that, it took a while before I could go back to the Ludlow Street Café, but eventually I did. It became a safe haven for me, once again, a place where I could continue easing into a more authentic version of myself than the one I’d left behind in suburban Long Island. I went to that bar again and again, until it closed in the summer of 1996, when I covered its shuttering for The New York Times.

*A version of this essay originally ran on Drinking Diaries.