One month ago, to meet the last payroll before the pandemic shut their restaurant, the three owners of Coogan's in upper Manhattan got a beverage supplier to take back cases and kegs of beer. Their insurance company would not budge on the quarterly premium, charging the same price to cover the risk of an empty bar and restaurant as one throbbing with people having fun.
Still, the owners, Dave Hunt, Peter Walsh and Tess McDade, had enough in hand and pocket to summon their 42 employees in safe, small groups – kitchen staff, porters, busboys, servers, bartenders – for paychecks and bags of perishable food, letters for unemployment claims and promises of help and references.
That day, March 20th, people who had squeezed past each other with platters of food and empty dishes were reduced to awkward elbow bumps, a luxury of touch that seems inconceivable now. Brave smiles warred with moist eyes. Last in line was Belgica Borges, bartender, 54, who had worked at Coogan's since 2002.
Like many of its employees, she wired money home every week to another country. “You’ll be the first one we’ll call when we reopen,” Walsh said. On Monday afternoon, one month to the day after those paychecks, Borges and her co-workers learned that Coogan’s would not be reopening. No scale exists that can weigh the loss of a business against the loss of a single life, much less tens of thousands. That does not mean we cannot hear in Coogan’s passing one loud tick of a clock, the approach of changed ways of life.
Coogan’s was the promise of New York incarnate: multiethnic, friendly, welcoming, smart. The premise of the business was the opposite of social distancing. It opened in 1985 and in time became an Irish place where the bartenders were Dominican Americans and the waiters African American and the customers, all of the above and more. So many held court there over the years, it is hard to keep them straight. Did Walsh still remember the Israeli karaoke singer?
Which one, Walsh asked Monday, "The tank driver, or the one with the Mossad?" There was also the Puerto Rican Jewish karaoke jockey who strode along the bar, promising that she, like Gloria Gaynor, would survive, and getting you to buy in and pump your fist. The surgeon pulling in millions a year at the hospital down the block, NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, sat one stool over from a school custodian making a fraction of that. Thursday nights, hospital paydays, were a whirl.
Besides medical workers, Coogan’s served world-renowned runners from the Armory Track and Field arena, off-duty cops and teachers blowing off steam. A couple of years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, joined Walsh to serenade a woman celebrating her birthday; as a boy growing up, Miranda had his own birthdays there. So did my kids. We had baptism parties at Coogan’s and an 85th birthday, held a PhD bash in the backroom and wolfed down a meal between the afternoon and evening sessions at a funeral parlour.
During the crack wars, Coogan’s was a sanctuary. A peace treaty was negotiated at one of its tables during the Washington Heights riots of 1992. In defiance of crime, Walsh organised a “Salsa, Shamrocks and Blues” 5-kilometre run through the streets on the first Sunday in March.
Streets were closed; bands and musical groups belted out tunes. Decades later, the crime years distant, it remains an annual event for thousands, including little boys and girls who run a blocklong course sized to their stubby legs, before a police officer or firefighter drapes a medal around their necks.
Even empty, rent-free, the place was costing more than $20,000 (€18,000) a month
In a colossal mistake, the landlord – the hospital – tried to raise the rent by $40,000 (€36,000) a month in 2018. An obituary much like the one you are reading now appeared in this column, but it turned out to be premature: The neighborhood rose up. The hospital reversed itself. A documentary filmmaker, Glenn Anderson, is chronicling the story, as is author Jon Michaud, a writer with The New Yorker and a customer.
This time, the hospital behaved valiantly, declaring a moratorium on rent. The virus nevertheless won out. A restaurant must pay its monthly leases on kitchen equipment and insurance. Even empty, rent-free, the place was costing more than $20,000 (€18,000) a month. Hunt and Walsh are in their early 70s.
For small businesses in New York and everywhere, the true operating capital is the sweat and spirit of their proprietors. The Coogan's partners have no shortage of that currency. They posted a note titled A Fond Farewell on Facebook. It was plastered with replies.
Their employees, who heard the news from one of the bosses, then texted the others. "Hi Dave," Daryl Griffin wrote. "Tess and Peter gave me the call. I just want you to know that it was an honour to work with you throughout the years. It never felt like going to work for me. It always felt like going home." Let this count not as lamentation, but remembrance, and gratitude. – New York Times