The Park Slope bar Patio Lounge caused a fuss last month for banning children. As the New York Post reported, a bartender at the establishment, Andy Heidel, posted a “Stroller Manifesto,” which read, “I declare today Stroller-free Sunday.”
Brooklynites love to complain about children and strollers and parenthood just as much as they love to wax rhapsodic about playgrounds and longer stretches of sidewalk, but even so, this declaration—No children near the whiskey!—came as a shock. If they’re at the bars, does that mean children are everywhere, like termites?
For some reason, the baby-bar debate affected me, perhaps more than other baby-related controversies. I suddenly began to notice them more. I couldn’t avoid them, in fact. I winced when the wait at the door was unusually long on a recent Friday night at Floyd’s, a darkly lit bar in Brooklyn featuring an indoor bocce-ball court. But the bar isn’t that popular. A tow-headed 2-year-old was holding the line up. The stairs came roughly up to the top of her striped tights, and she was taking her sweet time to scale them.
“C’mon!” Her parents encouraged sweetly from inside the bar. “C’mon, sweetie!”
No one was carding, and eventually the kid got in.
Inside, the little girl was tearing the bocce court up with another blond tyke. It was kind of cute to watch them trying to pick up bocce balls heavier than their own body weight. For a little while. But the general, taken-for-granted sexiness of sitting at a bar was also sharply contradicted by getting a whiff of a neglected diaper. Not to mention the disconcerting reality of it all—many of us go to bars to have sex, not to be barraged with images of the consequences of it. It also looked as if the babies were having more fun than I was. I wasn’t thrilled.
Let’s face it: The local under-5 set is gaining in ranks. According to the U.S. census, the numbers in Manhattan were up 26 percent between 2000 and 2004. And since there’s also no chance of inhaling any secondhand smoke in bars thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, we old folks (I’m 33) may have to get used to competing with 5-year-olds for a bartender’s attention.
It seems we’re at a stalemate on the whole issue, and on the complexities of urban parenthood in general, for that matter. Some parents can’t admit that their lives have changed now that they have children; singles are reluctant to see their bars change from adult playgrounds to child-infested ones. To be honest, I don’t want to have to watch my language at a bar, of all places. But I am usually out of earshot of any tots, and before long they are trundled off to bed. I’ve never witnessed a tantrum at a bar, and mostly parents are willing to pack it in if their child starts to wail. Selfishly, I wonder: What will happen if one day I have a kid of my own and, in the midst of a baby-sitter strike, I need to see the face of someone whose diaper I don’t need to change? Please don’t say I should head off to Starbucks.
Parents, naturally, have logical reasons for lugging their tiny loads to their local watering holes. On another evening, a woman swept into the Lower East Side lounge 1492 wearing a Comme des Garçons–esque flowing drape that completely concealed her months-old baby. “Our motivations for going out were showing off baby to pals and just living our life,” she said. “I was so huge at the end of my pregnancy that after she was born, I finally felt like I could move around …. I could actually fit at a table and reach the salt—so I wanted to do that.”
A man in her party was shocked. “You invited a couple with a little baby?” he said to his date.
But what surprised me was that many people I talked to didn’t seem to mind. (Naturally, I wanted to know what they’d think of me if I became a bar-hopping mom.) One of Floyd’s bartenders, Sara, said that she doesn’t mind her tiny clientele. “Are you kidding me? I like the kids—they’re better than some of the customers!” she said.
Even Hank’s Saloon, a foreboding bar painted black with orange flames, with the indoor aesthetic of a scary local dive bar in a remote Midwestern town, has made way on occasion for the little invaders. A bartender there once fixed a few rounds of milk for a 6-year-old who came in with her parents. “I was playing music and she danced and danced and danced, and when the jazz band started playing she conked out,” he said. He put her to sleep on the pool table, which was covered with everyone’s coats. He did admit, however, that “you can’t curse or scream or get in a faux fight.”
Some women—who’ve surely heard similar exasperated whines in the past—band together against the opposition. I witnessed one of those drinking-mommy gatherings at Half Wine Bar in Brooklyn a few months ago, cutesily called “Tots ’n’ Tonic.” When I entered, I was met by a small preverbal lad who eyeballed me and then, after a tense moment, pointed to my Le Sport Sac covered in cartoon animals. Apparently, he approved of my handbag, so I was in.
“Let’s get Mommy a beverage!” a mother cried, pushing past a tot sampling olives at the bar.
“I used to make fun of [Tots ’n’ Tonic] myself,” said Patty James, the owner of Half Bar. “I saw it one time in Union Square. I thought, ‘Oh my God—it’s over when I go to something like that!’” Since then, she’s been converted; now she helps run the group. “You really have to have it happen to you,” she said. “It’s lonely in the beginning.”
Towards the rear of the room, the babies got younger and younger and the circles under the parents’ eyes got larger and darker. New Yorkers enjoy their crazy, unfettered youth longer than most; for them, it’s possibly much more disorienting to suddenly have their freedom taken from them, their new bundles of joy scorned by their former peers. After all, if free-armed singles are having such a terrible time at a babied-up bar—well, it’s really not all that difficult for them to shove off and take up at one of the 8,000 other bars in town. Try doing that with a small, breathing organism, a stroller and a bag in your arms. Could it be true single people only think of themselves?
Not quite. In the back room of Half Wine Bar, a lone academic in her 30’s sat in front of her iBook. Although she was childfree, she didn’t mind the babies, because “it’s better than guys high-fiving each other.”
“To be honest,” she added, “if I had a toddler, I’d be drunk until he was 21.”