“No, Arianna can’t make it,” said the birthday boy. “But,” he continued, sipping his whiskey, “she sent me a birthday email today.” Arianna Huffington, it seems, doesn’t much make it out to Bed-Stuy on a Sunday night.
The birthday boy, a writer for the Huffington Post, had gathered his friends on the eve of President’s Day—a rare weekday off for most, and thus not a bad night to tie one on—at the Tip Top Bar & Grill, on Franklin Avenue and Madison Street in Brooklyn. The bar is on the hazy edge of the neighborhood’s border with Clinton Hill (a real estate broker might call this Fort Greene, figuring 10 blocks of mendacity). Though the bar has been around for decades, it’s been on the books for only about a dozen years. It’s the sort of neighborhood bar that’s an endangered species, serving a clientele of regulars and taking on the barest hipster patina. The night before, The Observer had dropped by the relocated and reopened Freddie’s II. The new barroom was not the old barroom, except for the bartenders, and the bar itself; it had been rescued from the demolished original on Dean Street.
On Sunday, The Observer recalled a line from a novel about a Brooklyn bar where everybody was somebody’s assistant. Here everybody seemed to be somebody’s underpaid Web writer. They were graduates of Brown, Wesleyan, Harvard. They drank Budweiser, whiskey, mini-bottles of zinfandel through straws. They worked for Slate, The Village Voice, Inside Higher Ed. One attendee was completing her Ph.D. in the Princeton English department.
The writer for Slate asked the birthday boy about how things will change with the recent sale of his employer to AOL. The birthday boy, who was turning 25, started to mimic the famous Greek accent of his boss.
“There will no longer be nap rooms,” he said, launching into an impression of the digital diva. “There will be a nap room.”
The birthday boy had also marked his 24th at Tip Top, and those entering knew the nook where they would find him. The jukebox here was run on an honor system. Players dropped a dollar into a cardboard box before making three selections—say, Wilson Pickett, Salt-n-Pepa and Michael Jackson. On the wall was the cover of the Daily News from the day after Michael Jackson passed away: THE KING IS DEAD. Tip Top is small. Clusters of rainbow and cream Christmas lights strangled the ceiling.
A sign outside promised free snacks on Thursday, but this was an understatement. There are free snacks every night: pretzels, deli ham, ham fat, mozzarella cheese slices, cheddar cheese slices, Ritz crackers, hot sauce, barbecue potato chips, wedged potato chips, Cheetos, puffy Cheetos, celery, ranch dressing, tortilla chips, salsa. Tip Top also advertises drink specials.
“What are your drink specials?” The Observer asked Ruby, the bartender.
“Anything you order is special, honey!” Ruby said.
The Observer ordered a whiskey on the rocks.
“That’s special!” Ruby said.
We asked Ruby how long she’d been working at Tip Top.
“Honey,” Ruby said to one of the women sitting at the bar. “How long have I been working here?”
“About a year, I’d say,” the woman responded.
“A year,” Ruby told The Observer.
The Observer downed the whiskey and ordered a beer, punched a few songs into the jukebox, bummed a cigarette from a friend and rejoined the group that had gathered for the birthday party.
“What’s Duke Day?” someone asked a Wesleyan graduate.
“Well,” the Wesleyan graduate said. “It was when we’d roll around on the grass all day and eat mushrooms.” She took a sip of her drink. “Not acid, mushrooms. That’s the distinction.”
Then a few of the attendees talked about how they’ll never have as much fun as they had in college, where there are many nap rooms and they are called “dorms.”
Around 2 in the morning, The Observer said goodbye to the birthday boy and the other celebrants, who were dancing to R. Kelly’s “Fiesta.” We walked to the door, which was being worked by a man in sunglasses and a half-turban hair band. Multiple silver plates were mixed in among his teeth. He had stayed there to let in patrons (the door locks automatically) and to make sure a dollar went in the cardboard box before anyone made jukebox selections.
We also noticed the repeated iconography of Barack Obama. A print of Shepard Fairey’s rendering of Barack Obama affixed with the slogan “HOPE.” A photograph of Barack Obama waving. A photograph of Barack Obama with his wife and daughters. A photograph of Barack Obama clutching his wife on the campaign trail. Fake currency with Barack Obama in the center alongside fake currency with Michelle Obama in the center. A newspaper with Barack Obama on the cover. A Barack Obama calendar. A Barack Obama clock. Ms. Huffington might have liked it.