Where Everybody Knows Your Name

LAST CALL AT COOGAN’S: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar, by Jon Michaud

“A friend to me has no race, no class and belongs to no minority,” said Frank Sinatra. “My friendships are formed out of affection, mutual respect and a feeling of having something in common. These are eternal values that cannot be classified.” These words ran through my head as I read “Last Call at Coogan’s,” Jon Michaud’s book about the life and times of a venerated Washington Heights pub that shuttered in 2020. It might have been the motto of Coogan’s — a spot that may have resembled an Irish tavern of the sort found from Mumbai to Manhattan, but was a unique place, ecumenical in outlook and bighearted in practice.

Coogan’s opened in 1985, in northern Manhattan’s heavily Dominican enclave of Washington Heights, at the onset of one epidemic — crack — and closed during another. In its brief life, Coogan’s became a landmark as vital to the health of a diverse neighborhood as the nearby hospital, here cast by Michaud as something of a property-hungry villain whose brazen rent demands would have put the bar out of business far sooner had it not been for its championing by the writer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, a regular, and the late New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.

Cool in the summer, warm in the winter, Coogan’s was a reliably comforting sanctuary: that clean, well-lit place of collective imagination where one is as likely to take one’s mistress as one’s mother-in-law. Operated by benevolent, civic-minded people, Coogan’s was supportive of the arts, hosted runners from around the world for the bar’s celebrated annual 5K race, maintained neutrality during police-civilian conflicts while providing a meeting ground for both sides, and had ace karaoke singers to boot. Simply by being there, Coogan’s changed people’s minds about other cultures.

Favorite bars are a matter of personal taste, and I confess that from Michaud’s depiction, however loving, I would not have naturally been drawn to Coogan’s. (This is to my discredit, not his — I have long held the view that bars are best when operated by retired fighters or artists, my own introduction having been the late Slugger Ann, the eponymous brawlers’ dive in the East Village, when I was 12). Coogan’s, by contrast, was named after a local rock formation and opened by lifelong restaurateurs and an investment group of hospital administrators. There were televisions often turned to sports — a misstep (in my opinion) that few establishments overcome. Enough politicians held court at Coogan’s that it was known as Uptown City Hall.

By Michaud’s account, the patrons of Coogan’s were mostly respectable and even-keeled. No one ever seemed to misbehave. My biases might have prevented me from being “Cooganized,” as one regular put it — that is, converted from skeptic to devotee. After all, one must put in the time for a person or a place to reveal its splendors. And for Coogan’s to matter to so many people from so many backgrounds, it seems to have deserved real commitment.

Michaud, a novelist, has the perspective of both the insider and the outsider, having married into a Dominican family, and into the neighborhood. His interest is personal and it shows. Descriptions of history and boundary lines, community affairs and social unrest are given as much time as the highly granular accounts of the day-to-day demands of restaurant ownership, rent negotiations and employee relations. We learn perhaps more than we need to know about the succession of the bar’s owners, as well as the succession of leaders of the Dominican Republic.

There are many names in this book. Hundreds — and most don’t reappear. While this serves to show the breadth of the author’s research, it does less for the book’s depth. A note on sourcing makes it clear that a good deal of the material was gathered through interviews, often by phone during the pandemic. This may have been beyond the author’s control, but feels limiting. We may learn that so-and-so met his spouse at Coogan’s, or such and such political disagreement was brokered over corned beef, but we never learn what makes one person tick, and another a ticking time bomb — the principal social reasons to spend time in a bar.

Michaud only introduces his presence at Coogan’s in an afterword, revealing that he first visited in 1998 and, although he later moved to New Jersey, Coogan’s served as his refuge whenever he returned. From these few pages of more personal writing, one has the sense of an earnest, inquisitive and genial customer, if not someone who kept his internal stenographer on call at all hours of the night.

Not every chronicler of a bar need be a night owl, barfly or firebug, and once the reader sets aside the expectation that this will be another addition to that well-trodden genre, one has in hand an ambitious overview of the forces that batter the individual as they do the collective: gentrification, homogeneity, displacement.

Nostalgia is a wasted emotion, while memory defines us, a shrink once told me between beers. No doubt for a long time to come, there will be those who, walking by Coogan’s unlit, rain-streaked storefront, will feel something deeper than a pang.

LAST CALL AT COOGAN’S: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar | By Jon Michaud | Illustrated | 306 pp. | St. Martin’s Press | $29

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