The Night I Fell in Love With the Brooklyn Ice House
I like a lot of places. That’s me. I get attached to specific locales, like cats do. As my friend Bob once said, “I miss every place I’ve ever lived,” and I get it. I dig places. And I definitely like several bars here in New York, but love? That’s not a word I bandy about lightly. I love a few places, and the Brooklyn Ice House is one of them. I fell in love with it the week Hurricane Sandy beat the hell out of the joint.
On October 29, 2012, New York harbor — thanks to a storm surge at high tide during a full moon — pushed through the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn like a river, and rolled up Van Brunt Street, flooding basements, wrecking businesses, and eventually cresting a few feet above ground level. But that “few feet” made Sandy the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind 2005’s Katrina. It devastated Red Hook, including the Ice House. A local artist marked the high water line with a small brass plaque that you can still see on the corner of the bar to your immediate left as you walk in.
Sandy shut things down hard, but the neighborhood rallied. A group called Restore Red Hook, dedicated to helping local businesses get back up and running, sent 20 volunteers over to Ice House, and my big-hearted wife Colleen was one of them. They salvaged what they could from the muck, glass and wreckage, cleared the debris, and cleaned. And cleaned. And CLEANED. In a couple days they made the place almost presentable.
On November 4, we rode our bikes to to Red Hook with a friend, Sorgatz. Colleen wanted to check on the Ice House and the other businesses she’d helped out, to see how they were coming along. It was around 8 p.m. and the neighborhood was as dark as you’ll see in New York, with the exception of the occasional blackout. On a couple corners generators roared, powering bright lights mounted high on scaffolding, which stood in for dormant streetlights, but other than that, all the businesses, houses, schools and churches were dark, looking post-apocalyptic. The neighborhood felt deserted, beat, dead.
But as we headed west down Pioneer street, we saw an sign of life: light. Christmas lights! Bizarrely cheery sparks of color near the corner of Pioneer and Van Brunt. And voices. And… laughing? There hadn’t been a hell of a lot of that around New York for a couple days, but there it was. People out on the sidewalk, talking, smoking, and laughing. Buzzed, to be sure, and they needed it, by God.
The Ice House was up and running, lit by candles and Christmas lights powered by a generator owner Trevor Budd procured in Williamsburg — the last available, he told me. People were packed three deep at the bar, throwing back shots and bottles of Miller High Life served cold from ice chests as fast as they could drink them. They chowed burgers and dogs cooked hot on the backyard Weber grill. They blew off steam: commiserating, bitching, and professing undying gratitude and affection for each other. It was like a wake, or like when my mother-in-law died and earmarked part of her estate for a hefty bar tab at her favorite dive for a reception after her funeral, so the people who loved her could blow the stink of sorrow off themselves with booze and music and camaraderie. Ice House did this for Red Hook that night, and, though it’d been a mightily shitty week, I was damn glad to be there.
Two beers and a shot of cheap whiskey later I had that rare be-here-now feeling you get when you’re in the middle of a special moment — the kind that doesn’t come around all that often, and maybe you’re glad that, like this one, they don’t. But here we were, packed into the Ice House like honeybees, a collective of healing and, in a way, joy. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, to invert a phrase.
With a hell of a lot of hard work, Red Hook eventually bounced back. But that chilly night in November 2012, when the neighborhood was still damp and heartbroken and surreally weird, that was the night I fell in love with the Brooklyn Ice House.
The Brooklyn Ice House is one of 50 bars I’ll be drawing and writing up for my book Great Good Places of New York: 50 Favorite Joints from the Five Boroughs (Rizzoli, 2018). You can buy all the art here, including the original inking of the Brooklyn Ice House itself.