A tiki bar opened across the street from my Upper West Side office shortly before all social life in Manhattan ground to a halt due to the pandemic. I visited once, had two to three of their specialty drinks and, despite a mild headache the next morning, could tell the place was going to be a hit. Then the shutdown came. Businesses of all stripes pulled and padlocked their security grilles. Helicopters and airplanes disappeared from the skies. Traffic, except for wailing northbound ambulances, all but disappeared. Genuine fear owned the spring. Yet in our enforced hibernation, made worse by the heavy-handed web of inscrutable and arbitrary rules propounded by our feckless governor and infectious idiotic mayor, spasmodic fits of deregulation opened new vistas of possibility in New Amsterdam. Restaurants were allowed to sell alcohol for delivery. Most of the old standbys obliged, offering up delivery margaritas or pitchers of Negronis to go. And so even in the cold, gray, frightening days of April, a thousand isolated flowers bloomed. A revolution in New York’s dysfunctional and hyperactive drinking culture took place before our socially-distanced eyes. Now, as New York reopens, the frenetic and appetitive guzzling of bottomless Bloody Marys, once the mainstay of weekend brunches, has been replaced with a lower-key, perambulatory approach to booze. A new normal has set in as sunny summer comes to the Upper West Side. Manhattanites of all stripes are sitting on stoops, strolling through parks, having masked-conversations, all while enjoying a leisurely drink.The tiki bar serves a long line out of an open window. Burger joints are selling pints to go. A pizza place at 85th and Columbus is offering ice cold bottles of beer for $3 and decent bottles of wine for $20. Upscale cocktail establishments are pouring mojitos into plastic cups and brunch spots are slinging frozen daiquiris. I dropped into Hi-Life on my way home the other day and walked out with a freshly-purchased double whiskey on the rocks that I sipped on my way home. Across the street at Fred’s, a neighborhood fixture that burned to the ground early in the lockdown, the staff was hawking IPAs and margaritas to go. I stopped there too. Everywhere, my neighbors are convivial, well-lubricated, and above all civilized about the whole thing. Garbage, broken glass, public urination and the other concomitants of street drinking have not appeared here on the Upper West Side. Even down on St Mark’s Place, in a video tweeted disapprovingly by our blockhead governor, people seem to be behaving themselves — at least compared to the East Village status quo ante-COVID. Perhaps public drunkenness has not noticeably spiked because we’ve spent the last three months locked in our apartments, sadly drowning the socially-distanced hours and raising the average alcohol tolerance. But I prefer to believe this represents a revolution in Manhattanite manners, a change of mind, a general shift in philosophy. Indeed, when all is said and done, I hope the takeaway drinks will stay. But what of the overserved tourists and the overindulged out-of-towners, you might reasonably ask? Most American cities have party districts where public intoxication is accepted and street drinking generally ignored. New York is no exception. Anybody who has walked past the Standard Hotel on a Saturday has had a taste of the last days of Rome. Things can get even hairier heading south from there on a weekend afternoon. I once saw two people petting heavily on the sidewalk at 11 in the morning. Both were wearing Viking helmets. Despite the interlocking horns, their dental congress was interrupted only by the female participant’s need to disgorge the contents of her stomach on the wall of Houston Hall. We need not dwell on the orgy of Bridge and Tunnel debauchery that is Santacon. In these neighborhoods, the NYPD already avoids a strictly by-the-book approach to street drinking. With revelers, so long as you avoid glass, and make neither a mess nor a racket after hours, you are left well enough alone. And they ignore the brown paper bag crowd all over the island. Perhaps the police could extend that discretion to quieter residential neighborhoods like mine. Or perhaps the City Council could come up with some reasonable and relaxed new regulations. Keep prohibition in place in Times Square for all I care. The tourists (remember them?) can’t be trusted to behave responsibly, though alcohol already flows from the taps of a thousand undifferentiated Midtown pubs. But let the residents of different neighborhoods embrace a bit of relaxed boozy fun.
It’s hard to say we haven’t earned it. New York has been especially affected by the virus and New Yorkers have, all told, borne it well. It certainly won’t interfere with the city’s contract-tracing program, which has already been circumvented by the demands of social justice at the mayor’s behest. Sidewalk drinking is already commonplace in other world capitals. Our British cousins have embraced the sidewalk pint with an enthusiasm they typically reserve for fist-fighting and ungulate entrails. The French have rushed to resurrect café culture. Only the Germans, it seems, have abandoned their cultural inheritance for public safety, which is probably for the best all things considered. Surely New York City, the hardest hit part of America in this global pandemic, can enjoy some of these same simple luxuries. Thus far, New Yorkers have risen to the challenges of a laissez faire attitude to street drinking. We have embraced the responsibilities of maintaining cleanliness and order that come with these newfound rights. So here’s to street drinking, a refreshing diversion and a way to maintain social distancing without losing all social life. May it remain when the coronavirus has finally, at long last, passed.