There's a version of this story that has an ending—the doors to a loved institution close, leaving the city and the people in it worse off, and another gash in a city that can only scar over so many times before there's nothing left but sterile, washed bone. There are people singing in a hot, crowded room, spilling into the sidewalk of a dark night, while the bartender calls out a final beckoning into oblivion, the last last call.
And that was the story of Cafe Anyway on Monday night. Or maybe not—there's a plan afoot by the workers to start their own thing, either at the same space or elsewhere. But nothing that depends upon the vagaries of New York City real estate transactions is ever certain, so the one thing that everyone can agree on is that Cafe Anyway on East 2nd Street, a Russian bar with eclectic music, freewheeling set times, and strong, strong drinks that has been there for almost thirty years, is now no more. On a moody Monday night, its regulars needed only a few hours notice to send it off, cramming into the cozy subterranean space that defies both time and geography, especially once you've had a martini.
"You walk in and you say, what year is this? What country am I in?" said Gaby Berry, a poet who has been coming to Cafe Anyway for twenty years. Many of her poems have been about the bar, and she read them to the packed house on Monday evening. "I'm an old lady and I'm welcome here, which is a continuing surprise to me."
Staff at Anyway were always much more inclined to be attentive to the over-25 crowd, who weren't in a rush to get elsewhere. Even when the staff gave you a look that said simply, "I see you, I am absolutely getting you a drink, but also this place is packed," it was in a warm and inviting way.
Berry's poems told of hot nights, of unexpected turns, of destinations she didn't have in mind. "You come in at 8 p.m. and then by 3 a.m., you're at an art opening with the staff here," she said.
"No matter what night you're here, it's always such great energy. You feel important. It's like you're home—it's cozy, it's beautiful," said Laila Faerman. Faerman moved to New York City from Moscow, and she's been performing at Anyway for the past two years; her new album was recorded with a group of fellow Anyway regulars.
She spoke to me early in the night as a pianist finished playing Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2. The pianist then asked, "Who's next?" before being joined by a guitarist for "Stand By Me." You know, all of the standards.
Charlie Martin, the longtime sound man at CBGB, started running the sound at Anyway four years ago.
"It's a last bastion of culture on the Lower East Side where new music groups are actually created," Martin told me, a process akin to star formation. "There's not a lot of places where this happens."
Yuppies and the great evil of gentrification were to blame for the loss of spaces like this around the neighborhood, he told me—venues where artists not only performed but made up much of the customer base too, places that generate culture instead of just subsuming it.
"It's our last night, there's no food," Natasha, the bartender, told patrons pushed up against the bar. The drinks kept going and soon there wasn't even enough room inside for music.
A wet snow had begun to fall during the farewell. It was fitting: Anyway was a warm place to gather in an increasingly cold city. Sometimes, things work out, and a place like this can stay alive for a while longer, and sometimes it doesn't. All you have is one night, and then maybe another.