The Bull Moose Saloon was not a good bar, and good things did not happen there. But bars in New York City fall into the same category as pizza and Chinese takeout: People are willing to forgive a lot for the sake of convenience.
It was for this reason, and this reason alone, that the Bull Moose became the regular hangout for the staff of the New York Observer for the handful of years its offices were located in a drab and mysteriously malodorous floor of a building on West 44th Street. I worked in this office from 2011 to 2014.
The Observer, under the guidance of legendary editor Peter Kaplan, had become a “maypole of Manhattan gossip and intrigue,” in the words of media columnist David Carr, essentially coining the irreverent tone that contemporary journalism sites like Gawker would later transfer to the web. By the time I arrived, Kaplan had left and the Observer’s influence had faded. Four years prior, it was purchased by Jared Kushner, then known only as the son of Charles Kushner, the real estate developer who spent time in prison for tax evasion and witness tampering. As a publisher, Kushner, who once said of the paper he owned, “I found it unbearable to read,” had little knowledge of the media industry and seemed to be interested only in making a semi-obscure weekly turn a profit.
Still, the job was not without a certain charm. Most reporters, like myself at the time, were in their early 20s, and this was their first gig in journalism. We took ourselves too seriously and argued passionately about almost everything. At times, it felt like one was stepping into a television drama about an underpaid, overstressed newspaper staff. One afternoon, for instance, I heard one of my coworkers shout, “Oh, fuck you!” into his phone, pause a moment as his eyes seemed to go dead, and then smash the phone repeatedly against his desk, shattering it. He then stormed out of the office and never returned.
Somehow, we put out a paper each week, and the Bull Moose was something like our offsite campus. On Tuesdays, copies of the Observer shipped around 6 p.m., and the staff was usually gathered at the bar by 6:05. It was right across the street and almost comically nondescript. Nothing adorned the walls. There was an upstairs section that I don’t believe anyone had ever visited. There was one of those soulless jukeboxes that connected to the internet and allowed a person to play almost any song ever recorded. The bathrooms were… fine. In fact, the one describable feature of the bar was a bearded man, who was never not at the Bull Moose. He always sat in the same chair, a chain wallet dangling from the back pocket of his camouflage shorts, as he listened to the songs by Staind he’d put on the jukebox. As revenge, a real estate editor and I once loaded a $20 bill into the jukebox, put “Desperado” by the Eagles on repeat—the worst punishment either of us could imagine—and left. The Observer staff’s hatred of this man was a perennial morale booster, the one thing all of us could agree on.
Despite its physical ambiguity, I’ll never forget certain scenes from this place, especially the day I walked in to find two members of the paper’s long-suffering ad sales team—one of whom is now deceased, the other it’s hard to say—passed out with their heads down on the bar. Another night, two reporters rushed in from having a cigarette, talking about how they had just seen the actor Jerry O’Connell out in front of the Bull Moose, stumbling and dressed in a panda suit. How did they even recognize Jerry O’Connell? Why was he wearing a panda suit? I consider now the likelihood that this was some shared alcoholic hallucination. And, of course, there was the legendary brawl between a colleague on the culture desk, a politics editor, the paper’s deputy and a group of tourists, who were being fresh with the bartender, Carmen, who was maybe the only nice thing about the Bull Moose. The fight spilled out onto 9th Avenue and ended, somehow, with the tourists being arrested. Nights at the Bull Moose would occasionally end back at the Observer, with the few staff members left standing chain-smoking in the editor in chief’s office (the editor in chief was not present), talking about how much of a chump Kushner was for not paying us better.
It really was a lousy bar, and yet I feel a hint of wistfulness when I think of the place to this day. I didn’t realize it back then, but the Bull Moose was the last time that I would experience a boss hand-editing a piece of mine, carefully explaining what was wrong with my copy as he downed glass after glass of whiskey; it was the last time I’d see an entire staff of people who didn’t particularly like one another gather to celebrate another issue each week out of a sense of pure, possibly misplaced pride. More than anything, the Bull Moose was a testament to a time when Kushner was merely in charge of a small local newspaper. Everything seemed to matter both more and less.
When the Bull Moose closed in 2013, it happened without any ceremony; they had apparently gotten behind on rent, and one day, without warning, the lights were off and the door was locked, as if the bar had simply had enough of us. For years it simply sat empty. I walked by the space recently. It has since become a new bar, one that I don’t imagine I’ll ever go to.
Would you believe me if I told you it is called the Brazen Tavern?
This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.