At Lucy’s, There’s Only Lucy

The eponymous East Village dive famously has only one employee—she’s tended bar there for nearly three decades.

Lucy’s Bar is the most aptly named bar in New York. For Lucy—the quiet and small and sweetly proper Polish owner with the well-coifed gray hair and floral blouses—is who you’ll see when you go there, and Lucy is the one who will serve you. If there are other employees, they’ve hidden themselves somewhere in the back.

Though Lucy’s is undeniably a dive (and one of the last in the neighborhood), it feels more like your aunt’s aging rec room, a place where you’d never think of disrespecting the house’s hospitality. It’s also one of the last vestiges of the Polish community that was once made up a significant part of the East Village’s character.

Ludwika “Lucy” Mickevicius moved from Poland to New York in the late 1970s and soon got a job at Blanche’s, a bar on St. Mark’s Place run by another Polish woman. She became such a fixture that people began to think of the bar as Lucy’s, and, when Blanche retired, she sold the place—by then located on Avenue A—to her bartender.

Lucy’s life doesn’t range much further than the twin poles of her joint and Poland, which she visits regularly, shutting up the tavern at a moment’s notice and disappearing for weeks at a time. Most nights, she stations herself at the far end of the bar near the ancient cash register. (It’s cash only here.) One recent evening, the Halloween balloons hadn’t yet been taken down. Then again, assorted Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations were already out. Maybe none of the decorations are ever packed up?

Lucy doesn’t budge much behind the bar, but she keeps herself busy for a woman in her mid-70s. She will draw you a pint or a glass of tequila. And, if she likes you, she might pour you a shot of żubrówka, a Polish bison grass vodka, on the house. When the place gets stuffy, she’ll swing open the door to let some fresh Avenue A air in; just as quickly, she’ll close it if it gets chilly.

The clientele ranges from a less-intense sort of downtown hipster, who exchange a few friendly words with Lucy—who, even all these years later, still speaks in broken, accented English—and then retire to their personal conversations, to old Polish regulars. In fact, on another recent night, a young couple came in to show Lucy their young child. All four spoke entirely in Polish and a delighted Lucy let the little scamp climb atop the pool table. As they left, she handed the kid one of the old Halloween balloons. For those few minutes, Lucy’s was a family bar.

How did you end up behind the bar?
“This was my friend’s place. We were on St. Mark’s Place. I start work there, like bartender, in 1981. Then she lost lease and find this place. I worked here and I worked another bar.”

How did it become Lucy’s?
“She retired. Her name was Blanche. I quit other job and focused on here. I wanted to move to Florida. I worked a lot and I was tired. She took me under her wing and said, ‘Lucy, take the bar. Who knows?’ I said to her, I am not ready to own bar, owning a bar is a different thing. She said, ‘Try! Try! I help you. Try!’ And I stopped thinking and said I’d try.”

Is Blanche still around?
“No. She passed. It’s still Blanche’s bar. Legally it’s still Blanche’s. Customers come in and say, ‘What happened? Is it new business?’ I have to explain all the time. So I make sign. Really, legal, it is Blanche’s. But some people say Lucy’s.”

Have you only ever worked as a bartender?
“Yes. That’s enough.”

Do you like bartending?
“I don’t know how much, because I don’t speak English that well. It’s OK.”

This used to be a heavily Polish area.
“Yeah. I remember. I used to go to Odessa’s. You get breakfast for $1.99.”

Do you still get a lot of Polish people in here?
“Sometimes, yes. Not much. Their mother was from Poland or grandmother was from Poland or grandfather from Poland. People from Poland and people from America. Polish people come from Jersey, from Chicago. Yeah, people know this place.”

How long are you going to keep running the bar?
“I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. It’s day by day.”

This is a nice room. It feels like it’s been a bar forever.
“This was a sweat shop many years ago. They made clothes. This room, I like this room. I feel better here in the bar than I feel in my apartment. Much better.”