The Night the Neon Went Dark

An elegy for March 13, the final Friday before New York City bars turned off the lights.

“Are you sure you want to live above a bar?” asked Pepe Montero, the septuagenarian owner of his family’s namesake institution in Brooklyn Heights. His concern was valid. Bars are loud and stay open late. Not to mention that Montero’s popular weekend karaoke sessions drew a raucous crowd waiting their turn to belt out “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” or “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” until 3 in the morning. But an apartment over a bar beloved for its well-worn pool table and colorful cast of lifetime regulars seemed the ideal setting for someone who writes about drinks for a living.

The Montero Bar & Grill first opened across the street from its current location, on the western edge of Atlantic Avenue, in 1939. Among its regulars were visiting sailors whose ships anchored in the nearby piers and the barrel-chested longshoremen who worked the docks. Every surface of the bar is covered with nautical ephemera, from faded newspaper clippings and framed black-and-white photographs to a row of orange life preservers, bearing the names of ships like the USS Edward Rutledge and USS Stonewall Jackson, hanging over the bar.

Before I committed to moving in, over the course of two weeks this past February Pepe insisted I stop by and hang out at the empty apartment a few times late at night—just to make sure I could handle it. Most of the ambient noise was concentrated in the apartment’s kitchen, where I could make out every lyric to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” being sung below. But for the most part, it was contained to the muffled background noise of a neighboring party. Another consideration was the large neon sign suspended over the entrance of the bar, centered between my two front-facing windows on the second floor. When it’s fired up—a seven-nights-a-week proposition—its red and pink letters spell out “Montero, Bar Grill, Wines Liquors,” and for decades it’s acted as a neighborhood beacon, luring people in for just one more drink.

The vintage 1949 metal sign is expensive to repair and can get finicky when it rains, so it remained dark on the overcast evenings I stopped by. But on my first official night in the apartment, March 1, the Montero sign was blazing like the red Krypton sun, and the blackout curtains I had purchased were still in their bag. Frank McCourt, who in the early 1980s lived in my very apartment, documented the sign’s incendiary glow perfectly in his 2005 memoir, Teacher Man: “Outside my window, the MONTERO BAR neon sign blazed on and off, turning my front door from scarlet to black to scarlet while on the jukebox downstairs the Village People sang and pounded ‘Y.M.C.A.’” The sign no longer flashes but the songs remain the same.

It was like a scene from The Wizard of Oz in reverse, flipping from color to black and white instead—the familiar pink and green neon script of their marquee dark, the lifeless barstools stacked up inside.

That first week of March, concerns about the rise of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in America were on my mind, but an unsettling sense of things to come would be the calm before the storm. Hand sanitizers were already impossible to find, but full-on panic mode hadn’t yet hit in the grocery store aisles. Things grew more ominous the following week. On the evening of Monday, March 9, I took the subway, for what would end up being the last time, to Greenpoint for a cocktail party at the shared distillery of St. Agrestis and Greenhook Ginsmiths. People were still shaking hands and talking about upcoming travel plans, but within a week the distillery would be producing much-needed hand sanitizer instead of bespoke amaro. On Thursday, March 12, Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas announced the temporary closure of 12 of his 13 restaurants. The next day Danny Meyer did the same in New York, shutting down the many bars and restaurants in his Union Square Hospitality Group. On Friday the 13th, a date whose superstitions were now eclipsed with a genuine sense of dread and unease, the New York City restaurants and bars that remained open were ordered to limit occupancy to 50 percent capacity.

In my heart I knew this would be the last Friday night where things would be normal, or as normal as they could be as we all stared down a mounting global crisis. My goal was to show some love and tip big at a few of my neighborhood haunts. My first stop was Popina, a small Italian restaurant on the Columbia Street Waterfront owned by two Maialino alumni, Chris McDade and James O’Brien. I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of white wine from Sicily just as James texted me to apologize for not being there, explaining that he and Chris were huddling to figure out their upcoming move to pickup and delivery only. I ordered the tortelli with short rib, ricotta and horseradish and watched as the restaurant quickly filled up. A few days later, when dining in at restaurants and gathering at bars was banned, Popina pivoted to a new model: scrappy, but much-appreciated local delivery and curbside pickup. By March 25 they’d decided to close.

I walked along the waterfront as the light of the setting sun flickered against the glass skyline of lower Manhattan. It was one of the first truly warm nights of the year; the promise of spring hung in the air as people sat inside open windows, shoulder to shoulder, with that brand of New York City defiance that has, at times, served the city well. I continued toward Boerum Hill to stop by Grand Army. I said hello to their general manager, Adriana Caguana, on the way in, bumping elbows instead of our usual hug. Old-school, egg white Whiskey Sours on the rocks seemed in order and the bartender that night, Dave Jones, obliged. People were huddled around tables or leaning in together and there was a buzz at the bar, accompanied by an undeniable tension in the air. I stayed for another drink and shared a Hard Start with Dave, who poured their batched signature shot of Fernet-Branca and Brancamenta from a double magnum of Fernet. When I said goodbye, I knew it was going to be for a while.

I miss the hustle of activity from the bar downstairs and ache to see the Montero sign blaze to life at twilight again.

I considered making an appearance at Leyenda or Frank’s Wine Bar or even grabbing an amaro nightcap at Pip’s, but the collective mood of the city had me uneasy. Instead, I walked home down Atlantic Avenue past The Long Island Bar, which had announced its closure earlier in the day. It was like a scene from The Wizard of Oz in reverse, flipping from color to black and white instead—the familiar pink and green neon script of their marquee dark, the lifeless barstools stacked up inside. I, like many Brooklynites, count The Long Island Bar as my favorite watering hole in the borough—a bar that felt rooted and timeless from the moment it opened its doors. Peering into its empty interior, already frozen in time, hit me like a shot to the ribs.

Before I went upstairs, I walked into Montero to pay my respects to Pepe’s wife Linda, who I always address as Mrs. Montero, and asked Kaddy Feast, one of the bartenders, for a PBR. It was too early for karaoke but the bar was quieter than usual. Top Gun was playing on the TV set and aside from me there was a lone man in a sport jacket sipping whiskey, and two couples laughing and clinking beer bottles next to the pool table. I finished my beer and said goodbye. As I pushed some bills in Kaddy’s direction, I remembered what she told me about Montero when I interviewed her for my book, Last Call: “It’s got this nexus of energy from all of the people that have come before. I think a lot of bars have that, but this place is special. It’s the ghosts of people in their rawest form. You drink, you lose inhibitions, there’s sometimes conflict, but mostly it is people coming together.”

The next night’s karaoke would turn out to be Montero’s final bow, as most bars in the city closed their doors the following Monday. Late that Saturday night I sat in the dark with the red glow of the neon sign illuminating my living room. There’s a woman named Sonia who is a dedicated karaoke regular at Montero’s. At least once per night, she takes the mic to sing her signature song, the soothing 1977 disco hit “Native New Yorker,” from the band Odyssey. Through the floorboards I heard her belt it out: “You’re a native New Yorker / You should know the score by now.”

I have a great collection of spirits, but I never drink much at home, even now when home is the only safe place to drink. I long for the community of the bar—the conversations, music and companionship when you pull up a barstool, even if you’re drinking alone. I miss the hustle of activity from the bar downstairs and ache to see the Montero sign blaze to life at twilight again. It’s remained dark since March 15, slowly swaying in the evening breeze.

On the street below, the B61 city bus, empty of passengers, cruises by. I gaze to the horizon of south Brooklyn, where the span of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is illuminated in the distance as the orange hand on the Don’t Walk sign across the street methodically flashes in warning, while the time left to safely cross counts down to zero.

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