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Postcard From New York, or, Searching for Home in Any Old Bar

September 04, 2020

Story: Sebastian Modak

photo: Sebastian Modak

Sebastian Modak, fresh off of 120,000 miles of travel, longs for the bars, near and far, that he called home.

My favorite bar in Japan sits on a side street in Takamatsu, a midsize port city on the island of Shikoku. My first time in Voice Bar last fall, I noticed there were no beer taps and just a handful of mass-market liquor bottles (Seagram’s, Jack, Cuervo), so I ordered a 12-ounce can of Asahi. I was one of two patrons present. From a pair of vintage Swiss-made speakers, the sounds of New Orleans blared. Lights from the nearby video game arcades flickered through the rain-soaked windows. Floor-to-ceiling shelves were filled with vinyl records. Behind the bar I noticed a heavily pixelated photo of two cats wrapped in a ginger and black yin-yang. “Mine,” said the bartender, with a smile. He wore a shirt buttoned up to the collar and thick, circular glasses. He noticed me nodding my head to Dr. John and turned it up.

I had walked into Shiro’s bar looking for some semblance of home. I had gotten into the habit of tricking myself by this point, my tenth month of nonstop travel as a columnist for The New York Times. It was a trick that started with finding a nondescript bar wherever I was—a smoke-filled, fluorescently lit room packed with gray-haired men in downtown Tunis; a line of plastic stools on the side of the road in Danang. There, alone, I’d order a beer—whatever was cheap and local, no more than three in a sitting—and, for as long as I stayed, imagine I was a local.

Voice Bar became more than a momentary illusion, though. I returned almost every night during my week of travel around the region. There, Shiro would tell me in his slow but steady English about the tunes he had collected when his bar was a record store: harp music from Colombia one night, obscure salsa 45s from 1970s New York the next. When I walked in, he would pull out a cold can of Asahi and a tray of peanuts without my needing to ask for it.

A few months later, my yearlong, 120,000-mile trip was over and I was back in New York. I immediately began to reacquaint myself with all the bars I loved, which I went to alone to convince myself that, yes, New York was home. There’s the Irish pub in the West Village where, years ago, the bartender gave me a pep talk and a shot of Jameson when I stopped by after a bombed job interview; the “glory days” holdout in the East Village where the removal of the Big Buck Hunter console was akin to an international incident; the cozy retreat in Harlem where beers come in frosted glasses the size of a human head.

Then the pandemic hit, and those bars closed. In early summer, the first restaurants started reopening for outdoor-only dining and the city transformed once again. The streets buzzed with release. Koreatown, once a stretch of busy barbecue restaurants and karaoke bars in a particularly soulless corner of Midtown, has started resembling a bustling European city, with tables taking over the sidewalks.

But my “home” bars—the ones with jukeboxes that hadn’t been changed in years, where the bartenders could tell whether you wanted to chat or just sit and listen to the music—didn’t have the menus to make it work. They’re still closed.

Upon my return to New York, Shiro began sending me emails with new music recommendations. While they mostly contained links, he also included short messages.

In May, he wrote one with the subject line “Slow Days.” I gathered he had been hiking a lot. “There are many rice ball shaped small mountains in Kagawa,” the message read.

In August, he wrote to me again. “I Guess You Miss Travel So Much,” he wrote, under a pair of links to documentaries he had recently watched.

“Yes, I miss travel,” I wrote back. “But I miss so many things.”

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Tagged: postcard

Sebastian Modak is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist based in New York City. In 2019, as the New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler, he traveled to and reported from all the places on the Times52 Places to Go list. His work has also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, The Washington Post, AFAR and more.