“That’s my chair honey.”
Rosemary Bleday reprimands a customer as he puts his hands on an empty chair at the end of the bar. Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern is packed to bursting with St. Patrick’s Day revelers, yet one chair remains tantalizingly open. It sits in a prime location, facing out on Bedford Avenue and providing a vantage point of the entire tavern. But Rosemary’s spot will always be Rosemary’s spot, like it has been for 60 years.
“Do you know how many miles I’ve had behind this bar?” she asks.
Rosemary is 83 years old. She tells me that when her parents bought the tavern in 1955, she started working at the bar from day one. She remembers the days when rent for a Williamsburg four-bedroom was only $22 per month, when central heating was an inconceivable luxury, and when a night spent dancing on the bartop was part of a hard day’s work. Today you’re more likely to find her perched on her stool, sipping on a small glass of wine and surveilling her kingdom with Queen-like authority. A Queen who’s very good to her subjects.
For St. Pat’s Day the bar is decked out in green tinsel, fairy lights and sparkling leprechaun hats. The green hue mingles with the bar’s red interior, lending the place a festive cheer. Rosemary wears a turquoise sweater. Bright green baubles dangle from her ears and a tiara of plastic clovers sits on top of her head. Even newcomers to the tavern approach Rosemary to pay their respects. She greets each of them with a grandmotherly warmth and they respond, eager to please.
“Do you live around here?” she asks one customer.
“I live near the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop, do you know it?”
“That’s not too far!”
“Yeah! And I work on 14th Street, so I’m gonna be here all the time!”
“So come tomorrow, we’re going to have cupcakes!”
At one point during the evening Rosemary is given a tray of 14 Jameson shots. She walks around the bar, carefully selecting the customers that are loyal enough to deserve one. She gives them each a heads up that food will be soon be served. “I want you guys to have the first pick,” she tells them. Two of the lucky 14 are a Polish couple who live in Queens. They’ve made the trip down to Rosemary’s almost every week for the past 13 years. “I come for four reasons,” the husband tells me, “price, size, location” — he points to Rosemary’s trademark 32-ounce styrofoam beer cups — “and her!” He gestures to Rosemary, who’s currently mopping up a small puddle of beer from the floor.
“I run a tight ship,” Rosemary announces with pride. I’m told that despite the St. Patty’s Day celebrations being in full swing, Rosemary already has her Easter decorations lined up. “People call us the holiday inn,” she says, “I think that’s a good thing!”
Rosemary’s an entrepreneur through and through. Her penchant for festivity and the ease with which she shmoozes with her customers, both young and old, are all part of her time-tested business model. “She certainly keeps it old school,” says Jay, one of her barmen. The only thing that that she dislikes more than the idea of card payments is the thought of having an ATM machine fitted in the bar. “I have enough paperwork to deal with!” she explains. Tonight she’s also concerned about the delays that the L train has recently suffered during peak periods. “It’s been so bad for business,” she tells me. The Greenpoint Tavern is located just off the Bedford L stop.
Rosemary has a finely tuned ability to reel off anecdote after anecdote about everything from her early childhood, “my mother had sixteen siblings,” she explains: “my grandparents were Catholics from Ukraine!” To her recent hip replacement: “I looked like E.T after the operation,” she says, “and I was walking like a drunk without a drink!” Her bar-owner persona is a throwback to a time when the running of a bar required the charisma of an entertainer combined with the iron fist of a disciplinarian. “If you’re gonna behave badly, you will be kicked out” — she suddenly becomes stern, embodying her role — “and I’ll do the kicking!”
However, time has taken its toll. Williamsburg has quite literally evolved around Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern. “We could’ve done without those skyscrapers. They belong in Manhattan!” Rosemary tells me that come July, new regulations will be put into place that will prevent her from using her giant styrofoam cups. “I don’t know why, everybody seems to like ‘em!” While things like the City’s tightened environmental policy on the use of styrofoam might impact the bar’s drink practices and prices, it’s the personality of the tavern’s owner that preserves its old-timey charm. Rosemary stands behind the bar wiping its top when a customer approaches to give her his order. “You wanna drink, huh? Honey I’m too old. Actually, no, I’m too young to work the bar!”
“We’ve had a lot of changes…” Rosemary explains to me, wistfully, when I ask her about living in Williamsburg for such a long time. “Good changes!” she adds, “But this bar is Brooklyn to me.”