Walking the streets of Williamsburg, Dan Ruth can point out the buildings where squatters used to hold court. He still remembers the excellent soundtrack at King’s Pharmacy, the unvarnished temperament of the lady behind the Stroll-In Video counter, impromptu concerts in the back of bars, and gaggles of old ladies acting as the sentinels of his block. He wouldn’t claim to be part of the first wave of artists and musicians moving out to Williamsburg in search of cheap rents, but he was definitely hot on their heels.
An aspiring actor originally from Pennsylvania, he jumped across the water in 1995–a time when internet cafes were having their short-lived period in the sun–and never looked back.
“When I came out here for the first time, I was like: This is Narnia. All bets are off,” he said. And Ruth took in everything the blossoming neighborhood had to offer with great gusto, as a booze-loving denizen of Sweetwater Tavern (arguably the neighborhood’s first punk rock bar), Mugs Alehouse, Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern, and, eventually, as a bartender and manager at the Brooklyn Ale House, until it closed in 2014.
Much of the Williamsburg scene Ruth first fell in love with has gone by the wayside now, as chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, J. Crew and Whole Foods crowd in alongside new glassy condos with gyms and city-view balconies. Even the Sweetwater Tavern is now a bougied-up bistro, the famed grody pool table replaced by a tasteful rustic table. But now Ruth is putting his 18 years of tending bar to use with a one-man show, A Life Behind Bars, playing at the Gutter Bar on April 25 and May 9.
The show is a depiction of life in the service business that any bartender can relate to, with all the crazy customers, small triumphs and sticky situations that make up the job. Ruth morphs from one cartoonish character to the next, including a tight-ass health inspector, a NNWM (New Neighbor With Money), and a Long Island tourist, interspersed with his narrator, a spoken-word character out of the Beat generation.
But as the show progresses, it moves from the general “everyman” bartender story to Ruth’s personal experiences, from dealing with his crazy landlord, to a lovelorn encounter with a skaterboy, to his darkest moment as an alcoholic hitting rock bottom.
“My whole party started in Manhattan, I guess you could say, because I was enjoying myself–and the city was there for you,” Ruth said. “And I think my first mistake along the road was not realizing: This is the catch. You can have fun, but you can also stray very quickly from your original intent. Which is what happened with me.”
Ruth had first moved to the city with dreams of Saturday Night Live stardom. But when his acting and playwriting career hit a snag, his schedule soon came to revolve around bartending and partying. What started out as the time of his life eventually became something darker. As he says in his play, “drinking went from celebration to medication to self destruction.” In 2006 he took time off from bartending to get sober and eventually returned to his job, drinking soda water behind the bar instead of whiskey. He recently celebrated 10 years of sobriety.
After the Brooklyn Ale House closed in 2014, Ruth felt somewhat adrift–it had been like “a huge family” to him over the years. And with his 50th birthday nearing, he wanted some kind of totem to commemorate his journey. He decided to go back to his writing and acting roots, which he had barely touched since the late ’90s.
“I discovered that, because the bar was closing, it was on my mind, and that’s what I was writing about, and writing these characters,” he said. With the help of workshops and mentors, like the Abrons Arts Center, his script turned from a 20-minute sketch to an hour-long show, a redemption laying bare Ruth’s journey. “There’s something very gratifying and very fulfilling to be able to tell the truth to an audience, and not really care about what they think or feel,” he said. “I would rather get my ass on stage and just speak as myself, than hide my experiences.”
Of course, through his long and varied career, Ruth has also become something of a connoisseur of the bar scene. He’s a bit disdainful of the Mad Men classic-cocktail vibe, but has a special place in his heart for the shot-and-beer haunts off the beaten path. “To me, dive bars have ghosts, dive bars have dirt. They have dust. They have time,” he said. “They have those stories, they have the people who have made it what it is through the years. They remain intact because of the people protecting it and whatnot. You don’t open up a new bar and pretend it’s a dive bar.”
Ruth, who has no patience for the Santacon crowd (aka entitled millennials obsessed with social media), has a couple of other pieces of etiquette advice for the NNWM (or even the NN without money) trying to navigate a neighborhood bar without incurring what Louis CK might call a douchebag tax. “You don’t come in and demand things,” he said. “I generally think that when you walk into a place you should get a good idea of the atmosphere before you start whipping out a selfie stick and ordering.” Other behaviors likely to get you a club soda from an old school bar hand? Butting into conversations without any warmup, asking a bartender, “What’s good?” or “What do you like?” and demanding a buyback.
“There’s something about knowing where you are and relaxing into meeting people as opposed to forcing yourself,” Ruth said. “I’ve always made jokes–You break the ice before you go in for the kill.”
And if you really want to invest in making a best friend out of your local bartender, become an afternoon drinker. “I went into many a bar in the afternoon because it’s quieter then,” he explained. “I think bartenders are more susceptible to conversation when they’re not busy–you gotta know when do you chat up a bartender and when not to.”
Ruth thinks some of the usual grease for conversation and camaraderie in the bar scene has been lost thanks to technology. “In the ’90s there were no phones, there was no Yelp,” he said. “So I don’t know if it’s a generational thing–I don’t think it is, I think it’s a human thing–that people stopped living in the moment and now they’re pretending that they’re living in the moment because they’re capturing the moment.”
I wondered how he experienced the neighborhood’s hyper-gentrification over the past decades. Ruth said he and his “old neighborhood” friends feel like they stick out like sore thumbs in the new, sleek, designer Williamsburg. “The people who have been here for a while, we look at the neighborhood more through baffled eyes–how are these people paying what they’re paying to live here?” he said. “I find the neighborhood has become very plastic and antiseptic and corporately owned.”
But he can’t spend too much time dwelling on gentrification’s victims. He says A Life Behind Bars is only the beginning of his performance rebirth–there are plenty more bar stories where those came from and he’s hustling to keep writing. As he crows at the end of his show: “If life gives you booze–make some art!”
A Life Behind Bars,The Gutter, 200 North 14th Street. April 25 and May 11 at 7 p.m.