- 10 Mar 15
A legend in the Big Apple, The Scratcher is a venue with a difference. It isn’t just that it is hard to get out of it in the morning (though it can be!); rather, it is a special kind of place, where artists and creative types meet, share the knowledge and go in search of the spark that gives New York its unique quality. That it remains as vibrant as ever twenty years after it first opened its doors is some achievement for a place that has its roots firmly in Ireland. Report: Margaret Miller
“The Scratcher was pieced together out of old railroad ties and dumpster finds. On the afternoon it was about to open, Jerome O’Connor came in saying he’d spotted a great old mirror in a dumpster down the street. A few of us went down and carried it back up fifth street and set it behind the bar and it’s been there ever since. It’s always had that kind of organic magic to it. As a young writer, it was a place I could always find inspiration. Even new, it already had a history to it.”
-Colin Broderick, Author and Filmmaker
Back in 1995, a bunch of broke Irish guys built a bar.
It was a different New York then, one where something like that could happen. There were fewer rules downtown and sharper edges. Junkies and artists packed into the abandoned tenements that would soon sell for a few million at least. There was a Wild West sensibility to the Lower East Side and everyone was coasting on cheap beer and paint fumes. It was the great grey wilderness and a few roaming Irish found a home in the concrete, and set up shop.
In 1988, Karl Geary left his job selling wallpaper on Talbot Street to try his luck as a New York something. He was 16 at the time and fell into a world that often swallowed or spat out those older and wiser than him. Through guts or luck or both Karl survived and made a life for himself in the States. Before he was old enough to drink, he opened The Scratcher – a bar with no sign on the north side of 5th Street.
Last month I met Karl at The Scratcher, a place he co-owns with Dermot Burke and Tony Caffrey. I’ve known Karl for a few years now, from drinking in his bar, and I‘m always convinced he won’t remember me – he always does. He’s permanently young, his gray hair being the only clue he’s a day over 30.
“I was a bike messenger for a while,” Karl recalls, “and then I was working in a club up on 21st a couple of Irish guys – the Dunnes – owned, called Tramps. And I had a cousin, he used to sell used tires in Ireland that he would buy over here and ship them across. And his partner at the time is a guy called Shane Doyle. I knew Shane a little bit. I would be downstairs and you’d get a cup of coffee in Gem Spa – that was the coffee in the day. I would buy my coffee and a pack of smokes and Shane would come in and buy his coffee and a pack of smokes and we had no interest in each other because you aren’t here to meet Irish guys. So we’d kind of ‘How are ya?’ and that’s all you’d get.”
For those unfamiliar with the name, Shane Doyle is something of an East Village legend. It’s a title mostly to do with his founding of Sin-é – a now-closed café on St. Marks that harbored many a musical phenomenon. It was the perfect and unlikely home for artists including Jeff Buckley, Sinead O’Connor, Mark Geary and many others.
“Shane approached me in Tramps,” Karl continues, “to see if I’d come over and work with him in Sin-é. And that’s how I ended up in Sin-é. And I know for the first 6 months the rent was paid – cause Shane was handy at cards – so he’d go and he’d play cards down on Mott Street and that’s how the rent got paid. Because nobody came in. And it was an afterthought to bring the music in. Because it wasn’t happening…”
What was your first job when you walked into Sin-é?
“It was pretty loose. I remember distinctly because a cappuccino machine was delivered, and Shane and I were trying to figure out how to work it and we realized that neither of us had ever had a cappuccino.”
Like: where does the coffee go?
“Yeah. And we were just trying to figure out what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done! It was a really nice machine. I’ll never forget it. It was this beautiful thing. But it was before that world even started.”
Had you a sense that Sin-é might become legendary at the time?
“No! No, no, no, no. And that’s what was great about it – like by the second time you walked into Sin-é, they’d know you. And you were welcome. It became a place where musicians just happened to really like to play at. They’d do their ‘official’ gig and they’d go and do the gig in Sin-é. And that’s what the venue was. And if you’re there and you witness it, it’s pretty amazing. [Jeff] Buckley played every Tuesday night, mostly to empty houses and nobody gave a fuck. It was great. But you knew what he was doing. He was working his own stuff out before he went out in the world.
“But then you’d have other nights – one Sunday afternoon I remember we just happened to be setting up the mikes for something and the place was half the size of The Scratcher, it was tiny. Sinead O’Conner was washing dishes in the back and Marianne Faithful walked in with Hal Wilner and they were having a chat – it was like these two prize boxers you know? And they were kind of eyeing each other. And I think Shane must have said something about the mike being on – “Do you wanna bang away?” So Marianne got up and sang a song and Sinead got up and sang a song. And by the end of it they were doing these duets and it went on for about an hour – hour and a half. And the traffic was stopped out on Saint Marks – people were just walking in and going ‘Fuck’. But it was just like if you happened to be there. Nobody was watching it with their phone, it was different.”
Why did Sin-é close?
“Em... a lot of reasons. It peaked. And it was great. I think what happened there is – people got tired. You know it was a different New York back then as well… It got messy and so it ended. But it needed to end. Because you can’t sustain that because it becomes a thing and then you lose it. It was around exactly the right amount of time.
That’s a good way of putting it: “It becomes a thing.”
“Well, once it’s tangible like that, it loses its own mystery. I see that out in Brooklyn a lot – these places that are so crazy to be cool, you know? Sin-é was never cool. It was never a scene.”
* * *
“Everything centered around Sin-é when I moved to New York in 1993. It was owned and run by Shane Doyle and Karl Geary. I moved around and stayed in several shared apartments on St. Marks, Canal and Essex – Mark Geary would stay there with us at times. I began to work at Sin-é and even painted down in the basement for a while. It was while Jeff Buckley played there Monday’s and Sinead O’Connor and Bob Geldof were two of the many people who visited. Karl was so young, he was back and forth to Ireland. He was always a sweetheart, well able to make witty comments or sit around looking gorgeously pensive. I had done a few murals in midtown... so Karl was opening The Scratcher with Dermot and they asked me if I could do a mural there of whatever I wanted. I got paid for it. It was a lovely few days when I was working on it. I remember it as the spring, though it may not have been. I remember the sunlight coming in the door and the smell of freshly cut wood and the all important cappuccino machine. It always had an atmosphere, even as it was being built.”
- Nuala Clarke, Artist
* * *
Karl and I were mid-interview in the corner of Scratcher when a fight broke out on 5th street. It was a strange and deafening argument between disgruntled lovers. The woman was yelling and sobbing and the man kept screaming over and over again “GO HOME! GO HOME!” We tried to ignore it for a good minute before that became an impossibility. We sat stiff and silent and waited for either side to give in. Just when the street would quiet and we would start to resume the interview, the man would start back into the chorus: “GO HOME! GO HOME!”
For many Irish back in the 80s and 90s, New York was a place you overstayed. You might get into the country as a tourist or a student and then – more often than not –miss your flight back home. Legality was the exception, not the rule; but lack of documentation created a lingering unease for “overstays.” It also made visiting home an impossibility. Thanks to immigration reform, spearheaded by Brian Donnelly in 1986 and then Bruce Morrison in 1990, there was a reprieve for some Irish immigrants in the form of a lottery.
“ You were allowed to apply as many times as you liked which was a disastrous idea,” Karl recalls. “I think I applied eleven hundred times, which wasn’t uncommon. We had a factory in Sin-é, you’d have guys coming in with boxes of envelopes and the [forms] and you’d photocopy them and you’d have to fill out each one because they had to be hand-written. And then you would mail them from different locations hoping to up your odds – and then, closer to the time, drive down to Arlington Virginia and fuck the envelopes over this fence. But the stakes were so high.”
But you got it.
“I got it, first year.”
And what did that mean?
“It offered some legitimacy – and let me open a bar basically.”
Karl, Dermot Burke and Tony Caffrey found each other the way you found people back then – from around. They had no money but a few rickety connections in the Irish construction scene and a cappuccino maker.
“ When I was running Sin-é, Dermot had come into me,” Karl says. “He was thinking about opening a little place in the Bronx but he had no experience. So we sat and we chatted for hours and I tried to, in a small way, help him understand the basics – how you put a business together. You know he’d never done that… And I’ve worked with guys over the years and had different business partners and I always felt like the focus was on the wrong things.”
What was it on?
“A certain amount of ego can go into a business in that people miss what’s happening in their own space. There’s people who are only focused on cash registers – what’s in the till and the bottom line. And what I felt with Dermot was that was never his focus: he was just a decent guy. And we haven’t changed. We’re doing exactly what we did then. And there’s no sign outside.
“If you know where we are, it’s word of mouth. And all you’re doing is creating a space where people can communicate. You know, in whatever way they want. And it’s gorgeous. Actually it’s such a basic thing that I look around and I’m shocked at how rarely it happens.
Did you have money saved?
“No! When I say we opened with nothing we really opened with nothing... The seats, the bar, the back bar – they were 20 bucks. I bribed a foreman up in Harlem to give me the wood. And we brought it down here and we built the bar. It was doable back then. But now, if you’re new coming to New York, the only thing you can focus on is making money.
“The whole model has shifted towards this grasping for pennies; whereas it used to be what made downtown special and separate from Wall Street and separate from the rest of America was that you could be here and you could do your gig two or three days somewhere and you could go and nurture yourself to become what you were supposed to become... Like, everyone who works behind the bar here has always been, to me at least, amazing. They’re fantastic people. And it’s because they all have time to go and do their other stuff. They’re smart people who are doing really cool shit.”
Just then, Karl half-stood and sidestepped his way out of the booth. For a moment I thought he was off to take care of bar business until he reached for his coat.
“Are we having a cigarette?” he suggested.
The argument outside had settled itself one way or the other and the street was quiet again. I blurted out an affirmative as I grabbed my coffee.
Time for a smoke break…
* * *
“I worked and played music there for over 10 years. It was the place that grounded me. A place that I would return to for my friendships and the joy of playing music.”
-Mark Geary, Singer-Songwriter
* * *
The first time I went to The Scratcher was to hear Brendan O’Shea. It was a Sunday and he was singing through his new album Songs from a Tenement with then-girlfriend (now wife) Jenna Nichols. I had met Brendan at our local coffee shop about a month before and we enjoyed an easy friendship. He told me he was playing and asked me to stop in – so I did. As it turned out, I was walking into my first Scratcher Session. I set up at the back and tried to look like I belonged there.
At first, nothing seemed unusual about the room or the fact that people were singing in it. But as the evening progressed and the audience stayed quiet, the ease of the place turned into a separate presence. The Scratcher is not a music venue – at least not in the traditional sense. There’s no stage or sound system, not even a piano. Brendan and Jenna were just set up with their guitars and a small amp at the front of the bar. But by the third song, I could tell I was in the middle of something very old and not of this world – at least not of mine.
Brendan was born in Massachusetts to Irish parents and moved over to Killarney when he was two-and-a-half. He made is way back to America in January of ’97 to check out the music scene. He stayed with his cousin, actor Donal Logue– the only person he knew in the city. Brendan started working at The Scratcher in June of that summer.
In 2007, he and partner Pete Olshanksy started The Scratcher Sessions, a music gig that runs every Sunday night. I made a return trip to catch the two of them during Brendan’s shift to ask them about the Sessions. It was an unusually busy night for a Thursday. Like Karl, Brendan has a fair dash of ‘little boy’ in his eyes and talks quickly in a Kerry brogue.
“Where can you go to a café, or a bar for that matter, and listen solely to good music?” Brendan asks. “And New York’s changed, you know that. So we’re just trying to play our part in keeping that alive in a sense... The fact that The Scratcher Sessions have been going 10 years is kind of amazing. This kind of situation isn’t that common anymore. No TVs, no food, just a fuckin’ bar you know? So to have a bit of music in that – it’s kind of keepin’ something that ‘was’ going.”
Pete, an executive in Film Post Production, is an avid music fan. He saw over 200 shows in 2014. He and Brendan treat the Sessions like their baby – only taking breaks when Brendan is touring or Pete is attending many a music festival.
“The Sessions.” Pete explains, “have never been one type of thing or another.”
“We’re open,” Brendan elaborates. “We’re up for anything. And we don’t give a shit about how many people you pull in. But we are particular about the quality of acts that we book. And we have a standard to maintain.”
Musicians are selected by committee for The Sessions, via their Facebook page (“The Scratcher Sessions.”) You also might be heard on the street or at a gig and invited down to play. The only requirement is having something acoustic to champion. The bar is kind, but you must fit into it, both figuratively and physically. And there is no snobbery allowed.
“I mean, to look at it you wouldn’t think it would sound that good,” Pete says. “It’s got low ceilings, it’s right on the street. But it just works: somehow it works.”
He isn’t lying. There’s more than a little luck involved. Rooms are strange things with long memories – and the echoes of this room are dusty and delicate. I felt it the first time I heard someone sing there – that I was listening to a collection. And Brendan and Pete don’t take anything for granted. They have a standard introduction for each session. It never changes much:
“Please put your phones on silent. Please wait until the end of a song to go out for a smoke. Please know that someone in the room is playing music for you. “
* * *
Karl and I set up on the stoop outside of The Scratcher and smoked our cigarettes in the cold.
“See this was always intended to be a music venue,” he states. “And when we opened here – I was behind the bar everyday – you’re looking across and you’re watching what’s happening – and again that ego thing, you can force it to be something or you can look at it and see what it is. It’s not unlike kids. You know you can look at what they are and who they are or you can start fucking beating them up. And I think, early on, there were certain things that happened really well and we had some brilliant people and some great readings, readings worked really well here. We put plays on and everything.”
“Yeah. The guys would come in and bring in their set and everything it was really cool. And stuff like that would really work but it wasn’t what this was. And I realized that I was trying to duplicate something from Sin-é. And you can’t duplicate Sin-é. You have to let it be itself and it takes on its own life.”
So what makes The Scratcher what it is?
“The thing we’re harnessing is the transfer of information from person to person in a human way, and I don’t mean on Facebook. And that’s how films get made and plays get put on and all of that stuff that happens – that little nucleus of fucking excitement that happens in a bar late at night. That becomes something so important. If you lose that in a place, it’s gone. Listen, New York is not New York because of Wall Street. Do you know what I mean? It’s these little fucking sparks that happen around the place and if you lose your culture in that way, you have nothing – there is nothing else. It’s vital. I mean, look, New York comes in waves anyway, it always has. But we’re in a place at the moment in New York where it’s gone flat. And it’s entirely unacceptable. And if this place in a very small way can add to – can keep that fire burning…”
It’s scary because it could go away. New York could lose the heart which is essential to its creativity…
“It could go away,” Karl says. “It’s the difference between independent film vs. TV and we’re a TV town right now. Whereas you go back 20 years when you had Jim Jarmusch walking down the street – these people were really doing stuff and, fuck, we need them here again now. For a long time I took what went on here for granted as just how it was. And [my family and I] were always moving around a little bit and every time I would come back here I would realize, I’d come in and I’d just feel at home – that it’s a nice room.
“And it’s really not!” he laughs.) “It’s got low ceilings, it hasn’t seen an architectural touch in its life. It’s kind of rough and ready. But something feels good – even when the bar wasn’t here, walking into this room felt good.”
Karl looked down into his empty coffee cup.
“ I mean I love this room. And you can’t love every room.”
* * *
“I had such a hard time leaving Scratcher. It sounds corny but the bar and all of its people were imbedded in the blueprint of my heart and soul. When would I ever again work in a bar where I could play my own music, spend slow shifts talking to and learning from NYU philosophy professors, psychologists, porn addicts and lovelusts? Their stories glimmering with beauty and the heartaches that exemplify life, they told me gold. The passionate core of Ireland alive in this little hole, just beneath the sidewalk level.”
-Renata Morren, Writer
* * *
Mark Connell is a very nice Scotsman who started working at Scratcher back in ’97 with Brendan. He was a transplant from Botanica, a bar on Houston, where he would pick up dirty glasses in exchange for free drinks. The Scratcher had just gotten its liquor license (an upgrade from the beer and wine allowance) and Mark knew how to mix. I met up with him and his wife Jessica in Botanica – which they now own.
“ I always saw Scratcher as a beacon of sorts for the Irish,” Mark reflects. “For all of us really. It was definitely the most creative collection.”
I had actually heard about ‘Scottish Mark’ and ‘Irish Mark’ (Mark Geary) – and Brendan – years before I met them. With their charm and gaelic accents, they became a bit of a tourist attraction for many an NYU undergrad. Who was the biggest flirt or hardest worker changes depending on who you’re asking – usually the one you’re talking to was ‘the only one who ever did a fucking thing.’
However, The Scratcher always had ethics. It is and always was a safe space for a girl to go into on her own, and there is a hint of old-world chivalry about the place. The staff keep a kind eye on you; they take care of anyone who drinks too much or needs a cab home.
I remember one morning after a Scratcher night, I realized to my horror that I had lost my wallet. Two days later, I got a postcard in the mail: “We got your address off your license. Your wallet is at The Scratcher. It’s behind the cash register. Love, Natalie and Francesca.”
“What makes the best bars,” Mark explains, “is when the bartenders are able to stand and talk and form relationships. Restaurants are a pain in the ass because you have to turn the tables over. In bars, your job is to talk to people really, and to give a shit.”
There is also a serious sense of the staff and community taking care of each other. Anyone that works at The Scratcher becomes a part of the family and legacy – a web that sometimes thins but never seems to quite break. When Mark and Jessica got married in Scotland, Brendan and Karl were there with other crew members, and Mark Geary was the best man.
* * *
“It’s the most un-Irish Irish bar in the city. No flags, no leprechauns, whiskey promos or shamrocks. It’s a community bar, where a lot of the songs from my last two records found their shape. Sitting in the back of the bar late at night with your tea and the other singers and writers and sharing thoughts and sketches; it’s been a great benefit to us all: Renata’s writing, Brendan’s songs, Michael’s songs, actors, poets and random sessions. In any city, especially a big one like New York, it becomes a much better place when there’s a place to gather and share ideas in an informal manner. The Scratcher has been a raft in the sea... we all need our place to be. And at 2 am on a Tuesday night, unable to sleep, The Scratcher is a warm place to crawl into.”
-Glen Hansard, Singer-Songwriter
* * *
It didn’t take long after finding it for The Scratcher to become the only place I drank in New York. A big draw to the bar was Renata – a pretty, tattooed bartender I got along well with. I would come every Sunday and drink Stella after Stella until she closed. We’d talk about music and writing and everything else you can talk about with someone you’ve only seen from the waist up.
On one of these Sundays, I accidentally fell into my first sing-song, a word I never heard before that night. It was late and Brendan had just finished presenting a Scratcher Session and Glen Hansard was in for a cup of tea.
I barely noticed when the room went silent and suddenly there was a guitar. I sat there as still as possible as the music filled the space from seemingly out of nowhere.
We stayed there for hours that night, passing the guitar around, telling stories and bad jokes. No one was drinking. Something was happening on a molecular level and we were doing our best not to get in the way of it. There was a quiet urgency to the room that night – a pocketful of tramps singing song after song, until their hands stopped working. They weren’t trying to recreate something that happened in Ireland – they weren’t trying to recreate something full stop.
That’s the thing about The Scratcher: you take what it gives when it decides to give it. It’s a room that has no interest in either church or state or planting flags – it is a room without gesture. When this all started 20 years ago, I wonder if these Irish had any idea that they were going to be the new sons of Dirty Old New York – that they might be charged with preserving something that is now endangered.
Last month, The Scratcher turned 20 and renewed its lease for another 10 years, which is something of an East Village miracle. These days, landlords can charge pretty much whatever they want and someone, somewhere will pay it. The Scratcher was never a huge moneymaker and could have easily gone downstream. But by luck or grace, the boys got an extension on their New York residency. It’s good news for everyone, especially me. Like many others, I found important things in that place – things that are now somehow essential. It would be a true shame if it were to go away.
Because, after all, you can’t love every room.
– Colin Broderick is the author of acclaimed memoirs Orangutan and That's That. (Random House) He's currently writing Emerald City, a film about the Irish construction workers of New York.
– Brendan O' Shea can be found most months playing at Rockwood Music Hall in the East Village and he's working on a new record. For tour updates and to purchase music visit brendanoshea.com.
– Mark Geary will be touring NYC in early April including a Scratcher Session on April 5th. He's also playing Whelan’s in Dublin to benefit St. Vincent De Paul on April 22nd and touring Ireland in May. For information and music visit markgeary.com.
– Nuala Clarke's artwork can be seen and purchased at nualaclarke.com. Her mural is still up in The Scratcher bathroom.
– Glen Hansard has a new album coming out soon and will be celebrating The Frames 25th anniversary in July.
– Renata Morren, a writer, is working on several projects (including her daughter!) up in Hastings on the Hudson.