New York City: Bemelmans

Time travel costs money. Who would expect any less, right? But to do it right and proper, you’ve got to go all out: You want to dress the part, eat the part, walk and talk look the part—whether you’re headed to 1920s Paris or Caesar’s Rome. If there’s sparring, you’d better have a shield, if there’s adventure, you’d better have a raccoon hat and some thick leather pants. If there’s cocktails and dancing—and for me, ideally there would be cocktails and dancing—you’d better know how to drink, and you’d better know how to dance.

If I want to time travel, I go to Bemelmans Bar. I bring a wad of cash thick enough for a coat check, two $30 cocktails, and two very generous tips: one for the bartender in the red jacket with the black bow tie; one for the man at the piano, who always smiles and nods at you when he teases out the first few notes of the song you’ve requested.

The first time I went, it was with my brand-new husband in celebration of our wedding. “We’ve got to go to Bemelmans,” he insisted, straightening his wedding-day tie—the one he bought from New Zealand on a rush order, the replica of Bogie’s tie in the final scene of Casablanca. The one which cost more to ship than my dress cost to buy. The perfect time-traveling tie.

We sat side-by-side in one of the deep banquettes, holding hands tightly under the table, using our free hands to eat too many of the snacks replenished by attentive tuxedoed waiters. Chewing salty roasted almonds, feeling like visitors from a future time, we sank into the leather upholstery and looked around us at a scene straight out of 1942. We requested our song, the one we’d just had a friend sing at our ceremony: “That’s All.” The pianist queued it up and played marvelously, nodding at us with a warm smile. Hands squeezed tighter under the table. More roasted almonds. A $35 glass of red wine. A Pisco Sour. Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York and on top of the world, walked in and sat near us with some friends, laughing and joking and drinking tonic water. We outstayed him. We outstayed almost everyone.

It was a brilliant evening. It cost more than the whole of our wedding and reception combined. We didn’t care. This was time travel.

Photo by Flickr user arvindgrover


For our third anniversary, we went back: We are both of the type for whom anniversaries are as special, maybe even more special, than the original event. An anniversary means you survived another year—not just together, but in general. You’re still alive. That’s no small feat.

We sat in the same place by chance, and Brett was wearing the same tie, tucked smartly under a deep blue flannel suit: I’d graduated to a black silk skirt, swishing wildly over layers of crinoline, and a black-lace vintage top. Red lipstick, tipped felt hat, sparkling brooch. I looked like Bette Davis.

(From the neck down anyway. If we’re only talking about clothes. And you ignore the fact that I could never wear heels. Ok, fine, absolutely nothing like Bette Davis. But I looked great.)

I had an Old Cuban, Brett a Whiskey Smash. We sipped them, not having quite the same ready bundle of cash at hand to blow, no matter how special an anniversary is: Time travel is expensive, but so is daily life in New York City. Our free hands dipped hungrily into the almonds, the free potato chips, and even, when those two ran out, attempted the wasabi peas. (Not everything needs to be authentic for the time travel to successfully maintain its charm. In my opinion, anyway.) We listened to the sweet tinkling of the piano, the civilized hum of murmured conversation, the delicate sound of glassware being placed onto tables, of rings tapping against wine glasses, of flirting and gentle laughter.

Heaven is a bar like that. Heaven is a Whiskey Smash.

We sat at our drinks for an hour, watching people come and go, eating caviar and leaving a trail of fancy French cologne in the air when they strolled past to leave. I glanced at the door and my mouth dropped open; I nudged Brett.

“Would you believe that? Look who just walked in.”

It was the (now former) Governor Spitzer, leading his lithely beautiful wife and two friends to—oh, dear, to the table next to ours. Governor Spitzer scooched in to the banquette next to us, reaching immediately for a pawful of the nuts on his table. (We’re not the only ones.)

For a few moments, Brett and I just stared at each other. Were we time traveling inside of a time travel?! We hadn’t planned on so meta an occasion.

“Do you think he hangs out here all the time?” I asked.

“Nice life if so,” Brett said. I nodded and took a sip. We sat on in a nervous silence, both wanting and not wanting to continue acknowledging this weird anniversary incident, this weird warp, a tear in the fabric of our reality.

Brett finally cracked. “I’m going to say something.” I gave him a look, my eyes widening just enough as if to say, “Honey, please…” He cut me off. “Don’t worry, I promise I’ll be brief.”

He leaned over and got the Governor’s attention, gently. He said why we were there, married three years now and celebrating in style. “Congratulations!” Spitzer beamed. “I have 25 years with my own wife, and we’re here celebrating the wedding of our friends.” He indicated to the couple across the table, jerking his thumb in their direction. The husband waved shyly, smiled.

“Funny thing,” Brett continued, “you were actually here on our wedding night. You sat over there with some friends—and I have to say we outstayed you by quite a bit.”

Spitzer’s face scrunched in surprise. “You’ve got to be kidding. Are you joking?” Brett shook his head. “Well, that’s amazing, because I’ll tell you what—this is only my second time here, and that was the first!” We laughed, louder than is probably appropriate for that kind of bar. We delighted each other.

After the drinks and the music, after bathing in the dim light of the painted sconces and the perfect New York mural—the only public display of Ludwig Bemelmans art, the perfect room-spanning depiction of the seasons and Central Park and life in a New York we wish we knew—Brett and I got up to leave.

“I wish you the very best,” Governor Spitzer said as we left. “Best of luck in marriage and life.”

We stepped out into 2010 holding hands; we could see our breath in the cold night air.



4 thoughts on “New York City: Bemelmans

  1. Sounds like a magical experience. This makes me want to go and have my own Bemelmans experience myself! Any other favorite bars for “time travel” like this one?

  2. As a new blogger to WordPress, I find this story (NYC: Bemelmans) quite refreshing. I imagine myself reading one of your stories every week (space out the five story span) and this being the time of the year that it is, it would be perfect snuggled up with a warm beverage.. I will be subscribing to your stories via email. Good day!

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