Editor’s Note: The Coliseum Bar, the unassuming place where we talked with the late Anthony Bourdain, sadly closed a matter of days ago. The author brought us word of a similar place in Manhattan, still open, and may it long remain so.
The lower level of Manhattan’s Penn Station, hub of the Long Island Rail Road, is an underlit, unlovely warren of escalators and narrow staircases that spits out some 301,400 commuters a day.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also very alcohol friendly. Beer is available at the recently opened Shake Shack and occupies five refrigerated cases at a mammoth Duane Reade. Budget-minded customers can pick up bottles of hard alcohol at Penn Wine & Liquors or a 22-ounce can from the brimming coolers at the delis and dollar slice spots that ring the main hall. In this drab space, the cops tasked with policing such behavior rarely intervene.
But there’s only one real bar to duck into before catching the 6:53 to Ronkonkoma or to knock back a shot before a Knicks game.
Tucked between a McDonald’s and the LIRR’s ticket booths is Tracks, a railroad-themed, no-frills Irish bar that serves inexplicably good oysters and, on any given weeknight, is packed to capacity with people marking the divide between their work and home lives.
“It’s kind of, like, not a destination,” Mike Qi, an employee at a midtown management consultancy who declined to offer more detail about his job because, he joked, he didn’t want his co-workers to know he went to a bar that was “a little low-brow.” “It’s where you kill time.”
Qi, who was drinking a Tito’s and soda (“It’s gluten free”), said he has for the past decade routinely stopped in on his commute home to Forest Hills.
There’s a “Cheers” quality to the low-ceilinged, Shamrock-decked space, with bartenders who do seem to know most of their customers’ names. The drinks are reasonable, with a buyback for every four purchased. Train memorabilia—a model of the robin’s blue 1964 World’s Fair car, an oversized LIRR map—covers most surfaces.
Like many of the city’s Irish bars, Tracks preserves a unique blend of blue and white-collar customers, traceable to the post-1854 immigration wave that brought tens of thousands of Irish Catholics to New York.
It’s a diversity borne from exclusion. Bearing memories of the employment discrimination endured by their progenitors, owners of the Irish pubs that sprouted up across Manhattan’s east side opened their doors to the economically mixed clientele who chose to enter.
At Tracks, the crowd skews older and male, but it’s a rare haunt in this deeply unequal metropolis that draws drinkers of all stripes. One time a man tried to choke a bartender by his necktie, prompting the staff to switch to clip-ons, but, for the most part, the crowd seems to peacefully, drunkenly coexist.
Co-owner Bruce Caulfield also credits his Irish roots for helping him secure the lease for the space that would become Tracks. Caulfield is a longtime member of the Emerald Society, a decades-old Irish-American heritage association that has members across the municipal services and throughout the Tri-State area.
The Emeralds started in the New York Police Department in 1953 and soon established associate branches in the city’s fire, sanitation, education, corrections, and transit departments. They hold dinners and golf tournaments, dispatching members to play bagpipes in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and organizing college scholarships for associates’ children. The New York City Transit Authority’s division offers a handy PDF on recouping workers’ comp for occupational hearing loss.
Caulfield’s involvement consists mostly of shelling out the $25 annual membership fee; he rarely goes to the meetings, most of which are out on Long Island. But he can rattle off the names of the former LIRR honchos he met through the Emeralds, and who encouraged him to enter a bid when the smoky bar that once stood in Tracks’ place closed down.
“For once, it paid to be Irish,” cracked Caulfield, a solidly built, even-tempered 62-year-old with a graying head of hair.
His bar has since settled into a fairly consistent weekday rhythm.
Soon after the doors open at 11 a.m., the lunch crowd starts to trickle in: office workers from One and Two Penn Plaza upstairs; the crew from the “Wendy Williams Show”; on Wednesdays, the Broadway matinee crowd. Caulfield says Martha Stewart used to stop in when she had a studio nearby.
Union guys turn up after their shifts end at 2 p.m. to take advantage of the beer specials for members. (Their stickers cover the front window: 638 for the steamfitters, 147 for the tunnelers, 40 for the ironworkers, 926 for the carpenters).
Come happy hour, commuters pour in, calling out their regular orders as they walk through the door.
Then there are the Rangers fans; the tourists on their way to catch Billy Joel at the Garden; the Long Islanders stopping in for their first drinks of the evening before heading into the glare of 34th Street.
The bar shutters at 1 a.m., three hours before the city’s closing time, because the next train doesn’t arrive until 3 and Caulfield got tired of spending the final hours of the night turning heavily intoxicated revelers away.
Tracks opened in 2003, a joint effort of Caulfield and his longtime partners Pat and Michael O’Brien. The trio first started working together when Caulfield was running a 24-hours newsstand in the east 50s that catered to cabbies, and they collectively took over ownership of Le Café, a popular Penn Station eatery, in 1987.
After showing up early one morning to find the baker “moving turkeys out the back door to his buddy,” Caulfield assumed double duty as baker and co-owner, churning out dozens of muffins and black coffees for the trainmen who made up the core clientele. Le Café held fundraisers for workers who were killed on the job and put out a free Christmas spread for LIRR and MTA employees, earning him allies among the agencies’ top brass.
That led to his initiation into the Emeralds, and to his successful bid for Tracks.
But Caulfield struggled to get the bar off the ground. After 9/11, Tracks’ lease was suddenly pulled, as Penn Station authorities considered installing a national guard or police station in its location.
The doors finally opened in 2003, but the railmen who were once Caulfield’s best customers couldn’t come in, afraid to lose their jobs if they were seen at a bar during work hours.
The city’s smoking ban went into effect the same year and, Caulfield said, “business died.”
The bar’s fortunes finally turned around thanks to a glowing New York Daily News article hyping Tracks’ signature combination of what Caulfield refers to as “Irish Viagra”: oysters and Guinness. (The secret to moving fresh oysters below ground: “sell a lot and order tight”; the key to the perfect Guinness: Ensure the proper nitrogen to carbon dioxide ratio, pour correctly, serve at 42 degrees Fahrenheit).
Though Caulfield said he received three cease-and-desist letters from Pfizer for appropriating the trademark name, the story “popped” and Tracks has attracted a steady clientele since.
Caulfield, a married father of two children adopted from Guatemala, can now be found most nights holding forth at “Bruce’s corner,” where the raw bar intersects with the long wooden bar he built himself. He rarely drinks except for the occasional Guinness, and, more frequently these days, uses his “escape hatch”—a staircase behind the bar—to avoid being drawn into conversation by the customers clustered by the door.
In his three decades working out of Penn, Caulfield has witnessed the introduction of air conditioning (1994), the Giuliani-era crackdown on the homeless who live in the station, and, last year, the “summer of hell.” Mass repairs on the LIRR rails slashed commuter travel, cutting Tracks’ business by 20 percent, and raw sewage leaked from the ceiling just outside the bar.
On a recent blustery March Tuesday, Tracks was full. Al LaRosa, certified public accountant, bemoaned the “drama” he deals with negotiating the estates of blue chip East Coast families. Budgy and Richie, audio repairmen who run in the same White Plains biker gang, shared beers before the Ranger’s game. A young waitress at Garden City’s Havana Central broke into a cry of recognition upon spotting her manager, who had happened to stop in too, and bought a round of shots.
On the speakers, Van Morrison sang.
In a city in constant flux, Tracks remains stubbornly the same. The commuters are bound together, day after day, season after season, married to the train schedule—the monotony broken by exchanges with drinkers who are only passing through.
Asked when his train left, Mike Qi, the Tito’s-drinking management consultant, said, “about three minutes.”
“It’s alright,” he added. “I’ll just get another.”