The Subway Inn is a modern rarity. It is a dark and decrepit monument left to the cheap drinking culture that once inhabited New York City at a time when rents, the economy and mayoral disgust are killing the other dive bars there were once part of Old New York. The Subway used to be filled with power drinkers, Frat boys and day drunks all getting their medication long into the night.
The joint is located at 143 East 60th Street, across from Bloomingdale’s loading docks on one of the few filthy blocks to be found on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Those in the know understand once inside, tap beer, mixed drinks and shots are off limits; bottled beer is the only way to go; it is the only way to be sure of what you are drinking. The bathrooms present their own danger. Men can walk into the door way somewhat and aim but for women? I recommend making sure your tetanus shot is up to date.
The dirt, germs and cheap drinks aren’t the only things that bring crowds to the Subway. They have a Ms. Pac Man machine, a great juke box and bar gimmicks as well. These days, the gimmicks used by the Subway’s owners are pretty ordinary: happy hour, snacks on the bar, stuff you could find in a joint up and down any avenue in America. In the not too distant past, The Subway Inn was the site of the greatest bar gimmick of all time. A singular idea designed solely to get people walking in the doors. My pal Henry was behind the stick when the owners deployed this concept called feeding the piranha.
Henry laid the whole scene out for me one warm afternoon last May. “The owners put a tank of piranha behind the bar and sold bags of 5 goldfish for $5. The idea was to take one of the goldfish and throw it in the piranha tank. If you got one in, we gave you a free drink. Two in a row got you $5 out of the register. If you were lucky enough to toss three straight goldfish into the piranha, we gave you a free round and $10. The damn fish are so slippery we only had to give anyone $5 twice.”
“How long did this go on,” I asked. Although taken aback by the brutality of the gimmick, had I known, I would have definitely been in there, taking my goldfish shots.
“One week. The other bartenders and I were so disgusted by the cleaning we had to do we revolted. Trust me, nothing smells worse than a rotting goldfish. Three of us came into a meeting with the owner, to tell him the idea had to go, only to find the New York chapter of the ASPCA in the joint, with a restraining order. It seems we were hurting the poor goldfish.”
I find the ASPCA to be factually incorrect. The owners of the Subway Inn, Henry, his fellow bartenders and the customers weren’t hurting those goldfish. They were killing them.