What's in a name?

New York, NY, USA -- 25 October 2008 | Permalink

When I first moved into my neighborhood, the most obvious candidate for what might be called a 'social hub' was probably the corner cafe named Lotus, a slightly run-down but friendly place that served snacks and coffee during the day, and later turned into a modest bar at night. It had a rotating clientele of neighborhood regulars, a few of whom I knew by name and more of whom I knew by sight. The most visible fixture was Robert, a film critic and editor who used to sit in the window with his laptop, and we would nod to each other as I walked up the street on my way to wherever.

Over time, the owners apparently discovered that running a bar was more profitable than running a cafe, so it started only opening at night, catering to a crowd that was less obviously local than before. Still, they retained enough sense of being a 'neighborhood' place that when Robert died suddenly this year of a heart attack, they put up a poster in the window and hosted a small memorial with flowers and candles for a few days. However, it seemed that the bar didn't pay enough to cope with rising rents, so Lotus itself closed down not long after.

For the last few months, the former Lotus was invisible behind wooden boarding, undergoing some kind of extensive renovation. When I walked past about 7:00 yesterday, the workmen were just going in and I caught my first glimpse of the changes they had made. When I passed it again around 10:00, all the boards were down, revealing a lavishly refurbished interior. When I came home from work about 8:00, it was already in business and serving drinks. Suddenly, we have a new bar.

“What do you think it's called?”, M. asked as we stood outside. The door bore a number, but there was nothing on the outside or the inside to indicate what the new bar's name could possibly be. Perhaps it didn't have one.

We went in anyway, and appraised the bar critically over a pint, considering the beer selection (acceptable), the lighting levels (appropriately but not dangerously low), the giant flatscreens showing EPSN (unfortunate), the music (suburban), the wallpapers (questionable), the clientele (mixed) and the general ambience (too early to say). At the next table, three heavyset types who looked like superannuated frat boys were trading fond memories of victimizing nerds in high school (“I thought for a moment that they might be more interesting than they appear,” M. whispered to me in French, “but then I realized that they were just quoting lines from a Leonardo di Caprio movie.”). A skinny Asian boy with two pretty girls in tow came and borrowed a stool. A bearded hipster type came over and asked us if we knew what the bar was called. Abruptly, the place was busy: it had opened without any fanfare and suddenly it had a clientele.

On the way out, M. asked the big African-American guy guarding the door if he knew what it was called. He looked pained.

“I knew it a moment ago.” he said. “I'm sure somebody told me. What was it again?” He racked his brains visibly until it came to him. “I know, it's called ‘Donnybrook’. No idea what that means, though.”

“It means a brawl.” I told him. “Or an argument.” A look of alarm came over his face.

“I don't want to be guarding the door on a place that's named for a brawl!” he said. The man in the white sweater who had been putting in lightbulbs in the outside lamps came over.

“It's a neighborhood in Dublin,” he said reassuringly. “Diarmid grew up there.” He hesitated. “And ... well, yes, it does also mean, a sort of, er, ‘spirited discussion’.”

“The kind where people make ‘forceful arguments’?” I suggested.

“Yes, you could put it that way.” he admitted with a smile.

The big man in black was looking worried again.

“A brawl.” he muttered to himself as we walked away. “I'm working the door on a place that's named for a brawl.”