Where everybody knows your name

"The Perfect Storm" author Sebastian Junger and pals open the latest celebrity bar in New York.

Published July 27, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

July 19, 4 p.m. Gray skies loom overhead: It is damp and cool, unlikely weather for July. The din of Manhattan, stifled for the moment in the lull just before rush hour, suggests a calm before this evening's perfect media storm. Sebastian Junger, the name that has been percolating in the press since his book hit the stands, has resurfaced again. Forget the movie; now, we can visit Junger's new bar, Half King, which he started along with three partners, including fellow journalist Scott Anderson. Both Junger and Anderson have covered bloodbaths and intrigue in war zones like Chechnya and Sierra Leone, but will they survive New York's volatile night life?

8 p.m. The rain lets up. Armed with pen and pad, I set out on the press path. As I leave my bedroom borough of Brooklyn, I think of the success rate of other celebrity crossovers: Madonna, we discovered, couldn't act, nor could Eddie Murphy sing. What makes these talented writers think they can run a bar?

In a sense, though, the biggest crossover -- from struggling, unsung writers to celebrity authors -- has already taken place. Still, the idea of a bar seems suspect. Will it go the way of Planet Hollywood and become an international chain of literary theme bars? I wonder how the drink list will read, if I'll find the "Perfect" martini. My train is late. I grow thirsty.

9 p.m. Blitzkrieg. Correspondents from the New Yorker, the Observer and Time Out have arrived, and they're all jockeying for a position at the bar. Or maybe they're just friends of friends; everyone in this comely crowd looks the same with a drink in his hand.

As I wait behind the two-person-thick front separating me from the bartender, Half King begins to feel like any other crowded hot spot, and a barely finished one at that. Sheetrock still shows in places, but what is finished -- the wooden floors and tables, the red leather booths -- feels rustic. It's a solid place for a drink, large and publike. I wander through the rooms, into the garden, ears perked for pertinent gossip, trying to make out who's in the crowd.

And then I spot Junger, an old acquaintance from the pre-"Perfect Storm" craze, and he suggests we have a seat. Handshakes interrupt our conversation here and there, but Junger's eyes never wander during our conversation. This is a man who has been rummaging around the Queens city dump for the past few days, digging up raw bar materials, averaging four hours of sleep a night and serving jury duty to boot. Not to mention granting sound bites to the hundreds like me. Dressed rather sveltely in an understated suit, with the appropriate 5 o'clock shadow rimming his sharp jaw line, he has rallied like a trooper.

For half an hour, I get a bird's-eye view of his increasingly eventful life: I'm introduced to Anderson, Teun Voeten -- the photojournalist Junger works with -- and Jerome O'Connor, the bar's manager. While Junger and Anderson will be dropping in between writing assignments, attending readings at the bar and reading themselves, O'Connor's the only partner who has run a bar before. (I never meet Nanette Burstein, the fourth partner and Anderson's girlfriend. She's also a documentarian, and her film "On the Ropes" was nominated for an Oscar last year.)

However hands-on or -off the writers in this group will be, Half King will have to be welcoming enough to draw locals and discerning enough to attract literary stars. The partners involved had enough clout to get a heavyweight like Frank McCourt to inaugurate the reading series, but their choice of lesser-known ex-Sing Sing prison guard Ted Conover -- a humbler move -- strikes me as a good omen.

Perhaps it will be, as Junger hopes, a place like the KGB Bar, the city's main destination for liquor and literature. Like his bar's name (which refers to a Native American chief who egged on the Brits in the French and Indian War), Junger himself is too down-to-earth for Half King to go the way of some literati clubhouse. But mention Conover, whom Junger admires, and a look of satisfaction settles over his face. "It's great to be able to invite friends to read at your own place," he confides. Which reminds me of the Mel Brooks line "It's good to be the king."

10 p.m. I get another drink. As it turns out, the Irishman tending bar tonight -- journalist John Falk -- is another one of Junger's cronies. He, Junger and Anderson will also spend the summer collaborating on a screenplay that bar manager O'Connor will produce. These guys have a finger in every pie, and I reflect on the romanticized notion of the long-suffering writer: There's no room for success in this notion. Maybe the sentiment is outdated. After all, Andy Warhol brought the world of commerce to his art and it was indeed revolutionary. And since this month's Vanity Fair -- a rag normally reserved for the elite -- serves as a remarkable source for Junger's own coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone, who says a group of writers can't enjoy the spoils of war journalism?

By Nicole Davis

Nicole Davis is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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