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Speakeasies

THE LIFE WITHIN SPEAKEASIES

Speakeasies were illegal establishments that discreetly served alcaholic beverages during the prohibition. They were usually hidden underground or behind legal businesses and were sometimes run by members of organized crime groups. Despite the passing of the 18th amendment that prohibited the sale, manufacturing and transportation of alcohol, consumption rates in the United states rose dramatically throughout the era. There were over double the amount of speakeasies in the country than there were legal bars and saloons, they became the most popular places for anyone who wanted to have a good time. Speakeasies were classified into two catagories, blind pigs and blind tigers. blind pigs were establishments for the lower class, they would have an attraction (usually an animal) as a front that people would pay to see then they would discreetly offer a so called "complementary" drink. With no transaction being made, this allowed them to bypass the law. Blind tigers however were the most common form of speakeasies, they would often cater to the high society and were more elaborately run, some even required fromal wear. Other than the alcohol, these places would also serve food and entertainment, there would usually be live shows and musical preformers on stage. The prohibition also brought along the roaring twenties, an era of jazz music and flappers which was reflected in these speakeasies. The atmosphere was always lively and full of excitment, people gathered to dance, drink and have a good time.

WHAT PROBLEMS THEY FACED

Speakeasies were often raided by the police or federal agents, yet they still managed to be around due to how popular they were. a majority of the population refused to follow the 18th amendment, so they resorted to trying anything and everything in order to transport and manufacture liqour. Speakeasies recieved their alcohol by means of bootlegging and illegal distilaries operated by the mob. They were designed so elaborately in order to take precautiouns against raids, they were almost imposibble to find without any prior knowlage and often had around half a dozen escape routes. However, due to the rabid corruption during the prohipition, the police were constantly getting bribed to look the other way and or inform the owners if there was going to be a raid.

DELANEY VISITS THE BACK ROOM

On a chilly Saturday night, I found myself meeting my date on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. As I walked towards the dark street, I tried to imagine the neighborhood, as it would’ve been in the 1920’s, during the Prohibition; bustling, loud, even more crowded than today. I couldn’t wait to seek more answers about this period in New York’s rich story.

At 102 Norfolk Street, a passerby may notice a simple, old sign that reads, “The Lower East Side Toy Company” on an old gate that opens to stairs and leads to nothing but a cruddy old set of stairs. This passerby will most likely keep walking, not even clocking the sign – or the curious words toy company, which seem antiquated, nowadays. However, if this passerby were “in the know,” then they would stop the man who stands nonchalantly near the gate and ask him that you’re looking for “the bar.” This is precisely what I did.

After the man stared intently at my identification card for what seemed like five minutes, he opened the locked gate for me, telling me to go “down, straight, up the stairs, and to the right.” I was nervous that I would forget, immediately, his instructions. However once I got through the small dark alleyway, lit only by three Edison bulbs, I saw the steel staircase and massive door to the right of it – the door’s peephole clued me off: This is the speakeasy I’ve heard so much about.

I knocked, aggressively, and the door opened about an inch, then wider so we could enter. Music was suddenly blaring when I had just been listening to nothing but street noise – there was no hint at all that this bar, with it’s blasting tunes, was there. Inside, old chandeliers dating back to 1923 hung from the ceiling, helping create the intimate, nostalgic mood of The Back Room, which had been just one of New York City’s 30,000 speakeasies during the prohibition. After taking a good look around at the velvet walls, the large paintings of delicate women in beaded dresses, and the intricate molding, I planted myself at the bar and ordered the Girl Friday (no doubt named after the classic Cary Grant flick, His Girl Friday). This gin cocktail was served to me in a teacup atop a saucer, just as it would’ve been back during the prohibition. I noticed the man next to me had ordered a bottled beer – I couldn’t see what brand as it had a brown paper lunch bag over it.

At the bar, my lovely bartender was ready to answer every question I had for her. I hope you find her answers as interesting as I did (though it could’ve been the Girl Friday that had me so curious and enraptured … it was a very well made little cocktail).

Note: The following conversation has been written verbatim, as well as possible. There were many interruptions, however, which have been removed from the text, below.

Delaney Yeager: First of all, when was The Back Room founded?
Erica: 1925.
DY: Wow! So it’s been down here for …
E: Eighty-seven years.
DY: Unbelievable. So, can you do some name-dropping for me and tell me of any patrons of note from back in the day?
E: The thing about The Back Room is that it wasn’t just a speakeasy for, like, the rich Manhattanites that needed an illegal drink. We – or they, I guess – served gangsters. These were guys who were illegally drinking, yeah, but were also trying to hide [from the government who wanted them for their crimes].
DY: Wow. Any of the guys we know from the books?
E: Yeah, all of them (laughs) – Al Capone, being the most famous, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy… I forget his last name…
DY: Siegel?
E: Yes! Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy – you know, the real deal.
DY: It’s so funny to think those guys were here. Though I know they existed and we all know just about everything there is to know about them, it still seems so unreal. Like, these guys seem fictional because we’ve kind of turned them into fictional characters with movies and TV and whatnot.
E: Exactly. I’ve worked here for two years and I still can’t believe that Al Capone was probably, you know, escaping from the rear room eighty years ago.
DY: The rear room?
E: Yeah, it’s our private room. It’s actually why this place is called The Back Room. But was call it ‘rear’ so we don’t get confused.
DY: So who gets to go in the private room?
E: Nowadays mostly private parties or anyone who gets “invited” – celebrities every now and then, which is fun.
DY: (Looking around) I’m guessing it’s well hidden because it doesn’t look like there’s another room in here…
E: Do you see the guy standing in front of the bookshelf?
DY: Oh, no way.
E: Yeah, part of the bookshelf is a door.
DY: Of course it is!
E: (laughing) Seems so cliché, right?
DY: I love it. So when you said ‘escaping’, did you mean there are hidden exits as well?
E: Yes. There were six different secret exits back in the day.
DY: Sorry, six?
E: Yeah, six.
DY: That’s insane.
E: Six exits one entrance. Now there are three “working” exits but you can still see where the other three were.
DY: If you’re an employee.
E: (Laughing) Right.
DY: OK, so, now I’m going to move onto another subject – that just being, “Today”
E: OK.
DY: Has The Back Room noticed an increase in business since the 1920’s and “nostalgia culture” has made a big come back? I mean, there’s Boardwalk Empire, Midnight In Paris was huge last year, The Great Gatsby coming out next summer – it seems like people are starting to, in a way, dream of these simple, youth-driven, booming economy days that defined the roaring twenties.
E: Absolutely. You see it in fashion, too. I mean, look at you! (She refers, most likely, to my red lipstick, wavy hair, velvet, beaded blouse, and mountains of costume jewelry. She’s absolutely right, too.) We’ve definitely noticed a change in the last … I’d say the last year and a half.
DY: Do you get people who are really of that nostalgia world?
E: I don’t know… I’m sure we do I just don’t come across them so often. Do you mean like the Governor’s Island people? (Every summer for the past three years, The Jazz Age Lawn Party is a tradition held on Governor’s Island, where Michael Arnella & His Dreamland Orchestra play to a crowd of men, women, and children dawning their best 1920’s picnic best. Vintage clothing, delicious ice cream, French 75’s, homemade pie contests, and old cars turn the little lawn into a time machine for 21st century prohibition buffs.)
DY: Yeah! Have you ever gone?
E: No, I never made the trip.
DY: You have to. I’ve been the last two summers. It’s too much fun. But it’s starting to get really popular.
E: It sounds super cute. But I guess working in a speakeasy every night; it makes sense why I would opt out of another 1920s party scene.
DY: (laughing) True. That makes sense. Oh! Shoot – I forgot to ask you something before [my ‘Today’ segment].
E: Ask!
DY: I could probably just Google this one, but do you know where the word, or term, “Speakeasy” actually comes from?
E: Yes! We have to learn all this stuff when we start working here. (Laughs). It was something a bartender used to tell a customer who was ordering alcohol too loudly.
DY: Oh! Of course.
E: Yeah he would tell him to lower his voice or to “speak easy”. Then I guess it stuck.
DY: OK – final question.
E: OK.
DY: You’ve said The Back Room has gotten more and more popular within the last year because of the roaring twenties’ comeback. And, I can see it’s true. (There wasn’t a couch, chair, or barstool unoccupied that night.) So can you give me any insight on why patrons, like me, come to a place like this? I mean, what kind of experience are they – we – hoping for?
E: I definitely think just [the 20’s being a] trend has a lot to do with it – it’s fashionable right now. But I also think it makes people… calm, I guess? There’s something that still feels so safe down here. It’s definitely a great escape from the city, which is why people in the twenties came down here, too, I bet. (I imagine she’s right as in 1925, the Lower East Side was a rough, industrial neighborhood. An escape from the noise and pollution was probably a dream, back then.)
DY: Totally. OK… I think we got through all of my questions! And then some. Thank you so much, Erica.
E: Absolutely.

I finished my Girl Friday and took another look around The Back Room after saying goodbye to Erica. I tried to imagine the music, as it would’ve been in 1925: playing through gramophones or by live musicians, songs like Let’s Fall In Love, or The Charleston. I tried to picture the men in hats, coats, and bowties, the women in sparkling, loose-fitting frocks and feathery headdresses. A dreamlike sense of nostalgia and wonder cloaked me and had me feeling as though I was there, a part of the prohibition, hiding out with everybody else.

Delaney Yeager, Dec. 15, 2012. New York, NY.

New York City is a wonderful city for time traveling. Here are some links to some of my other favorite speakeasies in NYC. Check them out (only if you’re 21 – they’re very strict!) for a fun night:

Apotheke Please Don’t Tell Raines Law Room