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A visit to New York City’s disappearing commercial waterfront.

Ghosts of Red Hook

On a snowy Sunday afternoon in late January I found myself perusing the New York Times obituaries in a desperate attempt to avoid shoveling my driveway.

I normally have no interest in news of the recently departed but one entry caught my eye: “Pilar Montero, 90, Bar Owner and Link to a Seafaring Past.” And with good reason, for three decades earlier I had met Mrs. Montero when I visited Montero’s Bar and Grill, which is in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and has been since 1945.

I’d come there because I had a mind to write a Studs Terkel-esque requiem for the commercial shipping life of New York City, which even then was decamping for the soulless container gantries of Newark. Interviews with a few merchant mariners had led me to conclude that the haunts of commercial seafarers around the city were fast disappearing as gentrification overtook them. The most authentic one that remained, I was told, was Montero’s.

It turned out to be exactly what I had envisioned a seafarer’s bar should be: dark, brooding, lots of polished wood and ship models, and more bar than grill. In a city rife with atmospheric drinking establishments, this one oozed gritty authenticity. Two salts were bellied up, wearing the requisite turtlenecks (it was winter) and nursing the requisite boilermakers (it was morning). Tough guys. Really tough. Too tough to simply walk up to and start asking questions.

So instead I wandered over to the corner where Pilar Montero was keeping watch over her domain. At first she didn’t look any friendlier, but when I introduced myself and explained my mission, her face blossomed with motherly warmth. For the next two hours she painted verbal portraits of a bygone nautical era—her bar packed with longshoremen and mariners from all over the world, noise and smoke at near-lethal levels, and periodic fights that were often sparked by misunderstandings deriving from the many disparate languages. I scribbled notes as fast as I could as she spun tale after tale until eventually I just put down my notebook and let myself be transported. “Oh, those were the days,” she recalled. “Such fine, strong men, and such stories they told!”

I have not yet written that elegy for New York City’s maritime past, but I still have the notes and some day I may. And if I do, you can bet Pilar Montero will be as much a part of it as those hard-drinking, fist-fighting, yarn-spinning denizens of Red Hook’s most famous maritime bar.

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