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How Publicans Survived the Pandemic

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Bartender Shane Buggy, 34, serves Nik Wylie, 50, at McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan, N.Y., May 3, 2021. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters) Bartenders speak out about what they and we lost in Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars.

‘Today your life is going regular,” notes a bartender named Willie McIntyre as he reflects on the catastrophe that overtook New York City last spring, “and tomorrow it just isn’t that.”

When the history of the pandemic is written, the interviews collected in the documentary Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars, produced and directed by Johnny Sweet, will constitute a small but useful source for a slightly underacknowledged perspective. With all of the discussion of the stresses facing front-line workers on the one hand and work-from-home types — back-line workers, I suppose — on the other, there has been too little attention paid to people who were abruptly unemployed, and in many cases forced away from their careers for extended periods. In Queens, the Sparrow Tavern is still shut to this day; many other well-loved New York City restaurants and bars have closed permanently. “My entire industry,” someone notes sadly, “got laid off in a day.” And what a bitterly ironic day that was in New York City: St. Patrick’s Day. For publicans, it was like canceling Christmas as Santa was loading his sleigh.

Sweet’s film has no cinematic flair whatsoever and isn’t particularly wide-ranging or thorough, even within the narrow ground it stakes out in its subtitle. The handful of people we meet in this low-bore documentary mostly come from one of three bars: The Sparrow and Diamond Dogs in Queens and the late, lamented Coogan’s in upper Manhattan. That last one announced it was closing forever last April.

Still, as they discuss the toll that economic restrictions took on them and their beloved businesses, Sweet’s interviewees exhibit a lot of grit. They frame matters in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and always compelling. “We’re essentially on the front lines without being recognized for being on the front lines,” notes Jena Ellenwood, a longtime

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