The strange, faded glamour of a neighborhood in decay often reaches its peak in the bars that define the territory. It can be a place where everybody knows your name or a spot where people know enough to deny ever having met you. Sunny's Bar was a little of both and a lot more besides. Open just one night a week in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood before gentrification buffed its rough edges away, the was an unusual place that Tim Sultan stumbled into at random one night and in some ways never left. Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World is a love letter to the place and time, but mostly to Sunny Balzano himself, the owner and a great American character.
Sultan describes Sunny as a barman philosopher and artist; he originally escaped from Red Hook and the family business to travel, spending time in India, rubbing shoulders with Andy Warhol's Factory denizens and finding a patroness of his own art before returning to take over the bar. Once a haven for longshoremen, it was also a safe place for mobsters to drop in and discuss private matters in the back room that doubled as an art studio. No kind of businessman, Sunny would make ice one tray at a time in the fridge and save it up for the Friday nights when he was open. Drinks were sold on a donation basis until inspectors intervened, taking much of the charm with them.
As Sunny's grew in popularity—the regulars were stymied when a "party bus" full of 20-somethings descended on the place one night—Sultan moved on to a new watering hole.
We can never really get back to the places that define an era in our lives. If they're not done in by an act of God, we grow so much in the intervening years that on returning they look like keychain ornaments. Sunny's Nights is a snapshot of a place and time that are no more, but also a loving portrait of the man who defined them.