Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trolling Montero's

Hunker inside the old Montero’s Bar & Grill and peer out at the stroller parade that now rolls down Atlantic Avenue to the new waterfront playgrounds of Brooklyn Bridge Park. This is old waterfront in here, safe among the scrimshaw and dusty models of clippers and destroyers. The place’s dark walls are an evocative clutter of orange lifesavers for the Owls Head or SS Stonewall Jackson, and a poster identifying 140 colorful ship stacks that might appear in the harbor. IF THE CAPTAIN AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY reads the sign opposite the bar of this sailor’s tavern opened on this spot in 1947 by Pilar Montero and her husband. Pilar was seen smoking at her bar in the afternoons well into New York’s smokeless age.

When I first got the idea to write a book about the old waterfront, hers was one of the most convenient places where I could step a little out of time and discuss past days on the Brooklyn docks with sociable witnesses, some of whom were more talkative than others. Montero’s traded its grill for a small pool table in the early sixties, and it’s still often the first stop for visitors coming ashore down the street—the crew of a Japanese Coast Guard ship passed through last weekend.

If Montero’s doesn’t attract the notice of many parents passing on their way to the park, another symbol of the old working harbor will soon be coming to greet them: In August, David Sharps, who runs the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook, will bring his Lehigh Valley barge to Pier 6, where kids can tour it whose parents don’t make it all the way to Conover Street. (Sharps bought his Lehigh Valley Railroad barge for a dollar in 1985 when he was still primarily a clown and juggler and then had to pump 300 tons of harbor sludge out of its hull to make it a combination home and museum of the old harbor. A year ago, a Chelsea theater company staged a memorable performance of On the Waterfront aboard Sharps’s barge. His “Tug & Barge Week” (Aug. 26-31) at Pier 6 will offer tours of his floating museum as well as rides on a genuine tug.