House Culture

The Skyline’s the Limit

My early days in New York City were marked by helping folks pleasure themselves and getting high, which is a slightly more romantic way of saying I worked in porn and drank loads of beer on rooftops. Such are the pursuits that, injected with a double dose of unnatural disaster, led to my unlikely career as a journalist specializing in the finer arts of fermentation.

This wasn’t my plan.

OK, maybe I actually didn’t have a plan.

I attended Ohio University, in Athens, the kind of quaint college town with bumpy brick streets, lofty leafy trees and students earning honors degrees in alcohol abuse. Summa Cum Laude Natural Ice! The college’s claim to fame was its pedigreed journalism program.

I wanted to major in magazine journalism, mainly because I worshipped at the altar of zines. The DIY publications ranged from Xeroxed rants to intimate chronicles of idiosyncratic lives like Dishwasher Pete, on a mission to wash dishes in all 50 states. My college zine was called Lactose Intolerant Love. Fueled by coffee and malt liquor (King Cobra was a cool buck at my local liquor store), the writing was nakedly confessional—blog babbling for an era when blog was a sound associated with failed keg stands.

I told tales of angst and fuck-ups, one-night stands that failed before first morning light and what happens when you accidentally transport pot across the Canadian border. (Answer: The border police detain you and you spend the hours fixating on a not-quite-full box of plastic examination gloves.) The zine’s design was cut-and-paste, collage in nature, pages hand-copied at a Kinko’s, stapled on my front porch. Lactose Intolerant Love wasn’t what I’d objectively call, you know, good. But it was a messy, energetic, earnest landline to my id—a tangible piece of me, sold to strangers for a buck. 

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This feels like a pretty good time to steer the story toward porn. Post-graduation, I road-tripped cross-country with a couple friends. I envisioned it as a journey in the grand journalistic tradition, unearthing nuggets of 24-karat Americana while simultaneously finding myself. It started at a Greyhound station in Great Falls, Montana, on the first day of fall 2000, alone except for a cold wind cutting through my thin jacket.

I rode the bus to my friend Tommy’s house in Boulder, Colorado, where I lived in his basement for a couple weeks, subsisting on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Avery IPA. It felt poetic, all that bitterness, but it’s hard to make a living as a tortured poet in the 21st century.

As luck had it, a few college friends were living in Astoria, Queens, and had an extra bedroom. Would I like it? Rent-free? Yes, yes I would. I spent little time in Astoria, a Greek neighborhood where the Euro-chic sat at outdoor cafés smoking Marlboros and sipping icy coffee frappés, favoring downtown Manhattan dive bars where a couple bucks bought a stiff gin and tonic, served till 4 a.m. I started working as an administrative assistant at American Baby magazine, mostly spending workdays sending branded notes to my friends congratulating them on their girlfriends’ pregnancies. We’re excited to join you on your journey into parenthood!

It was a good gig, sure, but was I really cut out for “10 Tips For Better Breastfeeding?” That’d be hitting life fast-forward, settling down before wanton friskiness. Which is why, I guess, I leapt at the opportunity to work for a porn publisher.

Canyon Publishing, located in Chinatown, needed an editor. I applied, I got the job. It was my first full-time position—in publishing, no less. I called my mom, giddy.

“Mom, I have some good news,” I told her. “I got a job!”
“That’s great, honey,” she said. “Where are you working?”
“A porn publisher. I’m going to be an editor.”
Silence. Silence. A hundred years of silence.
“I’ll tell my friends you’re working in publishing.”

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The new job meant more money, which meant a new apartment. My friend Aaron and I found a place in Astoria. It was a fourth-floor railroad apartment, long and skinny like a pipe cleaner and across from neighbors with an affinity for playing “Hotel California” on repeat. Could’ve been worse.

A top-floor apartment meant easy access to the roof. The unbroken skyline view spanned from the World Trade Center to Yankee Stadium, the ballpark aglow at night like an alien spaceship in the Bronx. The panoramic setting became my makeshift bar. I started hitting a local bodega, or corner store, fridges filled with a couple hundred different beers—Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn Brewery, Victory, Stone, Dogfish Head. The bottles were cold refugees from a foreign land, escaping the clutches of Big Beer and its buds. Today, I’d likely approach those same fridges skeptically, carefully looking for bottled-on dates and dismissing the old war horses like any modern consumer chasing the next shiny, double dry-hopped whatever.

But back then? Everything was aglitter, my palate as finely tuned as a flooded piano. I gravitated toward bombastic, easy-to-understand flavors and double-barreled blasts of booze, most memorably Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine. I bought two bottles most nights and toted them to the roof.

At ground level, New York City is kinetic and chaotic and cutthroat and a cavalcade of other less-polite adjectives. Crossing the street is a real-world, life-or-death game of Frogger. But 50 or 60 feet above the avenues, the city pops a Valium. Shut your eyes, and traffic sounds like a crashing ocean. Open them and the buildings twinkle bright, stars transplanted from sky to skyscrapers.

I often felt small and frazzled on the streets, rushing to work, rushing to the subway, rushing because rushing is a New Yorker’s default, fast-forward mindset. Drinking high-test beer, high above the hurly-burly? That chilled me out, man. Up there, the sun sliced slow, orderly arcs across the sky, planes cutting straight lines through the clouds. Roof beers were my kind of meditation, a Cascade-hopped Zen to counterbalance my day job.

Working for a small, struggling porn publisher—on the cusp of the internet revolution, no less—crushed my soul like grapes in a hydraulic press. There’s a raw, blunt and, eventually, bland intimacy to asking starlets about buttholes and boob jobs. I grew young and numb, especially when editing titles like Naughty Neighbors and Family Secrets, surreptitiously inserting my friends’ names in the role of father and daughter, son and mother. (I sent them copies of their exploits in brown supermarket bags stapled shut, names crudely scribbled in black sharpie. I am continually amazed I still have friends.)

Rooftop beers at night re-centered me, the antidote to days spent working stiff. Then along came that impossibly blue day right on the cusp of fall. September 11, 2001, started like so many—the dull throb of last night’s drinking killed by a couple shots of cut-rate espresso, the sort you buy in cocaine-like bricks for two bucks. I favored El Aguila (“the eagle”), mainly because its name sounded marvelous shouted aloud.

“El Aguilaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” I’d cry, serving steaming shots to my roommates from a hand-me-down espresso maker that we’d later discard, primarily because we discovered cockroaches living inside the machine, every sip filled with bits of decomposing carcasses. But that’s another story for another day.

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My offices were in Chinatown, on Broadway, right below Canal Street. My morning train stopped at 23rd Street. “Ladies and gentlemen, due to a fire at the World Trade Center this train is out of service,” the announcer said. Everyone groaned, making eye contact and shaking our heads. Nothing brings New Yorkers together quite like a commiserating about a messed-up commute. I stomped upstairs, sullen, slightly hungover, and entered an anomaly.

New York City is a perpetual motion machine. Go, go, go. But everybody was as still as a cardboard cutout, staring downtown toward the World Trade towers. Or should I say tower. One had vanished, a massive puff of smoke remaining, like the world’s worst magic trick. The second tower smoldered. The second tower fell. Imagine a house of cards constructed from glass and steel. Now, imagine it crumbling, shiny bits shimmering beneath a blue September day’s bright, blinding sun. I wandered the dazed streets, finding refuge at a friend of a friend’s Times Square apartment. I returned to my Astoria apartment after dark, the skyline’s wattage significantly dimmer.

My office was shut down for eight days. I’d like to tell you I spent those eight days spearheading disaster-relief efforts, but I was 23 and completely scared and confused out of my post-collegiate mind. I processed my emotions of grief, fear, and anger the best way I could, which meant booze. We drank Malibu rum mixed with orange juice in a French press carafe. We drank gin cut with cut-rate tonic from the local C-Town supermarket. We drank beers like Victory Prima Pils and Brooklyn Monster Ale on the roof, the smoke from the smoldering towers like a black serpent, a monstrous phantasm made all too real.

The roof provided a sense of safe remove. From a distance, we were extras in the tragedy, watching fighter jets scream across the sky as if it were a movie scene. The days were warm, the beers cold, life a drunken limbo that caused me to question my career choice. Spending mornings and afternoons writing lines like “Shove your eggroll in my combination box” seemed pretty inconsequential in the grand, tragic scheme of things.

Like a sexually dysfunctional porn star, by the time I returned to my job I lost the ability to work too hard. My office was 10 blocks from the disaster. Every workday I smelled acrid air, smoke loitering above the city like a looming storm. Meanwhile, my boss proved to be a bona fide sociopath.

“This was terrible tragedy,” she told us during a meeting. “And we missed a lot of work. The days you missed will be deducted from your vacation.”

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A couple weeks later I quit, right before my boss fired me for using my work computer to find a new job. I began freelancing writing, became the bar reviewer for Time Out New York and New York Press, an alternative weekly. I spent more time drinking beer at street level and moved to Brooklyn, where I swapped a roof for a stoop. Life unfurled like this: I met a girl, got married, had one daughter, wrote a handful of books about beer and hundreds and hundreds of articles, adjectives and adverbs and nouns adding up to a totally fine middle-class career.

In New York City, success never ensures security. Our landlord sold our building at the butt end of 2013. We found a new apartment a couple blocks away, with a couple bathrooms, a couple bedrooms and, thank The Good Big Apple Lord, a rooftop.

Most nights after my daughter goes to bed, I ransack my fridge for a couple beers—IPAs and Pilsners, mainly—and climb the staircase to the roof. The view’s a pretty good one, dead on to downtown Manhattan and a sizable chunk of Brooklyn and Queens. The Empire State Building is blocked out by a condo, a common scourge across the horizon.

The skyline is not the same, especially in lower Manhattan where a single tower sprouted from a twin, but the mental effect is identical. Cold beer combined with bird’s-eye views is daddy’s little helper for long days of parenting and writing. Brewing remains my main beat, and to stay current I need to sip the latest lavishly hopped, kettle-soured, foraged, barrel-aged whatever. Standbys fall by the wayside, good friends you always forget to call or text.

On a recent late-summer evening, I decided to revisit several old pals. At my corner bodega I bought a couple bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and brought them to the roof. The sky was the color of boiled crawfish, a light breeze ruffling my Polynesian shirt. Summer’s warm kiss was fading to fall—November, October, and the month of September.

I cracked the Sierra and took a deep whiff. Pine. Grapefruit. A promise of perfection. Overhead, I watched helicopters whirl and planes approach LaGuardia Airport, lives temporarily lived amid the clouds. I scanned twinkling skyscrapers and necked the bottle, the Pale Ale as fresh as my memories of being 22, the city shiny and new, forever drinking up the high life.

Words by Joshua M. Bernstein
Graphics by Jon Rohlf