I had been there only once — back in 1979 — but I remember my visit quite vividly, or so I thought. In my mind, the White Horse Tavern was in the middle of a crowded city street, forcing cars to swerve around it or risk becoming a part of the bar’s storied history. In reality, it’s a corner pub in the West Village, decades beyond its heyday as the incubator of poets, journalists and other troublemakers, now relegated to a tourist destination serving overpriced, watered-down cocktails.
I dreamed that I returned there last night. It was right where I left it in my imagination, conspicuously straddling the double yellow line on 11th Street to the consternation of cabbies and gaping tourists. My wife and I entered on the ground floor and found it not at all like I remembered. It had been renovated with meticulous woodwork, bright and shiny and clearly aspiring toward a more elegant clientele. It was also void of alcohol or staff, roped off from the unwashed masses in search of the next Dylan Thomas or Jack Kerouac slumped over the bar.
A sign directed us to the basement, which was a fabrication of my subconscious. The bar, as I sort-of remembered it, had been moved exactly one floor lower, complete with tired wood paneling etched with graffiti, beer signs of long-defunct breweries, and assorted kitsch haphazardly displayed. An old drunk beckoned us from a dirty couch, but ignored us when I politely asked “Excuse me?”
We sat down at one of several bar counters, this one apparently without a bartender, who would have come in handy at that point. I stared at the photo of some starlet of the 30s or 40s, immortalized in black-and-white pouting at the camera. Below the portrait was a caricature of the same woman. As I watched, the cartoon became animated, and began singing in a loud, high-pitched voice. Now glad that no one had approached us for a drink order, we beat a hasty retreat.