The Playwright Tavern
Lehman one year on, from the bottom of a glass
Sep 17th 2009
THE Playwright Tavern is across the street from the Barclays Capital building, on 49th St and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. Barclays' building used to belong to Lehman Brothers; when Lehman filed for bankruptcy and Barclays purchased the company last September, the animated LED screens that wrap the building adopted their new owner's name and colours.
The Playwright, 75 metres from the bank's front door, was a time-honoured gathering place for Lehman's employees. Its restaurant was often completely full at lunch, and after five o'clock the bar would crowd to capacity.
Jim Reilly, the tavern's greeter, sits on a stool outside the front door. He looks old enough to retire, but says he can't afford to quite yet. He's held this job for three years, and I asked him about business since Lehman's collapse. The regulars, he says, were of two groups: union construction workers from local projects, and investment bankers from Lehman and Morgan Stanley. Both groups vanished in September. He's effusive in his sympathy for the fired bankers.
Mr Reilly judges the economy by the number of shopping bags he sees in the hands of passers-by (he asked me to spot them, I saw one, then realized it was groceries). “No shopping bags from Fifth Avenue?” he asks incredulously. “That's not right.” On Monday, September 15th 2008, he sat on his stool and watched Lehman employees filing glumly out of the building. He was heartbroken. He thinks the investment bankers who filled the Playwright at lunchtime (and at 5pm on good days) were honest, hard-working people. Fate and careless leadership hit them harder than they deserved. Some still came in occasionally for lunch or drinks, but their numbers dwindled. A year later, the Playwright isn't yet part of Barclays' culture.
Inside, the Playwright is long and wood-panelled, with a bar downstairs and a dining room upstairs. I take the table in the bar's back corner. Only two men wear business attire. The bartenders are examining a large piece of paper, a gambling game for betting on American football, played by a pool of 25 of the bar's regular customers. I asked how many bankers were among the pool. “One,” the bartender laughed. “Bankers are cheap”.
Izzy, no last name given, is a self-described “psychotic” and an ex-convict from Montenegro. I've just watched him bolt two pints of stout and two glasses of whiskey. He is missing his front teeth due to a motorcycling accident in rural New York. He is a member of Local 6, a hotel service-workers' union, and is a Playwright regular when he's feeling flush. The bartenders know him well.
I asked him how he felt about his fellow regulars, the investment bankers. The Lehman and Barclays crowds mix in the Long Island iced tea of Izzy's memory, so I couldn't get a clear description of the old Lehman people without hearing about the new crowd. He did explain to me that he once grabbed a banker by the collar and yelled “I'll buy you!” (followed by an unprintable expletive).
Outside, Mr Reilly greets guests and passersby in the same welcoming tone. He might be the most affable doorman in New York. When tourists pause to look at the menu, he puts a warm palm on my arm and holds it there to mute our conversation while reciting in practiced bel canto, “Good evening ladies, there's a lovely dining room upstairs, and if that handsome young man drives you to drink, we also have a beautiful bar.” I asked him if Lehman should have failed. Looking at the building that used to house his friends and customers, their 401K plans and potted plants and comfortable lives, he winces. “The bell has been rung,” he says, “and you cannot unring it.”