Behind the bar: Do or Dive, Bed-Stuy

By Jay Sterkel

Today’s featured bartender is Billy, who works at Do or Dive in Bed-Stuy. He’s straight up good folk and no stranger to either side of the bar. You can catch Billy any time from open to close on Thursdays, plus on Friday and Saturday nights. Do or Dive is full of fascinating kitsch from floor to ceiling, front door to backyard — I recently strolled in midday on a Thursday to catch up and soak in the space.

Nooklyn Stories: What are you drinking?

Billy: [Takes a shot] Oh, um. Tequila.

NS: Is that a particular daytime shot that you take?

B: At work, I’m a well tequila guy. Company man. The well here is El Rancho. Does the trick. Works fine.

NS: I’m not above a well tequila shot, but if I can get a shot of Espolon…

B: Yeah, I think I drank too much of it at another bar I worked at where that was our well. It seems really peppery to me now. I think I drank myself off it for a bit.

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NS: Tequila does that. Who comes in here generally? Do you get a millennial crowd?

B: It’s a big mix. We definitely have some young Pratt kids that come in, especially on the weekends. I feel like we’re late 20s to 30s, which is great. A lot of newer people to the neighborhood mixed with some of the old people. But this bar has a really great cast of regulars that you see four to five times a week at least.

NS: This bar is open earlier than most other bars in the neighborhood. Have you always opened at noon?

B: We started opening at noon, and then for a while we actually opened at eight in the morning.

NS: Wow.

*B: *Yeah. Which was nice. We offered a full coffee program if you wanted it. But it was still …there aren’t many bars open that 8am, so we wanted to test out and see if there was a crowd for it this morning. It didn’t pay for itself ultimately, so we went back to opening at noon. It’s not like we’re offering you breakfast or anything. We had croissants and Totino’s pizza rolls.

NS: Totino’s pizza rolls for breakfast?

B: Yeah. We still have ‘em.

NS: Outstanding. I have to start coming here. So the people that come in — are they mostly neighborhood folk? Do you get people from other boroughs?

B: I think most of our regulars are from around here. We do get a lot people from Williamsburg. Surprisingly, we also get some from farther [in] Queens. I live in Ridgewood, but we have people from Astoria. Flushing. I have no idea how they initially found this place, but they come here all the time.

NS: Awesome. Do you get any old men holding down barstools?

B: Yeah, we have a couple. I’d say typically we’re not really an old man bar, we have a few. There is one in particular who’s a regular, but not a daytime regular. He’s here Thursday, Friday, Saturday night. Sitting on a barstool, hanging out. Drinks pints of Narragannsett. Super nice. Friendly. Chats everybody up. This dude’s in his 70s. He’s got thick coke bottle glasses and holds his phone right up against his face.

NS: You’ve been working here for two and half years, you said. What other neighborhoods have you worked in?

B: Since I’ve been back in New York, I’ve worked Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood.

NS: Which was your favorite?

B: Oh. That’s kinda hard because it changes all the time. I think my favorite time was probably when I working at Savalas ten years ago in Williamsburg. It was a lot of fun working there then. Young and fun and cheap and kinda lawless.

NS: Yeah, I always liked going up there to this place by Pete’s Candy’s Store, I forget the name.

B: You talking about Royal Oak?

NS: Yes! That’s it. I was there a lot.

B: Yeah, Royal Oak got wild.

NS: How much have you watched this neighborhood change since you’ve been working here?

B: I feel like it was already changing when we opened. But yeah, incrementally, each month you see a little more, a few more people roll around that you’ve never seen before. There’s lots of new construction going on, but you definitely see a lot of the old neighborhood.

NS: It’s not that the old neighborhood is persisting through a change, it’s just that there are always going to be institutions here while new things pop up.

B: Yeah.

NS: So you live in Ridgewood?

B: Yup.

NS: How long have you lived there?

*B: *I’ve been there for four years now.

NS: Where did you live before that?

B: Williamsburg.

NS: How did you find your place in Ridgewood?

B: My girlfriend and myself were looking for a place where we could move in together. She just found it online, but it just said the street, and not an address, but we really liked what we saw from the pictures, so we just wound up walking up and down the block until we kind of matched the front door to the picture. And we just sat there until someone came home — it was the landlord that was renting it. We were like “oh hey, we want to rent your place.” He was all “well, I have other people interested.” And we were like “All right, we could just give you cash tomorrow. first month’s, last month’s, security…” and he was like “Sold!” He’s great. Our rent has gone up $50 in four years. It’s pretty great.

NS: How long have you been bartending?

B: 18 years. I’m 36. My first bartending gig was when I was 18. Half my life.

NS: So you’ve spent half your life helping people disinhibit — is there anything you’ve gleaned about human nature in the process that you’d share?

B: Oh... I don’t know. It’s hard to judge — I try not to judge people when they’re in the bag. Everyone always says that you can tell how they are, that they’re their true self when they’re f-cked up, but that is not the case. We’ve all done stupid shit. In 18 years, the majority of my experiences have been great. Most people are really good at heart. And sure, you have your assholes. But I think most people, especially when they come out, they’re just looking to have a good time, and the majority of them, that’s what you get. Which is why I still do this. If it was all assholes all the time I would have been done after two years.

NS: You ever see anyone successfully pick anyone up here?

B: All the time. You see people come in and leave together, and that’s its own thing. But the nice thing about working at a bar where you see the same people day after day, it’s kinda nice to see relationships form. A lot of our regulars that came in two years ago not knowing each other, now they’re really good friends. A couple of them are dating. So it’s nice to watch the relationships form organically.

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All photos taken by Chris Setter.