This Bartender Chased Enlightenment, But Gave It All Up for His Family's Dive

Sunny Balzano is the kind of enigmatic bartender that dives are made for. Save for a handful of years spent seeking enlightenment in India, this artist-turned-barkeep has spent his entire life in the timeworn building that his family has owned for...

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Sep 16 2015, 6:00pm

Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.

It takes a hell of a lot of effort to traverse one of Brooklyn's more remote neighborhoods to get to Sunny's. But for those of us who would commit any number of unspeakable acts for the inky pleasures of a good dive bar, we firmly believe the former longshoremen haunt and Red Hook institution is more than worth it. Sunny's is the kind of bar where, after just enough shots of Fernet and Maker's, you are almost guaranteed to see the blurred and inebriated specter of Ernest Hemingway or Marlon Brando sitting on the stool next to you. Hell, you would probably have a hard time convincing us that a shot or two of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront wasn't secretly filmed there.

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Outside Sunny's in Red Hook, Brooklyn. All photos by the author.

But the real charm of the 120-something-year-old neighborhood bar has to be the eponymous Sunny Balzano. Sunny is the kind of enigmatic bartender and proprietor that dives are made for. Save for a handful of years spent seeking enlightenment in India, this artist-turned-barkeep has spent his entire life in the timeworn building that his family has owned for generations.

Sunny's seriously feels like a bohemian version of Dolores's bar in The Wire. Ziggy might not be there, but Sunny likely will be—although he probably won't try and convince you to steal a shipping container with him.

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Sunny inside Sunny's.

Balzano, whose great-grandfather opened the bar in 1890, has outlived cancer and Superstorm Sandy to hand the day-to-day running of the bar over to family members and friends. He now spends his time working on his art and regaling visitors with stories of days long past, when Red Hook wasn't an international tourist destination, but instead a stained section of a big, cruel city, an area populated by stray dogs and ornery dock workers.

A seeker, an artist, a storyteller, and a true New York character, Sunny Balzano—now in his eighth decade—taught us a few lessons learned about life from behind the bar.

MUNCHIES: You're quite the fixture here, Sunny. When did you stop actually bartending? After you became sick? Sunny: It was that, I think. Then everyone else began to do it. I did check out and see that whoever works as a bartender, they should at least extend themselves in such a way as to keep the dignity, the way I like to have things done. Treat people like they are family, make them feel at home, and respect everyone. As long as that's done, then I'm pleased.

How did you start working as a bartender? When I first started working here, my dad had passed away. My dad had worked here along with my uncle. And I had a feeling of simpatico for my uncle because all of a sudden he was alone. So I said, "Let me go down and help him." This way, he had company. So people would come to me and ask for a mixed drink—I didn't know how to do it! So they'd get behind the bar and I would watch them. And that's how I learned to mix a lot of the drinks that we do—by watching the customers get behind the bar and show me how to do it.

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Sunny's artwork on the walls inside the bar.

Did you work in the bar as a child? No, but I was born right here. As a child, we had continental breakfast in the bar every morning. I didn't know what that was until I went to Europe, but it's bread and coffee. I had four brothers and we would take turns coming over here [to the bar] and my father would give us a pot of coffee, some buttered rolls, or a doughnut. So I grew up with continental breakfast. [Laughs]

What were you doing before you took over the bar? I'm a painter. So that's pretty much what I did for the greater part of my life. I was also in India for three years, and I came back when my father became ill, so I continued to make paintings and taking care of my dad. I never really made the decision to be here, to be honest. I found myself doing the best I can. I enjoy folks. And I think that aspect of my personage is about people. I think I was preparing for this job all my life, to be honest with you.

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What did you go to India for? I wanted to be enlightened. I mean, in truth, that was the whole thing, everyone was going to India who had any spiritual inclination. And I remember that Krishnamurti gave a few talks, and that did inspire me. So I decided to go to India and I was going to come back fully enlightened. Eventually, I found that anything that was to be found was not going to be found in India. It was going to be found in my own spirit.

What do you think bartending has taught you the most about yourself? It's allowed me to polish a lot of what I'd been. To be decent—especially at time when you don't feel decent—when you're under pressure. To not fault others for what you're feeling. Extend yourself to them, be considerate, and understanding. I love St. Francis: "Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand, to be loved as to love." That prayer, I recite it a lot. Being here has helped me to put that into action. I had to stop a couple of fights and ended up taking a rap, but still be understanding.

So, how would you describe your version of the ideal customer? You can feel it. You can feel when there could be a hundred people in the place, but if there is one that disturbs the flow, the unity of it, the communion—it only takes one. Then if you ever come in here and see me with one person or I'm treating them like a good pal, because I don't do that—I spread myself around. If I'm with one person, I'm trying to quiet the savage beast in that person. And that's the truth. The one that seems to need it the most is the one I'm going to be with.

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Do you often have trouble with people in the bar? Not really. People come in here and they calm down. I think the room is permeated with a certain quality of softness—it's inherent within. There are times when maybe one individual will come in and they want to talk. And I'll go over to that person: "Is there anything I can get for you? Have I seen you before? My name is Sunny." It makes them not feel alone. They're not alone anymore. You share personality, humanity. And most people are really decent.

Thanks for speaking with us, Sunny.