Gut Instinct: In the Second Place

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This is a story of second acts and an act best banned in public.

At the turn of 2000, in condo-deficient Williamsburg, there existed the fantastically skuzzy Sweetwater Tavern. It was a pigsty where punkers guzzled Guinness by the 20ounce glass, shot stick and screamed along to deafening rock ditties. Sadly, Sweetwater died, reinvented as a same-named bistro slinging buttery escargot.

A mile or two toward East Williamsburg, big, boring neighborhood joint Grand Central opened five years ago. The bar’s chief selling point was that tipplers received free, raw chicken to BBQ. A potential salmonella lawsuit, sure, but it was a nice perk. It was Grand’s sole perk. So what occurs when a crappy bar closes and bartenders from a dearly departed dive scratch their drink-serving itch? They turn that fowl bar into The Second Chance Saloon (659 Grand St.betw.Leonard St.& Manhattan Ave., 718-387-4411; B’klyn), a paean to Iggy Pop excess—that is, whiskey by the barrel, beer for a song and the tuneage tinnitus loud.

“Hurry up, hurry up!” I tell my girlfriend one Tuesday evening,as we hustle down grimy Grand Street toward The Second Chance.

“What’s the rush?” “Happy hour ends at 9 p.m.” “Cheap bastard.” “You certainly liked that grilled tilapia sandwich,” I say. Minutes ago we had departed Mother’s (347 Graham Ave.betw.Metropolitan Ave. & Conselyea St., 718-384-7778; B’klyn), a mirror-filled pub where I struck a bargain: I’d buy dinner if she’d accompany me to Second.

“No such things as a free ride with you, is there?” she says, opening the front door decorated with a halo-crowned headless chicken—an oblique nod to Grand Central’s past.Whereas Grand Central was as appealing as bathroom mold, with yellow walls and ill lighting that made customers appear as green-skinned zombies, Second is dark and prickly: big booths, Big Buck Hunter, a snug graveled backyard and a rattlesnake DON’T TREAD ON ME flag.The punk juke plays studded-leather ragers such as The Pogues, Cro-Mags and Dead Moon. On stools, bike messengers sip Miller High Life, while concertteed men slurp Evan Williams whiskey.

“No whiskey on a Tuesday,” my girlfriend says, ordering an effervescent Blackthorn Cider. Most pints run $5 (a buck off everything till 9 p.m.), including Guinness (20 ounces, natch) and local microbrews from Brooklyn Brewery and Keegan’s Ales. Class is offset with affordable crud: $2 Schaefer cans and $3 Genessee Cream Ale—a worthy successor to PBR’s lowbrow throne.

“Give me a Genny,” I tell the bartender, using my collegiate nomenclature. Back then, I patronized a black-walled, nicotine-stained bunker dubbed The Union. There, I learned to chain-smoke and adore icy Genny, sold for a buck a bottle. To me, Genny tastes like youth, like rebellion, like— “Crap,” my girlfriend says, wrinkling her nose. “Blasphemy,” I say, retrieving my precious nectar. Her harmful words hardly harsh my mellow: For every Tuesday, there’s an ulterior motive to visiting this righteous dive: karaoke, featuring 75,000 songs of potential aural disaster.

“Oh, no,” my girlfriend says. “I love you, but—” “I sing like a tone-deaf frog,” I finish. Her silence is understandably damning. Most mornings, she suffers through my shower warbling: scratchy, croaked torture, as painful as those high-frequency whistles that cause canines to cower, paws covering ears.“I’ll take that whiskey now,” she says, selecting a sweet, potent hot toddy packed with whiskey and honey liqueur.

I request instant confidence—Schaefer and whiskey, always $4—and thumb through the thick song binder. I ponder Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and countless hairspray anthems before a soulful dirge attracts my bespectacled eyes: “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

“You like that Michael Bolton song?” my girlfriend asks, cringing as if learning an awful secret. “No. Percy Sledge’s original version.”

“Percy who?” “Sledge,” I say, recounting the Alabama soul man’s tale: After getting laid off from a job—and his gal pal—he turned his heartbreak into that stirring lament, which rocketed to No. 1 and into my tender, teenage heart. I listened to “When” obsessively one teary high school eve, when Keri Ptak dumped me for a pothead with facial hair seemingly grown from a Chia Pet kit. I punch in Percy’s hit and grab the mike. Horns and strings swell. I enter a widelegged stance, like a football lineman. And then I open my mouth, letting my liquorloosened vocal cords spend roughly four minutes mimicking an African-American man from The Deep South—an act, I erroneously envisioned, every bit as punk and lovable as Second Chance itself.

“How’d I do?” I ask my mortified sweetheart, the bargoers’ applause on pause. “Next time,” she says, sipping her warm, memory-eradicating cocktail, “I want more than a tilapia sandwich.”

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