The line goes from the door onto Gerard Avenue, four people waiting outside the Yankee Tavern, one of the top spots for pregame food and drinks around Yankee Stadium, on a day, in a year, when no fans will be entering the home of the 27-time world champions.
The line continues around the corner onto 161st Street, past a pharmacy, and up to the door of CityMD Urgent Care, where COVID-19 testing is available.
Around the next corner, the rolled-down shutter gates along River Avenue provide a reminder of what’s missing in the hours leading up to what was supposed to be opening night for this year’s Subway Series. There’s the portrait of Bernie Williams at Billy’s Sports Bar, the painting of Aaron Judge smashing a home run at Stan The Man’s Baseball Land, and the images of Mariano Rivera and NYCFC legend David Villa adorning the massive Stan’s Sports Bar.
Underneath the tracks of the 4 train, there are some signs of life. The city has chosen this time to do pavement milling on River Avenue, so Joe Michialis hasn’t been able to do everything he wants to bring the Yankee Twin Eatery into the world of socially distanced dining. At the moment, Michialis has a pair of four-seat tables with umbrellas and cushioned chairs out on the rugged asphalt, and three smaller tables with two stools apiece on the sidewalk.
Michialis knows that while baseball might be on its way back, it’s not going to be baseball as we know it, with throngs of customers coming to his door on their way to the ballpark. He estimates his business is down 60-70 percent, and the outdoor dining setup necessitated an investment of a couple thousand dollars, a fraction of what some other restaurants in the city have been compelled to spend to keep themselves afloat without indoor service.
“It fucking sucks,” says Michialis.
He laughs, both because it’s obvious and because he knows it could be much worse. That’s been a lot of the feeling around New York recently, a type of gallows humor that mixes relief at having gotten through the worst throes of the pandemic with a deeper worry that we’re not out of the woods yet — and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the city who doesn’t know anyone who didn’t get the virus.
An interesting effect of the baseball part of the neighborhood not having baseball is that it’s become more ingrained in the fabric of the neighborhood. Yankee Twin Eatery now serves chopped cheese, the Bronx bodega sandwich staple, with a heaping side of fries.
How would a chopped cheese go with Malort? The distinctly Chicago beverage, which tastes like a mouthful of spicy dirt (per Julie DiCaro), embraced by another business struggling with a lack of baseball in the neighborhood, Nisei Lounge in Wrigleyville.
Pat Odon, who describes himself as Nisei’s “Director of Baseball Operations and Beverages,” before clarifying “that means I buy the beer,” points out that since it opened, Nisei has never been shut down longer than three or four days for renovations. When COVID hit Chicago this spring, Nisei was forced to close to everything but curbside service for nearly 100 days.
“(The COVID shutdown) coincided with the start of baseball season, which is all that drives this neighborhood,” Odon says. On this random Wednesday night, Nisei might see 20-30 customers, as opposed to 300-400 going through the bar throughout the course of the day. “It’s literally a 10-15 times drop off. It’s just a huge drop off, and even when baseball comes back, all of us around here only have 25 percent of our capacity. So instead of 70 people for a good night game, we’ll have 32,” Odon told Deadspin.
“It’s entirely a lost year. We used our savings to keep the staff employed as long as we could. And then we had to shut that down after a few weeks so we could still pay rent. Then we got our PPP loan, which let us bring back the staff to at least sell beer and Malort to go. We wanted to keep everyone working as long as we could — our landlord is not rich — she was in the same boat as every other bar and restaurant, so we couldn’t ask her for a break.”
Even though the ballhawks have returned to Waveland Avenue for the Cubs’ delayed and relocated version of spring training, Nisei isn’t seeing any extra business as a result. They are getting calls about reserving tables once the games start, and Odon says, “we’re figuring that out.”
Likewise, in the Bronx, Yankee Twin Eatery expects business to pick up when the Yankees start playing. Michalis believes his neighbors down the block at Stan’s will be back open then, too.
“Some fans still come, because they’re about the feel of being there, even if they can’t go in,” Michialis said. “I see a lot more people around the stadium of diverse backgrounds. You don’t see the same people, same individuals, same families, day in and day out, knowing and loving the same people. It’s about community.”
The lack of baseball has meant serving the Bronx community more than the community stepping off the 4 train and out of the River Avenue parking lots, and while that might foster a nice feeling after decades of doing business here, it doesn’t make up for the “couple of months of rent” that Michialis finds himself down at this point. Still, his spirits are up, and he does expect that while there won’t be the thousands of fans coming to the South Bronx every home game when baseball does start, there still will be a few hundred who show up to be together — six feet apart — for the communal experience.
A little further south on River Avenue, there’s a lot less of an experience on offer at Ballpark Sports Shop, just hats, shirts, and other Yankees gear and memorabilia. The souvenir shop just reopened on Monday after four months, and while one customer was in there on Tuesday afternoon to pick up a new Yankees cap, it’s a real challenge to be a standalone shop that thrives on impulse purchases in a place where people aren’t there to have those impulses.
“Usually it’s 35,000 or 45,000 a game coming by here,” said Jophen Abbadi, working alone behind the glass display counter. “With no fans, it’ll be a whole different experience. But you can’t really tell until there’s games.”
Foot traffic also is key for Wrigleyville Sports, catty-corner from right field at the corner of Addison and Sheffield. But in their case, getting people in the store isn’t the only way to do business.
“Online orders initially were doing really well, they had ticked up initially,” said Cristina McAloon, Wrigleyville Sports’ director of retail. “I think unfortunately, as there was a lot of back and forth as to what was going on with MLB, I feel like it had an effect on the fans and their purchasing. So we did see a slight decline over the last month when all of that was going on. However, we’re definitely getting the feeling that the city and customers are very excited about the fact that (baseball) is coming back on July 24. Even without fans in the stands, we’re excited to see an increase in foot traffic and just have Wrigleyville in general have more people around.”
Wrigley Field is at the center of its neighborhood, while Yankee Stadium is wedged between the elevated train tracks and the Harlem River. The real bustle of the South Bronx is uphill from the stadium along 161st Street, and then onto 3rd Avenue and down to 149th Street. Where a business on Clark Street in Chicago could get customers from the neighborhood regardless of the Cubs’ existence, River Avenue truly depends on Yankee Stadium.
At Justin Pizza NYC, a few doors down from Yankee Twin Eatery, only one employee is on duty. He’s only working there three days a week, and doesn’t want to give his name, but says it’s slow. That’s reflected by the fact that he’s the only guy working at a pizzeria that, during baseball season, usually has multiple people scrambling around behind the counter to get slices and sodas served quickly and keep the flow moving through a narrow space that tends to result in lines out the door.
The steady flow of people doing grab-and-go is further down River Avenue, at the corner of 157th Street. That’s where two school crossing guards are giving out face masks, free, to anyone who wants one, because even as baseball is gearing back up, the pandemic rages on.