Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, coming to campus this week. In the meantime, Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include a visit to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, an investigation into Columbia’s animal testing practices, and the first part of a discussion on The Columbia School. But much more relevant to your Thursday night evening is senior editor Allie Curry’s below exploration of the history of The Heights Bar and Grill.
For many Columbians, admission to The Heights is the first litmus test of a Thursday night’s success. Popular for their potency, every $5 happy hour margarita poses a formidable challenge to those who frequent the establishment. Dutifully attempting to do as its street- level sign instructs and dine above it all—to get in, students must get past the bouncer and fight their way to the bar through a room packed with screaming sorority girls and rowdy basketball players. So what’s it doing in a Paul Auster, CC ’69, GSAS ’70, novel?
Considered by many to be one of America’s foremost contemporary postmodern fiction writers, Auster draws upon metafictional techniques to blur boundaries between reality and fiction, and to advance what critic James Wood describes as, “narratives [that] conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere.”
In his debut novel, City of Glass, Auster describes his protagonist, a detective-fiction writer named Daniel Quinn who grows hungry after a hard day spent trailing his lead. He writes:
He retraced his path along 107th Street, turned left on Broadway, and began walking uptown, looking for a suitable place to eat. A bar did not appeal to him tonight— eating in the dark, the press of boozy chatter—although normally he might have welcomed it. As he crossed 112th Street, he saw that the Heights Luncheonette was still open and decided to go in.
Inside, Quinn finds “a brightly lit, yet dreary place, with a large rack of girlie magazines on one wall, an area for stationary, another area for newspapers, sev- eral tables for patrons, and a long Formica counter with swivel stools.” Quinn then strikes up some baseball talk with the counterman. He eats, forms an intense connection with an attractive red notebook, and buys it. When Quinn later goes insane while tracking his elusive lead’s movements in the notebook, The Heights Luncheonette is elevated to an important setting in the work and might function as a key to elucidating the origins of Quinn’s madness.
Working on the assumption that Auster is describing an actual place in Manhattan, The Blue & White looked into the history of The Heights Bar and Grill. There were plenty of margarita reviews, but a dearth of legal or historical information. The property’s current deed dates back to June 1997, about the time which The Heights describes itself on its website’s “About” page as “rising from the ashes of Nacho Mama’s burritos, which met its demise”—there was literally a fire—”earlier the same year”. Prior to manager Larry Good’s (who happens to be the husband of the Columbia Women’s Swimming and Diving Coach Diana Caskey) purchase of Nacho Mama’s in 1992, the Google trail vanishes. According to manager Feras Samad, before Nacho Mama’s the space was a French restaurant called Le Grenier (“the loft”), and before that, it was a hardware store. He recalls a luncheonette on 113th, which according to WikiCU is a former instantiation of The Mill Korean Restaurant; oddly enough, it was a perennial favorite of J.D. Salinger’s fictional Glass family. Alas, it seems that Auster directed Quinn to cross 112th street northwards and he took a bit of poetic license with the name of his character’s destination.
Case cracked? Well, why anyone—fictional or not— would turn uptown toward Morningside Heights “looking for a suitable place to eat” is a mystery to us.