In the late summer of 1997, a fire engine red sign reading “Adams Grocery” was being painted over with a coat of royal blue on the corner of North 8th & Berry Streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The corner was about to do an abrupt about-face from a small local grocery store, to a local pub – a new group of local dreamers had just staked claim at 103 Berry, and as the new pub took hold, with it came the kids – Cleo, the lovable black lab, and Balto the brown & white rescue pup. With all the fresh faces that congregated at the newly opened Brooklyn Ale House, the two dogs became staples. If it wasn’t the younger Balto landing a dumplestiltskin in the middle of the sidewalk that got your attention, then perhaps it was the older and more languid Cleo, who preferred to roll around in the hot, roasted & toasty dirt of the Ale House wooden flowerpot. Cleo would roll around in the flowerpot for hours it seemed, happy to pass the lion’s share of the attention onto the younger Balto. After all, Balto’s image had already made itself onto the bar’s logo. Time passed, as did sweet Cleo, leaving Balto to truly become the mascot and symbol of the Ale House. He wasn’t like other dogs.
There was something about him. Truth be known, Balto wasn’t actually “just a dog.” Balto may have looked like a dog, but there was much more of a presence of mind, attached to that brown & white canine. There was an unyielding gratitude and duty in those eyes - Balto was a loyal pup. From the day he was rescued and saved by one Sean Connelly, it was if there was a debt to be repaid and Balto never faltered. As Sean put it, “he was his drinking buddy and best pal.” Balto, from day-one it seemed, was a commanding presence at the bar. If Sean was at the bar, you could guarantee Balto to be close by. Perhaps you might hear one of his single barks, echoing through the space (the only exerted effort Balto had to make to have his presence known). You could always spot him roaming through floor scraps, cigarette butts, peanut shells and stinky shoes, or perhaps dreamily lapping at a small rocks glass of Guinness. His favorite spot however, was the front table, settling into the corner, with his noble head, gently resting on the back of the booth. There he could always be found, content to wait patiently for the return of his master.
Possessing an amazing regal personality, tufts of thick white fur at the neck, custom-fit for his leather studded collar and his famous half-cocked ear, Balto was a star. He had an uncanny colt-like gallop - one of which would have been envied by even the greatest of racehorses. He never just “came into” the bar, he chose instead to always “make a grand entrance,” as if the door to the Brooklyn Ale House was flanked with a red carpet. He never carried himself as just another dog. His air seemed more akin to a matinee idol or even more so, to a Brigadier General. Rarely would he actually jump up to greet you; it was more as if he was simply answering the call of duty. In fact, sometimes one would get the feeling that while we were drinking away the ups & downs of the day, Balto was wandering the floor, quietly inspecting the troupes. Everyone who ventured near 103 Berry Street knew Balto. Whether you were there at the bar to get hammered, or if you lived down the street, you knew him. If you had food, then you could guarantee that he knew you.
He wasn’t just a dog. If you were as lucky as I was, to encounter the eerie human side of Balto, then you know that he was smarter than any purebred. He was just as proud and arrogant as any Labradoodle or Chiweenie. He was his own man and aware of everything. I remember sitting at the bar back in 1998 thinking, “that dog hates me.” Balto never greeted me, he never paid any attention or even acknowledged me – it was always the cold shoulder. There he would go, right on by without a glance. That was Balto’s way. As long as all was right with the bar, all was right with Balto. Regardless, there was no love in Balto’s dog bowl for me – no love that is, until the minute I got hired to work at the Ale House. As soon as Balto saw me behind the bar, out of nowhere, he suddenly seemed super-happy to see me. He actually jumped up onto my chest and nudged my chin with his cold, wet nose. Another time soon after, he even gave me, what could have only been construed as a “high-five” with his paw. I was finally Balto-approved. Thanks Balto - I will miss you.
15 years have passed and so many years later, so many of us are still here. We all meet here and with the passing of our friend Balto, there are new figures in the Ale House cyclical family. There are new faces, new regulars, old friends and priceless stories. Leann and Becca join us in this sad moment, and Sean Jr. will only know him through images – pictures, yes, but he might know Balto a little clearer if we all saved him stories - stories we all might tell Sean Jr. one day about Balto, Cleo, Becca and the corner of North 8th and Berry.