Leif has a few drinks
Some explorers cross oceans, and some visit bars
New York City’s “R” train, the “Norwegian-American Line,” extends from Queens to Brooklyn traversing through Manhattan along the way. It is a useful line for those seeking solace in Forest Hills, a sight of Central Park, or most importantly, a trip to Bay Ridge, the South Brooklyn neighborhood commonly known for its Norwegian heritage. I had never been to Bay Ridge before, but I had always wanted to go. I delayed my visit, because the initial spark of interest vanished: Nordic Delicacies. The shop full of Scandinavian cheeses, fish, chocolate goodies, and kitschy knickknacks closed its doors in 2015, the year I arrived in Brooklyn, and its closing set off panic about a diminishing Norwegian presence with many locals.
The flux of a shifting demographic in New York is common history, sometimes robust and frequently tragic, but a Norwegian imprint on Bay Ridge is still what attracted me. Exiting the train at Bay Ridge Avenue and walking toward Fifth Avenue, Halal markets, laundromats, and a cinema neighbor my destination: The Leif Bar.
The bar neighbors Leif Ericson Park, which is a narrow stretch of grass interwoven with walkways and Viking-themed playground equipment compressed by traffic on both sides. The controversial “Master Builder,” Robert Moses, developed the park in the 1930s during his career as parks commissioner, and in that same decade, Norway’s former Crown Prince, who would become King Olav V, dedicated a replica of a Viking rune found in Tune, Norway, to the park. It can still be admired today. Outside the Leif Bar, Norway’s flag flails above its sign like a flaming beacon guiding Norse travelers like myself to the barstool. What to expect inside? Are there any traces of Norwegian roots here?
To be terribly blunt, it’s an Irish pub. I stepped into the nearly empty bar and felt the all-too-familiar feeling of being misunderstood. Instantly I felt like an outsider, although not unwelcomed by the few regulars looking from the corner, I attracted a gaze. My full beard, denim shirt, tight blue jeans, and Warby Parker glasses contrasted with the regulars sporting motorcycle apparel and vest jackets revealing tattoos and skin—it may have appeared as if I were lost in Brooklyn. Thank God I didn’t wear a bunad, I thought. I seated myself near the conventional tap pouring light American beer—not a modern Norwegian brew from E.C Dahl or Nøgne Ø Bryggeri, as a naïve Brooklyn transplant might have expected.
The Leif Bar is sparse and spacious. The bar top is long, and a sole pinball machine rests in the corner. Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston near the bathroom, and the local news repeats itself above the altar of liquor. Near the back is the self-proclaimed “Party Room,” which houses local musicians throughout the week splitting bills with special guests and cover bands. The bartenders are alert and friendly, allowing an open tab though it’s cash only. The signs are clear: The Leif Bar is a great dive bar.
My observations went inwards in the Norwegian fashion as I thought about the bar: How do you pronounce the name of this bar? Is it “Leaf” or “Laif/Life?” Being a Leif myself, the pressure of pronouncing it “wrong” or Americanized weighs heavily, as there is often no dichotomy between the two. I have always identified as “Leaf” rather than “Laif” or “Life,” the way Scandinavians address me, unintentionally pressuring me to introduce myself the same. The Americanized pronunciation does not compute with most Scandinavians. The Danish writer Madame Nielsen did not understand how to sign the copy of her book I’d handed her when I said “Leaf.” After a puzzled moment, I said “Laif” and she responded, “Oh, Laif,” and signed the book. Again, when I met Norwegian superbad Karl Ove Knausgaard, he told me that I “have a very Norwegian name, Laif.” I nodded and probably looked very afraid. I would never think of correcting Knausgaard, but my inner voice was screaming, No, it’s Leif!
While my second beer was being poured, I took the opportunity to ask the bartender the simple question, “How do you pronounce the name of this bar?”
He looked into my eyes as I was preparing for the usual “Laif,” and answered bluntly, “It’s The Leif Bar.” L-E-A-F. I smiled, laughed, and blurted, “that’s my name too!”
“Your name is The Leif Bar?” he joked.
“Ha! No, I’m just curious because people often say it differently.”
“It’s Leif!” he affirmed in a thick Brooklyn accent.
This bit of information was all I needed. I drank my second beer quickly, satisfied with my findings, and without hesitation, a third was placed in front of me, golden and overflowing. “Thanks for coming out to the Leif, Leif.”
This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.;