A year before Katrina was Catarina – a tropical cyclone that tore across Brazil in late March 2004, demolishing 1,500 homes and damaging tens of thousands of others. A fortnight earlier, in the run-up to the Spanish elections, a series of improvised bombs was detonated on four commuter trains in Madrid. The ten explosions – which the Spanish judiciary blamed on al-Qaeda – killed 191 people and injured another 1,800.
In an underground bar in Soho, London, the talk touched upon such horrors, brushed against them, but not for long enough to feel their heat. The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote: “When you drank, the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” There was no better place to escape the world than the New Evaristo Club, known to its regulars as Trisha’s, or the Hideout.
That month in 2004 comes back to me with a rare clarity because that was my first as a member of Trisha’s. Moreover, as the last night of March blurred woozily into April Fool’s Day, I leaned against the wall opposite the bar – the Sinatra wall, covered with dusty pictures of the Chairman of the Board – and kissed Zoë, my partner now of over nine years, for the first time.
Sitting in the bar today, I notice how little has changed: the same old Sinatra wall, the same life-size Humphrey Bogart cut-out on the back door, the same green tablecloths (a vestige from the club’s early days as a gambling den). Trisha Bergonzi, a registered nurse who has been the proprietor of the New Evaristo since 1999, tells me: “I don’t think anything changes down here. It just sort of stays the same.”
According to Trisha, the New Evaristo is now “the oldest club in Soho . . . This has been here 68 years. When the Colony Room was alive, that might have been the oldest. But we are certainly the oldest now.” I like her choice of words. It feels only natural that she sees bars as being “alive” or “dead”, as if they were living things. “This place has got the personal touch,” she says. “I am the personal touch.”
All around us are images from the past. On the alcove by the door are photographs of former patrons – the “dead wall”, Trisha says, pointing at the silent faces. “Mario was the oldest. He was 98 when he died.” She gestures towards an image of a stern-looking man in glasses and tells me how he “used to come here all the way from Kent, every single day. He’d have a cup of coffee and stand by one of the tables and watch people play cards for ten minutes and then go all the way back.”
Opposite this are pictures of the New Evaristo’s “friends and family”. My Australian drinking buddy Ben has finally made it on to this wall of fame. His love for the club is well known to regulars – he’s been coming here twice a week for seven years.
“If Trisha’s ever disappeared, I’d have to leave the country. There’d be no point in staying in London,” he tells me. I ask him if this is true. “It’s pretty close to the truth,” he says.