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New York Hangover
Summer 1997

SIBERIA

By Dylan Foley

        With heroic photos of Vladimir Lenin and collective farms gracing the walls, New York's only Irish-run subway bar is packing them in every night of the week, full of Soviet nostalgia and dive-bar flair.
        The bar is called Siberia and is run by Damien Dillon, a 23-year-old from Birr, Co. Offaly. The name comes from story that the old storefront the bar is in was a document drop-off spot in the 1950s for the KGB, the old Soviet spy agency. "This bar is really busy from seven in the evening until 4 am," said Dillon, standing in front of a row of bottles of Russian vodka, surveying his 400 square-foot domain.
        Dillon, a budding hotel manager, came to New York several months ago after bouncing around the States for three years. He met a politically connected Irish-American named Tracey Westmoreland, who recruited him to run the bar. "Tracey told me the KGB history of the place and I thought he was nuts. Then he showed me the rubles and old Soviet pictures he'd found in the walls."
       Opening up a bar on the edge of Hell's Kitchen can have its difficult moments. Some of the local roughnecks told Westmoreland, "Hey, Tracey, we'll help you out, no problem." "I told them, 'I'd love your help, but this is going to be a gay bar,'" said Westmoreland, recounting his big white lie. Two local men showed up a few nights later when Venus, a striking transvestite was behind the stick.
        "When the guys came in and ordered beers, Venus still had her shirt on," said Westmoreland. "She then took it off, revealing a fur top." The toughs calmly finished drinking their beers. One slammed a ten-dollar bill on the bar and said as they left, "Well, we won't be seeing you, Tracey."
        "This place is a safe place for a woman to come into," said Dillon, a soft-spoken man with steady eyes. "We don't tolerate obnoxious drunks. We put them on the train going downtown," he said with a laugh. "Anyone who comes here should be comfortable -- Irish, black, white straight or gay."
        Siberia is in the busy 50th Street subway station, near Manhattan's business and theater districts. Commuters flood by and some gawk at the out-of-place bar, wedged next to a Russian barbershop and across from an Indian newsstand.
       Siberia has caused a big stir in the media since it opened last Halloween. At present, it is the only subway bar in New York, but also some of its most loyal customers work for the press. The New York Post, Rupurt Murdoch's personal cudgel, has written two pieces already about the place and seemingly has a reporter stationed at the bar at all hours of the day.
        "We've been getting members of some well-known bands stopping by," said Dillon. "The women from Luscious Jackson were here, filming something for MTV, and some of the Violent Fumes stopped in."
        "That's 'Femmes'," said Westmoreland.
        Though success has hit them like a tidal wave, it hasn't spoiled the lads yet. But plans for the future are big. "We are going to open an 'old man's bar,'" said Westmoreland, "taking over a local bar where old men hang out."
        Dillon said the new place will improve on the formula for the Irish village bar: "It will be like the kind of place where men sit around talking about cattle, except it will have lots of women."

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Copyright 1997 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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