Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine
-Rick Blaine Casablanca 1942
Dubbed local Celebs by their East Village Family, Big Lee and Sasha own The Hard Swallow as partners in business and in life. This is their story…
Big Lee, born September 26th, 1971, hails from the streets of Brooklyn’s infamous, Coney Island. Lee tragically lost his father, Leroy Lloyd Sr., at the tender age of 5, an experience that caused him to mature quickly. Lee held fast to the lessons his father taught him in only a brief period of his life. His father a Vietnam War veteran of the US army spoke to Lee as if he were grown. Almost as if he knew his time with him was short, he instilled in Lee what it meant to be a man, the ethic of work and providing for your family. A man gets things done, he is strong, and doesn’t cry. Known as a child, for his wise opinions, anecdotes and old soul mentality, his grandmother dubbed him “The Preacher Man”.
As a child Lee found a friend, confidant, and mentor in his step father Ronald whom he credits for much of his creativity, his fathering skills, and eclectic taste in music. His experiences with Ronald sculpted his imagination and hunger for creative outlets. Lee grew up in the heart of the 70’s when sex, music, and parties were all the rage and Ronald was all about it. He introduced Lee to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin, and of course George Clinton, while his mother influenced him with the pain and romance of soul. He enjoyed playing with his stepfather, watching Godzilla on the TV, and Horror films. He loved catching Kung Fu and Grind House Horror flicks in the theatres on 42nd street. Times Square in the 70’s was not family friendly. Lee recalls the streets clad with hookers and junkies who would proposition him even though he was only a child. In his teens years Lee indulged his creative juices in photography and attended the High School of Graphic Arts in Hell’s Kitchen. It wasn’t long before he and his buddy Les turned their hobby into a money making business, and a cool way to meet girls. While good at his craft life once again knocked on Lees door and forced him to leave his childhood behind to work to provide for himself as he was on his own at only 16 yrs old.
Lee’s resilience was strong; he began his path in retail, starting in the stockroom but was quickly recognized for his leadership abilities and promoted to management. Here is where he learned the ins and outs of business. Managing and staffing, became 2nd nature to him and he grew bored of the redundancy of Retail. The inner Lee still craved that creative outlet, and so he left retail and became a nightclub Bouncer at Coney Island High in 1997. He had hoped his new position would to allow him more time to write and inspire him with new material. But Lee absorbed the Nightlife like a sponge. He lived it, breathed it and one day the bar that he worked in, Hogs and Heifers uptown, afforded him an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. They offered him a chance to buy the club but he only had one week to figure out what that entailed and to find investors to make it happen. With his back against the wall Lee found them and in 2004 Wild Spirits was born. His brainchild was influenced by his days at Coney Island High, personalities of Hogs and Heifers, the sultry seduction of the 70’s, “Forty Duce” (old skool Times Square) and of course CBGB’s. He incorporated his eclectic taste in music and bridged communities with his playlists. He showcased local bands, hosted open mics, and fused the raunchy flavors of Sex, Rock, and Booze. In 2008 Lee closed the doors to Wild Spirits after the construction of the 2nd Avenue train station proved to be a hardship for himself and many other bars and restaurants in the area. The traffic congestion and loss of foot traffic made the destination bar and live music venue almost impossible to book, like many others he conceded. He became a father and he returned to work at Hogs and Heifers. In the Summer of 2015 as Hogs and Heifers closed their doors, opportunity Knocked on his door again together with his Sasha The Hard Swallow was born. He didn’t know the at the time how this venture would test his skill, determination and endurance, but as he continues to fight for his piece of the pie, his passion and will grows stronger and plans for the future continue to grow along with it.
Ladies and germs….. Sasha
Sasha was born and raised on the Lower East side when there was no East Village it was ALL LES, an area her family has called home for over 50 years. She was born to teen age parents in 1981 but raised by her grandmother as Maria Torres. The lower east side in the 80’s was not the hipster, artsy fartsy area it has become. In the 80’s if you went to the lower east side it was either to party or to score. The streets were filled with junkies, Tompkins Square Park was overrun with squatters and the live music scene was loud and obnoxious. It wasn’t a safe place for a kid to play ball or ride your bike in the street. Dealers ran the streets and sold drugs from your building lobby. Prostitutes and junkies occupied abandoned tenements and the rats were so overpopulated they’d scurry past your feet in broad daylight. This is where Sasha grew up, one block from ABC No Rio and 2 blocks from the Nightclub The Bank. Sasha’s beginnings were far from humble. The chaos of the streets spilled over to her home life and Sasha dealt with the realities of abuse, a drug addicted mother and abandonment. Although her grandparents did what they believed was best for her, Sasha struggled with relating to them as her experiences were sculpting different views and sadly they were not able to adapt.
Sasha was a bright child who wasn’t allowed to play outside or socialize with friends, so she indulged herself in her violin and academic achievements. Despite being an A student and even playing her violin at Carnegie Hall, the abuse she endured over the years eventually took its toll. She lost the fire she had built up and she crumbled. Sasha rebelled. At only 14 yrs old she was on her own, homeless and living a gypsy existence bouncing from friend’s couches, to rooftops, and park benches. Sasha went on an angry rampage against the world and ultimately against herself. With no regard or respect for conformity, she pierced her nose, tongue, and eyebrows, dyed her hair a rainbow of colors and no longer cared what her family or anyone else had to say. All she worried about was trying to get into the clubs. The world that her grandmother barred her from was right outside but Sasha would not give up chasing the party.
After high school Sasha marks her 1999 road trip to Wood Stock as one of the best experiences of her life. She was a young adult doing it on her own. At 19 she had a son, Nicholas who filled the void of family for Sasha. She calmed down, she left her college studies and went to beauty school, got a bartenders certification and worked tirelessly to provide her son with everything she never had. When she met Big Lee in 2006, she was juggling 3 jobs, bartending, managing a hair salon, and working in her son’s school as a part time lunch lady. She bartended at a few different places but earned her stripes at an underground dive bar in Staten Island, with frequent bar fights that ended in shots (not the alcohol kind). She likens her work at Wild Spirits to her time at Wood Stock. She loved working there just much as she loved the man who created it. Lee taught her everything she needed to know to manage the bar, entertain the patrons and hone her skills as a Star-tender. She wasn’t Maria anymore. Big Lee gave her a new persona and she became Lady Nympho, a loud aggressive bar host and manager that relished in total rock sexploitation. In 2008 when Wild Spirits closed Sasha laid Lady Nympho to rest with it, but not without first having discovered herself. Making peace with her past and with Lee’s love and support, she learned how her past sculpted her into the badass no shit taking woman she had grown to be. While Lee went back to work at Hogs and Heifers, Sasha shifted her focus to raise their family while continuing to plan and support her husband from the sidelines. Sasha helped Lee to keep the momentum of Wild Spirits alive by planning and hosting promotional parties at various bars throughout the East Village. When the opportunity to purchase Cheap Shots NYC came along Sasha was ready to get back in the saddle and you can find her bartending on Saturday nights