WILLIAMSBURG — As a trendy nightlife strip comes to saturate the blocks nearby, this bar still draws regulars citywide to munch on beans and rice or to cheer the latest soccer game. But most locals don't realize that Eddie Jr. Sports Lounge is more than the empanadas, dominoes table, big-screen sports games and vibrant Spanish chatter — it was the lifeline for the owner after losing his son to 9/11.
"I blamed myself," owner Eddie Zambrana Sr. said of the death of his son Eddie Zambrana Jr., after the elder Zambrana got him a job working in the Twin Towers. "Finally I sat down and said 'let's do this, in memory of my son.'"
Zambrana, 59, who raised his son to be an adept basketball player, opened the bar in 2005 with his son-in-law Hugo Garcia as a constant homage to the young Zambrana. Dotted with old photographs and relics commemorating Zambrana, Jr., the 24-year-old victim's story lives on through the bar — even if clients don't realize it.
"I was a basketball player in high school and then in community college...It was embedded in me to teach my son," the 59-year-old Staten Island resident recalled. "But at age 10 he was hit by a car on his bicycle and he was scarred for life...Teens would make jokes about his face, call him 'scar face.'"
So the young Zambrana became extremely self-conscious, finished high school in a "special school," and then spiraled into a painfully "bad attitude about life."
"He predicted he'd die by age 24," said Zambrana Sr. of his son, who refused to work and stopped leaving the house.
Finally Zambrana Sr., who'd worked on the elevator in the World Trade Center the past 18 years, found his son a job doing recycling in the towers.
"He worked there for three or four months. He was in the exact location where one of the planes hit," said Zambrana Sr., who had been in the tower's basement at the time and hadn't known what had happened when he left the building. "I was hysterical...I tried to back in the building to find him but the firefighters wouldn't let me. Then I got ill, mentally ill. I got chronic depression because I blamed myself."
The next few years Zambrana Sr. struggled finding any reason to live, and he tried a range of therapists and medicines to alleviate his constant anger and devastation.
Finally he began to recover — never completely, but enough to open a business with Garcia.
"I'd play against him in parks or at his house and he'd kick my ass," smiled Garcia of Zambrana Jr. "This [business] was one of his dreams."
Now even as local clients leave South Williamsburg with rising rents, the bar's barbecues, sports games and other events keep drawing customers from all over the city.
And as long as the lounge lives on, so does the homage to Zambrana Jr.
"My son loved sports and he loved to eat," Zambrana Sr. said. "So we named it after him."