The Isabel(le) Syndrome
Three Isabel/les talk names, sea urchins, earnestness, tutoring pre-algebra, secrets, and serving cocktails between shifts at The River.
Photography by Gutes Guterman
Isabel Filer and Isabelle Rea became friends the way many New Yorkers do: a mutual orbiting between friend groups, followed by formal-ish introduction at a party (they met at the Hotel Chelsea), and then a diffusion and fuller absorption into each other’s lives. They are cocktail servers at The River, the cocktail bar brought to you by Dr. Clark, with uniforms by the notably chic people at Bode, which was widely covered when it opened. When Isabel was sick with the flu last winter, she asked Isabelle to cover her shift, and since then, they’ve both worked at the bar.
They’re affectionately known as “Isabel One” and “Isabelle Two” at The River, which are monikers that refer to the order in which they were hired, not a preference between the two. Isabelle is just a few months older than Isabel; they were both born in 1998. Isabel and Isabelle both moved to New York in the last couple of years. They do live in the neighborhood and don’t use nicknames on the clock. Their Instagram handles invert one another: Isabelle posts as @isabellepretend; Isabel recently changed hers to @isabel_real_life to complement Isabelle’s. If this were a different piece, it could be tempting to examine (and project onto) the ways in which people express themselves online ironically and not, straddling reality and artifice, but I digress. There’s not a lot new to say on this, and, more crucially, it’s not the point. In this case, it’s simply self-aware, low-stakes fun.
In addition to spending their nights and weekends serving Ranch Waters and Pornstar Martinis (newly trending), Isabel and Isabelle spend their days working at a nearby art gallery and communications firm, respectively. Isabel just finished a Master’s degree in art history from NYU, and Isabelle also writes fiction. They’ve regrettably (!) never worked a shift together – or at least, not yet, as they’re scheduled one at a time – but spend their working and non-working hours popping in on one another.
I met with the charismatic and funny pair early one evening before Isabelle Two was scheduled to work. I actually was introduced to the editor who assigned me this interview at The River last fall; my late-night memory of the bar crystallized around a neatly chilled glass of Sancerre and a bowl of North Fork potato chips, along with a deep sensation that time and space had been suspended, due to The River’s trademark darkness. In the aforementioned press coverage it was also widely described as “wood-paneled,” which is indeed true. I hadn’t noticed the mural that wraps the walls, and I hadn’t made it back since.
We started in one of The River’s cocooned corners, but when the music cranked, we moved across the street to Columbus Park chess tables to chat.
On names and their resounding influence:
“Name impacts your personality. Names have shapes and sensorial presence - and that’s your whole life.” –Isabelle
On working in a bar without windows:
“People always ask, ‘what’s it like working in a bar with no windows,’ and honestly, we’re not in there for seven hours straight without going outside. And the kitchen does have windows.” –Isabel
On sea urchins and Les Oursins (1928 & 1954):
“I studied biology in college, and my thesis was on sea urchins. There was a scientist from the 20’s to the 80s named Jean Painlevé and he did documentary films on underwater sea organisms, so I analyzed the film as if it were a work of art. Which I think it is.” –Isabel
On personal parallelism & blurring of Isabel/le:
“We’re friends, [and] have mutual friends outside of [The River], but still people get confused about us.” –Isabelle
On tutoring fifth, sixth, seventh grade math (pre-algebra) over the years:
“I’m learning as she is learning.” –Isabel
On secrets (and their precise moment of highest value):
“It’s fun to tell a secret! The value of secrets is in their exchange, there’s exchange value to sharing secrets - it’s not about accumulating them like wealth. That’s when a secret is fun: when you’re telling them.” –Isabelle
On regulars and picking favorites:
“Oh yes...I’ve got so many regulars I love.” –Isabel
“My favorite regular is Isabel.” –Isabelle
“I am not really pretending - I am an earnest person. I don’t like to withhold. I like to have everything on the table. If I go on a date with someone...I will say everything, because I want someone to like everything.” –Isabelle
On the origins nicknames and intimacy:
“I once told Pete, the bartender, I have low bone density, and he said we should call you ‘Isabird.’” –Isabel
“I’ve had Iz, Izzy, Isa, and Belle...If [someone wants] to give me a nickname, I appreciate it, because it makes that communication with that one person more specific...I don’t mind that other people see me as a nickname.” –Isabelle
On ex-boyfriends and Bebel:
“My boyfriends have all called me Bebel in the past, because they think its special because it’s a family nickname - which it is - they think they are the only ones outside of the family who say that, but no, it’s all of the boyfriends.” –Isabel
On clicking as friends:
“I think it might’ve been apple-picking for me” –Isabel
“I knew we were going to be friends. –Isabelle
“The name thing often works for me - I have another best friend named Isabelle as well.” –Isabel
On book clubs that used to meet at Fanelli's:
“You can’t have a book club there anymore...All of my book clubs are short-lived. They’re all two-months stints.” –Isabelle
On serving as choreography:
“I used to do ballet ... I like completing steps in a particular order . . . and I like optimizing your order of operations...I like moving around... and the interchangeable part is Isabel/e the server.” –Isabelle
On the amoeba-ship of being the Isabel/le’s of The River:
“It’s still pretty new.” –Isabel
On getting out of town:
“I just want to go on vacation” –Isabelle
Isabelle to Isabel: “Next week, what are you doing? I’m babysitting in the Hamptons on Saturday and Sunday, so I need to work on Thursday and Friday.”
Isabel to Isabelle: “I can totally work on Saturday and Sunday, that’s totally awesome.”