It wasn’t named for coke, the bartender said. That’s the funny thing. I mean, the place opened in the 50s and it sure wasn’t pushing coke back then.
The bartender was thick – thick torso, thick neck, thick skin, fingers like cannolis and that blunt LI accent, Brooklynese tempered by a generation in the suburbs. But he could tell a story.
They got this frog in Puerto Rico, he said. It’s called a coqui because of the sound it makes, ‘ko-kee, ko-kee, ko-kee.’ The guy who owned this place was Puerto Rican. Back then, it was some kind of social club. He used to have card games in here, strippers, that kind of thing. I mean he was half a wise guy anyway. One night he got stabbed in some card game. That was it for him. He was like, ‘I’m seventy years old. I don’t need this shit.’ So he gave the place to his nephew and that’s when it got started. One of the old doorman comes in here and we talk.
The Antique Lounge had opened a couple of months earlier. Its antique flourishes came courtesy of a restaurant catalogue – tin ceiling, exposed brick, classic moldings, and a fireplace. The furniture was so plush you could drown in it. Nothing was left from the long reign of Kokie’s.
I’m forty-three years old, the bartender said. I’m in it for the long haul. This place is my dream. I was born in the neighborhood. When I was four my parents moved out to Lynbrook but we stayed connected.
The bartender was also the owner. Blond salon streaks in his hair and his padded face made him look younger.
They had a great take here, he said. Twenty-thousand dollars for a four-day week. That’s not bad – even if you include the coke. Of course, you don’t know how many people were getting envelopes. I’m sure the police chief got his envelope. And the fire inspector. After 9/11 that all changed. The precinct got a new patrol chief, a woman who used to work narcotics. She said, ‘I’m not having this here.’ It’s hard enough to be a woman in that position anyway – and then have a coke bar under your nose. Right out in the open. I mean, if you’re gonna do that, at least be discrete. But no. They had the salsa band in here. The noise after hours. Still, they didn’t even get busted. That’s the funny thing. They lost their lease. They got some kind of three strikes thing in New York, I don’t know the legal particulars but the landlord was afraid they’d take away his building. So he didn’t renew the lease.
The owner bought me a drink. The way he talked, I figured that he’d been a Kokie’s customer himself and not just once.
The neighbors hated them more than anything, he said. When I took over they came in to check us out. When I told them what I was doing, they thanked me. You know, the Kokie’s crew thought they were being discrete. That’s the funny thing. With the booths in the back and leaning against the wall to put in your order. And the way they used to cut that stuff to shit. Why not have a decent product? But they really stepped on it. What went on with Kokies, I couldn’t have that. Most of my family is cops so…
We looked around the quiet lounge – five or six people on the couches and sofas, classic rock playing on the jukebox. We could have been in any of fifty NYC bars. ‘Antique’ was in.
We did all our own renovations. We soundproofed the ceiling. We put in our own hot water – the guy upstairs used to share it. And it’s working out. Couples like it in here. We got the couches. It’s romantic. Last week we had fifty dykes for a party. Not too many of them were those lipstick lesbians, I tell you. But nice people. Polite. That’s the kind of place I want. The guy who owns Rain came in here last week. You know what he told me?
Rain Lounge had opened the year before on Bedford and North 5th. The ‘urban’ vibe made it an anomaly even on a changing Northside – flash cars parked in front, gangster vines, hip hop thumping, meaty bouncers. The fact that both long-time locals and newcomers disdained the only neighborhood club that catered to African-Americans said something about our tolerance for ‘diversity.’
He told me, the bartender said, ‘I dread going to work. The fights. The girls passed out on E. The guns.’ I told him, ‘You don’t have to do it.’ But he said, ‘No.’ That’s the choice he made. But he probably takes in thirty-five hundred on a Friday night. Me, I’m doing good if I get that in a week. Then again, he’s probably paying eight grand a month for that corner. I pay twenty-five hundred. The authorities have it out for him too. I had the fire inspectors in here, the safety marshals. They told me, ‘We got the inspection list for Rain. We’re going to nail them for this and this and this.’ That’s not the crowd I want. I won’t play hip hop or techno. I’m in it for the long haul.
I went back to the Antique Lounge a few times after that, hoping to commune with the ghosts of Kokies but the bar had nothing for me. But the next winter, it had closed and Rain wasn’t too far behind. Kokie’s business model beat theirs by almost a half-century.