By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
There remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon, who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round, and Socrates was discoursing to them — Plato
Hank’s Saloon (the corner of 3rd Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn) made a cameo in a previous column, but I feel as though it deserves more than a few words. I’ve mentioned its concrete floors; the stray derelicts that linger around the corner just outside of the bar; the fact that this same corner is a crossroads tread by every piece of bad news in Brooklyn skulking around with a chip on their shoulder or a nameless score to settle. While there is something of the grotesque out front of the bar (as it can often look like a pit stop along the Styx), it’s not dangerous. You can be hassled when outside smoking, as the folks in the halfway house next door are worse than Greyhound passengers when it comes to exclusively smoking OPs, but once they have what they need, they will typically leave you alone. Not to say that everyone is laid back at the gateway to Gowanus. One night, not all that long ago, I was harassed by a woman drinking a bagless can of King Cobra, who demanded (as opposed to solicited or begged for) money for chicken wings. A squad car eventually drove by, saw the open container, and…well…her night probably ended up wingless.
Such a tale might make the average drinker think twice about entering Hank’s, but pushy transients are pervasive in this city; just because one has decided to haunt the front of a particular bar does not mean that the bar is filled with their ilk—though, it must be said, Hank’s isn’t exactly the type of place where one has a postprandial cordial or a chilled glass of Chardonnay. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to be dissuaded from entering a bar just because of an agitated waif or two, let alone a semi-recovering drug addict who wears his history on his sleeve, face, or any place where one can be wounded with a knife. The point here is that the front of a bar is like the cover of a book. True, velvet ropes are omens of popped collars, bad music, and rampant douchiness; and a wood veneer usually means a good, but overpriced beer selection; and a dog leashed to a nearby parking meter probably entails a dick bartender, and that you’re therefore not getting a buyback; but details such as these don’t always portend what you think they do, and it’s possible to find yourself in the midst of a great place that has not only a velvet rope and a phalanx of bouncers, but even a line to get in.
Hank’s, however, never has a line to get in. It has more of an open door policy, unless the potential patron in question has given the bartender problems before. Surprisingly, this doesn’t happen all that often, even though a lot of people tend to get atrociously drunk in Hank’s. I don’t know if it’s the strong pours or the fact that no one can figure out the nuances of the pool table until their sixth round (of eight ball or drinks, whichever comes first), but something about this place brings out the inner drunkard in people. And it’s not only the older regulars, who have become extensions of the stools on which they have been perched for longer than they care to (or can) remember, that act like the swamps of Kamarina, keeping out people who like to visit bars like Hank’s to be ironic. No, this phenomenon is far more pervasive.
One night stands out in particular. I’d arrived, well after last call in many other states, to meet four of my friends who have been regulars at Hank’s since before many of the bartenders would like to admit. As Hank’s is adjacent to several neighborhoods, as well as a transfer point for a number of bus routes, the demographic at Hank’s is more of a cross-section of Brooklyn than just about any other place I’ve been to, and this night was to prove no exception. People usually come into dives like Hank’s either to have a drink or two and then leave or to persevere countless rounds and shots with their friends until the night turns into a miasma of spliced together conversations from which most editors would run away in terror. My four friends had opted to venture on this second route, but something bizarre had happened—this route had converged with the routes of everyone else in the bar. All of the various social barriers that normally keep people segregated and cloistered in their own clusters had essentially broken down. Hank’s had become something of a “Be-In” or perhaps a “Drink-In” as the bartender decided to lock the doors sometime around three or so in order to keep smokers from standing outside and drawing the watchful eye of the law.
It’s a shame that I don’t remember too much about the conversations I had that night. It’s also a shame that no one else really does either. So many of them seemed so substantial and shorn of the pretenses and defense mechanisms that keep people from whatever the word for epicene fraternity may be. Gone were the histrionics and maudlin theatrics that often plague late night dialogues. No one became a pariah or got too drunk (even though we were all probably too drunk); no one sulked, and no one got too rowdy. Even politics and religion were discussed with civility. It was pure gregariousness. This was the abandonment of social friction, and it was taking place at a dive bar on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Atlantic as opposed to in the middle of the desert at Burning Man.
Just how long this party continued on into the day I can’t say for certain, but I do know that it was still going when I left around eight in the morning. Remarkably, I was still coherent at the time, and I can remember trying to spread the feeling of unity and brotherhood on to the cab driver. I did most of the talking. When he did speak, he sounded severe and very self-conscious of his accent. It was difficult to tell if he didn’t want to hear some drunken idiot talk about social justice or if didn’t speak English well enough to know what was going. When my ID card, which must have fallen out at some point during the ride, arrived by mail a few days later, I was convinced it was the latter.
Jay Fox was born in suburban Detroit. He moved to New York City in 2001. When he’s not working his 9-5, he spends his time writing fiction, playing with his band (Pistols, 40 Paces), doing the crossword puzzles featured in The New York Times, and drinking in waterholes around the city. If given the option of a PBR or a Budweiser, he would take the PBR. If given the option of an IPA or a Belgian wheat, he would more than likely take the IPA. Whiskey makes him charming, stupid, and then sleepy. He doesn’t particularly like writing in third-person, but understands that it’s necessary sometimes.
He would probably want to meet anyone who has bothered to read this, especially if it’s over a drink.