Depending how long you’ve lived in North Brooklyn, you may have heard tale of the legendary bar Kokie’s, which, about 20 years ago sat on the corner of Berry and North 3rd Street. In a true twist of hipster irony, the name Kokie’s really said it all—for $20 you could actually buy small baggies of cocaine out of a closet tucked away at the back of the bar. A longtime Williamsburg resident who wishes to remain anonymous says, “I heard about Kokie’s from friends. They filled me in on the protocol and a few times I was asked to tag along. I was kinda young and pretty intimidated by the place. So, I declined, preferring to rely on the bravery of friends. By the time I finally got up the nerve, it was gone.” The bar closed in 2001 after being raided by the cops, and then turned into a short-lived bar called Antique Lounge, and then the space became The Levee (212 Berry Street). Our anonymous source says, “A frito pie doesn’t compare to Kokie’s special. I heard a rumor that Luxx on Grand [where Trash Bar used to be and where Overthrow boxing gym is now] sorta picked up Kokie’s mantle. But that’s all heresay.”
An article on Vice from a decade ago quotes some locals who patronized the bar at the time. “The windows were blacked out in the front and there were no windows at all in the back—you had no sense of time or reality,” says Meg Sneed. Stuart McLennan adds, “Kokie’s usually came alive around 3AM. It always looked so dead from the outside but then inside it was packed with people partying like extras in an 80s party movie. The crowd was about 75 percent Puerto Ricans dancing the mamba or whatever with perfect precision and 25 percent college kids grinding their jaws and doing a jittery hip-hop version of the mamba in a futile attempt to blend in.” And what was making a transaction like? McLennan continues, “You bought coke from this guy who stood in a fucking closet in the back room. It was $20 a bag, right? If you had a mustache he would say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about” at which point you’d have to give your $20 to a girl and have her do it.”
This was a storied time in Williamsburg history, a seedy prequel to the high rises, the Apple Store, the Whole Foods and the high end Equinox gym. You’d walk down Bedford Avenue and a tough guy might try to throw a bottle at your head. Or you’d go to McCarren Pool with friends to smoke weed, shoot off bottle rockets and do Polaroid photoshoots inside its empty and paint-peeled hull. You might hang out at Verb Cafe on Bedford and rub shoulders with unfashionably dressed artists and flannel-shirted dudes in then unknown bands who would later become famous. There’s a book about this fledgling time in North Brooklyn, called The Last Bohemia: Scenes From The Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which came out a few years back. It’s the true tale of an artist who arrived in the gritty and industrial neighborhood in 1994, paying $300 a month to live in a loft that lacked proper utilities. Of Kokie’s, author Robert Anasi writes in the book, “It’s a coke bar that opens Thursday night and doesn’t close again until Sunday afternoon.” He describes the scene there as, “…cackling middle-aged Latinas with high heels and big asses, a group of young Poles with buzz cut, two guys in dusty overalls who looked like they had just gotten of a factory shift, and a couple of artist types with their sideburns and thick-framed glasses. It was an ugly room…”
And today Kokie’s is back, although only in t-shirt form on Big Cartel, where some semi-anonymous person has decided to whip up Kokie’s logoed t-shirts that only people truly in the know (touch nose) would understand. A shirt will set you back $25, but you’ll gain instant oldschool hipster cred.
What’s “dancing the mamba”? Is that some kind of a snake dance?? Is it anything like mambo?
Thanks for the plug, Ms. Penmann. Your piece brought the memories flooding back (the few that I possess). Perhaps I’ll buy a t-shirt for my three year-old – do they exist in child sizes?
I was a frequent patron in the summer of 99..my night would start at Mars bar and at around 2am I’d cab it over the bridge and hit Kokies where I could always run into one of my hipster Billyburg friends. The feature of the bar that I found most interesting was the shower curtained dressing room where you were encouraged to use your 20 with friends. The stall could fit 4 standing and we’d usually key bump clockwise 2x before the bouncer would knock to alert us another group was waiting their turn. It was very civilized.
OMG… Fond memories. When you say Kokies is back. Does that mean the Latinas and degenerates I associated with would be there as well? Next generation? Do you get 20 bucks of stamped on blow win the shirt cuff? Lol! Thanks for this!
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