Why hello there, sonny. You too, little miss. So you're the young whippersnappers that're living in good old Williamsburg, Brooklyn, now, huh?
Why hello there, sonny. You too, little miss. So you’re the young whippersnappers that’re living in good old Williamsburg, Brooklyn, now, huh? Well let me tell you kids, I may not look like much more than an old fogey now, but I was here in the WB back when the likes of you were sucking on your mammy’s teat. Why, I was there at the first Fischerspooner show. I have a copy of Andrew WK’s home-recorded demos—he gave them to me himself. We used to sit around and spin yarns at the Stinger Club on Grand Street all night long, and then Peaches and Larry Tee would come in trailing Adult. records, Nike Dunks in black and yellow, and steaming fresh copies of index magazine. After that we’d go over to P.S.1 on Saturdays and listen to Chicks on Speed play a show while we all tried to recover from the night before at Kokie’s…
Wait, “What’s Kokie’s,” you said? These old ears ain’t what they used to be but I could swear you just asked me that. You did! Well sit down here on this stack of back issues of Purple, and let me tell you about a time long past… a hazy era known as 1999…
Just before the turn of the millennium, on the soon-to-be gentrified corner of Berry and North 3rd in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there was a bar called Kokie’s Place. It was the stuff of legend. Or, to put it more bluntly, it was a dingy Puerto Rican coke bar. But really, it was so much more! 1999-2001 was a pivotal era in Williamsburg history—it’s when the neighborhood finally went from kind of depressing because it wasn’t Manhattan to really depressing because it’s full of assholes fresh out of art school—and Kokie’s was at the center of that transformation.
So this is a tale of gentrification. It’s a tale of people from different cultures coming together in really weird ways. And of course, it’s a tale of wrecking your life and wasting your 20s doing tons of the worst cocaine that a Spanish-speaking New York drug dealer has ever stepped on.
We’ve compiled a history of Kokie’s, straight from the mouths of the locals, the regulars, and the people whose lives were touched and/or destroyed by this very special place… a coke bar called Kokie’s.
JEFF JENSEN: I first noticed the Kokie’s sign in 1991. It wasn’t open to the public at the time but we knew there were people doing coke inside. You have no idea how blown-out and desolate the neighborhood was back then. The token booth dude at the Bedford stop of the L train was narcoleptic and you could just push the crappy old wooden turnstiles open. No one cared. I tried to wake him up once to pay for my ride and people laughed at me.
TOM C: In the early 90s, the cops called South 2nd Street between Berry and Bedford, right around the corner from Kokie’s, “The Drugs and Death Corridor.” You could buy drugs right out on the street. It was all Puerto Rican and they loved to beat-up white guys. I got jumped at least three times.
GARY J: The Southside was no joke. And those Kokie’s guys were not the kind of people you’d want as friends or enemies. They were all criminals, in and out of prison.
JEFF JENSEN: So it took real balls for me to finally knock on the door in 1995. I convinced the doorman to let me in. I said, “I want to become a member of this club.” He wouldn’t let me in at first but I know how to hustle. Plus I had a pretty serious cocaine habit at the time. At first I would just buy coke from them and leave, but then I started hanging out with the Overlords guys. There was a biker bar called Road Sores on South 6th street. This gang called the Overlords would always hang out there or at Kokie’s. I became really good friends with one of them, a Puerto Rican biker who changed his name to Muskrat after his wife died in a chain fight. They had both really loved the song “Muskrat Love.” I used to do immense quantities of cocaine off the end of Muskrat’s knife. He would just dip it into a Folgers can full of coke right there in Kokie’s.
GARY J: If you want a little bit of history, the landlord told me that the bar started off in the early 1900s as an Italian social club. Then in the 50s it got taken over by a Puerto Rican gentleman and he turned it into a Spanish social club—they had cockfighting and gambling there. That went on for about 20 years and then he passed it on to his godson or someone like that. The bar wasn’t making any money because its clientele was all old-timers paying something like a dollar for a beer. So the godson had the bright idea to turn it into a coke den.
BRIAN F: Word spread fast. Everyone heard about Kokie’s the same way: “Hey, have you been to Kokie’s? It’s a COKE bar called KOKIE’S!”
GARY J: Oh, by the way, the name of the bar comes from a little green tree frog from Puerto Rico called a Coqui (pronounced “Kokie”). It’s called that because when it chirps it makes a sound like, “Ko-kee! Ko-kee!” That’s where the name comes from, not from cocaine.
THE SNOWY HEYDAY
JERRY P: Kokie’s went through a series of changes after I started going there in ’99. You could tell how long somebody had been a regular based on whether or not they were familiar with certain milestones. When I first started going, they had a live salsa band in the corner on certain nights.
BRIAN F: Wednesday night, I think, was salsa night. Man, it was decked out. They had a huge band in there—vibes, percussion, everything. It filled up the entire back room. An old man in brown pants would be dancing with some hot mama with a flower in her hair. It felt like being in Cuba in the 50s or something. I felt like Henry Miller.
JUDY W: They had karaoke nights there too, but they started at 6 PM and ended by 10 so we never got there in time to do it. The karaoke setup looked like an AV unit that was stolen from a high school or something.
JERRY P: Eventually they fazed out the band and got a jukebox. But it was still pretty decrepit. Just dark, dingy, walls and little yellow lightbulbs. It was all empty and weird on weeknights. I loved the shittiness of it.
SHARKEY FAVORITE: One night in 1999 I was at Kokie’s and I was wearing this scarf that my girlfriend had spent two months knitting and had just given to me that day. Well, of course, within a couple of hours of running around Kokie’s like an idiot, the scarf was gone. I spent the whole night looking for it and complaining about how she was gonna kill me for losing the thing. When it finally came time to face the music, sure enough, she was pissed. I followed her around the apartment, apologizing over and over again. She looked at me and said, “You just don’t get it,” and left. I glanced at the clock. It was 2 PM. I had no idea I’d just spent 13 hours at Kokie’s. It was a time vacuum and it made me a bad boyfriend.
MEG SNEED: 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.
LORI A: Nothing good ever happened to me at Kokie’s. I’d only go there when I was already too drunk and it was 3:30 AM and someone would inevitably shout, “I know! Let’s go to Kokie’s!” The next thing I knew I’d be back in that curtained booth doing the worst coke in the world until well past dawn.
JERRY P: The coke was stepped on like crazy. I think it was cut with meth, because it lasted so fucking long. I personally didn’t mind it.
BRIAN F: It was convenient living nearby because the coke was so awful. As soon as I did a bump I would run home, shit my brains out, and then come back refreshed and ready for more.
MEG SNEED: The coke there was pretty bad, true, but it was such a pleasant place to be. A real positive atmosphere and community feeling. I even thought about hanging out there without drugs once or twice. Of course I never did.
LUCY P: I don’t know if I ever talked to anybody there who I didn’t know, but I felt as though I could’ve. And it wasn’t just the drugs. There was a sense that everybody was there to enjoy some sort of desperate eked-out freedom. As though a line had been crossed into comity. You know, the purity of purpose people shared.
STEVE L: The first time I walked in there, I could see that all the action was in the disco room, where a crowd of mostly middle-aged Puerto Rican mamis were dancing around to what sounded like electro-Merengue. One of them, in a hot-peach tube top, bleached cut-offs, and espadrilles dragged me out on the floor to get down with her. I must have pranced with every orange-haired lady in the place.
STUART McCLENNAN: 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.
VALENTINA A: I’d never heard of Kokie’s until early 2000. I was walking with my boyfriend who had just moved to Williamsburg. It was late, maybe 2 AM, and as we walked by Kokie’s I heard a psychedelic 70s Colombian salsa song that I love— not the kind of song that you normally hear coming from some dive bar in Brooklyn. I had no idea what kind of place Kokie’s was. The door was locked, so we waited for a minute and when this hipster girl went in, we scooted in with her. I was hoping to find a crazy dance party, but instead there were a bunch of very white kids sitting at tables and not doing much of anything. We ordered beers and I soon realized that everyone serving at the bar was Colombian. I started talking to them about Colombia, one thing led to another, and this bartender named Nora ended up giving me a bunch of coke for free!
STUART McCLENNAN: 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.
JERRY P: I remember they wouldn’t serve [singer of a then-popular band] because he had this big, goofy mustache and he looked like a policeman. He asked me if I would cop for him, and I said no. I didn’t want them to see me getting drugs for the guy they didn’t want to serve. I was like, “Sorry dude, serves you right for looking like that.”
MEG SNEED: In the early Kokie’s stages, you couldn’t just walk in and buy the coke right away. You had to sit in the bar area in the front and buy a drink. The drinks were tiny. They had these mini Budweisers that looked like baby bottles. One time I ordered a vodka with orange juice and they gave it to me in a Dixie cup.
LESLIE R: It wasn’t so hard to figure out how to buy the coke. I just went up to some college kid who seemed high and asked, “How is it done here?” He pointed to a booth in the corner. It was like a little closet. I walked over there with a $20 and stuck out my hand. The guy took the $20 and handed me a bag. Boom. Finished.
STUART McCLENNAN: The first time I went there I had no idea how to go about scoring the coke. I notices a curtained off booth in the corner. That was where people go to do their bumps after buying it. But I didn’t know that and after watching about a dozen people go into the closet and come out sniffing, I was sure that was where to go buy the coke. I ducked in behind the curtain and there was nobody there. Doye. There was, however, a big hole in the wall that had pipes running through it. I figured the dealer was behind that hole so I stuck my hand in with $20 and waved it around. “Just a twenty-bag, thanks,” I said. Nothing. Maybe he was taking a break or something. So I wedged my head in the hole and said, “Psst. Hey … you there?” How Mr. Bean Goes to Kokie’s is that?
STEVE L: I’d heard about the infamous tooting area and headed over expecting to see a dimly-lit gauntlet of art hipsters (this was just before the swarms hit Williamsburg), gang-bangers, and mamis all giggling and snorting together. Instead, I threw back the curtain and saw an orange-haired older lady, bent over like Betty Boop, enthusiastically blowing a British painter of my remote acquaintance. I said howdy, did three bumps, and went back to join the dance party.
JERRY P: Eventually they refurbished the coke closet. When we first started going it was the size of a phone booth, but then they put up some drywall to double the size. And they had a bouncer stand outside the booth to regulate how many people were in there at a time. There would be a line around the side of the room waiting to go into the coke closet, and if they caught you doing coke outside of the coke closet they’d kick you out immediately.
ANN G: One night I was in the booth and this Dominican guy was giving me bumps off his key. People were usually pretty nice about sharing. We were chatting and he said that he was the brother-in-law of the owner. I tend to be a real lighter klepto, like I’m always pocketing people’s lighters and whatnot just absent-mindedly, and I guess I pocketed his key ring. I got home that night (or morning, technically) and when I dumped out my pockets there was this huge ring with like 20 keys and a million dangling key-chain doodads. I was scared. That guy was scary! I shame-spiraled into a total coke depression. Those keys symbolized everything that was wrong in my life and I wanted to keep them as a reminder. I never returned the keys and I never went back to Kokie’s again.
MARIA S: My friend and I met this group of greasy leather-and-chains-clad biker dudes one night at Kokie’s and they invited us back to their clubhouse someplace in bumblefuck Brooklyn. Their place was a garage in the front and a rec room with a bar in the back. It was decked out in pink balloons and streamers for a baby shower that was happening the next day. One of the dudes kept going around with a paper plate and a switchblade, giving us bumps off the tip. The sun was starting to come up and we were about to call a car and the guy asked if we wanted one for the road. Sure! Why not? So he cuts up a new batch and comes around with the knife, bump bump. I began to sweat. I mean, profusely, like I needed a towel. As I headed toward the door to get some fresh air I saw one of my friends hunched over the toilet barfing. I could barely walk. I found a stoop in the sun and plopped down. I remember this incredible, warm, peaceful wave go through me as if all was right in the world and I didn’t care about anything. We cabbed home during morning rush hour. Traffic was backed up on the Williamsburg Bridge and every time the cab stopped we would open the car door to puke. We spent the rest of the day tag-team vomiting into my friend’s toilet. We were so out of our heads that it took us hours before we realized that the biker dudes had slipped us heroin.
LUCY P: One time we were all kicked out in the morning and it was very bright and no one wanted to go home. Some people said there was a party at their apartment. So everybody (20 or so people at least, mostly total strangers) tromped over to an industrial building through this maze-like series of corridors to find the apartment with the party. Well, a party it sure as hell wasn’t. No booze. Just some lame band practicing. Not playing. Not a show. Band practice. And a whole bunch of really disappointed, hopped-up goofballs watching them. No one knew how to get out but it was clear within minutes that it had to be done. I found a door down some corridor and went back and led the people out. The thing here was the total abuse of goodwill. Man, you just don’t abuse that trust. If there’s no party at your apartment, that’s fine, but don’t tell people your idiot roommate and his idiot bandmates are a goddamned party.
JERRY P: My roommate and I started talking to these two people one night: Tony, a 35-year-old Latino man, and Adrian, a 38-year-old black woman. Adrian was a dental technician and Tony was a marine who was on leave. It got late and I invited them back to my house. And it was far, all the way out in Greenpoint. We got to our tiny, railroad apartment and my roommate immediately freaked out and went to bed, but of course he couldn’t sleep because he was all coked up. He told me that he sat on his bed listening to us all night. Tony and I argued about who the best rapper of all time was for about an hour. He thought it was KRS-One and I thought it was Biggie. Adrian didn’t really say much. Toward the end of it, when I started to get really weirded out, Tony was telling me that he could see my aura. He was like, “Man, it’s all about auras, man”, so I finally kicked them out around dawn. We were standing on the front steps, squinting in the sun, like, “Yeah, great meeting you guys, bye!” Stuff like that happened all the time. I shiver just thinking about it.
THE BUBBLE BURSTS
BRIAN F: In 2001 Kokie’s became the official hipster cocaine vending machine. They started to pander to the crowd. The place closed down for a week and reopened up with, like, mod Ikea gear and neon lightning bolts everywhere.
JERRY P: Yeah, the final milestone before it died was that they painted these lame tropical murals on the walls. You’d walk in and be like, “What the fuck?” It was so weird, they wanted to jack it up and make it nice, but it was so out of touch with their new clientele.
JUDY W: Sometime toward the end of the era, a guy who worked there invited me to a party at a new place that the Kokie’s owners were opening up. I think it was on Broadway and it had Trinidadian dance vibes. He gave us cards for it. They were glossy and had color photo of chicks in bikinis on them.
GARY J: Around this time, someone went on the internet and wrote, “Oh man, it’s like Amsterdam in Williamsburg! It’s awesome!” And that was the beginning of the end.
RICK P: The final nail in the coffin came when the local precinct got a new police captain who had come straight from doing narcotics and vice work. She wasn’t having a coke bar in her precinct. They busted the place a few times and that’s pretty much the end of the story. They went out of business. They couldn’t conduct his trade anymore.
GARY J: I worked at the Antique Lounge, which is what Kokie’s became after it went out of business. The owner told me that he found bullets in the walls when he gutted it out.
SUSAN S: I own The Levee, the bar that opened after the Antique Lounge closed. I think business was pretty bad for the Antique Lounge. People thought it was still the same owners as Kokie’s so they had a hard time drawing a new crowd. People still come in to this day and talk about how they miss Kokie’s. There are so many different stories about Kokie’s that at this point it’s kind of a local legend. A few of the door guys who had worked there come in and play pool sometimes. They’re really sweet. One of them brought his dad in to show him where he used to work. We’ve really had to work hard to shake off the coke stigma.
JEFF JENSEN: Kokie’s has a huge place in Brooklyn’s history. I would also like to submit that the genre of electroclash was officially started at Kokie’s. I can prove it because I was there. In the early days, there was a janitor who worked at Kokie’s who was from Saskatoon and claimed that he had seen Bigfoot. Me and Casey Spooner used to laugh like crazy over his Bigfoot stories. That’s what gave Casey the idea to start Sasquatch, his Bigfoot-themed band that eventually became Fischerspooner.
MEG SNEED: Kokie’s and electroclash. That’s all I remember about 2001.
Do you have a fond Kokie's memory of your own? Please do tell us in the comments section below.