Memoir

A Eulogy for the Ultimate Dive Bar

Under the F train in an industrial stretch of Brooklyn, a writer explores the fading history of a bizarre and beloved smoke-filled room that was quite literally a hole in the wall.

A Eulogy for the Ultimate Dive Bar

Due to the Gowanus Canal, the F and G subway lines run aboveground through part of Brooklyn, from Carroll Gardens to Park Slope, cutting eastward between 9th and 10th Streets before heading back underground near 5th Avenue. Consequently, one side of 10th Street is lined with well-maintained brick row houses, while the other is dominated by a wall of concrete, forming the train track’s support structure. Around the corner from one of the exits for the 4th Avenue station is an unlikely commercial space, built entirely within the track support, its entrance flush with the concrete. Underneath the tracks and, in recent years, usually blocked by scaffolding, this is perhaps New York’s most improbable location for a bar.

Across the avenue, the track structure housed similar storefronts, but they’re long closed and likewise completely blocked by scaffolding. Veterans of Foreign War Post 9485, and the bar that it contained, was the last man standing in a group of half-hidden MTA commercial rentals, carved out of the building holding up the subway lines. When I describe or point out the space to someone who’s never seen it before, their reaction is almost always along the lines of, “This is what we’re doing with our vets now?” But in fact, this semi-secret post was once very cool.

Despite the noticeably low ceilings and the ubiquitous rumble of closely passing trains overhead, a group of WWII veterans signed a lease with the Transit Authority in the early ’60s. The space they took had two parts – a smaller front room, where eventually the bar would go, and an even lower-ceilinged back area that wound up housing a pool table. When the vets took it over, “the storefront wasn’t too bad,” Jack Sanford, one of the founder’s sons, says, “but in the back, there were stalactites from the dripping of the tracks. It was a mess.” Eventually the bar was strung with Christmas lights, while the fluorescent-lit, utilitarian rec room in the back was paneled with drop ceilings.

Though the post is in an industrial swath of the borough that abuts family-oriented Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, it still feels desolate at night. Over the past few years, the post’s remaining members started to let in outsiders, if they were lucky enough to notice the place existed. You could rent the space for parties for about $400. More intrepid neighborhood residents tried to hang out without the pretense of a private party. In the scheme of local drinking options, the VFW’s bar, with its two-buck pony bottles of Budweiser, stood out from the scant nearby watering holes, where the cocktails on offer still seem out of touch with the neighborhood’s resident scrappers and loiterers. Few of those bars have pool tables and none have slot machines; the VFW post had both. (Though to recount fairly, you couldn’t really play the slots. The only return on the old-style one-armed bandit machine was the original quarter you fed it, spat back at you.)

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The ability to smoke indoors, as long as you were up for the smell – VFW halls are private clubs, not public bars – also offered vintage charm. Since the bar was built into a literal hole in the wall, its hidden feel was legitimate rather than staged. The little bottles of Bud were by far the most viable drinking option; the ancient shelf of liquor displaying unknown brands of vodka and Scotch seemed best avoided. I ended up there when Rory, a Gowanus neighbor, threw a birthday party in the space. He set it up through Angela, a bartender in her 60s who seemed to be in charge. Rory remembers her as “the old guard sort of bartender. A no-nonsense type, fine and friendly enough.”

The post officially opened in 1964, thanks to a group of unincorporated WWII veterans called The Nights Before. “I don’t know what before,” Sanford says, laughing. “I think it alluded to the parties they used to have. They would all gather at the [Harry William Steneck] post the day after the party and have a hair of the dog, and talk about The Night Before.”

The vets had formed an independent club within the Steneck post nearby, on 13th Street in Park Slope, paying Steneck’s core of WWI veterans for use of the space.

“They were actually the younger vets of the day, and the WWI vets didn’t want to incorporate them [into their post] because they wanted to maintain control,” says Sanford. The Nights Before broke off to open their own place once they got the funding together.

John F. Kennedy’s family turned them down for naming purposes – “everyone was naming everything after Kennedy at that time,” says Sanford – and Post 9485 became the Connelly-Popiolek, for two members (Gerard and Francis, respectively), each with brothers who had been killed in the war. The unusual location, meanwhile, was scouted by chance, when one of the founding members was leaving the subway after work.

Sanford’s father, John Sanford, Sr., was in the aviation ordinance in the Navy during WWII. As an adult, Sanford also joined the Navy, and later Post 9485, after serving in Vietnam as a boatswain mate. He was 12 or 13 the summer that he and the other vets’ kids, most of whom grew up nearby in Park Slope, were rounded up to get the new space into operable shape.

“We got five dollars a day, lunch and free soda, and at 12:30 or 1 p.m. we’d go swimming for the afternoon. We’d spend the rest of the day at Sunset Park, with enough money to take the bus back. We cleaned up the place. It took a couple of months.”

Once it was up and running, it was more bar than vets’ league.

“Sports was always a big thing,” Sanford recalls. “Not too many people talked about war memories or anything like that, because sometimes it was rather depressing.” Sports mania aside, it wasn’t a boys’ club – with no ladies auxiliary, the wives hung out at the post with their husbands.

Members were heavily involved in neighborhood politics, participated on the county council, and always had a showing in the annual Loyalty Day parade and of course, the Veterans Day parade. “We’d march from the playground on 3rd Street and 5th Avenue and parade to Sunset Park, and the following year we would parade back, from Sunset Park to the Old Stone House,” explains Sanford, who himself donned “the little khaki outfit” worn by the cadet choir and marched in the parades. (Park Slope’s Old Stone House, a reconstructed 1699 Dutch farmhouse, has its own military history, as a museum commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn.)

At some point, the post’s name changed. Or maybe it didn’t. It’s unclear how it transitioned from being the Connelly-Popiolek to Annelli-Francis Popiolek, which is how the Navy lists it online. Sanford says the vets renamed it around 1974 for one of the original charter members, Thomas Annelli. But it might have been an informal change, as their November 15, 2012 IRS revocation notice – VFW posts are tax-exempt – only mentions G. Connelly and F. Popiolek.

What’s clear from the revocation notice is that the post, for the time being at least, is closed. It lost a lot of its membership in recent years, and surrendered its charter in March of 2011, according to the Adjutant for all New York State VFW organizations. But no one seems to have filled in the remaining members on that point. Sanford’s last visit to the post was sometime last fall, when they still had around 20 members. (He explains that twenty-five members are required to start a post, and Annelli-Francis Popiolek had about 60 at its height.) For a time, at least, the party sporadically continued, despite the dwindling membership.

Tony Nappi, the post’s last Commander before the closure, told me the charter isn’t surrendered, and the post is being renovated (but that “for all intents and purposes, it’s closed.”) Given the scaffolding-covered exterior, the renovation explanation seems possibly true.

“A lot of older veterans, they just died off,” says Sanford. “They had trouble, like most vets’ organizations, recruiting new members.” Sanford now belongs to a post on Prospect Avenue, and the rest of the remaining vets have gone on to other venues.

After his party a year and a half ago, Angela invited Rory back along with his guests, telling him, “You guys are in.” Nappi would beg to differ; when I mentioned having been to the bar and enjoyed it, he reminded me that under usual circumstances, non-members are not allowed in except as members’ guests.

Putting aside club rules and heeding Angela’s welcome, Rory tried his best to return. It was too late; the post was already keeping unpredictable, dwindling hours, and it hasn’t opened once over the past year. Today, the sign advertising private parties is still up, but inquiring messages go unanswered. Half-secret though it may be, it’s a loss for the neighbors who knew it, as well its vets. As of now there’s nowhere else remotely like it to hide out and have a drink, shooting pool underneath the F train, with a tax-exempt beer in hand. But there might be hope. As we were hanging up on our call, Nappi, possibly flouting his commitment to the VFW’s members-only rules, assured me, “I’ll give you a yell if we should reopen.”