Ernest Hemingway wrote of the importance of a “clean, well-lighted place.” I would counter that a dark den of questionable cleanliness is desirable on occasion too, a place to venture away from the glittery trappings of postmodern society and revel in bokeh-glazed gloom with a cold one in hand. The people at Hank’s Saloon pride themselves on running a clean shop, but a barroom doesn’t exist for over a hundred years without collecting a bit of dust in the odd corner. Anyway, you’ll find plenty of darkness in there and while it’s not for everyone, those of us seeking such refuge have for years received it on the corner of Atlantic and Third Avenues in Brooklyn.
On a recent weekday afternoon, this included a young bride-to-be who was apprehensive about trying on wedding dresses with her mother later that evening. “I’m more a T-shirt and jeans girl,” she said. “And then there’s all that weird underwear that goes along with it.”
From behind a bar that has borne the strain of thousands of leathery elbows and absorbed gallons of spilled beer, Jeannie Talierco filled a tall dram with something clear and potent on the house. She offered her nuptially-nerve-rattled customer mints too so that her mother wouldn’t get on her case for having a nip of the hard stuff.
It’s small acts of kindness like this that have earned Jeannie a reputation far and wide. She’s not a heavy drinker herself and never takes a sip while on duty but might put a twenty on the bar for a hard-up regular. She’s been at the grand ol’ dive for around two decades and is its heart and soul. Teachers, playwrights, executives, folk singers, punks, mathematicians, juvenile prison mess hall attendants, Jimmy Kimmel — virtually all manner of society has at one time or another sought Jeannie’s council and her generous pour.
But Hank’s Saloon is soon to be no more.
The two-story, railroad-car-shaped building where Hank’s resides on the ground floor (nobody has occupied upstairs for decades) was built in the 1880s by two Irish brothers. It first opened as a bar in 1903 and was popular with Mohawk ironworkers who began settling in Boerum Hill in the 1920s to work on the Empire State building, forming a community known as Little Caughnawaga. The headquarters of Ironworkers Local 361 was just up the block in those days and union decals — together with stickers promoting the numerous punk, rockabilly and honky-tonk bands that have lent their raucous rhythms to Hank’s rickety stage through the years — still cling to the bar’s ancient mirrors and windows.
Today Hank’s is surrounded by glass-walled high-rises yet there are few Mohawk ironworkers left. Jeannie has Hank’s flame-emblazoned logo tattooed on her right forearm, but when she first started working at the bar it went by Doray Tavern, after its owners Dottie and Ray — “a sweet old couple” who spoiled her, as Jeannie fondly describes them. The neighborhood was in rough shape in those days and at night the doors were locked to keep trouble out. But once it was determined you weren’t going to start a fight or hold the joint up you were admitted.
“It was a real nice crowd, real cool,” Jeannie remembers. “A lot of oldtimers. A lot of ironworkers.”
Dottie passed away in her sleep one evening after a night of dancing and Ray took the road for heaven soon after. In 2005, the bar opened in its current incarnation, named for the cowboy crooner of such numbers as “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.”
Through it all, Jeannie has remained at her post.
Come January, however, she and her customers will have to make way for a six-story condominium building. There will be some kind of restaurant or cocktail lounge on the ground floor — likely too pricey and well-lit for many of the Hank’s regulars to feel at home in, but you can’t evict a memory and you can’t bulldoze a ghost.
“I always think there’s spooks in here,” Jeannie says. The ice machine will rumble, the front door will open seemingly on its own reconnaissance “or something will go a little freaky and everybody will say, ‘That’s Dottie and Ray. May they rest in peace.’”
Boerum Hill’s own Jonathan Lethem has noted the spirits too. He immortalizes the saloon in his short story the “Mad Brooklynite,” writing of it as a “bar like a black hole. Daylight bent and broken at its threshold, full of Mohawk ghosts.”
The ghosts will be absent when Hank’s reopens this February several blocks away near Borough Hall. The new venue will be three or four times larger than it is now, with barbeque on offer from Hill Country Food Park downstairs, and the sound system will be much improved.
“We will not be trying to recreate ‘Hank’s Saloon’ (since that is not possible), but hope to offer the same community and neighborhood atmosphere that we have now,” reads a little slip of paper handed to patrons asking after the dive’s fate.
Rumor has it that the bar’s rowdy Sunday afternoon “Honky-Tonk Brunch” that Jeannie spearheaded will be replaced by some sort of gentle jazz dining experience. And the crowd will be different too, fewer working stiffs and more suit-and-tie types and out-of-towners from nearby office buildings and Marriott hotel. Many of Hank’s bartenders, including Jeannie when I spoke to her, aren’t sure if they’ll be working at the new place either. The month gap between Hank’s closing and reopening is a long time to go between checks.
Either way, those looking to stop by and see Jeannie can always find her at the American Legion at 9th Street and Third Avenue where she’ll be serving up hearty libations and salty philosophy on Friday nights.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Jeannie reflected. “The people I met here — I met a few assholes but basically everybody helps everybody. It’s a shame they’re going to tear this place down.”
We at The Indypendent think so too. This was our favorite watering hole after wrapping up a late night meeting or finishing an issue just as the sun licked the sky. The sound of glasses clinking, the ping of Hank’s duct-taped cash register, Jeannie singing along under her breath to a Motown classic on the stereo, her voice like a radio tuned just shy of the station it is looking for but not without a certain sweetness — the din of the dark little den will ring in this reporter’s mind long after it goes down and condos come up.
Over the years, people were married at Hank’s and people were stabbed, but mostly it was just a simple spot where friends met for a good time on a dime. There aren’t enough places like it left in this town.
Long live Brooklyn, down with yuppie scum!
And remember to tip your bartender.
Photo (top) THE HARD STUFF: Jeannie Talierco tending bar at Hank’s. Credit: Erin Sheridan. More photos below.