Member's Only

Going Italian social clubbing

Last month I went to the Brooklyn Social in Carroll Gardens with a friend who thinks New York is getting too "prissy." He only goes to bars that are sufficiently dirty, loud, or coated in dust. This particular place, formerly an Italian social club, is neither cheap nor grungy, but he still approved. In fact, he called it "the real deal." He said he was inspired by photos on the wall, which featured groups of Sicilians, smoking cigars and looking grumpy.

Later, he wanted to go to a real social club so he could "chill with the old men," but I figured this was fantasy. According to Joey Igneri, the president of the Reverie club, a few blocks from the Brooklyn Social, more people share this dream than you'd think. Drunken strangers, enticed by the club's Member's Only sign, will peek through the front windows, or even knock on the door. "They think it'd be cool to hang out here," says Igneri. "Once we were playing cards and someone asked to join in on our game of 'Texas Hold 'Em, We don't even play Texas Hold 'Em."

To join the club, which has a drum set, two arcade games that don't work, and an enormous TV, you have to be friends with Igneri or his brother. I asked whether girls could be members, but Igneri said no—too much trouble.

For a change in company, Igneri sometimes goes to Angry Wade's (also a former society) on Smith Street, but rarely enjoys himself. "Our conversations here are better," he says. "Out there it's an open market. You talk about sports or TV or say, 'I wish I was dating Reese Witherspoon.' We don't have small talk. We have tradition."

For guys with a competitive need to find the most hole-in-the-wall hole-in-the-wall, Italian men's societies represent unconquered territory. Across the street, at the Society of the Citizens of Pozzallo, established in 1919, joining is a near-impossibility. All members must be descendants, or married to, someone from Pozzallo, a small fishing town in Sicily. In the '50s nearly 600 people belonged to the club, but their sons rarely joined and membership rapidly dwindled. "We don't offer much to stimulate the mind of—let's call it—'the new generation,'" says Joseph Cusino, a retired painter who seemed alternately heartbroken and bored by the topic. "We're old timers. We just cry and complain and pull out our hair. You know how we are."

Members start drifting into the club around noon to read the paper, watch television, and drink espresso, served by a custodian who works for free ("he likes doing it," says Cusino). The club has honorary members, who weren't born in Pozzallo, but until recently they were denied certain privileges—most importantly, playing cards. "

Joining the society used to be the big social moment," says Frank Ficili, a refrigerator repairman. "We called it 'coming out of the closet.'"

He paused. "Let's call it 'coming out of the basement.' Does that make sense? It means you don't stay home all day, lonely."

There used to be more than 15 social clubs in Carroll Gardens, all within a few blocks of each other; now there are only three. (On Court Street, the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club, comprised of "family guys living in their own little world," says the society's president, has been around 40 years). In the early days, most of the men worked on the waterfront and they'd stop by their clubs before and after work, and then again before and after parties. Now many of the societies seem less like bars than retirement homes. Still, there's a certain caché in gaining entry. Igneri, who claims the neighborhood used to be more lively than the Village, understands why. "Simple," he says. "Put a Member's Only sign up and everyone wants to come in."

 
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