Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Disappearing Act of Post 689 and Others

Walking past, they are hardly noticeable. No signs separate them from the stores or the sidewalk, their presence eclipsed by more prominent establishments who can offer something to passersby - a product or service of some kind. Peaking inside, open doors reveal the bare, institutional first floors of buildings marked for yuppie renovation. Old TV sets with washed out picture quality flash baseball or the races as whited haired men sit around folding card tables, gumming cigars in a space that is half living room, half kitchen. The refrigerator hums. The men cough or laugh, drinking beer and espresso. Telling stories or not talking at all, since their lives have been full of words and this is the one place where they can be silent --

"This is our place," Carl Tullo (or "Tullo" as his buddies refer to him) tells me. "A home away from home. We come here to socialize, to watch sports or just to sit. We're here every day. Whenever we can be." He's talking about the Catholic War Veteran's of America Association, one of Williamsburg Brooklyn's few remaining social clubs.  For the original citizens of Williamsburg these clubs or posts as they are called -- a nod to the military backgrounds the men all have in common --provide a welcome escape from the monotony of retirement and changing neighborhood outside their windows. 

Dedicated to Father Edward Giorgio, the Catholic War Veteran's Association is strange combination of dusty antiquity and vintage charm -- a big grandfatherly front room adorned with silver war plaques and newspaper articles yellowing in their frames and a darkened club area dotted with circular tables and a swinging Copa Cabana style bar in the rear. 

On this particular Sunday when I visit, Tullo and his friends Sonny Scali, "Rubber," "Apples" and Bobby are all sitting around the stuffed brown couches, watching television. At other clubs, like the San Conodi Teggiano Catholic Association on Graham Avenue, members pour over poker or rummy, yet as the years go by the pool of players gets smaller 
and smaller.

"Because the members are dying," says Sonny Scali, many of these clubs are shackling up, closing their doors and turning their leases over to younger generations to become trendy clothing stores and overpriced coffee shops. Last year, the former Wither's Italian-American War Veteran's Club run by famed gangster Dominick Napolitano and once headquarters for Bonanno Crime Family was remodeled into a peach-colored law office. Just this past month, the silver plaque of Father Giorgio donated by the members of Post 689, the Catholic War Veterns of America club, was stolen by vandals. 

Years ago, Wither's club, brick-laden and weathered was the site of a famous mob hit featured in the movie Donnie Brasco and is rumored to have once housed a (regularly feed) lion in it's tiny basement.  Before it turned over I used to press my face up to the glass, marveling over it's unique past. Staring into the darkness, there was no telling what had become of the space, instead I could only make out the lines of what once was...

Silent "H"