When I was in my twenties I used to go to a bar on 84th Street called the Oke Doke. The name was technically the Oke Doke Restaurant, but it wasn’t a restaurant, it was a tiny bar with no tables, (that I remember) a jukebox and a shuffle bowl game. Elsie, the owner, wouldn’t open the door for everyone. You’d knock, she looked you over, and maybe she’d let you in.
Sometime after I turned forty, I went back to the Oke Doke with my friend Chris. Elsie was like the Miss Havisham of bar owners, it turned out. I wrote about the visit in my book, Waiting For My Cats to Die. An abridged version:
“The place was practically unchanged. The same singers were on the jukebox: Frank Sinatra, who is the most represented, Al Jolson, Patsy Cline, Bobby Darin, Marion Lanza, The Ink Spots, and Peggy Lee. I recognized the few knick-knacks behind the bar, like a cheap brandy snifter filled with 20 year old, now smell-less pot-pourri, as well as the shuffle bowl game on the way to the bathroom. Nothing has moved in eighteen years, nothing has been spruced up, nothing has been renovated. It was dingier and less cheerful …
“Elsie was smaller than I remembered, and grayer. “I’ve been running this place since 1950,” she tells me. The guys I used to come in here with—who weren’t exactly the nicest guys in the world—still come around, she told me. She clearly adored them. She called them “my boys” and told me what they are all up to.
“The three of us talked about men and children until she buzzed in a group of six young Eastern European men who, recognizing the honor they had been given, thanked her very politely, and took the stools to our right. A little while later she buzzed in a handsome man roughly my age who walked in with a very lovely young woman in her twenties. They sat to my left. “This is my third time in here this week,” he announced to the room. I liked him at once. Elsie pulled out a guestbook. “Someone gave this to me in 1986,” she said. It listed the dates, names, addresses and, best part, it had a space for comments.
“I scanned for familiar names. I found one of Elsie’s boys, someone I used to come here with. “I will always love you … Your Tallboy.” (He was gigantic, I remember.) I found his brother’s name. He’d written, “When will I be known only for my own good deeds?” A touching question …”
I would do anything to read that guestbook now, slowly and carefully. I couldn’t at the time. It’s just the kind of thing I live for whenever I research and write. The comments created such a perfect picture of the place and the people who used to drink there. The Tallboy was a guy named Ray who I’d dated a few times. Ray had, like, a billion brothers, and I don’t remember which one wrote “When will I be known only for my own good deeds?” but I still think it’s a touching question. I wonder if he ever went on to perform any good deeds.
Sometime after, I went back to the Oke Doke, and there was a sign on the door saying that it was closed and Elsie was in a nursing home. I went to visit her. The place wasn’t bad at all, but it was a terrible visit. Elsie was miserable and angry to be there, and she just fumed the whole time, it was awful. She told me her boys visited her and I believed her. Like I said, they weren’t the nicest people I’ve ever known, but as far as I could tell they had genuine affection for Elsie, so I could see them visiting her.
The site of the former Elsie’s Oke Doke, from Google maps. The orange awning is where Elsie’s used to be. I wished I’d taken a picture at the time. I couldn’t find a picture of it online. She ran it for roughly forty years, there must be a picture somewhere.
Update: Scroll down for a picture of Elsie, sent to me by Kevin Connell. Thank you, Kevin!