Said handsome bartender, Kyle de Vre, in a self-portrait.
Photo: Kyle de Vre
It was 3:15 p.m. on a Tuesday — Valentine’s Day, to be exact — at Sophie’s, the legacy dive bar on East 5th Street in the East Village, and I was already drinking a beer. Yes, I had plans later in the evening, but it was tempting to stay here alone on this stool. Well, not alone — I was talking to the bartender, Kyle de Vre, a tatted and mustachioed 35-year-old, about the types of people who sit here like me and talk to him. The regulars. The barflies.
In many ways, Kyle is an ideal bartender — all flirty one-liners, good listening skills, and corny dad jokes (“Why did the scarecrow get a raise? Because he’s outstanding in his field”). In a city that entices you to overspend and pretend, Sophie’s is, refreshingly, a proper dinged-up dive, with not much more than an old jukebox, a pool table, some rickety barstools, and a musky aroma. It’s New York without the aspirations, unless your aspiration is to be a bit tragic and bohemian. Anthony Bourdain put it well on No Reservations in 2009: “Is there any place left in New York where an old guy can have a drink in the afternoon and be a little depressed — or very depressed?” he asked before walking into Sophie’s. “I don’t want no wide screens, high-fiving white guys, no faux-hawks or gel heads or hot chicks with douchebags. I don’t want anything on the jukebox that will distract an old gentleman such as myself from drinking the heart right out of the afternoon if I should choose to do so.”
Kyle has been bartending at Sophie’s and serving such lush gentlemen for nine years. He grew up in Orange County and moved to New York for a “fresh start” in 2011, which is when he became a regular himself. After all, the bar has always been popular with two groups of people: the young and the old. They both tend to have more drinking time available in their schedules than they have the budget to finance it. When the manager told him one night she couldn’t find anyone to work the Tuesday shifts, Kyle offered himself up. “My dream had always been to work here,” he says. “This is all I wanted out of a bar. I didn’t want to make fancy cocktails and be a mixologist … When I’m here, this is my bar. Because I’m the only one here.”
Kyle also works as a photographer, and after a few years of bartending he started taking portraits of his regulars. It’s resulted in a recently published photo book, titled See You Next Tuesday. (Get it?) Once you meet Kyle, it’s easy to see how he convinced over 250 weary boozers into getting photographed (Here’s another of his dad jokes: “What’s blue and smells like red paint? Blue paint”). As he writes in the introduction to his book, “Who has a drink at 3 p.m.? Don’t you dare fucking judge.” And he doesn’t!
A little background if you need it: Sophie Polny, a Ukrainian immigrant whom this magazine once described as a “worldly-wise babushka,” opened the bar on Avenue A around 1914. Eventually, it moved around the corner to its current spot, and Polny owned the bar until 1986, when she left it to one of her bartenders, Bob Corton. Back then, according to the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, it was popular among older Ukrainians in the neighborhood, who would line up at the door every morning at 10 a.m. to get their drink on. But it was in the heart of the East Village, which meant musicians and art-school types and other neighborhood degenerates also joined the mix. For a while, I am told by a former denizen, it was where the city’s bike messengers would hang out, and the site of a few wakes for their colleagues run down by a bus or a car. In 2008, Corton sold the bar to his brother Rich and Kirk Marcoe, who once said his first order of business was kicking out all of the drug dealers. (“I liked some of those people,” Marcoe said. “I just didn’t want them in my place of business.”) The two have owned the place ever since in addition to Josie’s on 6th Street and Mona’s on Avenue B (a good dive around here, it seems, is usually named after a good woman).
Of course, the neighborhood has changed a number of times since then. Several generations of people have moved in and out, and right now, based on Kyle’s experience serving here, it seems to be getting younger and more raucous again. “I think there were a lot of people that turned 21 during the pandemic,” he says. “Now they’re all 23, and they still don’t know how you’re supposed to act in a bar.” Kyle and the other employees even keep a private Instagram account of the customers they’ve eighty-sixed. Five days out of the week, there’s also a bouncer. His name is Splash. Stop by the bar on the weekend and take one look at the fratty crowd making noise outside, and you’ll understand why Sophie’s needs him.
But, again, it’s Tuesday, and all of those people are off making good money at their day jobs right now. When one of Kyle’s friends — a fellow photographer he calls Smalls, who says he has been coming to Sophie’s for 15 years — stops by, I ask them both about a leathery old man with big crooked teeth who is featured in the book. “There’s all these ragtag older men who come here,” says Smalls. There’s also a painting of this same guy on the wall opposite the bar. He seemed just like the kind of guy I’d expect to find here today.
“We call him Architect John,” says Kyle.
“Is he still around?” asks Smalls.
“He lives upstate now.”
“But he’s still alive?”
“I believe so.”
Kyle continues to tell me that when Architect John would go out on his smoke breaks, he often forgot he was hanging out at Sophie’s and left behind an unfinished beer. He also owned a pet bunny and was friends with English John, a regular who has the bothersome habit of eating soup at the bar. (Sophie’s, needless to say, does not have a kitchen, and the employees are grateful to no longer be serving Cuomo snacks.) One woman in Kyle’s book I do recognize is Lily, a petite elderly Asian woman who wanders between Dimes Square and the East Village every weekend, selling discount cigarettes and bootleg porn from a plastic bag. Apparently, it took a while for Kyle to convince her to let him take her photograph; now she gives him shoulder massages when she stops by to sell her goods.
For nearly an hour this Valentine’s Day, no one else walks into the bar, though the landline (212-228-5680) rings every now and then. “Robot!” Kyle says every time he picks it up and promptly hangs up. When it’s a real person, Kyle says it’s usually someone asking if they left their jacket or their credit card. One rather annoying recent caller just wanted to know “Is it busy?”
Shortly after 4 p.m., the first real customer pulls up. “Hey! How are ya?” Kyle asks. “Excellent,” a plump lady in a zip-up jacket replies, though her tone suggests otherwise. She orders a Bud Light; Kyle responds with a friendly “I think we’ve got a few of those.” I’m hoping he won’t disturb whatever she’s thinking about and ask to take her picture … He does take mine, though, and when I take a sip of my Blue Moon while he’s snapping photos, he teases, “How long can you chug that for?” Don’t dare me, sir.
A few minutes later, a student — I’m assuming, based on his backpack — walks in and orders a rum-and-Coke, before hopping on a phone call and talking quite loudly about how cheap it is to get a mixed drink here ($6). “What’s the most common order on a day like today?” I ask Kyle. A beer and a shot, he says, though he’s partial to M&Ms (Montenegro and mezcal) or Fernet, which he calls “a bartender’s best friend.” Today, he’s sipping on a High Noon seltzer, which I’ll admit is slightly more… fruity (mango) than I expected of him. It’s also probably a good choice for not getting too plastered on the job.
I order another beer, and Kyle tells me one of his favorite things about working this shift on the same day every week is that people know where to find him — like a professor holding office hours. Then he gets back to telling tales of his regulars, many of whom are his photo subjects.
First, there’s the Goggles Guy, whose real name is Freddie. Freddie likes to drink PBR and talk a lot (as his nickname makes clear, he wears goggles). Even when there is no one around, he talks to himself out loud, reading the chalkboard menu (“draft beers: Stella, Brooklyn Lager, Pabst, Guinness, Capt. Lawrence IPA, Blue Moon”) or advertisements on passing cabs (“airport flat rate: $45”). Freddie is actually the first subject of a short-film project Kyle is about to start shooting: “character studies about random patrons from over the years,” Kyle says. Obviously, he’ll be playing the bartender.
There’s also the late Wizard Tim, who looked like Gandalf, liked to down Budweisers, and sometimes fell asleep on his stool with his eyes open.
Wizard Tim is not to be confused for Ginger Tim, who owns a dog named Ginger and always orders a Cosmopolitan. Ginger likes vodka-sodas.
Kyle’s friend, a professional dominatrix with cow-print nails, interrupts his reminiscences, arriving with a bag of Cheetos. She starts talking about her own oddball clientele. Her favorite right now is a guy who thinks he can hypnotize her. He doesn’t know she has been faking it (the hypnosis but also the orgasms).
It’s getting to be late afternoon, which might mean proper drinking hours, and a gray-haired lady with aviators and a cane sits down at the opposite end of the bar. I tell Kyle I think she’s adorable. “She’s smelly,” he warns me, adding that she recently moved into an apartment across the street. “She’s a new regular … for an old person.”
For another hour, I keep drinking and then excusing myself to pee (Day drinking is hard). As the bottles pile up across the bar and a few more customers arrive — like two workers from an Argentine restaurant in the neighborhood who are here to watch soccer and avoid their boss, a girl who seems as if she might be interested in Kyle (he maintains he keeps his work and romantic life separate, though there have been some exceptions), and a svelte silver fox named Zippy — the mood lightens just slightly. We take a shot of Fernet. The jukebox comes on for the first time, though it’s not clear who put in the money and chose “Heart of Glass.” (Kyle prefers The Clash.)
I start chatting with Zippy, who tells me he’s mostly out-of-work right now, so he’s here today to watch soccer as well. He is also featured in Kyle’s book and tells me that he met him at Mona’s one night, which inspired him to start coming back to Sophie’s regularly for the first time in 30 years. In the ’80s, he says, he was in an anti-folk duo that would play in the back of the bar. He remembers seeing Beck and Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye play here and meeting the real Sophie, who he insists was “the sweetest person you’d ever meet,” even if she didn’t seem like it. Nearby, he says there were “candy stores” (needless to say, they didn’t sell candy) and the Pyramid Club and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. “The transvestites and the drug addicts and everybody would just conglomerate in these places. It was pretty great,” he says. But then again, “I can’t say I miss it. Everybody was dying. Beautiful people were dying.” Tomorrow, Zippy is heading to L.A. to see if he wants to move back home. He has spent “far too long” in New York, he says, and as for California? “I just figure I should die there.”
And not here at Sophie’s, as much as I found the idea of $5 beers and a barstool with my name on it maybe a bit too cozy, away from the pressures and costs and pretentions and competition of the rest of the city. Still, it’s a good place to spend a Tuesday.