Tony Dagrosa was burnt out and worn thin. It was the ’80s, and he was five years out of college, banging out a living as a restaurant manager in New York City. Looking for a change, Dagrosa sat down to dinner with his father and uncle, twin brothers who owned bars and lounges backed by the Mafia.
Dagrosa had worked for them before, spending summers between semesters at Penn State as a cook at the Tin Pan Alley, but this time he had something a little different in mind. There was one establishment that both scared him and called to him.
“I want to work at the After Hours Club,” Dagrosa recalls telling his uncle and father.
The brothers illegally owned and operated the After Hours Club, an LGBT bar. Unlike most bars and clubs in New York at that time, After Hours welcomed a varied clientele. Straight, gay, trans — it didn’t matter. When all the other bars closed, everyone went to After Hours to dance until dawn.
HBO and David Simon’s critically acclaimed new series The Deuce is based on stories told by Dagrosa’s uncle about his time running bars backed by the Mafia with his twin brother. After Hours was one such club, in operation from the ’70s, when the show is set, until the late ’90s.
As a young, closeted gay man, Dagrosa gravitated toward After Hours. He worked the bar there for four years and says it's the first place he felt comfortable expressing his identity. In the midst of the midst of the chaos and coke, the sex and the smoke, Dagrosa says, he learned to be himself.
Dagrosa, now a Dallas resident, is a married man and a health care professional — a life very different from his time at the After Hours, but the experiences he had there continue to shape him.
He says he was floored when his father and his uncle gave him the position. He had been carefully preparing to ask them for this job, thinking very hard about how he would ask because he didn't want to seem overeager and cause his family to suspect he was gay.
Dagrosa says his uncle and his father didn’t bat an eye, giving him the position on the spot. “It would be great having a guy up there," he recalls them saying. Until Dagrosa started working at the After Hours, the bartenders had all been women.
“They figured … I’m family; I can’t be gay,” he tells the Observer.
Dagrosa says he had never seen anything like the bar or its people.
“Everyone was just doing what they wanted in the open. People, whether gay, straight or transgendered, they would just get up and dance by themselves on the dance floor and just enjoy themselves," he says. "It really was a getaway for anyone."
The path to the club was hidden behind a black door labeled "366."
“Once you went through that black door on Eighth Avenue and went up those creaky stairs and you started hearing the music and feeling the energy, it was getting away from everything," Dagrosa says.
Once you'd been frisked by the bouncers and slid them a $10 bill, you'd be allowed in. The smell of stale beer and smoke would hit you as soon as you entered the club, which was always crowded on the weekends.
Pinpricks of light would reflect off the disco ball, piercing the haze and dancing upon the patrons, who drank, danced and did lines through rolled-up bills in small black booths. The club wouldn't empty out until 8 or 9 in the morning.
Five nights a week, Dagrosa says, he would take up his station behind the bar flanked by two fake palms decked in Christmas lights, talk to the regulars and listen to their stories. Their confidence left an impression on him. Inhibition was a foreign language to the patrons of After Hours, and he says that slowly, he, too, was able to let down his walls.
Dagrosa found both friendship and love at After Hours. It was his “home away from home,” where he felt accepted and included, but despite the support he felt at the bar, he says he still hid his sexual orientation from his family. He couldn’t show any affection toward his romantic interests at the club, and he avoided going to other gay bars for fear of being recognized.
“There was a gay bar downstairs from our After Hours Club,” Dagrosa says. “I was very hesitant to even go in there because my feeling was, ‘What if my family sees me walk into the gay bar?’”
So he continued to hide.
Eventually, Dagrosa grew tired of his double life in New York, and in ’95 he made a break for the West Coast, where he lived with a friend in San Diego. There, he met and married his husband. But he still struggled to come out to his family.
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In 2001, long after Dagrosa left New York, his father died. Although he had never felt close to his father, he says, he began to cry as he stood by his father’s open casket. His uncle came up to him and put his arm around his shoulders.
“He knew, and he loved you anyways,” Dagrosa recalls his uncle telling him.
Now a middle-aged man, Dagrosa looks back on his time at the After Hours fondly. He recalls nearly everything from those years. He says people often marvel at how vividly he remembers those days. He replies that they were much too exciting to forget.
Dagrosa still visits New York from time to time. The club has long since been turned into apartments, but he still walks down Eighth Avenue to stand in front of the door. The neighborhood has changed; the people have changed; Tony has changed. But the memories live on behind the black door labeled “366.”