The Best New York City Bar Is in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
The place feels intimate, and kind of off-kilter in the way you can't get away with when paying New York commercial rents.
5:40 PM EST on February 8, 2023
Recently, for reasons that are irrelevant to this story, I unexpectedly found myself in a Red Roof Inn in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. It was snowing pretty hard, which initially was the only nice thing I could say about the town. Having mostly finished our (largely vexing) business in Pennsylvania, my companion and I decided to brave the weather to find ourselves a much-needed stiff drink.
The Italian restaurant serving beer across the street locked the door as soon as we pulled up. But there was some kind of bar a few parking lots from where we were staying, hemmed into the side of a low building it shared with a shipping company and a Red Carpet Inn. The place was basically a window in one corner of a stucco building with a blinking light promising Miller Lite, but it was there, and open. Which is how I met Jose Fetterolf, a true New Yorker and the proprietor of Uncle's 80s Dive Bar, potentially the best bar in the world insofar as the finest drinking establishments tend to be like finding yourself in the living room of a profoundly eccentric new friend.
The place, which opened last May, is tiny: an L-shaped room with a few tables and a six-seat bar behind which you can find Fetterolf most nights, unless he's popped to the back to prepare a Cuban sandwich or hand-cut fries served with your choice of 11 sauces, including "ice cream sauce" and chili paste. The place feels intimate, and kind of off-kilter in the way you can't get away with when paying New York commercial rents. The disco balls and bead curtains and televisions—at least five of them—make the bar glow from inside. Huge speakers blasted '80s singles for the patrons, which, aside from my party, comprised of of two older men chatting quietly at the bar.
Uncle's is a monument to Fetterolf's childhood and teenage years spent in East New York. Every surface that hasn't been earmarked for a patron's plate holds some relic: A life-size Yoda sitting on the bar, signed photographs of nightclub dancers on the windowsills, an NYC payphone of unknown provenance, an entire wall of green velvet hosting a shrine to Madonna. Playable Atari and Super Nintendo systems sit on the tables. In an old freezer case, the kind you might see at a deli, there are treasures—I found a beeper and a Commodore Vic-20 personal computer, a model last sold in 1985.
That night, there was a snow day special: $2 hot dogs and $2 Fireball shots, sangria, or Miller Lite drafts. Fetterolf is 50, but he could be 35, with big cheeks and a larger man's habit of hunching a bit to look a little smaller. When he sat down my drink, I asked him why he'd started an '80s-themed bar, of all things. "It's because I hate Gen Z," he said, with a straight face.
As it turns out, Uncle's doesn't exist because Fetterolf hates Gen Z, though he has plenty to say about the technology he grew up on (useful, exploratory, exciting) and all the Snapchat and TikTok bullshit the kids are up to now ("It's just not that fun knowing everything, you know?")
In part, it's that he wanted his place to remind him of his grandma's crammed apartment on Eastern Parkway, with the tacky velvet couch and wood finish on the walls. In part, it's that the '80s, for all he was terrified of World War III and AIDS, felt like the precipice of something. He loved the music, the clothes. "I felt that era was the era that molded me to become the man that I am," he said.
But it's also kind of about how, right before the bar opened, he was thinking a lot about death: "My friends my age are gone," he said. "And I'm thinking, if I drop dead, my family's gonna go in, and they're not gonna know the value of my paintings, they're not gonna know the value of my toys. And they're gonna throw my shit away."
Before the entire family unit moved to Hazleton, three hours west of NYC, they'd been in Brooklyn. When Fetterolf's grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in the Dominican Republic, his mother managed to secure an American husband, then a visa. The two immigrated to New York in 1958.
The marriage to the American didn't last and for a long while the family lived on the fourth floor of a Crown Heights apartment building where his grandmother also lived. The elder women in his family had a similar appreciation for the sentimental value of objects; in the bar, he still has the delicate gold-rimmed goblets, monogrammed with the children's initials, his mother kept. His grandmother's apartment was packed nearly to the point of claustrophobia with photographs on every wall.
In an out-of-sight corner of Uncle's next to the jukebox, Fetterolf has hung his report cards from his time in the Brooklyn public schools. Most of them are from PS 167, where he has the fondest memories and spent junior high, though he was never a great student: "I remember spending a lot of time in the library hoping that just by walking in the library I was gonna get smarter," he said. That changed when he got his first computer, the VIC-20 in the bar: "I remember being amazed."
Eventually the family relocated to East New York. "It was like Scarface, like right in front of your eyes," Fetterolf said. "You don't want to be prancing around the block gay." Not that for years, Fetterolf even knew how to pursue any of that: "I remember being like, 15, 16, and arguing with my mom, saying, 'I'm gonna go be gay now.'" He knew the Village was a neighborhood for boys like him, so he'd take the train, walk around for a few blocks, and come right home.
After high school, Fetterolf spent 11 years working for the Board of Education. But he barely made enough for the subway tokens to commute. Meanwhile, one of Fetterolf's sisters was bringing back so much money that her family worried she was stripping. In fact, she was a bartender, and paid for her brother to go to bartending school too. He'd pick up shifts on weekends, flipping bottles in a local dive. In 1998, one of the neighborhood guys brought a newspaper clipping into the barber shop. It was an audition for Culture Club, a massive, 80s-themed complex that would open on New Year's Eve 1999. A Rubix cube hung from the ceiling; it was all "bridge and tunnel people" dancing to Madonna and A-Ha, he said.
"So now I'm working Friday, Saturday, making $1,000 a night," he said. "And I'm like: Fuck the Board of Education." By the time he left, he was a manager at the club. He says he moved to South Ozone Park, bought a Jeep Wrangler and a jet ski. "I'd be at LaGuardia Airport with my other party friends and our clothes are just saturated with liquor, and we're like, 'Okay, where are we going? What about Bermuda?'"
Fetterolf's entire family began moving to Hazleton shortly after 9/11. He was the last to leave, but in 2003, he bought a house about 20 minutes from what would become the bar. For a while, he consulted for an upscale pizza place in the area launched by some stockbroker types he'd known from his Culture Club days. When the payout came from his stint at the pizza place, he wanted to move to Florida, but his sister rather forcefully suggested he stick around, finding him the tiny bar surrounded by mini-malls and between a Burger King and a bank. "She's always finding a way to manipulate me," he said. "She's like, why do you want to go to Florida by yourself? All your nieces and nephews live here."
I'd assumed the name Uncle's commemorated a family member, or just happened to be a kind of vague gesture at familial love. But when I asked Fetterolf about the name, he got emotional; it sounded like he teared up a bit over the phone. He was the uncle—he'd raised his siblings' kids for long periods of time. "I think God never gave me a child because I had to take care of these," he said. He was walking around the block with baby carriages by the time he was 18, and sometimes he'll bartend with his great-nephew on his shoulder. These days, the younger kids will drop by to play all the now-ancient video games he has lying around. When the older ones need money, he'll throw them a shift. "I feel that my greatest accomplishment in life is being an uncle," he said.
As he ages, Fetterolf says his "brain is just thinking different"; he wants the bar to be more than a place people go to get sloshed. "Like back in the day when a bar was actually the church, was where the political things happen," he says. On Fridays and Saturdays, he serves free breakfast at 1:30 a.m., so no one goes home drunk. When we spoke he was cleaning—they'd had a beach-themed party, and he'd dumped literal sand all over the floor.
Fetterolf says he misses the food in New York, and obviously the nightlife. "New York made us who we are," he says, "it made us really strong." But he doesn't want to go back; he's really happy in Hazleton. He has a few acres, and in the summer, if he wants to pee outside, he can.
"And listen," he says, "the few people that I did know, that I did love, that I did grow up with? They're no longer here, they didn't make it." He added, "So I'm in PA now. And if I die, it better be of natural causes, not because I got shot by some fucking hunter."
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