Carl-Johan Karlsson | Longreads | October 2018 | 13 minutes (3,603 words)
Nestled within the brown, red, and yellow gingerbread houses that line Williamsburg’s Grand Street in Brooklyn, Toñita’s (technically named Caribbean Social Club) is easy to miss, unless you spot the neon Corona sign and the weathered sticker that says We’re open. Inside, there’s a disco ball, a reindeer head mounted on the wall, and a palm tree wrapped in Christmas tinsel. A pool table surrounded by plastic chairs stands in the center of the wood-patterned vinyl floor. Photos of baseball players in eclectic frames festoon the walls. Gilt baseball trophies jostle one another on high shelves. The biggest frame is dedicated to Roberto Clemente — the sainted Puerto Rican right fielder who died in a plane crash in 1972. On the walls, posters for salsa shows and domino tournaments compete for space. A wooden plaque — from the City Council of New York thanking Maria Antonia (Toñita) Cay for her service to the community — hangs on the wall by the little bar in the corner.
By 9 p.m. on a Saturday, darkness has rolled across New York, but Toñita’s is just waking up. Little tornados of smiling people dance around the pool table. Salsa tones mingle with conversations in pattering Spanish. Occasional cheers ring out as a pool player sinks a ball. In the corner, two 80-something men in baseball caps meditate over a game of dominoes — oblivious to the tumult from the TV on the wall, where a Spanish-speaking Arnold Schwarzenegger guns down a group of assailants.
Behind the bar, serving Corona and Heineken, stands Cay. She wears a black silk jacket. Colorful rings adorn her fingers. She is 77, with curly reddish hair, dark eyes under carefully plucked brows, and a vague smile.
“It used to be several social clubs just on Grand Street,” Cay says as she opens a beer. “But one after one, they all disappeared.”