Category: Brooklyn


November 27th, 2012 — 2:26pm

I enjoy the blessing, or curse, of residing in two of the most self-conscious places on the planet, though of the two Brooklyn has the edge, solipsism-wise, in part because it’s so much more populous than Vermont and in part because so many people have at one time or another made it their home, if only on the way to somewhere else, like a tract suburb on Long Island or a medium-sized city in the Midwest where you could start over clean and cheap.

What does it mean, exactly, that only the dead know Brooklyn?

Perhaps it’s because there are so many Brooklyns. East New York, New Lots and Canarsie don’t have much in common with Park Slope, DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights. And then there are all the microclimates no one thinks about unless they’ve fetched up there, like Boerum Hill or Gowanus or Sunset Park. Windsor Terrace, for that matter.

Still, what gives the dead special knowledge of the Borough—the notion that their souls may roam freely across it after their passage, and that they’re drawn back to the light and warmth of all those people going about the daily business of being alive? That might explain why the dead wouldn’t drift away to any number of more hospitable climes, like Hawaii or Paris or Portofino, even if, as the author of Dracula asserts, the dead travel fast. (They can skip the TSA lines, for one thing.) Maybe, by some arcane law of the afterlife, the dead aren’t allowed to roam far beyond their boundaries in life and, given the prodigious number of people who have died and are buried in Brooklyn, there’s a large contingent of them there with a lot of time on their hands in which to become more intimately acquainted with the place in which they spent their lives.

There’s something that just feels true about this assertion. Maybe it’s just the poetic cadence of the phrase, or the incomprehensible vastness of the human endeavor going on across the East River from the Center of the Universe, which of course would be Manhattan. Nobody says “Only the dead know Manhattan.” Perhaps that hypercaffeinated borough just seems that much more knowable; it’s not a city that knows how to keep its secrets in the way we might think of Chicago or San Francisco or, of course, L.A. It’s better lit, for one thing. Manhattan is all glittering, humming surface. And to say that only the dead know the Bronx or Queens or Staten Island doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Also, in the first and third instances, it doesn’t scan nicely.

One could say, I suppose, that the expression is true because Brooklyn is where the bodies are buried, if you’re thinking of activity among the shadier elements, but that could just as easily apply to Hoboken or Bayonne or other spots in the swamps of Jersey which nobody has ever claimed that only the dead know.

The phrase is the title of a story by Thomas Wolfe, who was a Southerner and came to Brooklyn relatively late in life. The crazy big guy in the narrative, with the map and the determination to visit all of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, is probably the author himself as seen through the eyes of a native Brooklynite. Wolfe was a man who asserted without fear of contradiction that “You Can’t Go Home Again,” although surely that isn’t always true either. And if it isn’t, then who’s to say that in fact only the dead know Brooklyn? Brooklyn natives, especially those whose families have lived there for generations, may surely be allowed to claim knowledge of the place. Someone like my friend Bob, for instance, whose grandparents lived in Brighton Beach and who himself grew up in Flatbush. I’d take that non-ghost’s word for a thousand pound.

Maybe it’s that Brooklyn is ever-changing, ever evolving, so that no one now alive can claim full knowledge of the full sweep of what it once was and what it is now and what it will become. That’s true of anywhere, you could argue, but you can also argue that Brooklyn changes in more interesting ways than other places, attracting a particularly artsy and literary breed of cat, disposed to tell the truth but tell it slant with an edge that will only later become fashionable in the tonier climes across the East River (and, come to think of Whitman’s famous “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which may well have inspired Wolfe’s story, what was the name of the Ferryman?).

The Brooklyn intelligentsia are the makers of manners, the innovators, who toil in conducive obscurity until they’re eventually discovered and installed in SoHo galleries or sent on national book tours and thereafter sought out by the fawning and fashionable doyens of Uptown salons. So there are always interesting future phenoms for Brooklyn’s dead to be keeping an eye on.

This all gets me wondering if there are places only the living know. Las Vegas comes to mind. There seems absolutely no romance in the notion of being one of the dead of Las Vegas. It may be the fastest growing city in America, but surely that’s about sprawling, featureless, artificially hydrated and ultimately temporary suburbs, where no ghost would ever find a comfortable roost, much less learn anything worth knowing. The same would be true for anywhere that’s been a wasteland hitherto and is only recently something with any kind of identity, like Dubai or Disney World or—I was about to say the Yucatan Peninsula, but in fact that’s an odd hybrid of places only the dead could truly know, like Chichen Itza and Tulum, and nouveau, artificial places only the living could relate to, like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Same for Singapore.

Come to think of it, though, there are an infinity of contenders for the designation of Place that Only the Dead Know, among them Rome, Venice, Paris, Istanbul, Oxford, Edinburgh, Jerusalem, Boston, maybe even Québec. Most of these are places that I, as a living person, would far rather spend time in than those that only the living know, like Brasilia and Bonn and East Kilbride and Tel Aviv and Welwyn Garden City.

Our Brooklyn place is two blocks north of the vast memory-park that is Green-Wood Cemetery, which for me was even more of a selling point than its being four blocks south of Prospect Park. Find me a town with an old, old cemetery or two and you’ve found me a place I’ll happily haunt myself. Brooklyn definitely qualifies.


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November 3rd, 2010 — 9:31am

Those two syllables can mean anything from braving the freezing wastes of Antarctica, the airless heights of Everest or the massed rifles of an invading army to telling a friend he has halitosis. In my case, it recently manifested as driving all the way from Montpelier to our urban home in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. In my own car. Into the corporate limits of New York City. By myself.

It could have been a lot worse. I chose a slack time of day, by New York standards, and didn’t cross the line into the borough of Manhattan, which in my fantasy would have resulted in being instantly crushed like a bug.  It wasn’t much different, and perhaps not even worse, than driving in Boston, where the highways are largely populated by escapees from the Danvers Asylum for the Criminally Insane. And I’ve been doing that without incident for a couple of decades now.

The only thing we country bumpkins really need to know about driving in the Big Apple is that New Yorkers are used to cramming themselves into really small spaces due to ridiculous real estate prices. This compacting skill and inclination extends to the interstices between other people’s cars on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Also, being laconic by nature and fanatical about privacy, they see no reason to signal that they’re about to merge into the 18-inch space between your Prius, whose frontal dimensions you have never completely grasped, and the back of the Urban Assault Vehicle ahead of you (humongous SUV’s being the one exception to the cramming-self-into-small-spaces pattern of Gotham living. Where in God’s name do they park these things?).

I’ve always had something of a dodgy relationship to driving, if you’ll pardon the expression. Being raised in Scotland in a Council housing scheme where nobody could afford a car, I’d taken a series of buses to school every day and rarely had the privilege of riding in an actual automobile. When we emigrated to America, where cars were as much of a necessity as a roof over one’s head, the era of the four-wheeled dinosaur was still in full flower, and our family’s early autos were land yachts that would require two parking spaces by today’s standards.

I was in no hurry to learn to drive; we could only afford one car and my father needed it to get to work, so I wasn’t likely to get much time with it, and there just wasn’t the tradition in Scotland of equating a driver’s license with all the freedoms of adulthood.

I finally got my license when I was nineteen and, while trying to pick my way down a narrow street over sophomore-year Christmas vacation, plowed my dad’s giant beige Dodge Polara, Moby Dick, into a line of cars belonging to a group of partygoers at a nearby mansion. Thankfully, they were too liquored up to mind a great deal, and this being Virginia, were downright gracious about making sure I wasn’t too traumatized by the event. They even offered me some spiked eggnog to help me calm down , which I was wise enough to refuse in case the cops were eventually called in.

Moving to Vermont and living on a steep, windy hill produced a new kind of driving panic: dealing with winter. My first car, given to my spouse as a graduation present, was a rear-wheel-drive sedan with no traction to speak of. On one hideously memorable occasion I did a one-eighty on Route 2 coming into Waterbury; on another, only a miracle saved me from wiping out the Volkswagen bug ahead of me when I lost control on an icy hill.

I joined a vanpool and resolutely refused ever to take a turn driving the van (which was frequently piloted by a pool member we named “Mad Dog,” who enjoyed reading the morning paper as he drove).

Eventually, after one or two more black-ice incidents that caused my insurance carrier to cancel on me, I learned to deal with Vermont winters and moved on to cars that could handle them. Urban traffic is something else altogether, a Darwinian game of chicken in which polite deference can be fatal.

Add to the congestion the complications of New York City’s so-called “alternate-side parking” rules. On the streets that surround our Brooklyn aerie, there are red-and-white signs that tell you when you have to move your car from its hard-fought-for parking space for street sweeping. On our stretch, it’s 8:30 to 11:30 on Tuesdays. On the next block, it’s Thursdays.

The good news is that they suspend these rules, as duly reported on all the local radio stations, for practically any occasion you can think of. In the week of November 1, for instance, there are suspensions for All Saints’ Day, Election Day, and Diwali, which I learned is the Hindu festival of lights. So if you work it right, as I did recently by moving the car from the Thursday street to our Tuesday street, you can leave your car in a given spot indefinitely.

People in New York actually drive their cars to work and to stores and other things we use them for in Vermont. My hat is off to them. Maybe some day I’ll even venture out in between journeys to and from our two residences; the Brooklyn Bridge seems like the ultimate test to me. But then I’d have to find a parking space in Manhattan, and that would take a level of courage I’ve yet to attain.

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Joys of the ‘Hood

September 16th, 2010 — 12:23pm

Finding our home away from home in Brooklyn

The narrow, dim stairway, smelling faintly of roach spray, loomed straight up for three floors like a Hitchcock movie. Following Wayne and the landlord’s mother up the stairs, I caught my husband’s eye and gave him a thumbs-down. The prospect of humping groceries and laundry up that endless staircase was too daunting to contemplate.

One more flight led to the apartment we’d come to see, a one-bedroom on the top floor that Wayne had spotted on Craigslist. I’d given up on that site myself after a couple of phone calls with guys who sounded like Ukrainian pornographers, but even working with the ubiquitous local realtors, who also handled rentals, hadn’t got us far.

The first surprise was all the light flooding in from big southeast-facing windows. The appliances were new—not fancy models, but gleaming like the fresh paint on the walls. The rent was half again as much as our Montpelier mortgage, i.e., reasonable by New York standards.

Then there was the bedroom—unlike most of the glorified closets we’d seen, big enough to hold both our bed and a dresser and still leave room to walk around. From the roof you could see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Lady Liberty, and the Coney Island parachute jump—a 360-degree view.

We told the landlord’s mom we’d get back to her. Back on the street, the sky, which had been darkening steadily, let loose in torrents. Caught without raingear, we ducked into the nearest storefront along with half of the neighborhood and were wafted off our feet on fumes of garlic, sesame, and lox. We’d stumbled upon Terrace Bagels, rated by the New York Times as one of the six best bagel bakeries in all of metro New York. That did it.

Windsor Terrace, unknown to us until two years ago, is a wedge of streets in northwest Brooklyn between Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery, which is almost as big as the Park and arguably more decorative. (Green-Wood is the final home of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Boss Tweed.)

With brick and frame rowhouses, modest by New York standards, and lines of four-story buildings with apartments above and shops below fronting its three-block-long commercial hub on Prospect Park West, the Terrace is one of the highest points in Brooklyn. That’s a bit like saying it’s one of the highest points in Amsterdam. Like neighboring Manhattan, Brooklyn was first settled by the Dutch; known as Brueckelen in those days, its low-lying swampiness must have seemed comfortably familiar.

We’d spent our first New York year sharing a huge co-op apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden with its owner. It was a bit like living with your mom, except that Mom in this case was a lively African-American woman in her mid-70s who’d known everyone from Alvin Ailey to W.E.B. Du Bois and had been married to a Namibian freedom fighter. With a subway entrance close enough to swan-dive into, it was very convenient, but the trains rumbled beneath us 24/7, orange sodium lights burned on the Museum, and the yobs on their crotch rockets, zooming down the parkway at 2 a.m. like a bunch of angry hornets, got in the way of sleep. The rent was too high, especially for a place that never really felt like our own. Virginia Woolf is onto something.

We focused our search at first on Park Slope,  a neighborhood of large, genteel brownstones on tree-lined streets sloping gently down west of Prospect Park. However, we were daunted by stratospheric rents and the hordes of narcissists-by-proxy bowling pedestrians aside as they pushed their Harvard-bound progeny down the sidewalks in strollers which gave new meaning to the term Urban Assault Vehicle. Park Slope, we learned, is where Manhattan bond traders go to breed.

Nearby Windsor Terrace has a looser, slightly scruffier working-class vibe, with people of all shapes, ages and colors living over the Korean groceries and ethnic restaurants. Hispanic kids on trikes chase each other around the sidewalks on warm nights, watched over by groups of chatting parents. There’s a huge Catholic church painted pink inside, an Irish pub that only has Bud and Bud Light on draft, a New Zealand meat pie shop where the artsier young folks like to hang. Farrell’s, the pub, didn’t allow women until sometime in the 70s when Shirley MacLaine stopped by and nobody had the nerve to throw her out.

You can eat cheap in Windsor Terrace. Joe’s Pizza (whose else?) has huge pizza slices for three bucks, and you can get five killer garlic knots for a dollar. Or for a recovering Brit like myself, indulge in a steak-and-kidney pie from Dub Pies for five bucks and change.

Our own favorite watering-hole is tucked away down a side street. Rhythm ‘n’ Booze (I am not making that up) is the last refuge of the genial Italian and Irish geezers who used to own the neighborhood. “What can I get yese?” asks the slender, dark-haired waitress from Antrim. It’ll often be a perfectly done pair of pork chops or a generous slab of grilled salmon, for half of what you’d pay in Manhattan. Accompanied, of course, by a fresh pint of Brooklyn Lager, brewed in nearby Williamsburg by people who know what they’re doing.

On weekends when I’m in town, we go for walks in the Park, threading our way between softball games on the Great Lawn, watching the dogs chase ducks in their very own swimming pond. Sometimes we do takeout for dinner and go up on the roof to watch the green lights twinkle on the Verrazano Bridge.

Windsor Terrace isn’t a perfect neighborhood. Graffiti disfigure many of the rolling steel shutters that hide store and restaurant windows at night. On weekends before the Monday pickup, trash spills over the sidewalk bins and flies around in the street. Many of the stores and restaurants only take cash; the ATM charges mount up. And I do use the word “schlep” more often lately, especially when that three-story staircase looms and I have a full suitcase or a bulging laundry bag. But it’s friendly and quiet and real, and less than forty-five minutes from Broadway, and when I’m there, it feels like home.

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