Sunday, April 30, 2006

Why I Live Here

Why is it we that live where we do? Grand Design? Happenstance? Dumb Luck? Stubborness? Is it really "better" where we are? Or is "it" really better simply because we are there?

Portia serves first, and damned-near, no POSITIVLEY [sic] aces it.
God bless Brooklyn.

My Love Affair With Brooklyn

Umm, you live in Brooklyn? [Loser]
Ohhh. That's nice. [Not]
Is your family from there? [Why else would you live there]
No? You mean moved there? [Why??]
Hmm. Yeah, I had a friend who lived there once but now he lives in the City* [who wouldn't]
So, ya wanna meet for dinner in Soho?
[cuz that's as far south as I'm willing to go]
Where? Are you kidding? I don't even know how to get Brooklyn.

brook'lyn: Two simple syllables that could fill a book, or dozens. Venerated by some, dissed by others but no one is apathetic upon hearing its name.

Most everybody knows something about it. It's where the British nearly destroyed Washington's troops, the place where dem bums played before they left, the home of stick ball and open fire hydrants, where Woody Allen was born, W.H. Auden lived and Walt Whitman wrote ("I too lived--Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine.") It's where Son of Sam stalked its young couples, Tony Manero disco-danced his way out of its clutches, and riots following a blackout nearly destroyed its soul. Its nickname is the "City of Churches." It boasts it own language [Brooklynese], and one out of every seven Americans can trace their family roots through its streets.

But for all that Brooklyn is--and was--it is not New York. It doesn't teem with tourists nor have the cache of a Fifth Avenue, a Times Square, the Philharmonic or soaring skyscrapers. Yet, it has something New York doesn't have: It has neighborhoods. Real, honest-to-God neighborhoods that are steeped in tradition and language and history and smells. Nowadays, when New York's Little Italy is inhabitated by everyone but, when Times Square is run by Disney, and there are no Jews on Hester Street, Brooklyn remains the quintessential city of immigrants, Places like Bensonhurst, where grandmothers still live with their sons or daughters, and goombas frequent social clubs, Bay Ridge where you can pick up a pound of Irish bacon that isn't vacuum sealed or made by Oscar Meyer, Boro Park where men dress in black, wear big hats and sport tendrils, and of course, Little Odessa where the signs are written in Cryillic, and borscht is sold on every corner. Brooklyn is tribal, and it's the very the very reason that some people choose to leave it, and others of us choose to stay.

In this time of dizzying change, when streetscapes are transformed overnight, Brooklyn gives us passage back to the New York of stoops, and egg creams. As corny as it sounds, Brooklyn isn't just a place to live; Brooklyn is a way of life.

I haven't always lived in Brooklyn. In fact, even though I was born and raised in New York, and a mere 20 miles away, for most of my life I didn't know a damn thing about Brooklyn. Nor did I want to. Oh sure, I had been to Brooklyn as a kid when my parents took us to Coney Island or we drove through it on our way to New Jersey, but once I was old enough to "talk" with my feet, I avoided it at all costs. To me, Brooklyn was New York's step-child where people lived while waiting to leave. It was the stuff of merciless jokes, Brownsville, strong accents and where everyone lived in narrow, stuffy "walk-ups." No, no, no. Brooklyn wasn't for me, Manhattan was the place to be.

After college I took up residence on the Upper East Side, aptly named the "Silk Stocking District," and joined the scores of Manhattanites who believed that New York ended where its bridges and tunnels began. There I stayed for the next decade with nary a thought to that strange place across the river. That is, not until serendipity stepped in one glorious Spring Day when a friend "dragged" me across the river to Brooklyn.

Once we landed in Brooklyn, we walked along the Promenade, which has views of Manhattan that Manhattan doesn't even know it has, or as President Lincoln said quite rightly standing at the same river's edge some 150 years earlier: There may be finer views than this in the world, but I don't believe it. We roamed through neighborhoods lined with stately oak trees and century old houses, visited the Bard's garden, even managed to crash a party. I was smitten.

When it was time to head back, we decided to take the long way home and walk across the Brooklyn "they said it couldn't be built" Bridge. My first "crossing" but not to be my last. And that's where it happened. Somewhere beneath its soaring arches, its thick cables and sturdy towers, somewhere before the mid-way point of its span when I was still closer to Brooklyn than I was to Manhattan, I realized I had fallen "in love." I turned to my friend and said:

"You know what? I'm going to move to Brooklyn."
"Yeah, right, you'll never leave "the City."

A year later I did. That was 15 years ago, and I've never looked back.

I live in a place that was settled by the Dutch. I cross a Bridge that was designed by a German, and built by the sweat of unskilled Italian and Irish laborers working side by side. I ride in cabs driven by Russians, and buy my newspapers in bodegas run by Middle Easterners. I don't know if the people who live in these neighborhoods are legal or fluent in English, and I'll be honest, I don't really care. I like Brooklyn the way it is. I like the fact that Brooklyn is tribal. I like its texture and diversity, and the fact that there is still a pride in one's heritage. I like its scale and the narrow brownstones with flower boxes in the front but no elevators inside. I like that Trump hasn't crossed the river to erect gleaming high-rise apartment buildings that bear his name atop in yard-high gilded letters, and whose windows don't open. I admit it. I love my adopted hometown, and its scrappy, colorful, sometimes "in-your-face" persona, and I hope it stays that way.

Who knows. Someday, I may "choose" to die somewhere else but for now I can't think of a better place to live. There's an exit sign when you leave Brooklyn that sums up my feelings best, and in perfect Brooklynese.

So the next time you're in the City, do yourself a favor. Take the 2 or 3 subway to Clark Street and spend the afternoon in Brooklyn. It's only 25 minutes from Times Square but it's worlds apart. And when you're ready to head back to the Big Apple, take the scenic route across the Brooklyn Bridge's wood-planked pedestrian walkway. There are benches along the way, facing north and south (I prefer south) where if you time it right you can watch the western light bathe the steel and glass skyscrapers of Wall Street, admire the shapely silhouette of the Lady in the Harbor, or trace the lights of the Verrazano's string of pearls in the horizon. It's at this hour that the city is at its most magical. So go ahead, sit a spell. You too, may find that something special happens on the Bridge to Brooklyn.
* Brooklyn may be the fourth largest city in the US and one of the five boroughs in New York City, but to any New Yorker worth her salt, Manhattan remains "the City." When you live in Brooklyn or Queens or The Bronx, you may work in the City, or shop in the City but you will never live in "the City."

The Bridge

Between now and now,
between I am and you are,
the word bridge.

Entering it
you enter yourself:
the world connects
and closes like a ring.

From one bank to another,
there is always
a body stretched;
a rainbow.

I'll sleep beneath its arches.

--Octavio Paz

Damn, girl.
Brooklyn, you take care of this one.
She knows your soul.

Where are the rest of you breathing?
I really want to know.


Cassandra said...

Watch out, Portia.

I never meant to get sucked into blogging... :)

Always thought there was a writer lurking underneath the surface. What a wonderful way to start the week.

portia said...

Thanks Cass:) I figure if the gig at the law firm doesn't pan out, I can always go work for the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.

spd rdr said...

Shhhhhhh! Cass! Dobn't warn her off! As long as Portia keeps writing beuaties like this I can get some of my paid work done!

portia said...

What? You mean this is not "paid" work? I get bubkus? Pfffft. There's a saying in Brooklyn that comes to mind (well, actually there are a few....) "He's so cheap, he still has his conmmunion money.":)

A week's worth of egg creams, or I quit.

When I was a young man, no bigger than this
A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed
Some U-Bet's Chocolate Syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk
Stir it up into a heady fro-tasted just like silk
You scream, I steam, we all want Egg Cream
You scream, I steam, we all want Egg Cream

"Sweet" Lou Reed

spd rdr said...

Oooooh! Look! More pictures!
I used to get my egg creams at the Goode Shoppe and Whelan's Drug Store. But I liked vanilla better.

camojack said...

Brooklyn sounds a LOT like my hometown, Philly.
(People even talk similarly)

I live in "da 'burbs" now, but have traveled extensively.

Gonna retire on the Big Island, tho'...

Anonymous said...

Brooklyn is nothing like where I grew up, but sounds really interesting. The one time I was there (Brooklyn) in 1996 was to commission an odor control unit at a wastewater treatment plant. Great view of Manhatten, but the place really stunk (the water treatment plant).
I would write about my hometown, but it even puts me to sleep thinking about it.

-Don Brouhaha

spd rdr said...

If you write it, Don, I'll post it. In fact I'd like to get a whole collection of these stories and put a link on the sidebar. Who's next?

Masked Menace© said...

Well, there's only one way to describe Memphis, TN:

It grows on you...

kinda like mold.

Unfortunately, statistical analysis lends itself more towards medium and large cities, but my heart aches for BFE, Somewhere in Dixie.

spd rdr said...

BFE being....what? "Big F&^%$#g Engines?"

BTW, I like Mephis best for its funky radio stations. Maybe the best in the US (unless something has changed).

portia said...

I would write about my hometown, but it even puts me to sleep
Yeah, c'mon Don. Tell us a bedtime story:)

Hey, was that waste treatment plant you visited anywhere near the Gowanus Canal? Cause if so I have a feeling your work isn't done:) The Gowanus is flowing again, and I fear it won't be long before somebody decides it's OK to run it through my faucet! How scary is that.

The Gowanus used to be a hub for Brooklyn's commercial activities, but after 130 years of dumping raw sewage, chemicals and wiseguys (urban legend has it that he who didn't end up in a trunk after getting whacked is at the bottom of the Gowanus), it was the mother of all miasmas, and nicknamed "Lavender Lake" not because of its fragrance but because of the oddly dark pepto-bismal hue of the sludge. Ewwww.

Good news is the smell is gone (mostly) there's animal life--freakin' seals no less, and some enterprising bloke is running canoe trips down the damn thing!

I don't know, call me skeptical but there ain't enough beer in my fridge or spd's belly after his sailing trip for me to spend my Saturday afternoon canoeing on the Gowanus…yet. Maybe when they start charging for the excursion I'll think about it, but the fact that it's free now tells me, it ain't no bargain.

"BFE?" Built for Excellence?

Anonymous said...

Classically (not that the Menace can't speak for hisself), 'BFE' means 'Bumfuq, Eqypt', like nowhere, man.

Portia, it was the waste treatment plant on Greenpoint Avenue, right on the East River (?). I only got lost driving there about five times (coming from Jamaica, NY). And man, did that place stink! I use to go to all kinds of places like that (how picturesque!).
Great view of Manhatten that day. Blue, cloudless autumn day; from the World Trade Center, all the way down the island; Chrysler Building, UN, Empire State, etc. (Well, you know!!!).

-Don Brouhaha

spd rdr said...

All right, so we have MM on Memphis; camo on Philly, Don on whotheheckknowswhere. Any other takers? Pooke? KJ? PIle (oh, I forgot...Houston)afe?

Give it to me. Why is it that you live where you do?

Pile On® said...

I live where I live's where my job is. Perhaps when my work here is done I will move somewhre I can write about with the same passion as this great post.

Until then, my wife will have proximity to Chinatown Houston.

portia said...

Your right Camo, Philly's Society Hill looks a lot like parts of Brooklyn. The three landmark houses in the picture I posted above (and which are a few doors down from where I bought my first co-op) are a stunning example of the early Federal-style houses built in Brooklyn Heights in the early 1800s. I've never saw it but there's an underground tunnel that leads from those houses to a rear stable that was part of the Underground Railroad, which transported slaves to freedom. Cool.

Rumor has it they arrived from Richmond or thereabouts she said coyly as she handed her trusty RandMcNally road map to the next in line...:)

Masked Menace© said...

Yep, Don has it right for BFE.

Give me a house where, if you can even see your neighbor's house, it's still a half a mile away. Bonus points for being near a lake or mountains.

But for now Memphis is where mine and the LG's jobs are. Since moving here, we've found great friends, a great church, and a beautiful home. We won't be leaving anytime soon. But every month I get closer and closer to getting a carry permit.

...And the radio stations here now are pretty much just like everywhere else. Although there is one that will go from Amy Grant straight to gangsta rap without skipping a beat.

I've seen something called frappr that allows people to place markers for their home towns so you can see where everyone is.

IIRC, KJ and Cricket are near/in Atlanta, and AFE is somewhere in Arizona.

Cassandra said...

The Cotillion did the frappr thing MM because there are so many of us. It's pretty neat.

spd rdr said...

Anybody tries to put some frappr on me is gonna be in for a big surprise.

Cassandra said...

(*&^^ smart aleck.

Anonymous said...

Quite charming, indeed.