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Believing in Brooklyn

To want to understand Brooklyn is to presume to understand the world: it isn't merely difficult, it's impossible. From Manhattan, Brooklyn seems a mist of buildings promising a life of neighborhoods and lower rents—an easier life, one where you may exchange a few words with the Lebanese grocer on Atlantic Avenue or admire the fresh glamour of a recently arrived Polish woman in Greenpoint (a fur collar, a rouged cheek, russet hair dashingly cut and set). It is the hardest place to get hold of, because it's vast and because the inhabitants change every few blocks, as does the appearance of the shops, the streets, even the gardens, or lack of them, as well as the languages you hear.

There is the Brooklyn of lumber barges drifting by the windows of the River Café; of coffee at an Italian grocery in Carroll Gardens; of Turkish delight from the Middle Eastern shops on Atlantic Avenue; of ancient Egypt at the Brooklyn Museum; of the wisteria at the Botanic Garden; of Merce Cunningham dances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; of she-crab soup at Gage & Tollner; of the Hasidic butcher in blood-stained apron, shirtsleeves, black hat, and ringlets; of the storekeeper at a little Arabic market, her head wrapped in a chador; of the Yemenite café where there are only men, eating hunks of meat with their fingers as they turn their backs on the view. You would have to tour the world to see all that you can see in a single day in Brooklyn. I had 10 days, spread over seven months, each time with any of my friends willing to accompany me across the Brooklyn Bridge.

My first trip was to Red Hook, on the west end of the borough, the Brooklyn of poets, writers, and artists. The Brooklyn of light. "Here I am on one of the happiest days of my life," I heard myself say into a video camera in sculptor Saint Clair Cemin's Red Hook studio, and no one was more surprised than I. There was a circle of white marble sculptures, including a boat, translucent as parchment, that could allegedly float on water. Light from the docks flooded in and made the marble dust on his windowsills sparkle. Surrounded as he is by views of the harbor, it is not surprising that Cemin, a Brazilian of Italian descent, should have wanted to make a boat. Next door, artist Ray Smith was painting a terrier on a beach with a string of red and white lightbulbs adorning its tail. The sea is in nearly every one of his recent paintings—an odalisque reclining high above an almost deserted bay; George Washington, or rather his head, floating above a woman's turquoise-and-white body leaping off an ocean shore into the heavens. Air and a view of water have brought Cemin, Smith, and others to Brooklyn.

I felt my eyes—the eyes of home that forget to look, forget to admire all that is under one's nose—shed their unseeingness. Perhaps I should move to Brooklyn, I thought. I could live in a house, or at least have an entire floor of one. To travel is to think of moving. Mentally, I went to live in a house on Milton Street, in Greenpoint. What led me there was the St. Anthony and St. Alphonsus Church (Brooklyn was once known as the city of churches), red with a tall spire like a witch's hat. In front of it was a street of red-brick houses of a sort that Brooklyn is famous for. There was a mural of a purple camel and a sheikh standing against a sky covered with Arabic script. Nearby are Polish shop signs such as POLSKIE OBIADY and CHOPIN CHEMISTS. I thought of the poet Marianne Moore, who left Manhattan for Brooklyn and years later wrote: "I like living here. Brooklyn has given me pleasure, has helped to educate me; has afforded me, in fact, the kind of tame excitement on which I thrive." The excitement wasn't, and isn't, always tame—there is no line of demarcation between the dainty and the dangerous. You might be walking on a lusciously tended street and suddenly stray into a neighborhood where you feel like walking a little faster and begin to wonder whether it will be easy to get a cab.

The "tame excitement" Moore was referring to is most visible in Brooklyn Heights. W. H. Auden lived on Monroe Place; Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, on Henry Street. Manhattanite Truman Capote fell in love with the Heights at first sight and, in the course of an evening "consulting" martinis, persuaded a friend to rent him the basement of his 28-room house on Willow Street. In the years he lived there, Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood, as well as a short piece called "A House on the Heights," in which he describes his encounter with the Cobras, a gang, on the periphery of the Heights. He was carrying a camera, and they taunted him: " 'Hey Whitey, hey, yuh, takemuhpitchawantcha?' Thunder salvaged the moment. . . . I shouted, 'Rain! Rain!' and ran. Ran for the Heights, that safe citadel, that bourgeois bastion. . . . Home! And happy to be."

In that Moore and Capote only really felt at home in the genteel Brooklyn of the Public Library, the Museum, Prospect Park, and the Esplanade, they were classic Brooklynites—I collected people who had grown up in Brooklyn but admitted that they were familiar with little beyond their own neighborhood.

If Brooklyn were its own city—it was consolidated into New York City in 1898—it would have the fourth-largest population of any in America, after the rest of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but it's made up of a hundred cities (the Chinatown in Sunset Park, the Norwegian enclave in Bay Ridge), maybe more. Some cover only seven blocks, but they are no less distinct. In Williamsburg, for example, there is a group from Nola, a town near Naples, Italy. But in Williamsburg you'll also find Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians. Though there has been friction between races and cultures, the divisions among them—between the Italians and the Poles, between the Chinese and the Hasidim, between African-Americans and Puerto Ricans—are allowed to exist. They are part of Brooklyn's immigrant prerogative of belonging to everyone and to no one. In its vast Noah's Ark, ethnicities are saved from the assimilation they undergo elsewhere in America.

ON ANOTHER TRIP, I WENT TO BRIGHTON BEACH AND CONEY ISLAND, on the southernmost shore of the borough. A friend, Judith Thurman, had already taken one day off from writing her biography of Colette to accompany me. Because there were seven of us this time—Judith's husband, Peter; her nine-year-old son, Will; her aunt Arkie; her godchild Camilla; Camilla's friend Edouard; and Inky, the standard poodle—we rented a van, which soon became so filled with giggles I remembered Van Morrison singing, "And all the time going to Coney Island I'm thinking, Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?" Riding the carousel, with its ancient wooden horses rising and plunging, one revolves out of the interior, emerging into the light and the view of the sea and of other rides, such as the terrifying Cyclone. Judith had at first said she would not go on the roller coaster, but changed her mind at the last minute, perhaps out of a need to be near her son. It set off slowly and crept up the incline like a caterpillar; then, probably when they were least expecting it, hurtled down the precipice at a terrifying speed, up and down nine hills in all, making a horrible rattling sound. A ride lasts just 105 seconds but one look at Judith's face told me I would never try it. The Wonder Wheel seemed more appealing, with its little cars that trundle sideways on bars as the large wheel turns, rotating you to a height from which you can see the entire beach and the boardwalk.

In Brighton Beach, a neighborhood next to Coney Island composed largely of Russian and Ukrainian Jews, I asked a woman in a shop whether she knew of any good restaurants. She shrugged and said, "No good restaurants here. Cholesterol." I asked the man in the pawnshop across the street the same question. "Restaurant?" he repeated. "No, no good restaurant." He hesitated. "Oh, maybe National." I'd heard about it—it's a place where one goes to have dinner, drink vodka till the wee hours, and watch women dance. It isn't open for lunch. The man suddenly seemed inspired. "Go to Cappuccino," he said. "Very good." "Do they serve Russian food?" I asked. "Yes, yes, Roshan," he nodded. I thought it must be a sign of authenticity if the restaurant didn't state its nationality in its name.

Cappuccino Café was small and faintly pink on the inside. There were many bright windows and a multitude of tables, all of them taken except for a long one in the back, next to the counter. We had Ukrainian borscht, followed by blini with red caviar and sour cream, stuffed cabbage, and cheese blintzes with strawberry jam, then coffee. The windows were steamed up; a man with long blond hair and wide, dark sunglasses sat across from his girlfriend, both clutching mugs of a fruit punch with slices of fermented strawberry and banana at the bottom.

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