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Believing in Brooklyn

It is easy to eat one's way around Brooklyn, and it makes one feel less foreign. I took a bite of each neighborhood—in Williamsburg, an espresso in an Italian coffee shop whose ceiling was hung with panettones in blue-and-gold boxes, and a loaf of bread from Rosalee's Bakery. I had squid in black ink with rice at Meson Flamenco in Brooklyn Heights, watching a guitar player sing while two women in long ruffled dresses danced with castanets. With each step, the women brought one foot down hard onto the wooden dais, staking territory. The hands rose up and the fingers grasped the air and dispersed it. The singer, who looked like a thoughtful scholar when he was only clapping to accompany a dancer's solo, was overtaken by paroxysms of virtuosic improvisation once he launched into a tune. Everyone is Spanish here; everyone speaks Spanish. The funny thing about these perfectly preserved precincts of Brooklyn is that everyone also speaks English. And there is an almost total absence of tourists.

SITTING AT THE RIVER CAFÉ, watching ferries and speedboats make the water heave languidly around the barge on which the restaurant itself is poised, I found that a glass of champagne with smoked salmon tasted as good as the promise of it. Manhattan seemed nothing to be taken too seriously. It might just as well have been invented by a Surrealist painter for the delectation of one having lunch: Let's have a strange geometric city rising up out of the water. . . . I fantasized for the hundredth time about moving to Brooklyn, but to do so in order to have a better view of Manhattan seemed a bit perverse.

ON ANOTHER DAY TRIP TO THE HEIGHTS, my second with interior designer Thérèse Carpenter, we went first to the shops on Atlantic Avenue. She was looking for a combination of sesame and herbs that a Lebanese friend likes to mix with oil and spread on bread for breakfast. I found the dates in syrup I wanted, though only the ones with almonds in them. It was raining hard and we huddled under Thérèse's umbrella.

A cab took us to Montague Street, at one end of the Esplanade (which everyone calls "the promenade"). It must rate as one of the dreamiest places on earth at any hour of the day or night; on a rainy weekday it was deserted but no less spellbinding. Thérèse and I walked the length of it, glancing up at the red-brick buildings, the vines, the polished glass of tall windows. Some of the houses have little gardens where the bushes are encouraged to provide privacy from the eyes of passers-by. Other houses are closer to the pavement—one can see the plant hanging in the kitchen, the bookcases just behind. Built right under the promenade is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and one hears the hum of passing cars.

We headed back to Atlantic Avenue, which had become a refrain on every one of my Brooklyn jaunts. We encountered a restaurant called Petite Crevette. A long room with a high ceiling and wooden tables on cast-iron stands, it has a reputation among young Brooklynites. We ate Manhattan clam chowder, crab cakes, and a wonderfully light fish stew—mussels and fish with yellow squash and zucchini and onion.

BROOKLYN WAS ONCE A CITY OF SO MANY TROLLEYS that its inhabitants were called dodgers for constantly having to dodge them. I, however, found myself in a blue van, once again going to "B'n" (as Marianne Moore abbreviated it in her letters), this time to visit my friend Bunita Marcus, a composer. She lives in Kensington, an area where Pakistanis, Mexicans, and Russians live side by side, but she was kindly taking me on a tour of Borough Park. It was a gray Tuesday, redeemed by a hidden light that gave every house, bridge, and shore a silver outline. A black barge went by with red and yellow smokestacks, green machinery on deck, and a red cabin.

We reached the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was awed once again by its tall Gothic arches filled with sky and sometimes racing clouds, by the perfection of its position, between the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and the overpasses, underpasses, zipping cars, tree-lined streets, and red-bricked neighborhoods of Brooklyn. A red sign, WATCHTOWER, beacon of the large community of Jehovah's Witnesses, welcomes one to Brooklyn, city of a hundred faiths.

We took the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and were soon sandwiched beneath the Esplanade and the water, whizzing past the mirage of Manhattan. We followed the freeway to Ocean Parkway, a four-lane avenue flanked by tall trees and six-story houses. At a traffic light, as though on cue that we were entering Hasidic territory, I turned to see that the driver of the car next to ours wore a black velvet yarmulke.

We set off down Cortelyou Road to 16th Avenue in Borough Park, where every other shop sells cakes or religious articles. No sooner did we walk beneath the F-train bridge than a neighborhood began that was so intense, so homogeneously populated, that it seemed to be a zealously styled film set: all the women wore wigs; nearly all were pushing prams, solid vehicles built to carry a sequence of babies, unlike the rickety folding models so prevalent in Manhattan. Inside one pram I caught sight of a book, propped by the baby's shoulder, titled Duties of the Heart. I was reminded of the recent film about a Hasidic woman who leaves home to begin a life outside the community and has an affair with a Puerto Rican jewelry maker. The title, A Price Above Rubies, refers to what a woman of virtue is worth according to a passage in the Book of Proverbs.

The women were dressed in navy blue or forest green, sometimes dark blue hats, skirts to just above the ankles, always stockings. White fringes dangled from the hems of the men's coats. Their tall black hats were set on top of their yarmulkes, making them appear too small, or the head beneath them too large. Everywhere there were men, in twos and threes, deep in conversation in the shade of a tree. Some wore knickers, and their slim black-stockinged legs protruded from beneath the black coats, lending them an even more distinguished air. Two windows of a men's shoe store were filled with nothing but black shoes. Another shop carried a variety of wigs—most blond or russet, jaw-length with bangs—and also a Louis Vuitton carrying case. Schoolgirls passed by in long pleated skirts, blouses, and cardigans. They looked like the European schoolgirls one might have encountered decades ago in the streets of Paris or Vienna. They could have been me at the age of 16, in Florence.

I cannot remember when I last felt I had traveled so far in place and time. For this side of Brooklyn, with its homogeneity of people and customs, but more than anything with its un-Americanness—no baggy shorts and baseball caps here, no Coke signs or rock stars (even the cards kids collect are of famous rabbis)—represents the American way of leaving all to choose how best to pursue happiness.

Visiting Brooklyn, I fell in love with living in America all over again. It was the setting of one of the early battles of the American Revolution and it remains a beacon of Americanness, yet it is also still the place before the melting pot, where people refuse to be melted into generality.

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