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.
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.
It takes anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour to get to Brooklyn from Manhattan. Cabs are usually willing to make the trip, but not always easy to find once you're there. To return, you might take the subway (also an excellent way to get there in the first place) or call Montague Car Service (718/625-6666), which charges about $20 for the drive back to Manhattan. Most restaurants are also happy to call a car service for you.
A very appealing day in Brooklyn might consist of taking a walk up the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade and down Montague Street, admiring the Heights Casino (75 Montague St.); continuing down Henry Street to Atlantic Avenue, getting a feel of the neighborhoods; eating fish stew at Petite Crevette (127 Atlantic Ave.; 718/858-6660; lunch for two $13); shopping for exotic groceries, such as stewed figs or dates, feta, and olives, at Sahadi Importing Co. (187-189 Atlantic Ave.; 718/624-4550), or at any other Middle Eastern grocery store nearby; watching the dancers, if it's a weekend, at Meson Flamenco (135 Atlantic Ave.; 718/625-7177; dinner for two $50).
Another day could start at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (200 Eastern Pkwy.; 718/638-5000), notable for the Egyptian collection and the Oriental wing. Then you might stroll through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1000 Washington Ave.; 718/622-4433) and over to Grand Army Plaza, with its Arc de Triomphe- like Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch-- it honors the Civil War dead-- and Prospect Park. The latter's designers, Olmsted and Vaux, who were also responsible for Manhattan's Central Park, considered it their masterpiece because it allows one to forget the city. After an early dinner of prime rib at Gage & Tollner (372 Fulton St.; 718/875-5181; dinner for two $37), you could go on to an evening of dance, theater, music, or opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Ave.; 718/636-4100).
More adventurous trips might take in a tour of Red Hook (with its deserted, windswept docks) and Williamsburg, where a number of antiques shops have popped up in recent years. R (326 Wythe Ave.; 718/599-4385) and Moon River Chattel (314 Wythe Ave.; 718/388-1121) are the best. Once in Williamsburg, I'd definitely buy some bread at Rosalee's Bakery (310 Graham Ave.; 718/782-7387). There's also a remarkable restaurant called Vera Cruz (195 Bedford Ave.; 718/599-7914; dinner for two $42), owned by a group of young artists. It has astonishingly genuine Mexican food, as well as salsa music and dancing on Monday nights. Or you might walk through the Chinatown in Sunset Park and the Hasidic community of Borough Park, and end your tour with lunch at the River Café (1 Water St.; 718/522-5200; lunch for two $75)-- the view alone justifies a trip to Brooklyn. Lunch during the week is relatively quiet, but be sure to reserve a table and arrive on time. Have champagne: it will improve the taste of the food and your ability to contemplate the East River, the barges, the Manhattan skyline.
Yet another option is Coney Island, with a sample of rides such as the very safe carousel and the slightly more exciting Wonder Wheel (I leave the Cyclone to the hardy), followed by a Russian lunch of borscht and blini, stuffed cabbage, or cheese blintzes at the unexpectedly named and very homey Cappuccino Café (290 Brighton Beach Ave.; 718/646-6297; lunch for two $25). -- G.A.
For more information on the Brooklyn Academy of Music's renowned Next Wave Festival (September through December), call 718/636-4100.