On Manhattan Street, which is in Brooklyn, there is a Rite Aid drugstore with a secret.
You enter into a narrow corridor that ramps down. The raised counter with cashiers and gum racks is on the left, and a man who has had his hair cut very recently is to your right; it is the day after Christmas, and he is stocking shelves with glittery red hearts full of chocolate. By halfway down the slope, you see that the store is far bigger than a chain drugstore–any drugstore–should be, and you cannot see the side walls or the ceiling. Is there even a ceiling?
From the door to the store, you lose at least a story-and-a-half-in altitude.
At the end of the ramp, the space enmassifies and the clearance above your head multiplies by ten and draws your eye to cornice and deco, filigree and tossed-off beauty. A great, flat blank wall on the south side, and a balcony (walled off but obvious) halfway up the north, with a rotunda as white as Teddy Roosevelt’s navy. There is also a disco ball.
Below that are cheap metal shelves with products dedicated to keeping you from smelling like you’re supposed to, treating minor skin irritations, hair (white), and hair (ethnic). There are all sorts of pills for all sorts of ills.
It looks like this:
The Meseroles were one of the first families of Greenpoint, and the theater was built on their land. There is a street named for them nearby. So, when the theater was built in 1921, it was named for them. I took this picture with my phone, and I’m quite terrible at taking pictures, so you can’t quite get the scale of it: big enough to hold 2,000 seats between the orchestra and the balcony. The Meserole showed cartoons on Saturday mornings in the fifties and sixties–hours worth for just a dollar–and all the big prestige flicks, but at first it was a silent theater with an organist.
In 1970, it became a roller disco. Hence, the ball.
It was an Eckerd drugstore, and now it’s a Rite Aid. There is talk of resurrecting the theater, and refurling the screen. Gussying the old girl up.
Brother on the Dead and Sister-in-Law on the Dead (BotD and SiLotD) are adventurous eaters. Many of the apps on their phones are dedicated to this pursuit. Recently, they patronized a restaurant based around the theme of foraging. In case you are wondering whether Brooklyn hipsters have redefined the word “foraging” as they have the word “curating,” then I must inform you that they have not. The whole menu is just shit the waiters picked on the way in to work. Occasionally, the chef will nail a pigeon or two with his slingshot, and meat will be available.
Meals TotD ate: bacon cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger, scrambled eggs (with bacon), bacon cheeseburger, calamari.
Everything in a city–an old one, a place where the carrying capacity has been overshot long ago–has a backstory.
Some are dopier than others.
In 1972, a guy named Steve won a bet. He was a young stockbroker or bond salesman, some Manhattan money bullshit, and another guy in his office laid down five bucks that the new secretary, a blonde named Adele, wouldn’t go out with him. Steve was shy, but he liked winning bets. And he thought Adele was pretty.
They went to Forlini’s on their first date. This is what it looks like:
The restaurant is on Baxter Street, which used to be called Orange Street, and the junction where Orange met Anthony Street and Cross Street was called the Five Points. The area was formerly a pond that wasn’t filled in properly, so the land was marshy and mosquitos swarmed; rent was cheap. This is where the Bowery B’hoys lived, and the Dead Rabbits, and Monk Eastman and his gang. Hell-Cat Maggie lived there, and a bartender known for drugging the naive for the purposes of robbery; his name was Mickey Finn. The Plug Uglies, and warring volunteer firehouses, and Bill the Butcher, and so much diphtheria.
The Five Points slum lasted for 70 years until Jacob de Riis took pictures of it. Also, the city evicted everyone, demolished all the tenements, and built a park and a courthouse. Which is the nuclear option of city planning, but it had to be done.
The Forlini family opened the restaurant in 1956. It used to be in Little Italy, but Chinatown expanded to encircle it and now it sits like the last Catholic church in Beijing. The criminal court-house is right next door, and it is the criminal court-house for Manhattan, where many criminals live, so it is a behemoth: a block-stradling granite fortress with thousands of people in and out each day. Judges and lawyers and criminals and cops.
If these booths could talk, then they’d invoke their right to remain silent.
Nothing has changed in 60 years–they added a back room, fine–and the paintings are monstrosities in ornate gold-painted wood frames that look like they weigh two hundred pounds apiece, and the waiters have the practiced patience of the saints in the art. Forlini’s serves “Italian food.” Everything you would expect, and you get a bowl of linguine or ziti on the side. The menus have never been changed in my lifetime in either the sense of updating the contents, or the physical presentation of the sucker: the menus are leather slabs the size of coffee-table books, with embossed crests and stitching up and down the spines, which are slightly ragged.
Steve and Adele’s date went well. They were Jewish, but Adele did Christmas. She didn’t celebrate it–no tree, and certainly no Jesus–but she did Christmas, and when they married that meant Steve did Christmas. When their two boys had reached the age when they wouldn’t be complete assholes in restaurants, Steve and Adele took them to Forlini’s on Christmas Eve every year. Z100 would play Christmas songs in the car on the way in from New Jersey, through the Holland Tunnel.
Adele and her two boys, plus her daughter-in-law, went to Forlini’s on Christmas Eve this year. Via an Uber, which did not exist in 1972 when a young man named Steve took a young woman named Adele out on a first date. He borrowed his brother-in-law’s car. Steve did not go with them to the restaurant, but he was there while they ate, and after they left he stayed there because that is one of the places my father Steve still lives.
One day, Forlini’s will close. Baxter Street will be renamed. The Bowery Boys will stay, and so will the eleven black men lynched during the Draft Riots, and Boss Tweed, and the waiters with their white shirts and black slacks and red sauce, and so will my father.
Greenpoint is a neighborhood in Brooklyn. It is gentrifying, which means stores like this…
…are right next to stores like this:
There are ghosts on every street, and some even keep regular business hours.
If you are in Greenpoint and look west, towards the city, then you will see tall steel skeletons that will house million-dollar condos. Their inhabitants will visit the artisanal liquor store, and the combination tea shop/bookstore-that-only-stocks-cookboooks, and Bill Murray’s son’s gluten-free restaurant. These are all extant and operating businesses that actually exist and I did not make up.
The Keshkachauge were the first people to live in the neighborhood–the first we know of, at least–in the little peninsula at the northern end of Brooklyn. The area jukes out of the main mass of the borough, towards Manhattan, and the first whites there said that it was verdant, and everything grew there. The Dutch farmed there, families like the Meseroles and the Calyers, who still live there as street signs.
BotD used to live near in Downtown Brooklyn by the Manhattan Bridge, near Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus and Junior’s Cheesecake, and now the area is called Dobro except it shouldn’t be. New York does that a lot, naming neighborhoods by jamming the first syllables of the descriptors together, but Dobro is an abomination.
Tribeca (the TRIangle BElow CAnal Street) and Soho (SOuth of HOuston) and even Nolita (NOrth of Little ITAly) are elegant and evocative, and a dobro is just a guitar that’s not very good at being a guitar. Plus, it was clearly thought up by some marketing asshole in a meeting full of other marketing assholes, and maybe some real estate assholes were also in the room. Asshole name for asshole bullshit that only an asshole would say. Fuck Dobro.
Anyway, I met the great Jesse Jernow there in a bar named Clem’s. Brooklyn does not have more bars than churches, but that is only because Brooklyn has a shitload of churches. There are fancy bars, shmancy bars, swanky bars, and skanky bars. Irish bars, and British pubs, and German Bierhäuser, and Dominican cervezeria, and places where you need a suit and tie, and places where you need an alibi. Clem’s is the best kind of bar, which is a clean dive.
A shot of tequila and a Tecate (in a can) for $5 is a good deal in Brooklyn in 2016, and your hand does not stick gooily to the bartop when you lay it down. Clem’s is on the corner of the street, with the long wall full of windows and the door on the short wall on the perpendicular street; the bar is on the right, and behind that is a lineup of bottles broken up by columns that have stickers all the way up and down. One is a Stealie. Clem’s has Dead night on Wednesdays. It is a clean dive.
I have met–in person–several people whom I’ve initially gotten to know through this never-ending bullshit, and prior to meeting the great Jesse Jarnow, none of them had murdered me. I am pleased to report that the great Jesse Jarnow also did not murder me. He has a big thatch of unruly hair and a beard the size of a pencil factory, and a wonderful way to spend any money you have left from the holidays would be by buying his book, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America.
The great Jesse Jarnow may or may not have been pressured into doing a shot of well tequila with me. I regret nothing, and would do it again. I hope to have the chance soon.
Was there no one in the production chain who could have intervened?
Printing this banner is a multi-step process. Several people are involved. No one saw it?
Or did it go like this:
“Hey, you know you spelled ‘Hawaiian’ wrong.”
“Oh, no. It’s not Hawaiian.’ Its ‘Hawaiin.’
“What the fuck is that?”
“Oh, yoooooou’ll find out! MWAHAHAHAHA!”
And so on.
Oh, and as long as we’re on the subject:
I would not like any lion of pork, thank you very much. Chicken and spinach meatballs sound good, though.
The lion of pork was served at a Polish diner that BotD and SiLotD selected for breakfast two out of the three days of the visit. This is because it is a sane and nonthreatening joint with oval plates that prepares breakfast like sane human beings, instead of getting clever about it and deconstructing pancakes or making you kill your own chicken. There was no hipster bullshit, and in fact a large cockroach wandered into the middle of the dining room and died while I was eating a piece of toast and I did not care.
Give me a diner that doesn’t fuck up eggs and I’m happy. I’m a simple, and highly irritating, man.
It was right across the street from Starhawk’s shop.
You remember Starhawk. He and his brother–whom I immediately began referring to as Nighthawk–opened up a tie-dye shop in Greenpoint; I may have made fun of it; I was wrong to do so: it is a good place, with lovely energy, and if you are not careful Nighthawk will talk you into buying the entire store. (I nearly bought a tie-dye union suit with a buttflap, but settled for a turtle-Buddha.)
The store smells precisely like you think it does.
TotD is not a fan of tie-dye, but the way Starhawk does it is art. He made pieces for the band, and hustled shirts at head shops along every tour since ’77. He is a catholic tie-dyer; Starhawk will hippify anything you bring him.
See? Don’t show these to Bobby or John Mayer. Actually: show these to John Mayer.
In the 1840’s and 50’s, Greenpoint established regular transit lines linking it to the world; its location along the East River made it easy to ship products both inwards towards America, and outwards towards the Atlantic. It was smart to do your manufacturing as close to the point of shipment as possible, and so factories sprouted up and also heavy industry.
A man named John Eberhard Faber opened a pencil factory. Operations moved in 1956, but the building is still there and the men and women who made all those pencils still live there.
A city keeps some of its graves way up in the air.
There was also pottery, and clay, and printing, and glass. The runoff from the factories went into the East River, but also into little Newtown Creek; the land around it is a Superfund site now.
The thing about New York City is that you’re always wandering onto movie sets.
The streetlights look mean when the streets are wet.
The fastest way around any city is a small scooter–the Vietnamese have figured this out–and so all the delivery boys ride up and down the avenues VREEEEE and Brooklyn gets cold in the winter, so they have giant insulated mittens attached to the handlebars, allowing them to operate the throttle and brake without exposing their hands to the piercing wind.
They look like this:
(I know that’s a bicycle. Most of them are scooters. I didn’t really have a plan when I was taking pictures. Just go with me on this one.)
The delivery boys–they are invariably boys–are mostly immigrants. The cooks and waiters, and probably the owners, of the restaurants they deliver for are immigrants. And the cab drivers, and the woman with the headscarf with a map of the United Kingdom printed on it who ran the bodega on the corner. Greenpoint was known as Little Poland, and Poles are still coming; the language and the accent is everywhere.
New York City is not a city built by immigrants: it is a city made of immigrants.
And, holy shit, do I hope one of them made this sign:
Because that is inexcusable for a native speaker.
(I have been trying to pronounce whatever the fuck those letters think they’re doing–I refuse to call “doung” a word–for two days. DOO-ung? DWAHng?)
The Polish moved in in the late 1800’s, and they worked in the factories and lived in the neighborhood and stripped naked in saunas and beat each other with sticks. This is called a schvitz.
This one opened in 1903, along with social clubs and recreation centers and all the other things that mark a neighborhood as belonging to an ethnic group in New York in the past.
(Many cultures enjoy sitting in a very hot room. Native Americans would do it to see God; Scandinavians need to because they live on Hoth. Eastern Europeans believe that sitting in a hot room was a chance to drink vodka, eat small fishes, and beat each other with sticks, specifically tree branches. This promotes health.)
TOPIC: the decline in American civilization correlates to the number of public bathing spaces. DISCUSS.
I took a cab to Clem’s, to meet the great Jesse Jarnow; the driver was Haitian and named Jean, and I asked him why he wasn’t in Florida. He laughed and said that he had lived there before he moved to New York. Jean drove a truck before he drove a cab–a green minivan, not a yellow sedan–and he wanted to sleep at home. His first day as a hack earned him $400.
“And, you know: that was it.”
“Yeah, but lemme ask you: you ever make that much again?”
“Of course not!”
There is a sign on the divider between the driver and the passenger in a New York cab informing you of the penalty of robbing the driver. It is 25 years.
My grandfather was named William but everyone called him Hutch, and he drove a cab, too: a Checker with jump seats and a steering wheel made of knurled wood the size of a hula hoop. Bright yellow with Cheap Trick’s logo striped along the sides. My father would steal the keys at night, and pick people up; he’d leave the meter off, and pocket the cash for spending money.
It might be noted that neither my grandfather, Hutch, nor my father, Steve, had access to Google Maps on their phones. Jean consulted his phone. It should also be noted, though, that my father and grandfather stuck to Manhattan, where they had lived their entire lives. How many cab drivers can afford Manhattan any more?
Jesus lives in Brooklyn; he lives everywhere, but he is easy to find in Brooklyn.
He will talk to you in bars that are blaring George Michael, who lives still in so many places that have not been closed and have not been renamed, and He will guide you through dead and empty sidewalks through the construction along the river.
Greenpoint is on the river. It used to build ships, and weave the rope to work those ships; the canvas, too, and the street names are the graves of the men who made the boats: Java and India, and Oak and Ash.
And Monitor Street, named after the most famous of all Greenpoint’s ships, and the ghosts surround you thick til all you can do is ball your hands in your jacket pockets and screw your cigarette into the corner of your mouth, and hope that Jesus is on the less-windy side of the street with your shoulders aimed forwards and your feet following them, putting one cross-street in front of the other.
Men’s trousers are featuring a tighter calf this year.
Jesus is on the Main Drag, in every bar, and the propped-up air conditioners sealed up against the winter, and each unmarked steel door with a giant keyhole. Jesus is in the scaffolding and the subway grates, still terrifying as an adult, and Jesus tells you to post no bills, and Jesus posts a shitload of bills.
And sometimes Jesus is a 1969 VW Karman Ghia shining like the top of the Chrysler Building, another ghost that still yet lives in Greenpoint, which is a neighborhood in Brooklyn.