From the riverside parks, I returned south to the John Jay/Borough Hall area (where the bus had originally deposited me) and then headed east to the Fort Greene park / ‘hood.
Super scenic walk. Also up a pretty steep hill…. This Florida flatlander was puffing pretty hard.
To simplify my navigation and minimize embarrassing streetcorner map-consulting incidents, I pushed farther east to the edge of Bedford-Stuvesant to take Bedford Ave. directly up to Williamsburg, where it becomes one of the primary quaintly commercial thoroughfares of the neighborhood. As you may already know, back in the day Bed-Stuy was famous as a tinderbox of cultural conflict. Orthodox Jews are part of the ethnic stew here, and my explorations took me through there on Shabbat, right before some early evening services were obviously about to get cranking. As the sidewalks around me rapidly filled with undulating crowds of finely dressed neighborhood denizens, I experienced a disorienting sensation of insta-travel: as if, while steadily trodding the sidewalks of New York City, everything surrounding me suddenly lurched to a new position on the cultural tuning dial, one set for “totally foreign.”
I mean, one minute I’m scuttling across the sidewalk above the sunken Brooklyn-Queens Expressway with its noxious exhaust fumes and irritably honking horns, and the next I’m immersed in full-on different language, customs, dress… Sure, you may say, “Well DUH. Because Ellis Island. And melting pot. ETCETERA.” Yes yes yes – but this was an entire neighborhood simultaneously draining out of buildings en route to their respective places of worship, small groups matched in age and gender coalescing to visit, chat, flirt, and gossip. Almost like a single homogeneous entity made up of thousand of individual components doing the same thing at the same time, and avoiding light switches and ovens and driving while doing it! The men wore amazing hats that looked like mink-covered lampshades and sported luxuriantly long ear curls. Married women modestly covered their hair with kerchief-y looking accessories matched to their dresses and shepherded small children over crosswalks (and many families were REALLY large…. this was a not a place rocking the ‘1, maybe 2 kids’ idea). ‘Tweens and teens grouped to giggle and surreptitiously bat eyelashes or roughhouse showily for whatever group was on the opposite side of the street. And everyone was pimped out in their Shabbat best.
I was surprisingly touched by and slightly envious of this obviously tightly bound community that had staked out its very own and wholly unique territory in the wilds of NYC’s concrete jungle. Yeah, I’m sure everyone knows everyone’s business and the gossip can be vicious (not to mention the whole religious basis, which would preclude my participation right there). But I bet everyone knows the names of all the other families too, and their histories – the matriarchs, patriarchs, scandals, tragic untimely deaths, kids who went out and made a success of themselves and made their parents proud (and are perhaps now unsufferably bragged about). The kids there grow up around each other and likely share their first kiss and boob fumblings with another community kid and maybe grow up to get married to each other, too. And yet this little closely-woven community is surrounded by the entire seething, secular city as well: a moat of Noo Yawk-ness. It was kinda neat.
And I really wanted to just take tons of photos of the amazing clothes and cute little gossiping groups (wizened old women, eleven year old girls, greybeards waving pontificating fingers in the air at each other) but I was pretty sure it’d be totally verboten to go waving my electronic camera all over the place, on Shabbat especially. But I figured if they didn’t know I was doing it, they had to be innocent as far as their god is concerned, right? So I just sneaked a couple in while walking, trying to play it cool.
By the time I finally arrived in Williamsburg it was too dark to take pics, and having by this point intrepidly covered a LOT of ground in my dusty Chuck Taylors, I turned my attention toward the drinking and eating portion of the evening. Sadly, I don’t think I took a picture of my Spicy Redneck Crif Dog dinner (a bacon-wrapped dog topped with chili, coleslaw, and jalapenos). It was, however, delicious.
On the imbibing end, I went to (1) an awesome bar for bike messengers, of all the odd things (loved it, actually – divey, football-to-the-rest-of-the-world on the TV, good beer selection and decent tunes, pleasant crowd, but DON’T remember the name, alas); (2) a Scottish bar with a crazy whisky selection – fancy looking joint with a mellow crowd, at least when I was there [Isle of Skye]. I tried and discarded numerous places along Bedford, Metropolitan, and Diggs, including (somewhat tragically) a fantastic beer joint with an amazing back garden area [Spuyten Duyvil] that was unfortunately chock to the rafters with humanity and making me nervous with its chalkboard menu of beers with naught but double-digit prices. Eeep.
I ended up closing out the evening back on Bedford at the ultra-divey sticky-floored Charleston bar, which offers a personal pizza for just a dollar to accompany any drink from 8pm ’til 3:30 am. It was here I met the married couple mentioned in my previous post with whom I tagged along to Manhattan. However, instead of the ‘small party down the street’ I was led to expect, we ended up meeting the birthday-having Puerto Rican cousin at Coyote Ugly, his favorite bar to visit. Zomg, NOT MY KIND OF PLACE!! Bartenders and tipsy female guests gyrated on TOP of the bar to craptastic early-90s hair metal. (All I could think of was the sidewalk germs and molecules of bum-piss getting smeared all over the bottoms of drinking glasses by this unwholesome activity…. every surface screamed for a through Lysol-wiping.) Little knots of glazed-eyed sailors on shore leave huddled together to suck shots from bartendresses’ horizontal belly buttons. Everything was sticky, everyone was sweaty, and no conversation was audible. To make matters worse, the couple who’d invited me along descended into death-throes squabbling as soon as we arrived (the girl, drunk as a skunk by then, had been inappropriately attentive to another guy at the prior bar, and the simmering resentment finally broke into the open as soon as our first round of drinks were in hand) and the cousin kept trying to get me to dance (ah, no; no chance, hombre.) I made my excuses as quickly and politely as humanly possible after gulping down my proffered Corona and hustled home for the night.