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Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

From an old Brooklyn street, the spires of Manhattan are like a vision of "some strange, exotic city across the river."

From the July 14, 1969 issue of New York Magazine.

One cold spring I found myself alone in Rome, in a small room high up over Parioli, trying to write. The words came thickly, sluggishly, and none of them were any good. I quit for the day. For a while I read day-old copies of Paese Sera, the Communist daily, and the Paris Herald, and then, bored, I turned on the radio, lay down on the lumpy couch, and, half-listening, stared out at the empty sky. The music was the usual raucous Italian stew, mixed with screaming commercials, and I fell into a heavy doze. Then, suddenly, absurdly, I came awake, as an old song started to play. She kicked out my windshield. She hit me over the head. She cussed and cried. And said I'd lied. And wished that I was dead. Oh! Lay that pistol down, Babe . . . It was "Pistol Packin' Mama," by Tex Ritter, and how it came to be played that afternoon, 20 years after Anzio, I'll never know. But I did not think about the hard young men of that old beachhead, or about their war, or even about cowboys in flight from homicidal girlfriends. I thought about Brooklyn.

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, "Pistol Pack-in' Mama" was the first record we ever owned. My brother Tommy and I bought it for a dime in a secondhand book-and-record shop on Pearl Street under the Myrtle Avenue E1, and we played it until the grooves were gone. The week before we bought it, my mother had arrived home with an old wine-colored hand-cranked Victrola, complete with picture of faithful dog and master's voice, and a packet of nail-like needles. It was given the place of honor in the living room, in the old top-floor right at 378 Seventh Avenue; that is, it was placed on top of the kerosene stove for the duration of the summer, and it was almost as heavy as the five-gallon drums we hauled home in the winter snow to feed the stove (steam heat, then, was a luxury assigned to the Irish with property). We thought that phonograph was a bloody marvel.

The purchase of "Pistol Packin' Mama" was something else again. We did not really lust after hymns of violence; we weren't country-and-western buffs (we always preferred Charles Starrett, the Durango Kid, who was all business, to the saps like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who played banjo as they rode after outlaws). It was something more complicated. We bought "Pistol Packin' Mama" because it was the first hard, solid evidence we had until then about the existence of the world outside Brooklyn.

We studied geography in school, of course, with all those roll-down maps of the world, those dull figures about copra production, the uses of sisal and, of course, the location of the Holy Land. But Brooklyn was not on those maps. New York was, but to us, New York was some strange, exotic city across the river, where there were people who rooted for the Giants and the Yankees. Brooklyn was not there. Even Battle Creek, Michigan, where we sent a hundred Kellogg boxtops, was on the map. Brooklyn was not. The people who secretly ruled the earth did not recognize us, and we did not really recognize them. So to own a copy of that awful record was like establishing diplomatic relations with the rest of the world; "Pistol Packin' Mama" had been a hit—broadcast from a million radios—and for Tommy and me to have a copy of it, to hold it in our hands, to turn it over (the flip side was something that went "Rosalita, you are the rose of the baaaanjo!"), to be able to play it at our leisure and not wait to hear it at the whim of those people who secretly ruled the earth—that was breaking out.

Lying on that couch in Rome, I had already learned that you never break out of anything, that it was ludicrous to think that you could solve anything by setting out on journeys. The last time I had gone there, Brooklyn had seemed shabby and worn-out: not just in the neighborhood where I grew up, but everywhere. There was something special, almost private, about being from Brooklyn when I was growing up: a sense of community, a sense of being home. But I hadn't lived there for a long time, and when I did go it seemed always for a disaster: to see the corpses of men, baked by the heat, being carried out of the Constellation as it burned in the snow at the Navy Yard; to visit, like a ghoul, the mothers of dead soldiers; to cover the latest hostilities between the Gallo and Profaci mobs; to talk with the father of an eight-year-old boy who had pushed a girl off a roof in Williamsburg. Only the dead know Brooklyn, Thomas Wolfe had written. For a while it seemed that way. The place had come unraveled, like the spring of a clock dropped from a high floor. Nevertheless, that night in Rome I started getting ready to go home.


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