It was a stunning admission, this utterance of the H-word. Like Eskimos and snow, the urban dictionary currently lists 348 separate definitions for the word hipster. But I’d rarely heard anyone voluntarily describe themselves as such, certainly not my own daughter.
Only a few nights before, I’d been to Coney Island to visit my friend Adam the First Real Man at his place of employment, the Sideshows by the Seashore, where he does things like drive nine-inch nails into the middle of his skull. It was a benefit to pay bills for one of the show’s recently hospitalized performers, the four-foot-three, derby-wearing, flipper-armed Illustrated Penguin. Adam, drawing on some clandestine variety of carny physiology, had managed to internally run a bright-red urethral catheter from his nose to his mouth. He poured shots of Old Crow into his upturned nostrils, let it drip through the thin tubing, then squirted it out from between his teeth. Anyone who wanted to “have a drink on me, or through me,” needed to pay a dollar, Adam said. Every single penny would be donated to the ailing Illustrated Penguin.
Later, as he wiped the Old Crow and spittle from his spectacular mutton-chop sideburns, I asked Adam what he thought of the New Brooklyn. “It’s horrible!” the First Real Man exclaimed. And why was that? “Hipsters, fucking hipsters!”
As readers of the blog diehipster.com know, this is not an uncommon position. Coming from Adam the First Real Man, however, it was a dilemma, and not only because he was talking about my self-confessed gentrifier of a daughter, but also her older sister, who moved to a fifth-floor walk-up on South 3rd Street in Williamsburg circa 2002, when she and her roommates were the only non-Hispanics in the building, and has felt “a little guilty about it” ever since. There was also the “authenticity” deal, one of those concepts academics can’t resist. In her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Brooklyn College professor Sharon Zukin defined authenticity as a conceptual tool necessary “to reshape the rights of ownership … a right to the city … cultivated by longtime residence, use, and habit.”
According to that, who could be more real than Adam the First Real Man, who grew up only a few blocks from the Cyclone’s creaky first drop in Trump Village, one of the family’s first big scores? Adam was the soul of Coney, just as Coney, time-honored capital of authentic fakery, was the soul of Brooklyn. Years ago, my grandfather brought me here so I might take a first, and last, ride on the original Steeplechase horses. A generation later, my future hipster daughters were never happier than when walking in the sticky boardwalk footsteps of their ancestors. Even then, they understood Coney, where Edison executed elephants to “prove” the dangers of alternating current, to be a power spot, a zone where the greasy, gnashing gears of the Wonder Wheel’s mechanical dream held out against the digital ingress of the New.
Didn’t like to disagree with Adam, whom I love. But these were my kids we were talking about, them and their friends. They weren’t the ones building high-rises in Williamsburg, the big arenas. They were just looking for a place to be young. Who knew why perfectly normal-seeming people get tattoos, drink so weirdly much, make fetishes out of various food groups like cupcakes, and adopt the diffident poses of actors in Wes Anderson movies? Youth occurs in a time of its own, immune to criticism from those claiming to have had better youths. As idiotic and privileged as it might seem on the surface, growing up remains no easy thing. Every passage to adulthood is a hero’s journey, to be respected, in its own way.
So it was a good thing these people lived here now, sold their overpriced sodas at Smorgasburg, downloaded from Pitchfork. What else were they supposed to do? Work on the docks, like some Arthur Rimbaud figure? Fly off into space? Brooklyn, of ample context, was a good place to spend a youth, better than South Beach, on the Jell-O-shot diet. Besides, most of them would soon be gone, back to wherever they came from. The ones who stay would be subsumed into the giant swirl of time and place that is the true Brooklyn Brand.
“Ah, hills and slopes of Brooklyn! … more valuable than your owners supposed.” Whitman was right then, and he was still right now, even with towers planned on the Greenpoint waterfront, $185 million ex–sugar factories, and the coming nine-hour traffic jam of Bon Jovi fans at Flatbush and Atlantic. The borough had a lot of give; it would abide.