This was partly because I was busy having more fun than is legal in Manhattan, and partly because Brooklyn just didn’t come up that often. After the real-estate market collapsed in the late eighties, you could rent a perfectly huge loft almost anywhere in lower Manhattan for a couple thousand bucks a month. In the fall of 1990, after I began to make a decent living as a writer, I must have looked at twenty of them in Tribeca and Soho, each one nicer than the next. I passed up one particularly tricked-out beauty because the guest room didn’t have its own bathroom. Imagine! I eventually settled on 2,400 square feet of wide-open space on the fourth floor of 55 Great Jones Street. Who needed Brooklyn?
Let’s do a little math. If I’ve lived in Manhattan for seventeen years and I can count the number of times I’ve been to Brooklyn on four hands—maybe three—that averages out to about once a year, which, as far as I’m concerned, is once a year too often. I’m kidding! Sort of. Like many people, I have an irrational fear of leaving Manhattan. For one thing, it’s so difficult to get here—to get in—in the first place, it feels like you might lose your spot should you leave it unattended, even for a day. For another, there is the ever-present anxiety that, God forbid, you might miss something. Because we’re all jammed in so tight, stacked up in shipping containers at the loading dock, we all experience everything at the same time, en masse. Even 9/11. New Yorkers who weren’t in Manhattan on that horrible day weren’t grateful for their safe remove; they felt left out.
But in 1988, I went to Brooklyn willingly, because I was only 25 and I didn’t know any better. A friend, who’s now the editor of a fashion magazine, took me to a party in some crummy apartment filled with Oberlin grads smoking pot and listening to “black music.” We were dropped off by a cab in front of a deli on a charmless stretch of Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. We went in to buy a couple of six-packs, and there, standing by the cash register, holding court in his bathrobe and slippers, looking like a giant, fat troll doll, was . . . Al Sharpton! Apparently, he lived in the apartment upstairs, and this was a typical late-evening occurrence. At the time, Sharpton was at the height (depth?) of his Tawana Brawley salad days. It was like bumping into the spirit of Brooklyn personified: disheveled, cumbersome, faintly embarrassing, déclassé, but puffed-up and proud and real. (Today, he’s still the personification of Brooklyn, all polished and professional—and a lot more fun than he used to be.) To the crowd I was with that night—highly educated early adopters of the ironic T-shirt and the million-dollar-dirty-girl look—seeing Sharpton in his jammies was irony nirvana. For me, however, it was a little more complicated. I remember feeling uneasy about the fact that he was a punch line to the hipsters—and more uneasy with each gleeful retelling of the story at the party later, shouted over a James Brown soundtrack. I left Brooklyn that night with a sense that I retain to this day, which is that I cannot ever be one of those people who moves into a neighborhood that many of the people who’ve lived there for years would leave if only they could.
When I hear modern-day yuppies talk of being “pioneers” in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods—so smug in their 718 T-shirts—I want to poke my finger in their eyes. Brooklyn is not a clean slate. People who live there have a history, one that, more often than not, is of grit and forbearance. It’s a history that I imagine the shabby Gentiles of Park Slope and the midwestern hipsters of Williamsburg—colonists, all!—don’t want to think about too much.
But I must confess that I was queasy about Brooklyn even before we ran into Al Sharpton. The moment I stepped out of the cab all those years ago, I was struck by the fact that the strip of Atlantic Avenue looked just like the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where my mother and her parents were born. What troubles me when I go to Brooklyn, I suppose, is that I see my former self and I see my family’s blue-collar struggle. I was raised in a big Irish-Catholic family. My grandparents both worked in a hosiery mill in Philly until the mid-forties, when they finally escaped to a relatively easier life on the Jersey Shore. There, my father worked for the postal service and my mother was a waitress and a telephone operator and a bus driver. My sister and I were the first in our family to go to college.
By the mid-eighties, my friends from the suburbs of Philly and Jersey were moving into the run-down neighborhoods in Philadelphia that people like my grandparents had left after the Depression. In South Philly, a townhouse with a cement backyard on a shitty block could be had for a song— a jingle!—in 1985. But I wanted no part of it, for some of the same reasons that I don’t want to live in Brooklyn today. Instead of seeing the cute real estate in, say, Carroll Gardens, I see the old Italian grandma in her beach chair on the sidewalk. And she is not romantic to me. She is sad—and far too real. That old lady is my late friend Rita Marzullo, a woman who lived in an apartment in South Philly until she died at 75 last year, alone and broke. She sat in her beach chair on her block and talked to the rotten little bastards who sold drugs on the street because she had no one else to talk to and nowhere to go.