I first moved to north Brooklyn in 1990 when I was 28 and just starting out in life. I lived on Graham off Metropolitan Avenue, above a Laundromat, in a small one-bedroom apartment with a skylight in the tiled bathroom, a parquet floor, and a roof deck outside my bedroom door. It cost $350 a month. I had hardly any furniture; the kitchen had no refrigerator, so I only bought whatever food I could eat immediately. It never occurred to me that refrigerators were cheap; everything was so provisional and tentative for me back then. I never planted anything on the roof deck.
I had no money and was consequently often late with my rent. My landlord was a ginger-haired, irascible, possibly borderline-psychotic guy who looked a little like a stupid Vincent van Gogh. He owned the Laundromat and was always there. When I came in to give him my week-late rent in cash (he no longer accepted checks from me; too many had bounced), I had to walk past the rows of washers and dryers, all the people sitting in the plastic molded chairs or standing at tables folding laundry. No one ever said a word in there; every pair of eyes tracked my hangdog progress to the little office in the back. It was my own version of the Walk of Shame.
Back in those days, Greenpoint was old-world Brooklyn, a profoundly local place. I was a stranger in a strange land on Graham Avenue. Italian guys sat in lawn chairs smoking cigars and drinking Peroni; black-haired women in cotton housedresses carried bulging shopping bags along the sidewalks. I felt very safe in that part of Greenpoint; all local crime was in the hands of the professionals – but I didn’t belong there. When I came up out of the L station, I was very obviously the only person to get off at my stop who hadn’t been born and raised within a ten-block radius. Graham Avenue felt very far from Manhattan, light years away.
There was an Italian deli on the corner between the L stop and my apartment. Because my apartment had no fridge, I did little cooking there, and so, on most weekday nights, on my way home from whatever menial job I had at the time, I stopped into the deli to get a sub, some chips, and a few cold bottles of Peroni. The deli subs were insanely good. I sometimes salivated like a dog, watching the guy build the one I’d ordered. On a foot-long Italian loaf, soft and white and spongy, he slathered about half a jar each of mustard and mayo and then piled a mound of shredded iceberg, greasy rounds of salami and ham, hot green pepperoncini, and rectangular slabs of provolone. At the end, he squirted oil and vinegar from plastic bottles, sprinkled it with black pepper and salt, folded it closed, cut it in half, rolled it in white paper and taped it shut and slid it into a paper sack between the beer and the chips. I took my dinner straight home. In warm months, I sat outside on my bare tar roof deck, staring at the sky. I always ate and drank every drop and crumb. Later, I went inside to my hot little apartment to lie in bed with my brain in a snarl of wonderment. I had no idea how my life was going to go, but I knew that no one was going to help me; it was all up to me. I was very worried about this, all the time.
Five years later, when I was working as a secretary in the World Trade Center, I paid $450 a month for a huge, high-ceilinged, beautiful place on North Henry Street just off Norman Avenue, way up near McGolrick Park and the sewage treatment plant. On my long hike home from the L train after work, I passed the Busy Bee Supermarket, a Polish grocery. I did much of my shopping there. The shelves were full of beer, hot mustard, pickled beets, herring in jars, canned meats, and sauerkraut. Behind the cash register were heaps of uncut loaves of fresh Polish rye bread. The register was next to a deli case piled high with cured meats, blocks of cheese, kielbasy, and cold salads. The cashier and the deli guy were one and the same person; the entire line had to wait while he sliced each customer’s bread, meat, and cheese. The inefficiency of this system drove me a little batty with impatience, but it also afforded me a certain amount of entertainment. It was easy to tell who was from the neighborhood and who wasn’t by the degree of irritation versus resignation they exhibited.
I got married a year later and moved down to Williamsburg, to my new husband’s huge industrial loft on Metropolitan and Wythe. In those days, he was paying $700 a month for 1100 square feet. Up on Bedford Avenue were two butchers, the “red butcher” and the “blue butcher,” so called because of the colors they were painted inside; they had official names, but no one used them. According to anyone who knew anything about the neighborhood, one of them was good and the other was bad. I could never remember which was which. I went into one and sniffed hard, then did the same thing in the other one, hoping to ferret out the bad one by any hint of putridness or rot. I never could tell any difference; they both smelled equally of garlicky sausage and the tangy stink of fresh meat. I generally bought kielbasy in either one and felt perfectly safe in both. Once, though, I bought a piece of beef from the blue butcher and brought it home and cooked it. It tasted gamey, and the texture was sinisterly stringy but tender; I was convinced that it was horsemeat. Now, both butchers are long-gone. One is a bubble tea place, the other a fancy ice-cream parlor.
I left Greenpoint for good in 2010, exactly twenty years after I first moved there. My fifth and final place in North Brooklyn was a top-floor railroad apartment on Monitor Street just off Norman for which I had been paying $1800 a month. This was considered a good deal.