The Cop Shootings Were Awful, But This Doesn’t Let the NYPD Off the Hook

Two cops were gunned down near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenue on Saturday afternoon. It happened near my old neighborhood. There was a palpable panic that hit the latte drinkers like an epidemic, as if one shooting had the power to halt the eastward wave of gentrification. The more troubling question, of course, beyond the immediate concern for the victims’s families, was whether this incident would serve as a smoking gun for an altogether different war against peaceful activists, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and any person standing in the NYPD’s way.

Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the gunman who killed Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, was neither a protester nor a political agitator, unless one counts Instagram photos as a manifesto. He was a mentally disturbed man, admitting to an unspecified illness in court, and he shot his ex-girlfriend on Saturday, only to continue his spree at Bed-Stuy. Thus, Brinsley’s “motive,” which has been widely associated with Eric Garner, could just as easily have been hearing one too many treacly Christmas carols at the supermarket.

In all the finger wagging and op-ed quarterbacking, there has been little ink devoted to how a man like Brinsley obtained his silver pistol. Much like Elliot Rodger back in May, Brinsley was eager to communicate his plan (“I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today”), motivated by hate, and carried out his violent rampage on people who were doing nothing: in this case, two cops who were merely eating their lunch. Whether Brinsley felt oppressed in an altogether different way, and didn’t feel he could express himself through peaceful means, is a matter that will likely have to be settled when further evidence pours in. But in light of 2014’s repugnant buffet of brutal violence, sexual assault allegations, #gamergate and other misogynist outings, and relentless racism, one must legitimately ask why it all seems to be spilling out now.

The loss of two cops deserves our sorrow and our respect. This was a violent and ineffable act, and the NYPD certainly deserves to mourn these losses.

Yet this incident must not be used by the NYPD to elude culpability for the murders of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, who were both killed while unarmed and who both did not need to die. The NYPD must not stifle the necessary protests that will help bring about reform, much less any investigation into deeply inhumane and flagrantly over-the-top practices. The NYPD can complain about “NYPD KKK” epithets in chalk until it is as blue in the face as it is in uniform, but is not the written word better than the loaded gun? Surely, the NYPD must understand that there is a lot of rage over Garner, Gurley, and Michael Brown. The protests have attracted tens of thousands of people and, despite one questionable incident involving a bag of hammers, these efforts have been relatively peaceful.

Moreover, the NYPD is contributing to divisiveness. There were the I CAN BREATHE shirts brought by a Colorado man on Friday night, actively mocking Eric Garner’s dying words and heating up tensions with protesters on the other side. Then there was the NYPD’s astonishing disrespect for Mayor de Blasio on Saturday night, in which cops turned their backs when the Mayor entered a presser with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at Woodhull Hospital.

The NYPD has been accustomed to getting what it wants and, as 1,000 more cops will be hired next year, there is little doubt that its militarized presence will escalate. And maybe that’s the problem with America right now. If everyone insists on being greedy and eating what little they have left of the pie, how will we learn to get through hard times?


Saying Goodbye to the Knight

We underestimate our connections to neighborhoods: the friendly faces that we flutter our hands to, the casual conversations that shake our souls with an unanticipated import, the nodes and locational lodestones we come to know as intimately as our friends and lovers. But when we are plucked from these felicitous and regular rhythms because of an eviction or a job loss (or in my case, a colossal act of errant idiocy), it can be as unsettling as a divorce or as earth-shattering as an air strike. But one is forced to accept the hard reality: Your neighborhood is no longer yours.

I came to know the knight when I first moved to Brooklyn eight years ago. I was living alone in a railroad apartment in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, barely slapping enough freelance checks together to make rent. A group of friends and I initiated a weekly writing club at a now somewhat notable cafe on Fulton Avenue. I would take the subway shuttle up from the Prospect Park station and, on the walk to the cafe, I would witness the shining knight standing proudly on the concrete, standing watch over the thumping Motown music drifting upward from a somewhat concealed basement. There was something homespun and authentic about this tidy arrangement, which was more ample once you stepped through the sanctum. It was a spirit not unlike Brazenhead Books, the great secret bookstore on the Upper East Side now threatened with extinction. It would take me a few years to actually walk down the steep steps and talk to the friendly dreadlocked man spinning vinyl and always having a hell of a mellow good time. He was a man doing his best to keep some part of Biggie’s old stomping grounds alive, even though the neighborhood was changing. I had no idea that I’d be living only a few blocks from the knight years later.

Now an affinity for a lost neighborhood should never be confused with nostalgia, and one should take great care to uproot any instinct to cling to the past. I suppose this is why I have been making a farewell tour of where I once lived. I’ve made most of my rounds, but there was one place missing. And it sneaked up on me on Thanksgiving, as I was walking to the subway from a not very notable place. The knight was outside, standing guard for the important values and defying the ineluctable tide of gentrification that was coming. The tunes were grooving. And even though it was very cold, the old school feel warmed me to the core.

I walked down the steps. Nobody was there except the practically ageless proprietor. His hands were gently pulling the next record from its sleeve. I had something to say.

“Hello! I’m not living in this neighborhood anymore, but I just wanted to thank you for being here. I’ve always said that, as long as you’re around, this neighborhood will be okay, that the shit coming at us from the west will be held off a bit. Please hold out here as long as you can. Please keep the knight on the sidewalk.”

There was a pause. The proprietor was surprised by all this.

“And thank you for being open on Thanksgiving!”

“Thank you. That’s…that’s the best thing you could have said to me. Peace.”

I said my goodbye. And he warned me about the sharp steps.

We underestimate our connections to neighborhoods. And that’s why it’s important to tell the people gluing a hood together that what they’re doing is essential. If you see something, say something.


A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City, Part One

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 2, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Brooklyn, New York to Garden City, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This is the second of three trial walks and I have been forced to split it into two parts because so much happened. (You can also read about the first trial walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow.) The project will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you! (I’ll be doing another walk on Friday, April 5, 2013 from Staten Island to West Orange, New Jersey and will also be live-tweeting the walk at my Twitter account.)]

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

When you walk east in the early morn, there is no greater beauty than the sun slicing the last signs of night with the leisurely pace of a slow executioner. Dazzling white-orange light laps at the mandible of toothy square buildings. There are long stretches where you saunter ahead as blind as a blues virtuouso, with the sun swallowing the dark sky and spitting out a light blue. The white moon coughs out its last gasps as good tired souls who work graveyard shuffle homeward, swinging brown bags of breakfast. Onyx sidewalks brighten into drab square slabs and the ruddy beauty of Brooklyn brick shimmers out of the dark, beckoning humanity to bolt from bed and join the party.

I heard the jerky squeaks of rolling steel doors popped upward by small businessmen who had carefully tucked in their establishments the night before. There were twisted folding chairs and near dead portable alarms spewing feeble beeps in the street next to dead mattresses, all awaiting the pickup game of Tuesday morning’s trash collectors. There were people waiting at bus stops and dark trees pining for the fresh buds of spring. There was a man sitting on the sidewalk, his back angled against the building, his cane flat on the cement, and his right knee raised, as he smoked a thin cigarette and awaited a day of hustling that most heading to nine-to-five lives could not know. Just outside a Bed-Stuy deli, two older gents discussed how the neighborhood was changing. “More kids come from the Junction than they come from downtown,” said one. The hell of it was that the Junction was where I was heading.


“I don’t know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant, sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air.” — Renata Adler, Speedboat

Adler also wrote about Brownsville’s “crushed, hollowed houses” and the “deserted strangeness” of a community cemented by tenants and funeral homes, although much of this has improved in recent years. Many young people who have no knowledge or interest in the city’s history before Bloomberg have taken to Adler’s 1976 novel — recently reissued by New York Review Books — as a handbook for life, much as Jonathan Franzen talked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters in a 1999 introduction (“I hoped that the book, on a second reading, might actually tell me how to live”). These are not the people who marvel at Broadway Junction, but you will find them hiding behind the latest issue of The Paris Review.


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“I can’t really let you up.”

“Here,” said the woman from the executive office who had curled around the aperture leading into the security cage, “you cannot just go upstairs to the fourth floor…”

“That’s what I told him.”

“…and interview people.”

“As much as I would like to do that,” said Gary, the good-humored man keeping watch at Surface Transit Headquarters.

The woman from the fourth floor had come down because some recent packages had disappeared. There were people coming in for interviews. I certainly didn’t want to get Gary in trouble. But Broadway Junction’s twisted wonders had rekindled my desire to know more about transit. But I had been spoiled by the hospitality I received at Yonkers City Hall.

Gary had an intimate knowledge of the city. He has contributed several invaluable articles to Forgotten New York. We talked of Chase’s troubling tendency to gobble up old bank buildings and sully them with their dreaded branding. I mentioned Pat Robertson’s religious awakening on the edge of Clinton Hill and Gary corrected my pronunciation of Classon (the correct “KLAW-sun” has been uprooted by “CLAH-sun” — it’s a hard habit to break).

That morning, Gary was working as an “extra” for the MTA, which he’s been doing for eight years. Before that, he was a bus operator for twenty years until he was reclassified into security because of health issues. He works five days a week, has no complaints about the job, and sees about 50 to 100 people a day — nearly all of them transit workers. I asked about the craziest thing he’s seen on the job.

“A dead body floating in the Hudson River at the end of the line.”

But Gary’s great passion is keeping local history alive — especially the areas that few others appreciate. He suggested that I walk the southern end of Staten Island and I thanked him for his time.


Gary’s talk of dead bodies led me quite naturally to Cypress Hills Cemetery. I learned a very hard lesson about visiting hours at Sleepy Hollow and figured that my interest in cenotaphs and tombstones should probably be tapped early for this walk. The veterans wing contained a notice banning firearms and weapons on the property under 18 U.S.C. § 930 — largely because the cemetery was considered a federal facility. No impromptu 21-gun salutes here.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is divided by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which has faced a problematic history of poor planning and ancillary inadequacies. These design defects were very much in place as I made my way to the cemetery’s north end, where there was a paucity of passages across the parkway. I had hoped to see Mae West’s grave, which I knew was in the abbey. I had hoped that Ms. West would speak from the tomb. “Is that a joss stick in your pocket or are you happy to see me?” I had prepared a witticism for such an unlikely eventuality.


I found the abbey. The doors were locked. There were a few vans and some red machinery. Then I discovered a pair of knockers, which were round and delectable. Since I am somewhat perverse, I knocked. I halloed on hallowed ground. I shouted “You bad girl!” and cupped my ear to the door for a reply.

A car rolled up. A man rolled down his window. He worked for the cemetery.

I asked if it was possible to see inside the abbey for a few minutes. I was told that the workers were “on a break.” How long was the break? Of indeterminate length, but possibly fifteen minutes. And even then, I’d have to persuade them to jangle the keys. The unions must be pretty good at Cypress Hills Cemetery. I thanked the man and wended my way back to Jamaica Avenue.


I had lost time hoping to commune with Mae West. And because I still had a good fifteen miles to walk, I was forced to jet through Woodhaven. But I did make a southward drift to check out Neir’s Tavern, immortalized in Goodfellas. But I was more impressed with the breed-specific, machine-printed nature of many of Woodhaven’s residential signs. In the above case, I didn’t see any Rottweiler. I was somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t a dog who desired to tear me to shreds.

These morbid thoughts were percolating because I had eaten a light breakfast at a very early hour, which is not a strategy I would recommend for a 23 mile walk. I walked past costume shops with plus-size Supergirl costumes, a magnificent mural of a young woman in a yellow cardigan looking into a laptop, a lonely Donald Duck ride outside a supermarket, and an ancient post office. I walked past a bookstore that had been run by the late Bernard Titowsky. I walked…I walked…energy waning….I…


…emboldened by an early lunch, I walked through the long and dark tunnel beneath endless rail just west of Jamaica Station, past JFK and the AirTrain terminal, and into the brick sidewalks with young men shivering in hoodies before storefronts.

“We got top dollar shoes. Come inside and check it out! Come inside and check it out! All sizes available! Come inside and check it out! We got…”

But the wind chill was nippy enough to stanch the barkers. Although some men stood before shops, these hopeful words of commerce flowed into the street from speakers. The incantation “Come inside and check it out!” suggested something prerecorded, and I peered inside windows hoping to find majestical figures perched inside with microphones.

* * *


I arrived at Bellitte Bicycles at the beginning of peak bike season, which typically runs from March into October. This Jamaica shop has been owned by the same family since 1918 and it may be the oldest continuously operated bicycle shop in the United States. (The only authority for this claim is The New York Daily News.)

Every family member ends up going into the business and it’s been this way for several generations. I asked if there were any recalcitrant family members — perhaps a few stray Bellittes who shirked family destiny to become cutthroat corporate attorneys or HBO showrunners. But nobody resists. Bicycles are in the Bellitte blood. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re simply not a Bellitte.

The bicycle business is recession-proof. With rising gas prices and escalating MetroCard fares, people in the outer parts of the New York metropolitan area have sought affordable alternatives. And Bellitte Bicycles has been there to pick up the slack for some time. The shop has not seen a dip in sales throughout its history.

Nobody quite knows why Salvatore “Sam” Bellitte — the original owner of the shop — got into the bike business or why he was an early adopter. In the 1910s, Sam worked as a motorcycle and bicycle mechanic for another guy named Sam Hurvin, but there’s no trace of the mysterious Mr. Hurvin on Google. (However, I did find Hurvin in the 1920 U.S. Census.)

But the Bellittes have a very helpful book of photographs that you can look through if you’re interested in this history. They were exceedingly kind, run a very clean and well-organized shop, and are flexible enough with their stock to appeal to everyone from regular Joes to triathletes.

* * *

I was just outside Jamaica when the news jackals came at me. The crosswalk light was red. And I was confused when a CNN cameraman and some guy with wet cropped hair, sunglasses, and the sleaziest of smiles approached me with a mike. “Hey,” said the jackal with the sleazy smile, “do you know about Malcolm Smith?”

Yes. The white guy with glasses. Get him! He’s safe for our audience.

The jackal then offered a very condescending overview about Smith’s recent bribery scandal. I was bewildered, largely because the idea of asking random people in the street about their opinions on a major news story that only confirmed preexisting biases was not only lazy, but a missed opportunity. The ways that people live lives are far more meaningful and intriguing.

It was also comically unfathomable that I would be singled out as a local in a territory that was not mine.

“Actually,” I said to the jackals, “I may have a story for you.”

I told them about my walk, informing them that I was in the middle of a 21 mile* journey to meet an astronaut at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and that I had been walking there from Brooklyn all day.

“Oh,” said the jackal, “you’re not from the neighborhood.”

Then the jackals walked away.

I didn’t know if I could persuade a man who had nine spacewalks under his belt to give me a few minutes of his time. But I was too far into my walk to quit.

* * *

Part Two: Floral Park, keeping a racing pastime alive in Franklin Square, and meeting an astronaut in Garden City.

* — I did not know at the time that I would miscalculate the distance and that it would end up being 23 miles.

The Brooklyn Book Festival: Hopelessly Manhattanized?

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful for the gratis plastic cup of wine that I enjoyed on Friday night, but the Brooklyn Book Festival launch party was more than a tad pedantic. The crowd of elitist insiders, bored organizers, and exhausted publicists — all hoping that cheese and crackers would serve as a surrogate dinner, all speedily adopting that predictable industry pretense of snubs and meaningless status, all more than a little uncomfortable with Brooklyn President Marty Markowitz’s call for a moment of silence for the late Tim Russert — gathered together in a manner that was more evocative of Manhattan rather than Brooklyn. Circular buttons of various Brooklyn neighborhoods were available with elliptical offerings of nuts on various tables. But my old neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, wasn’t represented among this mostly Caucasian representative provincialism. I suspect that this jittery atmosphere, combined with a recent bout of deadline-induced cabin fever, caused me to be excessively ebullient. And thus I apologize to my blogging peers and friends if I affrighted or unnerved them in the process.

Nevertheless, the truth of the matter was that one could not be one’s natural literary self at this shindig. And nobody had the heart or the decency to suggest congregating elsewhere. We were obliged to stay for some reason, believing that the name Brooklyn would magically translate into streetcred.

But who were the big authors announced? Jonathan Franzen — a man who openly joked that he had only spent three nights of his life in Brooklyn, remarking that they were not happy. Joan Didion — who has almost certainly done more for Manhattan than Brooklyn. Dorothy Allison — who will certainly be more accepted in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, assuming that the Brooklyn Book Festival has not become as hopelessly Manhattanized as I fear.

Interview with Jami Attenberg

(Note: The full interview excerpted here can now be listened to as the 172nd installment of The Bat Segundo Show)

For my first 2008 interview, I met up with writer Jami Attenberg at her Williamsburg apartment. During our conversation, Attenberg’s very friendly and intelligent cat, Cracker, proceeded to climb upon my leg and claw at the wires. He then deposited his slinky corporeal mass upon my lap and, later, climbed atop the table and deliberately occluded my notes. I was then forced to wing a portion of the interview. But the cat’s daring locative intervention proved pertinent to the conversation at hand.

Attenberg’s second novel, The Kept Man, is as much about a woman’s relationship with topographical territory as it is about a passive thirtysomething drifting on the dregs of her husband’s legacy. To my mind, the two themes were linked. And during the course of the interview, I asked Attenberg about the connections between her protagonist, Jarvis Miller, and the neighborhood she inhabited. (The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.)

attenberg.jpgCorrespondent: I’m wondering also about the Terri Schiavo narrative, because it does play in more later in the book than in the beginning of the book. Did you know immediately that there was this almost quasi-allegorical feel to that? Or did it start with the fact that you had Martin Miller in this coma?

Attenberg: It started with Martin being in a coma. I knew that. Actually, the first chapter that I wrote in the book was about the donut girls at one point.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Attenberg: That was the first thing. Because I wanted to write a little bit about the art world. I knew that. And then I knew that there was this man who was in a coma. I wanted to do that. But I didn’t know how it was going to end. I’ve said this before, but when you have a guy in a coma, you set the stakes really high like that. There’s only three ways that it can possibly end, which is that he dies, or he wakes up, or somebody kills him. Or he just keeps floating along, I suppose. But that wouldn’t be a very good ending to a book now, would it? So I didn’t know about the more political stuff until I got to the end of the book. I don’t want to give away the ending though.

Correspondent: No, no, no. We’re not.

Attenberg: But I really have no idea when I start writing a book how it’s going to end at all.

Correspondent: So you actually had sort of a mish-mash here. You jumped from Point A to Point 6 to Point Z, etcetera, throughout the course of writing these novels? And that’s how you sort of stumble upon the narrative?

Attenberg: I mean, the first two books I wrote — this is the second book — I wrote in about a year. So everything, like I said, it’s very organic. I just sort of making up things around me and putting them into a book. Eventually, when you get to the end, you filter out what worked and what didn’t work.

donuts.jpgCorrespondent: Okay, well, if Davis and the donut girls was one of the key starting points, was this an imagined experience? Or was this drawn from anything specific that you observed? Because I am certainly not familiar with this phenomenon. (laughs)

Attenberg: With donut girls?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah.

Attenberg: Well, you have to live in this neighborhood. It’s more north side. We’re on the south side right now. And we’re doing this interview in my apartment. And on the south side, it’s very Hassidic and Puerto Rican and Dominican, and then when you head towards more of the north side, it’s Greenpoint. And then it’s really Polish over there. So you notice the Polish girls that are out there. And some people are really fascinated and obsessed with beautiful young woman.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Attenberg: And they’re recent immigrants. And they’re definitely a force in the population.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering though. Donut shops in particular. It seemed…

Attenberg: There is a donut shop! In Greenpoint. On Manhattan Avenue. And it just stuck in my brain. I think I went there after seeing a rock show. So it’s sort of like that donut shop. And it just sort of stuck in my head. And I wanted to write about it.

Correspondent: Did you observe any specific pickup artists there?

Attenberg: No. I don’t even know if people really do pick them up. It was just in my imagination that they did.

Correspondent: Interesting. Or even someone constantly buying clothes and this whole modeling thing.

Attenberg: Right.

Correspondent: The whole thing escalating into something else. This was the imagined part.

Attenberg: But that’s no different from Jarvis wanting to be taken care of. Or these men wanting to be taken care of. That there are these people in the world who look to other people to sponsor them or meet their needs. But they provide something in return. I think I missed the point that I wanted to make, which was that, after I had all these ideas about these characters and plot points, I came across the idea of being kept or held back. Once I realized that that was going to be the title of the book and that was a major theme, then it was really to go back to move forward and make sure that every character has something that’s holding them back or keeping them into their life. That’s where it comes from.

nabokov.jpgCorrespondent: Going back to this issue of topography as a launching point, it’s reminiscent to me of Nabokov’s rule, where he basically said that he could not write a novel until he actually had a particular location. Likewise, in addition to this inspirational momentum, I wanted to first of all find out if this was a factor for you in terms of writing this. And it also leads into another question about Jarvis’s perspective, where she’s generally taking a small item and putting it into a larger neighborhood. For example, there’s a pack of cigarettes she observes. And she’s very clear in the way that she describes it as coming from a particular deli and how it was actually purchased and the like. So I wanted to ask you about this phenomenon. Was this a way for you to generate momentum in your book? You needed to get the lay of the land before the lay of the characters?

Attenberg: I’ve lived here for five years. And I’ve lived in New York for ten years. So, for me, it’s not conscious in any sort of way. I wanted to write about the neighborhood that I lived in. And I take a lot of pictures. I go out a lot to document. And I have a blog. So I have been writing about the neighborhood a lot. So, for me, it’s just a natural — I don’t know. It’s not like — it’s not a conscious thing. I would love to take credit for it being some sort of conscious, deliberate act on my part. I just write about the world around me. But I did feel like, at that moment I was writing the book, that there was so much going on in Williamsburg. I mean, this is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Thematically, it did feel perfect for Jarvis. Because Jarvis needs to break out of something in Williamsburg. And Williamsburg was very quietly becoming something. Then all of a sudden, it burst out and there was all this development. And people were really concerned with its development. And I think people in this book suddenly become very concerned with Martin Miller’s life as well.

Correspondent: Well, concerning this gentrification, you have Jarvis fleeing — almost like the Trail of Tears — across the river. And yet, she is very taken with, for example, bagel shops. The laundromat as a kind of social nexus. As well as finding comforts in the very locations that she often despises. So I’m wondering when did you know that this was coming up. Did this come about from knowing the neighborhood or as an extension of Jarvis’s consciousness?

Attenberg: I think that, if you’re going to write a true New York story, you have to write about all of these little shops and stores. We don’t know our neighbors a lot of the time. Our friends tend to live really far away from us. Or it’s not like you can walk down the street and knock on someone’s door and see them. So it becomes really crucial where you have these relationships with a person at your bodega, with a laundromat. It’s just an interesting community. And in Williamsburg, where there’s so many different kinds of people here, and there’s this big influx of young people who really like to engage, it just seems really natural. I don’t know. That’s just my version.

Correspondent: So it sounds like it very much is a topographical concentration.

Attenberg: But she’s not me. But it’s just how someone like her would. You know, I certainly identify with her. I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything that she’s done before. And I’ve certainly never had anyone support me.

* * *

For related conversations, see Jami Attenberg in conversation with Kate Christensen and Ryan Walsh interviewing Attenberg at Largehearted Boy.

Defying the Ominous Ghosts of Death-O-Meters in the Morning

A spate of posts is forthcoming. But for the nonce, I’m pleased to report that Shauny (now an author!) is every bit as kind and glorious in person as she is in print. I’m ashamed to report that I overslept and sprinted (well, intermittently; athletic prowess is not one of my best qualities) down Seventh Avenue in an effort to meet up with her without she and Gareth falling victims to the Godot scenario.

deathometer.jpgAfter breakfast, I found myself offering an impromptu historical tour of Brooklyn, learning in media res that Grand Army Plaza at one point had a “Death-O-Meter” (pictured right) installed during the 1920s to report the number of pedestrians massacred by automobiles traversing the dangerous circle. In homage to the dangers of eighty years ago, we all daringly jayran across one end of the elliptical perimeter, thankfully not losing our lives in the process. Why Death-O-Meters aren’t installed at various intersections around New York is a mystery I’ll never know. But it is possible to live dangerously if you consider the historical record.

Brooklyn Declared Source of Liteary Pestilence by The American Scholar

American Scholar: “To achieve this miracle, certain writers produce Brooklyn Books of Wonder. Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness. The only thing that’s more wondrous than the BBoW narratives themselves is the vanity of the authors who deliver their epistles from Fort Greene with mock-naïve astonishment, as if saying: ‘I can’t really believe I’m writing this. And it’s such an honor that you’re reading it.’ Actually, they’re as vain and mercenary as anyone else, but they mask these less endearing traits under the smiley façade of an illusory Eden they’ve recreated in the low-rise borough across the water from corrupt Manhattan.”

I don’t entirely disagree with Melvin Jules Bukiet, but there are several hysterical statements in this article that I will leave others to respond to.

I’ll just point out that Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s operation are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alice Sebold is also in California, and that Benjamin Kunkel is, as I understand it, based in Manhattan. So while I appreciate some of the sentiments in this article against superficial books, I think that Bukiet is foolish to wag his vitriolic finger to Brooklyn as the source of this apparent “Books of Wonder” epidemic. This is the kind of scummy and atavistic mentality that eventually gets people forcibly removing Japanese people from their neighborhood and placing them in internment camps.

And Bukiet doesn’t know Brooklyn very well if he thinks the hipsters ride the F train. If we’re going to reduce speculation upon the five boroughs to base generalizations, as anyone who actually gets off the island of Manhattan from time to time knows, it’s the L train to Williamsburg where you’ll find the ponytails and goatees.

(Thanks, Sarah)

Another Endorsement for City Jerk

As I’ve begun to settle into my delightful new neighborhood, I’ve become addicted to the PLG-based blog Across the Park. Some weeks ago, I conducted an elaborate independent canvassing campaign along Flatbush Avenue to determine the lay of the land and apply my own personal Google Maps “street view” to my temporal lobe for later processing. (I apologize if such terminology is perceived as ostentatious, but I can only report the way that my twisted little brain operates. If it’s any consolation, the sickness has caused much of the machinery in my noggin to operate at half speed.)

During the course of this prodigious walk, I espied the fantastically named City Jerk, which seemed rather fitting in light of a specific type of individual I have observed in Manhattan with troubling frequency. The establishment specializes, as one can easily aver, in jerk chicken.

Now I’m a fan of jerk, but the difficulty in stepping into any random neighborhood restaurant is that there are approximately 300 other restaurants also doing business with this Jamaican delight. I had thought that the prodigious number of taquerias in the Mission District was impressive and perhaps nonpareil in its near rhapsodical dissemination. Until I encountered Brooklyn’s bountiful jerk restaurants. The jerk restaurants may very well stop rapacious landlords from gutting the boroughs and replacing them with high rises and jacking up property values with little concern for everyday folks. (Accordingly, I must don a skirt and a pair of pom-poms and shout, “GO JERK RESTAURANTS! GO! GIVE ME A J…,” inter alia. Your tips on apposite eye liner for these ostensibly Marxist purposes are, of course, quite welcome.)

However, I have also recently discovered — almost entirely by accident — that chicken has proven strangely beneficial to the recovery of my voice. Shortly after I have eaten chicken, I have been shocked to discover some of my voice’s affable qualities returning. Now whether this has occurred because of the steam that flows from the meat as one delicately peels back the skin, causing a pleasant aroma and visible mist to drift up one’s nasal cavity, or it’s the chicken’s protein and grandma’s panacea qualities which permit it to form a dominant allele in that trusty homeopathic formula that was, according to my unreliable notes, devised by Mendel (I refer, of course, to “chicken soup”), I cannot say. I am not a medical expert. But I do observe what works.

Which is to say that chicken was very much in the cards.

Now since Across the Park gave the thumbs up to City Jerk a few weeks ago, I decided to investigate it myself. The proprietor was exceedingly kind, helping to acquaint your yokel correspondent with the provincial culinary procedures, and took great care to provide and recommend very specific amounts of rice and gravy. For a mere seven dollars, I walked out of City Jerk with a remarkably tasty congeries of delicate chicken, sauce that was very precise in its spiciness (not too overpowering but resonant enough in taste and texture to more than warrant its application), perfectly cooked plantains (soft and not overcooked), and some vegetables. We’re talking good chicken with the fixings.

I must disagree, however, with Across the Park’s view that the jerk chicken in question is better intact. Because the aforementioned proprietor was thankfully not inspired by the comfort food mentality that has proven remarkably resilient six years after September 11. Thus, she did not chop the chicken to unsuitable particulates. She clearly understood that, rather than having oblong bits of chicken breast to tear up awkwardly and mix with the various sides, it needed to be chopped ever so slightly, so as to be better disseminated across the plate and mixed up among the rice.

All this is to say that City Jerk is certainly worth your time, particularly if you’re in the latter stages of laryngitis and you find yourself in my hood. It’s located at 591 Flatbush Avenue.

Window on Main Street

When I was 10, my favorite TV show was Window on Main Street. On CBS, it starred Robert Young, post-Father Knows Best, pre-Marcus Welby, as a widowed novelist in his late fifties who returns to his hometown, rents an apartment over one of the stores on Main Street and basically just hangs out and interacts with the townspeople, writing a new story about a different person every week.

The show was a flop and didn’t even last the whole 1961-62 season.

I’m writing this from the Starbucks in Dumbo, Brooklyn, sitting at a table in front of a window that overlooks Main Street. But Brooklyn’s Main Street is so short and nondescript that I lived the first 28 years of my life here and didn’t know it existed.

The neighborhood Dumbo didn’t exist back then either. For those who don’t know, and there’s no reason some of you should, it’s an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
The Manhattan Bridge overpass is about a block in front of me; to my right, out the window on Front Street, I can see the Brooklyn Bridge overpass and cars going in both directions on the multilevel Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Those on the upper level are going east to Long Island; those on the lower level are going west to America.

The most provincial people I’ve ever met in this country are lifelong New Yorkers.

Like Robert Young in Window on Main Street, I returned last summer for a temporary stay in my hometown. I’m a writer in my late fifties. Except I’m far from the only writer in Brooklyn, as Robert Young was in Millsburg. Sometimes it seems everyone in Brooklyn is a writer. Last fall the New York Times had an article by Sara Gran, a Brooklyn native like me, who now lives elsewhere, about the multitude of authors in the borough, which it termed “Booklyn.”

So I’d like to welcome Ed (odd, to welcome one’s host but this is Blogland as well as Brooklyn) to the ranks of Brooklyn writers. I don’t know if I really am one, though. I moved out at 28, and except for four short sublets in Park Slope, Sheepshead Bay, and the Williamsburg house where I’m currently living, I haven’t been a Brooklyn resident since 1979.

The past ten months have been an amazing experience. I recommend that everyone solve her mid-life (mid-life? I don’t expect to live to 112!) crisis by moving temporarily back to her hometown.

My friends and I at Brooklyn College in the early 1970s mostly couldn’t wait to get out of Brooklyn. We thought it was horrible in many ways, an embarrassing place to live. Nearly all of my friends moved away as soon as they could — to California, Florida (as I did), Boston, Seattle, Long Island, New Jersey, Manhattan.

The first line in the first story I ever published, in the undergraduate Brooklyn College literary magazine, paraphrased Norman Podhoretz in Making It: one of the longest journeys in the world is the one from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Seven years ago this week, I was standing by the magazine rack in the Borders in Plantation, Florida, puzzled to read a line in the Publishers Weekly review of my book of gay-themed stories: “Grayson knows New York City, where many of these stories are set, inside and out.”

Huh? The title of the book was The Silicon Valley Diet and I thought I’d set the stories everywhere but New York: San Jose and San Francisco and Los Angeles, Miami and Gainesville and Tallahassee, Chicago and Philadelphia, Atlanta and Wyoming (yeah, I published a gay Wyoming cowboy story the same year as that other one).

But then I reread the book and saw that New York was everywhere: in the characters’ pasts and somehow even in the ones that never mentioned New York or Brooklyn.

My last book was different: a deliberate Brooklyn book. The Kirkus review began, “The dynamic cityscape of Brooklyn serves as the backdrop in this” blah blah, and the Philadelphia Inquirer started with “Richard Grayson is a funny guy from Canarsie, Brooklyn…”

Actually, I’m from Flatlands, East Flatbush and Old Mill Basin — parts of Brooklyn where there are still very few writers. My childhood in the ’50s and ’60s wasn’t quite A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, not quite Last Exit to Brooklyn, and in my writing I’ve always tried, often unsuccessfully, to avoid strolling down the sticky paths of Stickball Street and Eggcreamery Lane.

When I was a kid, I used to collect Brooklyn bus transfers, which meant I had to ride every bus line in the borough. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to replicate my childhood feat. Now, as then, I’m often the only white person on the bus. There’s a lot of Brooklyn that you don’t find in the mass of “Brooklyn” literature today.

Tomorrow I’ll be at my house in Apache Junction, Arizona, where the Starbucks on Apache Trail, not far from Old West Highway, has a hitching post. For horses. No horses here on Main Street: just a 24-hour parking lot, Fed Ex trucks, and a guy in a blue jumpsuit with the John Doe Fund logo sweeping up.

Because my arthritic knee is bad today, rather than walk to the nearest subway stop 6 or 7 blocks away, I’m going to take the B-25 bus. It goes along the Fulton Street Mall; over forty years ago I worked there in my uncle’s clothing store. I’ll get off by the G train stop next to the stage door entrance of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; over thirty years ago I stood there after a performance of Gorky’s Summerfolk to get the autograph of the play’s star, Dame Margaret Tyzack, whom I adored.

When she finally came out, I handed her my playbill and a pen and blurted out something about how much I loved her in The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills and Cousin Bette. I guess I went on too long because this is what Dame Margaret said as she took my pen:

“Dear boy, it’s really very nice to hear all that, but you know, it’s sometimes good to know when to stop talking.”

Welcome to Brooklyn, Ed. I’m out of here.


The Death of Coney Island

Richard Grayson alerts me to the Coney Island Reporter, a blog chronicling Coney Island’s unfortunate corporatization. It appears that, last week, there was a protest by many residents hoping to save Coney Island from plans to turn it into a Vegas-style attraction. Alas, Astroland is still set to close.

If you never got a chance to see Coney Island, this summer will be your last chance to see it with “Shoot the Freak” and its many attractions still intact. I experienced this Coney Island last August and I was very much charmed by it. It saddens me in the extreme to know that it’s being gutted for unsavory glitz. This summer, I’m planning to make several trips to Coney Island, offering intricate reports on these pages. If Coney Island, as we currently know it, will not survive, then at least it can be memorialized.

Coney Island


Situated at the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island is thankfully far from extinct. This came as something of a pleasant shock to me — a native Californian trying to divest himself of a regrettable Left Coast provincialism. I had expected the place to be washed up: a pale shadow awaiting some sad day of interring. I had expected the place to be grimy, largely unpopulated, oozing with shady Dickensian characters — equivalent to San Francisco’s Playland circa 1971, when the park’s best years were behind it. I had retained some foolish and unsubstantiated belief that the era of the old amusement parks, with its delightful and rickety wooden rides, its lack of movie tie-ins, and its concern not for chintzy merchandise but for hot dogs and barkers giving you a hard time, was gone or, at best, relegated to the fairgrounds circuit.

These attitudes may have originated from being just old enough to witness the tail end of the mid-20th century amusement park’s heyday — at least in California. As a boy, I was able to see Frontier Village, Great America (before it was corrupted by Paramount), and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (thankfully still standing).

Coney Island is, as far as I know, one of the last of these amusement parks still operating along these lines — built and operated on analog technology. I’m convinced that its greatness has much to do with this quality. I have long been fascinated by gears, pulleys, trains, elevators, analog phones, swivel chairs, and subways — in short, anything that involves wheels and basic mechanics that remains just as efficient, if not more so, than some artless electronic replacement which serves only to uproot its reliable originator.

It is this very uncluttered quality which I believe keeps both Coney Island’s employees and its participants honest — which is particularly amazing for the former, given that they are working in the baking sun for twelve hours a day. Coney Island defers its environment to the perception and delight of its locals, rather than subjecting its attendees with artificial hues that try too hard to delight or evoke the sham of a family-friendly feel. In this, it resembles, as much as an amusement park can, the real world, involving conflicts and clashes, rather than some egregious fantasy construct where everybody’s a winner. It understands, just as the pleasant mecca of Brooklyn understands, that pampering or catering to the whims of regulars comes at the expense of self-sufficiency or a certain appreciation of the heterogeneous.

Where the amusement park designed in the late 20th century asks you to commit a colossal sum of cash for the privilege of entering the gates (to say nothing of parking), features human-sized mascots (often culled from animated films), has beefy men manhandling your bags (often confiscating your bottled water), tarnishes the back of your hand with a crude and smudgy ink stamp (often only perceptible in black light), and otherwise creates an antiseptic environment forcing one to be amused on the park’s terms, rather than the reverse, Coney Island offers no such restrictions and I suspect the people who frequent it are considerably more relaxed because of it. You can walk into Coney Island and look around or, if you’re so inclined, throw your lot with one of its many attractions.

Here, you can get a hot dog or an ice cream cone for a mere two or three bucks. When purchasing a mango ice cream cone (the fruit choice, because I had simply had far too much chocolate for my own good that week), I was given considerable shit by a barker, who saw my order as an affront to masculinity. I was left smiling, wondering if such a playful jab, transposed to Disney World, would spawn a civil lawsuit from an overly fastidious family man.

Coney Island, then, is the cultural obverse and, I would argue, the superior to Disney — not just because of this authenticity, but because it has a greater awareness and respect for its own history. Where Disneyland’s last great ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, was recently “upgraded” to include references to the recent box office blockbusters, sullying what was already a quite fine ride thank you very much, Coney Island carries no such need for reimagining or reinventing itself to suit such fickle commercial needs. Perhaps because Coney Island has been around a few decades longer than the Mouse, it’s had greater time to understand that there are certain advantages in vintage conservatism. Then again, it’s probably more predicated upon Coney Island’s polyglot makeup of private operators, who are all more attuned to long-term investment (observe the paucity of attractions constructed in the past twenty years).

There are certain amusement park standbys (the haunted house named “Dante’s Inferno,” the Tilt-A-Whirl, etc.). There are even unapologetic ripoffs, such as a spinning teacup ride perhaps offered in response to Anaheim’s shameless pilfering of waterfront amusement parks, sans water. But like a fairground or a tab at a bar, the cost accrues with the frequency of riding. I was particularly amused by the discounted offer to ride many of these rides again for a mere pittance — even the rough-and-tumble Cyclone, which I shall get to later. Once you’re in the rider’s seat, you’re potentially there for life, or as long as your billfold holds out.

shootfreak.jpgAgain, the great fun of the booths and barkers cannot be understated. One such booth was dubbed “Shoot the Freak,” where a young man was employed to dodge paintball pellets fired from gleeful rifle slingers. There was no apparent incentive to the participants — no stuffed animals, no kewpie dolls — other than the satisfaction of nailing a guy running around in a funny purple suit. It is difficult to fathom such a gleeful carny-style impulse at work at a Six Flags amusement park.

The Wonder Wheel looms large, proudly advertising its eighty year history without a single accident. But it isn’t your typical Ferris wheel. One can choose stationary or swinging seats, but why would anyone select the former? The seats swing raucously in the wild windy air. The breeze is fantastic on a sunny day. And despite the fact that this is all perfectly safe, the noisy ratchets, to say nothing of the swift parabolic thrust several hundred feet in the air, suggest that the wheel could all fall apart at any time. The Wonder Wheel, then, offers a near perfect balance between anarchy and dependability. Accept no substitute.

The Cyclone, situated at Astroland Amusement Park, makes the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk resemble a benign and inoffensive cousin, which is interesting given that the Dipper was constructed only three years before the Cyclone. I have no idea if the Cyclone’s construction team felt the need to up the ante, but I will say that the Cyclone is pleasantly brutal, its undulations lurching you about with great force like an unexpected round of rough sex.

Nathan’s, the fabled hot dog stand, awaits you close to the entrance of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, with a southern cousin, or perhaps a neglected stepchild, situated near the beach. But its laminated plastic menus and undistinguished weiners are a far cry from legendary.

I was informed by a few people that Coney Island is beginning to enter some age of gentrification, but they were unable to cite specifics. Even if such efforts manifest themselves, I don’t think they can last. I observed a thirtysomething police officer in a golf cart-like vehicle chatting up a bikini-clad twenty year old near the beach. It was a gesture that would be untolerated at Disneyland, perhaps confused with statutory rape. But at Coney Island, it’s par for the course — in large part because the sticks don’t seem to be lodged up any particular rectal cavities. They’re reserved instead for a far more important foundation.


[RELATED: Rebecca’s Pocket points to this troubling article, which suggests that the state fair’s days are numbered.]

[UPDATE: Richard Grayson sends terrible news that there are unfortunate plans completely at odds with the Coney Island I’ve described above. More here.]