Home in Brooklyn

Painting by G. Shawn Cuddy

Back in Fort Greene . . .
I lived one street behind where I’m working now for six, seven years, in my girlfriend’s attic apartment.  The landlady was a crazy Jewish woman who had owned the building since the 70’s. Her even crazier Hatian witch doctor ex-husband lived in the basement . In the attic apartment, the landlady had painted and recarpeted the front three rooms, but left the back space completely untouched – she told us she wanted to keep it as storage space, but since the only access was through our living room, this was impossible – she was just too cheap to redo the whole flat. The last tenant, a gay black man who had worked on Wall street and died of AIDS, liked brown – brown walls, brown and gold wallpaper, brown moulding, with neon lamps embedded in the ceiling and strings of Christmas lights around the posts. The walk in closet was stacked with his stuff – an iron bathtub, an old TV, magazines and many gay porno vids. Seems he had a thing for Puerto Ricans.

   Over the next couple of years, we cleared everything out and reclaimed the attic space, stripping off the wallpaper and throwing out all the junk. My girlfriend had grown up in the Caribean, so she chose bright colours – oranges, yellows, blues and coral pink – to compliment her collection of Caribean art and antique furniture. She was also into feng shui, so she balanced the place with miniature shrines and water fountains, and placed the furniture just so. I provided the labour and a fish tank but the Brooklyn tap water kept killing the fish so, during one of our many break-ups when I went back to Montreal, she called a local school and when I came back down a couple of kids came with their teacher to take the tank the remaining fish, marveling at the catfish which had managed not just to survive but grow until it was a third the length of the tank.

    It was the most marvelous apartment I’ve ever lived in. If I’d been away for a month or two – and in the latter part of our relationship I began spending more and more time in Montreal – ascending the four flights up the dingy stairwell with the plaster dust creaking from the walls and the lights blown out on the landing then stepping up the last flight of stairs into her flat was like walking up into the sun and sometimes I’d become almost delirious with the sheer overwhelming beauty of the colours, the paintings – all the little touchstones of our life together.

    The building itself was always a little odd. The witch doctor had the garden in the back and rumour had it that he buried his sacrificial animals outside his door. Certainly, no one seemed to use it. Stinkweed trees, which can grow ten feet a year, covered the lot when we moved in and year by year they ascended upwards, stretching out so that they began to overshadow the neighbor’s yards as well, cutting off the light on the first floor, the second, the third. Finally, when they threatened to reach our attic windows, the landlady threw out her ex-husband and her son, who proved to be surprisingly normal, moved in and the trees were cut down.

   For Greene was still half-ghetto then. At night we often heard gunfire ringing out from the public housing building on Lafayette – and on the weekends Lafayette itself acted as a conduit for rougher elements to come in from Bed-Stuy. You’d walk out and feel the energy, the appraising glances, the violence and chaos of the ghetto. At the end of the street was a crackhouse and most days some big guy sat on the wide balcony with his minions, looking like some African dictator in his aviator shades and mufti cap.

   They never bothered us – they were businessmen after all – but their clients would sometimes wander the street, haggard, desperate, hysterical – begging dollar, quarter, nickel and one rainy Sunday afternoon, when I was out of town, my girlfriend got held up at gunpoint right on the street by some kid who melted away as fast as he’d appeared. Even the Korean delis were rumoured to sell crack and heroin from behind the counter.

   There was community. The old black guys on the corner, portrayed so well in Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ hung out at the end of the block in the daytime, watching who came and went, playing cards or just jawing. To my girlfriend, pretty and blonde, they were friendly enough but to me they were more circumspect and I could tell when I walked by that they were thinking “There’s that white guy who’s gonna say hi to us again.”

   This kind of weird apartheid ran through the whole neighborhood and was one of the most unsettling things about living there. Black people, though rarely hostile, seemed to see right through you and I never quite got used to that feeling of living in a community but having no place in it. The distance sometimes went to absurd lengths. Once, during the Monica Lewinsky battle when it looked like Clinton – who had by then become a hero to black America (‘the first black president’) – might be impeached,  I walked into a bodega where some black guys were talking about it. “Yo man, why don’t they leave Bill alone!” One guy said then all three or four of them took me in as one, as if thinking, “there’s a white guy – he probably doesn’t like Bill!”

   There were hardly any stores except for the Korean delis, which charged double what a grocery store in Manhattan would for produce, and except for a café on Fulton, where some would-be poet in dreads would spend most of his time talking into his cell phone, the only place to go out was the Alibi, a good dive bar on DeKalb that brought in locals and students from nearby Pratt University. There was Frank’s, a lounge place on Fulton where the red plush seats and mirrors made it look like something out of Superfly, but again while the black clientele wasn’t unfriendly exactly and they had a great jukebox of 60’s and 70’s soul and Motown classics, you never lost the feeling of being an intruder.

    White people did live in the neighborhood. You’d see the moving trucks, the kids being picked up for private school in the mornings. But aside from a few stalwarts who’d been there for years or were just the type not to let social divisions bother them, you didn’t see many white people on the street and this too created a sense of hidden dimensions, so that the wine dark windows in these glum, if elegant, brownstones, seemed to separate residents from the street.

  The area, like most of downtown Brooklyn including Park Slope, had been almost completely abandoned in the 60’s and 70’s. Though the brownstones, with their elegant mouldings, servant’s quarters and grand parlours, had been built for the bourgoisie, by the 30’s, anyone who could afford it moved further out, fleeing the pollution from the riverside factories and the grand interiors were refitted as rooming houses for migrant factory workers employed by the neighboring Brooklyn Navy Yard. By the 60’s, as the Navy Yard began closing section by section, the rooming houses were empty and feral dogs ran in packs through the streets. By the 70’s, the hookers began to reclaim Lafayette, lining it apparently for blocks, and it wasn’t until the artists, mostly black up and comers like Spike Lee, started colonizing the area in the 80’s, that Fort Greene began to become hip again.

   The last couple of years we were there, shops and services and bars began to fill the area, the refurbished Brooklyn Academy of Music re-opened, bringing in an art and theatre crowd as far afield as Manhattan. Moe’s opened up on Lafayette and quickly became our local. It was one the few bars I’ve been to in New York where whit e and black mixed freely and they had a great happy hour – 2 pints, four bucks. A market opened up on Saturdays by Fort Green Park and the park itself was cleaned up. This window lasted two, maybe three years then in the years after 9-11 Fort Greene was rapidly gentrified and now the yuppy class controls most of it, as they do most urban areas.