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The Idea of North Brooklyn

The Music Director presents… This Wednesday, October 24 at 7 pm, at the pride of the northside, Spoonbill & Sugartown, New York Calling contributors Luc Sante & Tim McLoughlin will be reading from & discussing their work, as will the Publisher of WWIB, Brooklyn historian, photographer & coffee enthusiast, Brian Berger. If ya’ll get there & he’s late, he’s probably shopping for a condo!! Iowa-native Jean Thilmany, another contributor, is unable to attend but much of her essay was set between Bushwick Avenue on one side, Kent the other. An excerpt follows:

bruthas work it outAfter my Manhattan workday, I’d crowd into the L train and push for standing space among the vintage-dressed twenty-year-olds bound for Williamsburg and the less bedazzled blue-collar folks who’d take the train to the end of the line in Canarsie. I’d get out at Graham Avenue and came above ground at Metropolitan and Graham to a broken-down expanse of shoved-together squat brick stores that sold fifty different shapes of pasta and tins of olive oil the size of boot boxes. Rows and rows of three-story apartment buildings sporting green or yellow siding—a testimony to the time salesmen came through in the 1970s pushing tin, I’m told—lined the side streets. An endless line of garbage trucks trundled deafeningly down Metropolitan on their way to a waste-transfer station just down the road. On hot evenings, the older women on my block arranged webbed lawn chairs up and down the curb to trade memories back and forth: “Remember how we used to take the train on Saturday nights to those dances? We’d dance in Keds. And those white shirts, like a uniform shirt? They’d stick to our backs and become almost see-through?”

I smiled at the women as I threaded through them on my way home. I studied them secretly, like an anthropologist. In Iowa we had something very similar, only the women there played cards around oak tables, remembering barn dances out on the rural route. “Out where those condos are now.”

That’s the New York City I like to think I inhabited, always on the outskirts like a stranger peering into a shop window: shrieking Brooklyn women (and they always seemed to be shrieking) in faded housedresses they’d purchased who knows where (actually, probably in an ancient bra-and-housedress shop I’d seen in Greenpoint); the perennial church sale—same in Brooklyn as at any financially teetering cjoe mamahurch in Iowa; Frank and Josie eating dinner at their dinette set in front of the television. The universality lulled me while the differences were enough to make me seem to myself like an explorer. I sought out these small Brooklyn details to soothe my homesickness the way other friends sussed out a newly hip restaurant. I noted each one.

Sometimes on warm end-of-winter days I’d head out for a jog around McCarren Park and spot the pacer huddled in his blue winter coat against the squat brick building next to ours. He’d still be there when I returned. That building next door housed Manhattan Special, manufacturers of the first (since 1895!) coffee soda drink, and on those early Saturdays you could hear the bottles clinking and clanking reassuringly along the conveyor belt. Although a local treat I thought it tasted like Seven-Up cut with coffee, horrid and undrinkable. Instead, I rounded the corner for coffee at Caffe Capri, decorated like a Brooklyn Italian living room, dark with paneling and claustrophobic with tightly packed photos and paintings coffee loveof the old country set amid the cakes, candies, and tins of coffee. Frank Sinatra was always singing at Caffe Capri, and the proprietor, Joe, was always behind the counter ready to pour out the excellent iced coffee or fill a canolli shell, sprinkling a bit of cinnamon on at the end. I had a bit of a crush on him and his stylish array of brightly colored button shirts, though he was probably more than twice my age. His wife usually sat at one of the tables idly fingering a napkin,or she puttered back and forth through a door I supposed lead to their apartment upstairs. They made an odd couple, she rather frumpy with permed hair and a kindly face, Joe all angles and trim height, Brylcreem suave with a smooth accent.

Joe opened early and closed early too, so if it was after 7:00 I’d head up to Fortunato Brothers, a supposed Mob hangout. This rumor didn’t seem particularly farfetched as I waited for my cappuccino to be made by the kindly, dark-haired Ecuadorian barista. We were surrounded by mirrored walls and after-shave wafting from the cackling middle-aged Brooklyn men in their loafers and cream-colored slacks. A young Italian woman in tight jeans waited on them while local Latino girls worked the bakery counter, filling bags with cookies, cakes, and marzipan and handing over cups of brightly glowing gelato.

Angry M.F. Fisher adds: While I personally don’t disagree with Jean’s feelings about Manhattan Special the beverage, it must be noted some folks love it, including no small number of Italians, which the Dutch-American Thilmany is… not. Without exception all of us at WWIB loves the reality of all those clinking bottles so a huge shout out to 342 Manhattan Avenue, between Conselyea & Skillman: what’s good?

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