CITY AS PILGRIMAGE (continued…)
Even before the monastery, I happened on what struck me as peculiar, in this very ordinary neighborhood of dry cleaners and groceries and funeral parlors – an actual bookstore. The kind that sold used books. My treasures. The fact that most of the books were in German makes it clear now what it meant to have an educated lower middle class that read books. Germany had it before we did, and it was of course dying out in both countries even then, slain by emigration and war in Germany, slain by television here at home. Fresh-feeling, hardly read cloth-bound volumes of Vikki Baum and Felix Salten and Karl May and Lion Feuchtwanger, all the ones you’d expect. Even if I read German easily I wouldn’t read them. But tucked away on a low shelf was a slim little blue book—Kierkegaard’s Diary of the Seducer, in German. I bought it, less than a dollar, slipped it in my pocket, and my life of Existenz began. I jest, but something began that day. An almost sly movement the words commenced, where slowly, slowly, the books that I had chosen because they had the power to lead me off away from the present world into a preternatural Rome or Broceliande or Erin began to be replaced by books that would gently tilt me back towards the world as is, tel quel, and me hardly aware of the difference. That is the work of a city. But that’s my story, and this is the story of where anybody goes from Fresh Pond Road. Northwest, into the cemeteries. Northeast into Queens.
Or, in ways that seem almost magical, west up long avenues, Gates where the bus ran, or Halsey, out into Bushwick and then through Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heart of black Brooklyn, where Dinah Washington was singing in some club and Alley’s clothing store sold brilliant orange-varnished men’s shoes for elegant slim feet. Amazing that a twenty minute bus ride would bring me from the Brandenburg-like sandy plain of the Germans to the overcrowded liveliness of our first, unwilling, immigrants. Down past the Baptist chapels, and the strange storefront mosques where burnous’d African-Americans taught and studied Arabic, their blackboard set up on the sidewalk, where the new Muslims, converted through the compassionate lucidity of Noble Drew Ali, or some of his fiercer heirs who formed the Nation of Islam, stood in the Brooklyn street in their white soft skullcaps and examined and tried out their new identities.
The Gates Avenue bus, after passing these enigmatic and faintly menacing religions, would pass along into the expensive mansions of Park Slope, where the great surgeons had their consulting rooms, and specialists you dreaded being sent to, partly for fear of what they’d tell you – some dreadful name for why you feel so bad – but partly too for fear of their heavy fee. The stone houses of Clinton Avenue were Brooklyn’s grandest.
Off Vanderbilt Avenue the Catholic church and seminary in copper-pointed elegant Gothic stood right next to the neo-classic Masonic Temple, rival monuments. I still dream about that unlikely pair, the exoteric and the esoteric shoulder to shoulder, enemies they were said to be, yet each possessed the same persuasive massiveness that make buildings better teachers than books – as the Greeks and Romans surely knew. When I dream about them, it is always the Masonic Temple, bulking ever bigger till it fills half the sky. Sometimes the temple moves to higher ground, replaces the Brooklyn Museum, or climbs a hill. It is what a building should be. A solid mystery, an inescapable remark.
Not far from them, if I veered west and south, I’d come round at last to the other end of Eastern Parkway, far from Pitkin Avenue. Now the stately European breadth that Frederick Olmstead gave it seemed to be coming back to its own fountain, and we realized that the parkway didn’t begin where we first knew it, back in Brownsville, but here, in the actual fountains and triumphal arch of Grand Army Plaza, the hub from which it flowed.
Just where the parkway strikes Flatbush Avenue, itself spinning off the roundabout of the plaza, stands the strange white geometry of the Brooklyn Public Library, the cathedral from which all the branch libraries I knew were but mission chapels among the infidel. Here was the source. White, huge, triumphalist in design, with gilded relief figures over its concave modernist front, it had and has the kind of belated grandeur that reminds us of what Mussolini tried in Rome. Still, I loved the building, inside and out, and the Museum just east of it, and Prospect Park with its zoo just across the avenue and down a ways. This was the center of civilization as I, or Brooklyn, knew it.
But it wasn’t my real center. The center was home, always. The place where you sleep. Where your mother calls you. Where your father plays Vaughan Monroe on the radio. Where your sister wonders whether we are Jews or Italians – there are no other kinds of people. The beautiful stifling railroad flat, the airless ordinary. Your life.
When you’re home, you can go anywhere. The pilgrim routes I’ve mentioned so far, for instance, the ones where you go along the surface of the earth on foot, like real pilgrims, or in buses or cars, like kings in their coaches or prisoners haled to the Bastille. When you’re home, you can go so many ways. I could walk a few blocks and go down the steps of the IND subway, at Euclid Avenue, which in those days was the end of the line of the A train, that jazz-famous subway train that went from our little nowhere down through Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant into Manhattan, all underground, never the light of day (unlike the BMT and IRT which sometimes let daylight in, sometimes even ran in shallow trenches below street level open to the sky), all the way up the length of Manhattan through the meatpacking district and Chelsea and the French quarter and the railway yards and the West Side into Harlem, Morningside Heights, Columbia, City College (where I’d get off every morning after a ride of an hour and a quarter, if I was lucky, time enough to do my Greek homework and read my German), finally the upper island, Museum of the American Indian, Mother Cabrini’s Shrine, Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters. What a run! It must have twenty miles of solid city, and even so, it was just one slim pathway along and through the whole, one path among a thousand. And all of them reachable from home. That is the splendor of a city. Everywhere is somehow equidistant from everyplace else. Not in linear distance or in time spent getting there, but in the all-important psychic sense of closeness. They are all just at the doorstep.
South: The Sea
But there was South too. Not a place of streets anymore, but pure distances, shapes and shadows just the same. No streets, except at the beginning. Crescent again, take the bus down to where it ends, and where the marshes begin. Only vacant lots along the way, acres and acres with streets marked out but never paved, developments that did not (yet) develop. All of that land and water is under concrete now, all turned into low income housing and mail sorting facilities for the whole city, and garbage processing installations.
But then it was field, field leading to marsh, marsh leading to sea. I came down here in summer, not all the time, the place was too powerful, numinous, to be casual with. Or in autumn, always my favorite, when the marsh grass was brown and the clouds were pearly, and the sea birds yammered and the whole sky seemed to be my bible.
Every city includes as part of its own art or gesture, its chreodes, its access to what seems outside itself. A great city finds some way to include its countryside. (The wild boars trotting through Berlin, the sheep grazing beside the runways at Heathrow, the marshlands still even now still alive in the western flank of Brooklyn.)
And here the marshes, the grasses taller than the tallest man, we walk through wafture, through lineaments uprisen, lines scribbling towards heaven, phragmites and timothy and cat-tails, reeds and grasses triumphant.
The place I speak of, that is never far from my mind (perhaps because my mind is one of the few places where it exists) is one of the few places that New York has utterly lost. All gone, the marshes and the catwalks. When I knew these marshes, there was still an old fishing village, the houses built on stilts (like our La Tène ancestors eight thousand years ago), the fisherfolk getting to the mainland by rowboats and motor boats. Arriving at one of the old rickety grey wooden jetties stuck out in the bay, where one of the rickety grey wooden catwalks ended, they’d dock, then from there walk a mile or so to catch the same old Crescent Street bus, for shopping. Because even they got to go to Town. They had no electricity or gas, boated in their kerosene, boated out their fish to the docks in Canarsie and Sheepshead Bay. Kinderhoek was the name of the town, old Dutch name, the houses did not seem themselves very old, just archaic in their relationship to the water and to the rest of the world. Field of Children, the name must have meant, or maybe Child’s Point, to be nautical about it. Miles of catwalks, boardwalks, with grasses higher than your head on either side, glimpses of the immense sky, the black, really black, mud at your feet.
Sometimes you dared to step off the narrow catwalk and test the mud. You could stand in it, it wasn’t quicksand, and sometimes lovers, finding no better privacy than isolation of sky and sea, would venture in, come away smirched and happy, joyful as Eden could make them, cold skin and cold mud joyful, nobody around them but the birds. And such birds! The marshes were on the great East Coast flyway, and birds from all over the Americas would show up, and exotics bewildered from Europe at times too. I heard a bittern there one evening. Never saw snakes or frogs, but the rats must have eaten something.
So when I read nowadays about the Maremma, or about Romney Marsh of Turner and Henry James, it is these lost miles that come to mind. The city held the whole sea inside it in those days, and a good piece of the sky, thanks to this navigable but not drivable landscape. Cars couldn’t come in. We walked, one at a time or two at a time and no more. Nobody came here. In all my years I never met a single person walking on those flimsy boardwalks – it was as if the whole array of sky and sea and land were only for me, or me and my friend. No wonder I loved it! The houses nearest to the marshes, the scattered houses, city style row houses but standing alone, weird isolates, strange as Rabbi Schneersohn’s house in Israel, a rowhouse all by itself in empty acres, these houses held, we were told and believed, criminals lying low, hideouts, secret places to which soldiers of the Mafia or agents of Murder, Inc., came to be inconspicuous. Crime was never far away – up Sutter Avenue not far from our house was the tavern where Murder, Inc. had its headquarters. And our closest friends in the neighborhood were, it was clear but never spoken, middle-echelon Mafiosi. Jewish criminals, Italian criminals. There were no other people.
Except me in the marshes, staring into the sky, knowing already a little about love, the skin. But mostly about streets, and these marshes, where the city gave up its streets and instead took on the endless sea and endless sky, and borrowed from them an infinity of its own.
Even here the city spoke its characteristic sentence: the Belt Parkway, the circumferential, Brooklyn’s own périphérique, bounded the horizon. It scratched a line between the bay and the open sea beyond, and along it black cars scooted east into Queens, Rockaway and the Hammels and Idlewild, where soon the city began building a new airport that would turn eventually sprawl out as JFK International.
Leave it to the city to make its own horizon, so all the marshes and fishermen and their little boats and the rats and the lovers and the marshbirds were all held within the city’s gesture. A city, whose only sentence ever is a street.
So it to the street the young man I was had to return. Enough of standing in cold black mud up to my calves, sloshing through reeds and timothy grass, loafing on grey empty boardwalks and praying to seagulls. The beauty of the periphery returns me to the center. The half-mile hike over catwalks and up a dirt road to the paved world, where the bus turns round, idles, waits for me, takes me back to the copious lexicon of streets where I like every other being have to find my own text, the thing I mean. All my life I have to spend my life saying the thing the street tells me.
— The End —