Note: The following is an essay I wrote three months ago, when I first moved back to Brooklyn. A month later, I signed a longterm lease in nearby Prospect Heights.
I just bought a bunch of bananas and, because I could, my favorite treat, a vegan, sugar-free chocolate pie at the bodega down the block. No need to find a health food store. Anyone who says New York is unfriendly and overwhelming has clearly never lived in Brooklyn.
I have. I do right now, as of a week ago, when I moved into a sublet for a month in Carroll Gardens; I also lived here as a kid for two years, in Windsor Terrace and the neighborhood that still goes by “Greenpoint,” but is now unrecognizable to its Nineties self. When we lived there, you had to push your sixty cents through bullet-proof glass to get a candy bar. I did walk the ten blocks to the train by myself at the age of twelve, but I was a street-smart kid. Also, my mother was going through a divorce.
Carroll Gardens is an entity unto itself. In the early mornings, parents and children walk in droves toward the schools; by ten p.m., all is quiet. Even most delis close by nine. It’s a neighborhood inhabited by families and professionals. There are no hipsters. They can’t afford the rent.
Neither can I, but I happened upon this place by chance: the golden fleece of sublets. It’s a four-bedroom apartment for $2,100 per month. You can do the math, but suffice it to say that I could be paying that solo if I lived down the street. That’s the thing about New York real estate: there’s magic to it. There is no one rule. If you believe in it, it will serve you. It’s like a whimsical, fey little deity who serves one and screws the next.
Call it magical thinking, but I do believe in the New York god of real estate. How could I not: I grew up in a loft on Avenue C and 4th Street that cost a grand per month. Even back then, it was a deal. We could’ve bought the place for a hundred thousand, but no one had the foresight back then to have any idea what the neighborhood would turn into, or the money with which to have such visions.
My sublet is a little room in the middle of the apartment, which is occupies the entire second floor of a small brick building. The floors are wide wood panels that creak and stretch underfoot. There is a small window and, next to my bed, I’ve put a vase of yellow roses, asters and daisies. My roommates are young professionals. I feel as though I’ve entered some sort of special ring of heaven.
It’s temporary, though, or it could be. This room belongs to a girl who may or may not be moving away indefinitely. My future is in her hands, or, actually, in the hands of the roommates at large. There’s talk of letting this room fall to empty, and just having three roommates, instead of four. I suppose I understand—less roommates, less hassle—but why would anyone want to throw away $525 rent in a prime Brooklyn locale? I know I sound like a broker, but this is just truth.
This state of being has the potential to be nerve-racking. Is she coming back? If not, will the Powers That Be let me stay? I weigh the potential consequences of every action. Should I cook chicken at ten p.m.? Should I use the wide wood table in the kitchen for a writing desk in the afternoons? Should I take a bath? The answer, thus far, always turns out to be yes. I was hungry, and the kitchen has incredible natural light, and taking a bath is always the right thing to do.
In other words, I weigh the consequences of every action, but mostly I do as I please. While I am on a month-long audition of sorts, I cannot withhold my needs for thirty days in hopes of being inducted. If this place doesn’t work out, I’d certainly be pissed about missing out on all of those baths.
Meanwhile, I learn the neighborhood. The church on the corner is famous, an old Catholic spire-y number with white-washed stone and Corinthian columns. There’s a vintage store on Court that just reopened, and, though I peeked my head in on the way home the other day, I was starving and had to leave immediately. This is a good thing, because it’s overflowing with things like high-waisted Pucci swim bottoms (no top, of course) and they’re all outrageously expensive. I found the nearby bodegas, hardware store and laundromat. There’s a park a few blocks down Clinton. And the subway is a seven-minute walk.
I want to call this home, hang a shingle, set down roots: whatever it is that one does when one commits to a neighborhood. I wouldn’t know: for the past few years, I’ve been in state of “we’ll see.” “We’ll see,” I said to my then-boyfriend when we moved into our first place together five years ago. “We’ll see,” I told the man who’d then become my fiancé when we found our next place, two years later. And we saw: we broke up, which I always suspected we would do, and I finally got to return to New York, which is what I secretly and not-so-secretly wanted to do for most of our relationship.
I loved him. But I love New York in a different way.
He and I were not a good match, and New York and I are soul mates. Of all the places I’ve lived, the city always feels right. It’s the oversized cashmere sweater of cities.
This is not to say that it’s always comfortable. Sometimes, when it’s pouring rain and freezing, it feels more like a damp, dirty sweater that someone has been sleeping in for a week. But it’s still cashmere. There are always moments of grace: the old woman who asks if I can tie her shoe for her, the little girl on the street who tells me I am beautiful. Moments of serendipity: the F train doors close in my face only to reopen, as if charmed, a second later. Moments of synchronicity: I walk out with my friend to get a taxi for her a few nights ago, since she doesn’t know Carroll Gardens; the cabbie we find is pulled over, eating dinner, but he agrees to take her back to Crown Heights and, once there, I hear that he drops her on a desolate corner where a girl with three suitcases was waiting patiently and somewhat insanely for a cab to come along. That’s New York: you just have to trust that it will provide.
Because it always does. Always, unfailingly, indefatigably, the city provides just what you need at the right time.
It might not always be on your timetable. But it is always the right time.
The other night, the friend who took the taxi back to Crown Heights and I discussed how transportation in the city serves as a vehicle for synchrony. When you’re in “the flow”—trusting, being patient, practicing kindness and compassion—it seems as though the trains play along. I’ve had plenty of opportunities lately to give this theory a whirl, since living in Brooklyn is synonymous with subway usage, unless you’re Michelle Williams. Even she’d probably like to take the train sometimes, and maybe she does: it’s by far the fastest way to Manhattan if there’s any traffic.
Perhaps my friend and I are crazy. But I swear: if I’m anxious, stressed-out and angry, I miss the train. I get on the wrong one. I get on the right one going the wrong way. If all is calm, though, the trains run smoothly: they arrive just as I hit the platform, they time themselves well for optimal transfers, they speed up between stations to deliver me on-time to my destination.
Maybe that’s just the city and her whims.
Brooklyn has a way of making everything easier. It’s quieter, cleaner, friendlier than Manhattan. It doesn’t have the same glitz and glow, but instead has its own spin: the glitz is made of artisanal, hand-painted sea glass from Coney Island and the glow is soft, natural light at sunset, gloaming.
I’ll take it. It’s not about the rent, or the hardwood floors, or the bathtub—although all of these help—it’s about the peace of mind. I can wander the neighborhood late at night with a mug of tea in hand. I can open the door to the back yard and eat the bodega banana on the patio in the morning. I can lie in bed and listen to dogs bark up and down the street, sentinels. It’s like living in a small town, and also living in the big city. It’s both ways, which is the best way of all.