Native New Yorker by Bibi Deitz: Part 3

I walked by my childhood apartment the other day. It’s on the corner of 12th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, above a newly out-of-business home goods store that was called Surprise, Surprise (insert any number of dry-humored jokes about the “surprise, surprise” of another long-standing business going defunct here) and catty-corner from a brand-new gourmet emporium. When I was a kid, the three neighboring corners were parking lots. Then we were woken at first light by jackhammers and the birdlike squawks of machinery in the making of NYU dorms. The campus expanded before our eyes. The corner across the street, where I learned how to ride a bike, became a place where undergrads in woolen hats congregated to smoke Camels in the cold, sheltered somewhat by the dorm’s red-bricked facade.

Gourmet markets are no longer relegated to the snootier neighborhoods, places of pastry reverence and salmon worship, but instead live like denigrated gods among men, often finding unlikely homes in bodegas in Brooklyn of late. When we lived on 12th Street, my mother and I frequently took the fifteen-minute walk to Balducci’s on 9th Street and 6th Avenue to buy De Cecco rotelle and farfalle (wheels and bowties to me), fragrant cheese and delicate cuts of Dover sole. There were often tiny cut samples of raisin cake or crumbles of crunchy chocolate chip cookies at eye-level on tall glass counters, and my mother would sometimes let me have a bitesize snack. 

Back then, our neighborhood was sketchy. There was nothing posh about the punks on St. Mark’s four blocks down or the bums lining the Bowery farther south. Tompkins Square Park was a tent city and Union Square was just a slight notch more refined. We would have been hard-pressed to find a water cracker or petit-four within a ten-block radius. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit—Open Pantry, one of the sole remaining businesses that existed back then, carried soy milk and soft ur-granola bars full of chewy raisins back when “vegan” was still pronounced “vay-gan” and no one had even heard of gluten, much less considered going without it. 

The other lasting mainstay is Angelica’s Kitchen, which is still tucked in the next block over, on 12th just east of 2nd Avenue. Their dragon bowls are still on offer, but their price has quadrupled, from $4-ish to now $16. According to a friend who frequents the place, the menu has recently become even more expensive because of raised rents, and the restaurant’s lease is in jeopardy. 

It’s understandable that prime real estate that used to house parking lots has been guzzled by NYU, and that one no longer needs to trek west (or north) to find lox or quinoa or whatever rarefied food one’s heart desires, but the idea of the disappearance of a perennial commodity like Angelica’s is hard to fathom. I have accepted that the East Village of yore is no longer the neighborhood in which I grew up. I’ve said goodbye to the Carnegie Deli and Ben & Jerry’s, tiny thrift shops full of old silk dresses and a particularly special camera store on 3rd Avenue that used to be our supplier of high-speed film and flash bars, which came in foil packaging and provided ten satisfying pops of light.

I am not sure, however, if I am ready to bid adieu to Angelica’s, or Open Pantry, or the two movie theaters of my childhood that have survived: Village East and Cinema Village, or “Cin Vil,” as my family called it, where I saw countless films both mainstream and independent over the course of my youth. 

As a native city dweller who now lives in Brooklyn, I’ve embraced the culture of what my family once considered an outer borough. The pace of Prospect Heights, my neighborhood, is akin to that of the East Village in the ‘90s. In the summer, I am often lulled to sleep by marimba and the smell of pot fills my block, corner to corner. People are always out on the street, yelling to each other and grilling pork on charcoal grills, their kids playing basketball in the street or racing up and down like tiny sprinters or splashing in the gush of an open hydrant. 

When I was young enough to run shrieking through sprinklers (I was never allowed to roll up my jeans and play in the hydrants, though I would have liked to do so), Prospect Heights was dangerous. I doubt there were many kids running free back then. The one time my mother accidentally took my brother and me to this part of Brooklyn on the subway, after a missed stop, she acted like she’d taken our lives in her hands (and she may well have). So, then, the circle of neighborhood life: The vibe of what was once the artsy and dangerous East Village has now traveled southeast to Brooklyn—first Williamsburg and Bushwick, trickling down to places like Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and other parts of my area. In another twenty years, it’s possible that these places will be too fancy. Maybe Queens will be the place then. Maybe father uptown. 

Or maybe—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—the East Village will have another time to shine. I don’t think so, though—there’s a magic hour to neighborhoods in the city, a gloaming in the years before heavy gentrification when artists move in to nest and procreate—as my parents did in the late ‘70s—before developers get on the bandwagon and build towers of glass and steel. 

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I live in a beach town. It’s called Brooklyn. Essay by Bibi Deitz

Last Call: Beach

I live in a beach town. It’s called Brooklyn.

Sounds like hyperbole until you consider that Brooklyn’s entire southern coast is a beach. Sand and the smell of sunscreen are an hour’s train ride, give or take, from my front door.

So—not only does New York have an inexhaustible aggregate of art, music, book events, dance parties and edibles, it also has beautiful beaches dotted with sunbrellas and adorable curly-haired children running in and out of the surf, shrieks carried by the breeze.

I was there the other day. I had been watching the weather all week, waiting for the best beach day the way I used to wait for the perfect moment to jump into a round of double dutch, and that was the day. My best friend and I piled towels and thick books and copies of the New Yorker and Vogue into tote bags and caught the A train south.

Fort Tilden is the stuff of daydreams. It’s not the South of France—it’s not even San Sebastián’s urban old-Europe beachfront—but it is relatively clean. There are no dirty diapers or spent syringes floating in the foam of incoming waves. The same cannot be said of the beaches of my youth—Jones, Coney Island—at which I witnessed both such objects drifting along shore.

It’s September, the first day of school in New York City. There is not a cab to be had uptown in the morning, every meter ticking and overhead light switched off in deference to the oncoming school year. Children, ubiquitous yesterday, are nary to be seen on the streets of the city. I spot them whooshing past behind the closed windows of taxicabs, the air conditioning on max against the heat of the late summer day. And I’ve only been to the beach once this summer.

Twice, if you count the Jersey shore.

There are two more beach runs on the horizon. This is how it goes: the Matisse exhibit installs at the MoMA, and everyone waits until the last weeks, when we all flock uptown in droves and wait in long lines to see the colors and brushstrokes that hung in echoing galleries the week before, the open space yawning out before them. A Broadway show is held over in its last weeks, the audience showing up in hordes, a full house every night. We are procrastinators, we humans.

This weekend, my friend with a car offered to drive us to the Rockaways for a sunset beach picnic. I already have my old Laura Ashley plaid wool blanket packed and ready to go. I know which swimsuit I’ll wear, in case I want to splash in the surf at the day’s end. I’ll lug my thick book back for round two, but this time it will be easier to carry. When it comes to the beach, everything is easier by car.

The first time I ever went to Fort Tilden, a few years ago, my childhood best friend and summer sister borrowed a van from her employers and went beachbound, picking up friends on various corners in Brooklyn along the way. We filled the van and headed south along the BQE. I drove.

It was a day of magic. Sun shy, the sky was overcast and mottled with clouds, but we donned pullovers and buttoned up Oxford shirts, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, our little bodies clustered on blankets, sunglasses on against the light of day. We didn’t swim—we didn’t even wade—but we stretched out and read books and told stories all afternoon. There is a photograph of my summer sister and I, taken from the backseat, our heads together, hands touching, holding an iPhone in tandem, searching for the perfect summer anthem to blast as we rolled toward the shore. It is one of my dearest, most favorite photographs, our jawlines in demi-profile, the bones of our wrists outlined with sun.

The beach is this way. It can imbue even the dreariest of days with an enchanted reverence, a glow.

Perhaps my last moment at the seashore will be the weekend after next, when I head northeast for a long weekend at my friend’s new house in the Hamptons. The guests will include three couples and myself. At first I objected: What kind of wheel will that make me? A seventh wheel? But my host laughed and said, You’ll be the baby all weekend. We’ll make you sandwiches. We’ll buy you dinner.

When we’re camped at the beach, bottles of sunscreen flowing and wide-brimmed hats skewing our eyes, it won’t matter who is with whom. The beach is a great equalizer: No matter who you are or what you look like, you are welcome. There is always someone fatter or thinner, more tan or pale. And when the tide is in and the sun is out and the beach umbrella is at just the right angle, there is no one and nothing that can ruin a day on the coast.

To the beach I say: Twice more, with feeling. And then adieu—until next year.

Thinking of Moving To Brooklyn? Bibi Deitz Did–And Wrote About It!


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.