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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Bibi Deitz on Being a New Yorker

This is the first part of a longer essay on being a native New Yorker who lives in New York. More to come over the coming weeks.

I had lunch with someone the other day who grew up in New York. So did I. Well, I had hot water with lemon and she had a sandwich that had so many onions that she wound up feeling sick, and she was on her phone when she walked in the door, but unapologetic about it because that’s how we are, we New Yorkers, we born-and-breds: We live here, and the street is our living room, taxis and subways our parlors, and restaurants and cafes—forget it, we might as well take out a toenail clipper and go to work. Though we never would. There are boundaries. We have dignity.

There’s a special flavor to a fellow lifer. I can spot my kin from across a crowded subway platform sometimes. We have a way of taking up space that is upfront, frank. We say, I belong here. There are no I’m-sorries about our demeanor. If we need to take a phone call, we take a phone call. If we want to speak or laugh loudly or gesticulate or sit on the same side of the table or take a selfie, we do.

Some see this as entitled. I’ve seen the looks—are you kidding? That’s the other thing. We never miss a thing. You might think we didn’t notice your eye-roll or your sideways comment or even your catcall, but fret not: We heard. We’re just ignoring you. Anyway, it’s not. Entitled, that is. It’s confident. It’s asking for what we need in the world without feeling bad about it. It’s taking up the space we require to breathe in this city. That’s why we don’t feel claustrophobic. We stretch out.

I often hear people talk about what one of my friends calls the “psychic claustrophobia” of the city. It’s so grim, they say. Just so dirty. Move, then. I did, for seven years. I lived in Santa Fe. The sun shone most every day and there was nothing to block it: I could see a hundred and eighty degrees of sky wherever I was. Those seven years were healing, transformative, restorative. It was like a seven-year-long yoga class. And now I’m back, hammer and tongs, and silly things like weather or the state of cleanliness of any given block are not going to stop me from enjoying myself.

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There are two ways to view city life: Pro and anti. By city life I mean New York city life—of course I am aware there are other cities, but New York is the city. I’ve never called it by any other name. Including New York City. It’s just New York, or the city. In any case, the anti-city types will give you a whole grocery list of complaints, but the pros: Well, we’re pros. We can take it. Take today, for example. My friend and I left lunch—at a cafe in the East Village, my childhood neighborhood, that popped up in the past seven years, but what hasn’t, really?—and walked up University Place in search of cigarettes. Not for me, but that’s the other thing: New Yorkers smoke like Europeans. We go outside, but we enjoy being outside. Or we enjoy complaining about it. There’s a certain savor in the act of smoking. And you better believe we won’t apologize for it. Once they were procured, I had two drags of Camel Light, thank you very much; and yes, it was delicious.

So there we were, on the street, and a spritely Asian man pushing a wire shopping cart full of laundry began serenading us. He said, Tell me, why am I so short? He answered, Because my parents were both short! He cracked himself up. He told us, Your mothers were both beautiful! Then he resumed his song.

If you’re not from the city, this might be an alarming or noteworthy experience. You might not know how to react. You might worry he’d next pull a gun from his pile of laundry, or try to have a quick grope as you passed. We wished him good day and moved on. Which brings us to five minutes later.

We were outside the newsstand; she was smoking, and I was fiddling with my phone. There was some schmutz on it—a feather, or an eyelash, or something—so I blew it off. And as though he were an actor offstage just waiting for his line, a fortyish man waltzed by and said, “You just blew on your phone! Is that a new app?” He waited for his applause, paid in the form of acknowledgement, and continued on his way. That’s the thing with New Yorkers: We interact with one another. Or, rather, others interact with us—God knows if the crooner or the actor were born in New York or not, though I suspect not—and we take it in.

This is the other thing: We don’t really take it in. I mean, all of the experiences I’ve had in New York have amalgamated into one rather delightfully juicy apple, if you’ll pardon the awful metaphor. Actually, I won’t pardon it: That’s one thing I can’t roll with. All of the cutesy New Yorkisms: The big apple, the city that never sleeps. Those are phrases we made up to titillate tourists. It might work on them, but it doesn’t do much for any of us. We can see behind the curtain, and believe me: There’s a dead rat in there. As there is in many of our walls, and on every subway track ever.

Anyway, the apple. Every time a stranger has had an opinion about my appearance, asked where I got my shoes, or asked for directions to the nearest L train has been collected in a lovely, hazy memory bank. It’s a foggy mental scrapbook, and on the cover is a raked-up photograph of, like, Tompkins Square Park. In other words, I take these experiences in the way I might a breath of fresh air. Or stale subway air. Or piss-tinged stench on a hot day on Fourteenth Street. I take them, and I experience them, but I also forget about them right away. I interact—or not—and I’m present—or not, as the case may be—but I also move on right away. It’s rare that I’ll remember an interaction with a stranger.

There are exceptions. I can still picture a man shuffle-punching down St. Mark’s Place in the Eighties. I was a kid, probably with my mother, and we crossed the street to avoid him. That was her strategy back then: If you see something strange, cross the street. Now they say, If you see something, say something. Not to the person, I hope everyone understands. Those poor out-of-towners trying to say something to the pervert on the corner. When I say shuffle-punching, I mean exactly that: He was so drunk or coked-up or insane that he more crabwalked than sauntered, and he was kicking the shit out of someone who did not exist. In this man’s mind, though, he was absolutely fighting a pretty awful guy. Or gal, I suppose. He was winning, too.

3 Waterfalls and 4 Diners

Looking back at a recent trip in upstate New York with my husband Rich, I’m still thinking about tourism and pilgrimage. For example, we saw:

3 waterfalls

4 diners (in one the waitress had the same name as our cat, which was startling!)

5 farmer’s markets (5 for Rich, 3 for me)

John Brown’s Farm and grave

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Harriet Tubman’s grave and house

Seneca Falls monument to the rights of women

3 Indian Mound archeological sites

Bela Bartok’s cabin in Saranac Lake where in the last year of his life he wrote his third piano concerto and viola concerto

a shrine to the Blessed Kateri

Robert Louis Stevenson’s cottage

Glimmerglass opera

All of these affected me, but in varying ways and degrees. Stevenson’s cottage was a cluttered tourist trap while Kateri had an exquisite chapel with Native American art. Some are tourist spots for everyone, but not everyone is collecting diners. Of course I cried at Harriet Tubman’s tomb, but the atmosphere was enhanced by dusk, a sprawling cemetery, and mounds in the background.

John Brown’s farm evinced confusing emotions—was he a hero or homegrown terrorist? The monument to him looked very patriarchal to my eyes but fascinatingly was put up in the 1930’s by an African-American club in Philadelphia dedicated to his memory.

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The New York State historical signage is often atrocious to a New Mexican’s eyes—also dating from the 1930’s it is unabashedly expansionist and imperialist and heavy on the “savages.”

Years ago, someone costumed as a city worker with power tools removed the phrase “Savage Indians” from a monument on Santa Fe’s Plaza in my one my favorite guerrilla art acts of all time. Well, upstate New York’s historical signs could use a little editing.