Last summer, I was having dinner with an old friend, BG, just down the block from his recently-moved, small printing shop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. BG had given me some much-needed temporary work in his shop a few years earlier, which back then was in a gritty part of downtown Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue, a few blocks from Junior’s (home of their world-famous Cheesecakes).
What was notable about this dinner was the couple sitting a few tables away. Carroll Gardens is one of those neighborhoods where gentrification has changed everything: from an old Italian neighborhood to a far-more yuppie-friendly (and costly) outpost. By mid-2000’s the deal had been done there, this neighborhood had flipped over. If you were old neighborhood types or were lucky enough to own your property, you hung in there, despite feeling clueless about your new, often snotty neighbors. The couple across from us from was old neighborhood, but young, probably living at home, and they clearly thought BG and I were yuppie interlopers of some sort.
The woman glared at me. This was killing me, as I had spent a decade in a part of a Bronx this bitch wouldn’t drive a tank through, and had been living in Astoria with a reasonable rent for years, AND on the front end of the exact same gentrification pile-drive that her neighborhood had gone through. I was wearing a black t-shirt, bermuda shorts and sneakers, like I have always worn in summer. But there’s something about me. I’m friends with soap and deodorant. I brush my teeth. I look smart. And as much as I try to look harder, I’m always having people walk up and ask me for directions, even now. 718 types can spot me as an outsider a mile away, whereas I’ve found the newer arrivals in my neighborhood think I’m an “old neighborhood” type … I’m in some sort of limbo here, as no one seems to grasp who I am, with 20 years of rural life under my belt that's far more neighborly than any neighborhood-type could possibly grasp in New York.
Nothing really happened. This woman and her asshole boyfriend just kept making google eyes at BG and me, like we were going to get up and leave because we were in their nice little Italian restaurant, but it wasn’t happening. And I didn’t feel like lecturing her about manners, or lack thereof. Her life in Carroll Gardens is going to be miserable if her attitude towards outsiders is so hard she was bad vibing someone who clearly wasn’t money in any sense.
But this was not the first time I had been in Carroll Gardens. No, there’s a story here, back in 1989, of when I first set foot in the neighborhood.
It starts in a now-defunct medical publishing house where I got work after being unceremoniously dumped from my first job in NYC at a large ad agency. It didn’t take me long to find work after that lay off (which it was, me and a few dozen other people just before Christmas of ’87), despite that being a fairly dark financial period just after the great Wall Street Crash of the previous fall.
I liked the place immediately – more laid back, no dress code, a lot of eccentric editorial types. I was working for an asshole, but what else was new. The company in general was low key, and my job normally so busy that I didn’t spend much time dealing with my boss, who was constantly getting reprimanded for making female coworkers cry because he was such a prick. I took advantage of the more-relaxed dress code. My favorite outfit was a large bowling shirt and jeans with a rope belt … based on Jethro Bodine from The Beverly Hillbillies. This was also the era of Salvation Army stores, where my body was such it would fit a ton of great vintage items on their racks, namely suits from the 1930s and 40s that were piling into their stores routinely with that generation starting to pass along. One of the mailroom guys told me he thought I was “a fag” because of my wardrobe. But I knew what he meant – I was wearing all kinds of shit, high and low brow, and getting away with it.
The job was mostly processing orders and editorial content for a medical reference book similar to the PDR (Physicians Desk Reference book), but I gather you can probably find this stuff all online now. Back then, it was a booming business with MDs, like being encyclopedia salesmen for the medical industry. It wasn’t a hugely lucrative business, but it was a niche market that managed to keep about 80 people employed.
My second summer at the job, Jenny started in another department as a temp. Every workplace has gone through this: a really hot woman starting there, and all the guys catching wind of this and finding excuses to talk/hang out with her. But I was on her like a cheap suit … and I probably was wearing a cheap suit, too, that may have smelled vaguely of mothballs. I somehow won the lottery with her, probably because I was at the height of my physical attractiveness, and I made it clear that I wanted something to happen here.
Jenny was a looker. Blonde hair, blue eyes, well-built, dressed to show off her attributes. She was trying to be a singer/actress, but finding it hard-going. She came from Ohio and had been in New York a year or two, living out in Flatbush, a pretty sketchy part of it, too, with a guy named Jake who played bass in a punk rock band. Very much a midwestern person – genuinely friendly, open. The kind of person this place either chews up in a year or two or allows her to ride the wave to something better.
We started going out, which at that point in our lives meant going to bars and getting hammered. And, boy, did she get wild with a few drinks in her. I can still recall her picking out Cher songs on a jukebox and then getting up on tabletops to sing along, usually to wild applause afterwards. I guess it was her way of getting the accolades that weren’t coming with grinding, nowhere auditions and such.
But each night turned into a drama, as it always goes with a really drunk pretty woman. The first few times we went back to her place, Jake wasn’t around – on tour. I noticed the place only had one bed, with an upturned eyebrow. Oh, no, she said, we both sleep there, but we’re just friends, he stays to his side and I stay on mine. Don't worry about it.
Well, I’m older now and know what a load of bullshit that is. But when you’re 23 and nursing an all-night erection, you go with the flow. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. As mentioned earlier, my college love interest had been a well-meaning but nutty young woman who would go on to be a Born Again Christian. In other words, I didn’t get laid. So when it came to this situation, I was awkward as hell. She must have thought, “What have I gotten myself into.” But by the same token, I was a nice person, attractive to her, and she could have easily rolled along with my inexperience and have this thing grown into a nice situation. It wasn’t bad at all, but I could tell she was used to older men who had been around and was let down that I wasn’t taking control of the situation.
Well, the summer started that way, this series of weird, drunken dates that always ended back at her place. And I’d usually find myself leaving to go back to the Bronx late in the following the afternoon, and that’s very much a summer memory for me. All I can remember is that she was suddenly heartbroken to see me leave, and we’d look out the window of her dumpy, shared apartment, at old Puerto Rican guys playing dominos on card tables in the courtyard while their transistor radio blared bass-heavy salsa, with its glaring horn sections. She’d see me off to the train, the entrance to which was overgrown with weeds and bushes, and then I’d wait there in the evening sun, getting over a night of drinking and carousing, breeze blowing against my face. The above-ground subway track on that line was such that you could look in either direction and see nothing but straight tracks with bushes and trees lining the sides. It was like looking at the ocean on a summer’s day and seeing that line on the horizon. I couldn’t believe I was in a major city – it felt more like I was in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train that would take me a long way back to the Bronx. It was a floating feeling, an odd mix of hangover, longing and some kind of relief. I felt raw and mangy, but satisfied. This song nails the feeling I had looking down those train tracks.
And then Jake came back from his tour. I didn’t know this until the night of my birthday. Jenny had suggested we go out that night, I think it was a Saturday. I decided this was going to be a big night, the usual drinking, but a horse carriage ride in Central Park followed by dinner. We arranged to meet up in Union Square late in the afternoon. As I waited there, an older woman came up to me and offered to do a charcoal portrait of me that I could either pay her $20 for, or she would keep as practice as she was just learning how to do this. Why not, I thought. She proceeded to do a nice little piece showing a dashing young man in a suit waiting for his lady friend on a park bench. I paid her the $20, and later on that night, in a drunken haze, I left the sketch in the back of a cab.
But before then, Jenny and I met up, told her I had a surprise, we got on the subway, headed up to Columbus Circle, got out, and when I told her we were taking a carriage ride, she hedged and said we really shouldn’t. Well, right there, I knew something was up, because a few weeks before, this would have been a slam dunk. So we went to dinner, got tipsy, then headed back to her place in a cab, business as usual … only to get back there and find Jake splayed out on the sofa watching a bootleg video of T. Rex television appearances.
Jenny had shifted gears throughout the night, starting from the carriage-ride refusal up to this point, to make it clear that a type of wall had been thrown up. As it turned out, Jake and I hit it off immediately. Despite the intimidating punk-rock front, he was a very friendly guy, old New York type, apparently worked in a local factory but had this nice sideline of playing bass in a minorly-famous punk band that toured regularly. It helped that he was into T. Rex, one of my favorite bands, so we had a bonding moment to start us off.
It became clear that I was going to sleep on the sofa, in my spiffy suit, while they went in and slept on the bed where I had been hoping to have some fun later. So much for that. I could hear them whispering and giggling as I dozed off. What the hell. Whatever was going on here, it was weird. But since I was there, and far from my place in the Bronx, I had to go with it. The next afternoon, after a morning of all three of us lazing around and watching more T. Rex, Jake excused himself for a band rehearsal and left Jenny and I there. I felt like a nap, said as much, went into their bedroom and dozed off, only to wake up and find her spooning against me. Where in the hell is this thing going, I asked myself? I should have asked her, but suspected I wouldn't get a straight answer.
As it turned out, Jenny had to meet up with Jake later at Coney Island, and she wanted to walk down there from Flatbush, which was a long, long walk, at least a few miles. But it was summer, so why not. I can still recall those fading parts of Brooklyn feeling like another country, like the non-tourist areas of a major European city. Each set of blocks would be different. One would be a treelined, immaculate street of single-family homes with lawns. The next would be a ghetto. The next would be an Orthodox Jewish enclave. The next, guys in turbans sitting in front of coffee shops while a soccer game played on a TV inside. It kept changing in a matter of blocks, the only constant the evening sun hitting off the white concrete and creating that glowing light. It was a dreamlike walk.
When we got to Coney Island, we got our picture taken together in some type of king’s chair on the boardwalk – man, that one’s been lost to the ages. But I recall her on my lap and me sitting there with a “what the fuck” grin. I was King of Nothing Much At All, knew it, but was going along with it anyway. We took a ride on the Cyclone, and I nearly shit myself as the scariest part of that ride is you think the thing’s going to fall apart with you on it – I could practically see the bolts shooting out of their railings every time we hit a hard curve. But eventually she met up with Jake and his friends, and I excused myself to go home as I was fairly exhausted and mildly hungover.
That’s pretty much where things cooled down. I do recall a few weeks after that taking her to go see Jake’s band play in the East Village. We had to go to her place first, and again, that strange vibe, I laid there on her couch, hands folded behind my head, and pretty much watched her strip off her work clothes, get naked, and get into her party clothes. Digest that sentence for a moment. This is not something you do with a casual acquaintance. It felt like we were a couple headed out for a night of fun. But as noted earlier, she had put up a small sort of wall once Jake got back into town. I got the vibe that I could have jumped on her at any moment and things would have worked out nicely, but I was also thinking at that point, why bother?
We went out that night, and Jake’s band sort of sucked in that way all punk bands do, but they did work in a few cool Elvis covers that had all the hard-core punks going to the bar because they weren’t into anything but straight punk. That kind of crowd. When we left, Jenny had forgotten her coat inside, so I ran back in, and ended up pulling it off the back of a punkette who had draped it over her shoulders. She gave me a look, I told her, it’s not yours, and walked out. A chivalrous moment, all for naught. We went back to her place, once again, and that was the last night I spent on Jake and Jenny’s sofa while they giggled like small children in the bedroom.
The story didn’t end there. As the summer went on, she was making it clear how much she hated Flatbush, and their apartment building was a roach nest. I should also mention she kept a pet rabbit in a cage, which made no sense to me. She wanted out, her own place.
This is where a coworker named Jim came in. Jim had my job a few year’s earlier and had moved up into a more computer-related position. He was infamous for having published a spy novel in his 20s – he was in his late 30s or so by the time I knew him. He was a strange guy, but good strange. He was slight, had piercing blue eyes and a walrus mustache. What was most notable about him though was he seemed gay. How could this be, though, as he had a wife and two young daughters?
Well, we later found out, he was at least bi, as the story circulated that he gave a blow job to one of our male coworkers at his desk after hours. The guy just seemed gay – that sort of compact, fit dancer’s body a lot of gay guys favor, and he had the accent and the mannerisms. I don’t know if he was from that previous closeted era, or if he was genuinely bi – but his wife didn’t seem to mind, and they obviously got along very well. His kids were pretty well-adjusted, too – artsy in that Brooklyn private school sort of way.
As it turned out, Jim had bought a house in Carroll Gardens a few years earlier to settle down with his wife and kids, and he had ragged stories of going to the local bar and watching everyone quietly file out when the local mafia kingpin appeared in the doorway – people just knew to leave. Or guys in wifebeater t-shirts beating their wives in the shadows of their Virgin Mary statues on their front patios. It was a deeply Italian neighborhood back then, as it had been for decades, and I guess Jim and his family were among the first of the new landed gentry, although this was way before yuppies started piling into Carroll Gardens en masse.
As it also turned out, Jim was renovating the top floor of the house into an apartment he could rent out for some extra money. He was quoting a pretty expensive price for the time – I think $800/month, which was A LOT of money for rent in the late 80s – but the neighborhood was basically nice and clean, with the occasional Italian-American outbursts of violence previously noted.
Well, Jenny caught wind of this, and our last “date” together, probably in late July of that summer, was going to check out Jim’ apartment. I got to hang out with his family in their backyard, which was a blast, and Jenny was clearly sold on the place, save that it was about three weeks away from being fully renovated. I knew things with us were pretty much over, but Jim said he needed help on the weekends to finish off the apartment. He had already talked one of the mailroom guys into helping, and he asked me, too, so I said yes. Hell, I’d be getting paid, and also hanging out with this beautiful woman who I could tell was in some strange place emotionally.
Those next few weekends, I rode my bike down from the Bronx, which was a hell of a long ride, from the Bronx, through all of Manhattan length wise, over the Brooklyn Bridge and into this neighborhood that was about a mile into the borough from the bridge. It was an adventure, and an intense workout in the summer heat. I can recall getting off the bike on the Brooklyn side, buying a half-gallon jug of water and drinking it in five minutes.
And so I helped renovate the apartment, with Jenny buzzing around like an expectant mother. Jim would cookout each afternoon, so that helped, to get paid and have a nice meal on top of it. Every now and then, Jenny and I would find ourselves just looking at each other and smiling, but it seemed like that was the last real contact we had. We also took a few walks, over to the “wrong side of the tracks” which meant going into Red Hook, which at that time was a very down-and-out neighborhood. (It’s now a hipster enclave where I couldn’t afford a Port-A-Johnny.) But walking around Carroll Gardens felt nice. It was still a working/middle-class neighborhood, with those kind of people. They kept it nice, and it had a good ethnic feel to it (the kind of thing that’s disappearing from New York by the second now). She’d be happy here.
Of course, I later found out Jake moved in that fall … presumably to help with the rent, but I gather, as well I should have, that they were a couple, too. I later learned this when a friend at the paper I wrote at, talking about a band from that time period and the people that hung around that scene, mentioned Jake and Jenny by name and just assumed they were a longstanding couple who had been living together for years. Boy, did we have an interesting talk about that. But Jake was a genuinely good guy – when I met him, even in a circumstance that could have flared up into an antagonistic showdown – he was low-key, funny and decent. Shit, I probably should have befriended him and left her behind! But as it was, I let the situation go at that.
We still had that “let’s just be friends” talk some time in September, even though I was pretty much leaving her alone by that time. I guess she thought she owed me some kind of explanation, but none was necessary. Ladies, never give a guy a “let’s just be friends” talk. A majority of the times, you’ll be giving it to a decent man you’re just not interested in, but want to keep in your life because you recognize he’s a good person. Well, the guy has a set of balls, too, and he wants you holding them, so take that into account with this infuriating little speech. Why can’t good guys ever get the “let’s just be friends and fuck” speech? Has anyone ever gotten that speech?
Well, you can guess, my attitude during that speech was “let’s not be friends” and I pretty much let things slide. When the receptionist, who was like a concerned Italian mother to everyone who worked there, heard of my situation, she called my aside one day as I was going out to lunch and whispered to me: “Billy, let that girl go. She’s no good. You don’t know this, but I do. She’s been dating Len from the Accounting Department for the past month. Behind your back. Get yourself a nice girl. That girl’s no good. Here’s what I give her.”
She then pointed at her eye and glared, to let me know she was giving Jenny the evil eye every time she passed the reception area. So, she was banging Lenny from Accounting! Lenny was a good guy, too, young like I was, very good looking. All I could think was, what was Jake thinking? First this one guy from work on the sofa, now this other guy. Who’s next, the president of the company?
But I didn’t have much to worry about with her. She got laid off by late September, which was a relief to me, to not have to see her all the time. And the following spring, the pricks from the corporation who bought the company a few years earlier decided to sell the place to a company in Minneapolis. Which didn’t mean everyone was moving to Minneapolis. It meant the company would be dissolved and the staff laid off over the course of the next six months, with only a handful of the top editorial people being asked to stay on and move (which none of them did, from what I heard). So I got laid off from there, too, albeit with a nice three-month nest egg to live off of for awhile, as opposed to the “thanks for nothing” shit-can I’d gotten earlier from the ad agency.
But that was where the story truly ended. Had not set foot in Carroll Gardens since the summer of 1989, leading up to that dinner invitation from my friend BG about last summer. And I guess as I sat across from that glaring neighborhood creep in that nice restaurant, I was thinking about Jenny and Jake in the back of my mind, and how much things had changed since then.