Sunday, January 17, 2016

Go East, Part One

And so it came to pass that I got tired. Tired of waiting for a number of things that were, it's true, in the pipeline and out of my hands, to happen. Tired of Texas, a place that seemed insane not just to the elite snobs on the coasts, but to an increasing number of its inhabitants. Tired of Austin, a place I used to know and now don't know and where I hardly know anybody. So when a friend posted on Facebook that he was looking to sublet his apartment in a historically listed building in Brooklyn Heights for six weeks, I offered to rent three of those weeks starting on January 11. A check was mailed and, in return, some keys were also mailed. I really had no plans, but I knew I'd make some.

I had to get up at 5:15 to make my plane, but I figured I'd rather get there early than wander the streets of Brooklyn after dark looking for a street. I called Uber for my transportation, because there is no way to get to the airport from where I live unless you or someone else drives. The driver was a cheery guy who told me the minute I got in the car that David Bowie had died. A great start to a trip, right? (Of course, the punch line was delivered by e-mail when I set up my computer once I got in: unlike the $26 trip to the airport the other time I'd used Uber, this one cost $42. I already had moral compunctions about using this service, which is battling background checks -- very routine ones -- for its drivers in Austin with full-page newspaper ads, but an inquiry to customer service indicated that I had chosen a deluxe version of the service without knowing it, hence the higher charge. There was no appeal, and their doom was sealed by a text to my phone: "Your Problem Has Been Solved!" Sad to say, theirs has just begun, since I'll never use them again; I'll get Lyft after the return flight and delete both apps.)

A boring flight, a boring subway ride, the requisite getting lost when I got to the subway stop (a tradition with me), a chance encounter with a mailman on his rounds, and I found the house. The apartment was very nice, the kitchen tiny and rather underequipped, and a block away was a street with everything I needed, from a branch of my bank to a magnificent grocery store, to a friendly wine shop and a number of restaurants, all of which I'd been cautioned by my host to avoid. There was another couple of long shopping streets nearby, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, which I needed to explore, but as for Monday, despite spending close to $100 at the Garden of Eden, the supermarket, I still didn't have dinner, so on friends' recommendation, I went over to Court Street and began the hike to Rucola, a small restaurant on a back street.

Now, these days, my mealtimes are fraught. Some months back, my doctor informed me I had diabetes, a diagnosis I still don't understand fully. In response, I've cut back the carbohydrates, including such favorites as pasta and fruit, taken my glucose readings four times a day, and ingested a pill called metaformin. I read the nutritional specs on everything I buy, and exercise rigid control when I eat out. I've also started exercising regularly, walking small streets by my house as humongous vehicles careen past me at extra-legal speeds. It's worked: I've never exceeded the maximum glucose numbers except for one time I knew it was going to happen (I was making a beef stew and hadn't read the recipe right and at dinnertime still had another hour and 45 minutes to go so I drove to the supermarket and grabbed a package of frozen fried shrimp which were delicious, but broke the bank utterly), my hemoglobin numbers are in the safe zone, and I've come to hate dinnertime.

No worry at Rucola: a salad and a serving of what they called porchetta on a base of white beans which were delicious but which I avoided (foolishly, as it turned out) for the most part was excellent and affordable. Still, I was going to have to try to cook in a kitchen with no equipment to speak of unless I won the Powerball. People who weren't talking about David Bowie were talking about the Powerball. Sometimes both. I dedicated Tuesday to exploration.

Court Street seemed the best bet, and this time I walked it slower. Food discoveries included Shelsky's, a famous delicatessen that was like a museum of traditional Jewish fish with traditional high prices and a friendly guy behind the counter (the bigger guy on the homepage there), and Union Market, a Central Market/Whole Foods kind of place, sort of a long ways to go in this cold weather, but nice to know about. I was also looking for Caputo's, an Italian joint that makes their own mozzarella and seems to be a trove of other Italian delicatessen, but I was getting tired and decided to turn back: the wind was not friendly, and it was picking up. I turned on Atlantic Avenue to see what was up with it, and entered a time machine.

I'm sure Urban Outfitters was commanded to keep this display intact, but it's a healthy reminder that the waterfront, once a far better place for merchant ships to dock than Manhattan, was just a few blocks away. (Of course, once unloaded, you had to get the stuff over to Manhattan somehow, so warehouses also did a thriving business). There were also loads of Arab shops on Atlantic, including several Yemenite cafes with no menus in the window and no inviting aspect whatever. Most of the action seemed to be happening in the back. Is qat legal? That might have been it.

I was beginning to like this neighborhood, no question. The Brooklyn Historical Society was just down the street and I couldn't wait to see what they offered. They're only open Wednesday through Sunday, though, so I had to wait. Naturally, on Wednesday, some gift of a fellow airline passenger or subway rider laid me flat on my back, so I mooched around the house, which was okay because it was being winter outdoors. I made it to the store, and that was about it.

I had to get better on Thursday, because I'd bought a ticket for the Picasso sculpture show at MOMA, as the Museum of Modern Art is now universally known. I'd seen the blockbuster show in, was it the '70s? when most of what's in the Paris Musée Picasso set up in New York while they fixed it up, and it was both exhaustive and exhausting. I've come to a better understanding of him since then, at least partially aided by John Richardson's magisterial biography, still in progress as we pray for the aging author to live to finish the last volume, and this show forces us to come to terms with his thinking in a way that mixing up paintings, etchings, drawings, and sculpture never would. Focussing entirely on Picasso's 3-D work, it clarifies ideas that show up in the painting and other 2-D media. Transformations of objects into planes is easily understood once you check out his varied guitars, mandolins, and absinthe glasses: instead of standing there facing one aspect of them, you can walk around them, or look at them from the side. And for those of us who are impatient or tired of his postwar celebrity, there are works made from junk or scraps that fairly scream that the artist is having big fun. This, I realize, is why when I went to MOMA as a kid, I loved his goat and baboon, which the museum owns. Picasso is quoted as saying the goat is more like a goat than a real goat, and I don't know why, but that's the absolute truth. And even a kid can get the joke in making the baboon's head out of one of his son's metal toy cars. I had a blast.

Less so in the rest of the museum, though. On the top floor is an extensive show dedicated to Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949), a Uruguayan who managed to hit all the artistic hot-spots and absorb and contribute to their innovations before returning home to be his country's premier painter. There's some brilliant stuff scattered throughout his career, and I don't think I gave it enough time, but I recommend seeing it while you're there; the guy may be second-tier, but he was no imitator. There's also a large exhibition of the museum's Jackson Pollock holdings that is great to see all in one room. The rest is hit or miss, with, I'm afraid, more miss than hit. Soldier, Spectre, Shaman is about artists' response to World War II, and is just too broad an idea to be coherent. A show dedicated to Lebanese artist Walid Raad shows him to be an exhortatory political artist who, yes, makes important points, but to me unimporant art. (But remember that that kid who went to the museum also got to see the Guernica, which he's been digesting for his entire life). A show on the museum's new photo acquisitions is almost entirely art about art, which, admittedly, is what the art world is about these days, as is an exhibition of the museum's other new acquisitions, although Feng Membo's Long March Restart, a Super Mario adaptation of the Chinese Revolution that you can actually play, is fun, Cara Walker's huge cutout silhouette covering an entire wall is amazing -- I'd like to see more of her work, exhortatively political though it is, because she's fearlessly dealing with black history -- and Cai Guo-Quiang's "Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows," a wooden boat hanging from the ceiling, flying a Chinese flag, and pierced with thousands of arrows, is oddly moving.

The sun was going down by the time I left, and I walked over to the subway to meet Gary Lucas, a guitarist/composer I've known for a while, for a chat at the famous White Horse bar in the West Village. I guess it's a tourist trap some of the time, and we sat in the Dylan Thomas Room, where the poet drank himself to death one evening, but neither of us indulged in alcohol. We caught up, he gave me his two new CDs, one of which is a tribute to the music in Max Fleischer's cartoons, a typical Lucas idea that should be fun to listen to. He told me about a party he and his wife were going to around the corner from where CBGB used to be, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first issue of Punk magazine. He went home to pick up his wife and change clothes and, with nothing else to do, I wandered through the Village until I suddenly found myself there. The room was packed, and I didn't recognize a soul. I actually hate going to things like this unless I'm reporting a story or know someone and the Lucases weren't showing, so after about a half-hour, I left for Brooklyn, where I decided to ignore my diet and get a cheeseburger at a cafe near the house. The bad news is that, as I'd been warned, it was awful. The good news is it didn't bust my glucose level at all.

Punk sculpture, artist unknown
I was apparently sicker than I knew, because I was tormented with a fever all night and slept fitfully. Friday I mooched around the apartment, only putting my shoes on at 5:30 so I could go get something to eat at the store. Saturday found me feeling a lot better, so I decided to really look at this place I've found myself.

The best way, I decided, was to walk down the street to the Brooklyn Historical Society. Surely they'd have a comprehensive overview of the city. But no, the place is small and, I guess, underfunded. A neat exhibit about abolition and Brooklyn was fascinating, although I knew that Henry Ward Beecher's abolitionist church was in Brooklyn. I didn't know that a lot of escaped slaves and lots of free people of color lived in Brooklyn, at least partially because the slave-catchers couldn't be bothered with such a podunk place and spent most of their efforts in Manhattan. The so-called Dumbo neighborhood (I think it stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge and have no idea what the O is for unless it's to keep people from thinking of the Ramones and pinheads and so on) was a thriving black section of town and several black preachers were instrumental in enforcing equality here. I skipped the exhibit on the hockey team in the basement, and the other rooms in the building didn't have much of interest, so I headed out with my camera, no particular destination in mind, but a desire to find the First Colored Schoolhouse, if it still survived.

One thing I discovered was that my theory that Brooklyn preserved more old buildings than the rest of the city was correct. Part of this is that I'm staying in the Brooklyn Heights Historical District, the first urban neighborhood to be so designated by the federal government because of the existence of buildings like the one I'm in (which was pictured in a full-page article in a 1965 New York Herald-Tribune on display at the Historical Society). There were places that made me curious right around the corner:

For that matter, there was a whole street I'd stumbled on that seemed to be converted stables or carriage houses:

Hunts Lane

As I wandered up Henry Street, I entered the Fruit District, so-called because it has streets named Cranberry and Pineapple, and some houses that must date to the early 19th century.

I turned on Middagh Street, thinking that was where the Colored Schoolhouse stood, but all I found was this beauty:

At that point, I noticed I was near the water and wandered over to a historical marker that noted that there was a house on Middagh Street that, at one point, had been shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers and...Gypsy Rose Lee! It also noted that it had been demolished in 1946. But what an odd bunch of folks under one roof.

I realized that I was at one end of the Brooklyn Promenade, a scenic walk from which, it developed, one can see not only Manhattan, but Governor's Island and Liberty Island. I took a truly awful photo of that view, but another shows an island I once knew well, but no longer do:

What are all those buildings? 
Of course, this brought to mind coming to Manhattan in 1999 and seeing the World Trade Center looming over lower Manhattan, two buildings I'd never seen before and weren't part of my mental map at all.

Fortunately the path eventually gave me this more traditional vista to look at:

Whew. I was beginning to worry there for a minute. 
The Promenade seemed to have ended, and I was astonished to realize I'd come to the beginning of my street, having gone in a very eccentric circle to where I'd started. It was time to head back to the apartment, download the photos, and try to make sense out of the day. One thing I realized, though: so far, I really like Brooklyn.

A theme I'll explore later, but for now, I'm headed up to Boston (on the train, no less) on Tuesday evening (that is, if the Amtrak app will give up my ticket, which is living on my phone) to see more art and history, and then return on Friday to see another old friend perform.

And there'll be another, shorter (I promise) post tomorrow or the next day. See you then.

1 comment:

  1. DUMBO = Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Don't shoot the messenger!


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