Now Leaving Manhattan; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Brooklyn

by

01/07/2003

Russell Street brooklyn 11222

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Greenpoint

Having lived in Manhattan for most of my life, I saw a move to Brooklyn as a giant step in the wrong direction. And Greenpoint, well, Greenpoint was a digression I wasn’t sure I could handle. I was thirty-six years old and by god, I had standards. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the bank account to afford them. So when my husband and I came to the end of a ridiculously cheap West Village sublet, a 1200 square foot loft most people would cream over, we were in a bit of a bind. We hated to leave the most excellent building either of us had ever lived in (Edie Falco lived upstairs!) and a landlord who, for a fee, took care of our two cats. But, as they say, life isn’t fair, little girl, and one thing’s for damn sure, we weren’t made of money. So across the river we went.

I looked at apartments in lovely Carroll Gardens, where I saw plenty of “my people” on the sidewalks and supping well in restaurants that rivaled some of those in the City. But the space-price ratio proved difficult. Same with the Heights, the Slope and the Burg.

When a friend told us of a vacancy in her building on Russell Street, in Greenpoint, I agreed to check it out, primarily to avoid offending her. Acquaintances on the Upper East Side referred to the area as “Gunpoint,” and I’d heard sordid rumors of a G Train Rapist. A co-worker told me he’d been punched by a drunken Polish guy on the steps of the subway. There was a sewage treatment plant nearby. I had concerns.

But our Greenpoint friend had nothing but raves for her new digs. She too had moved from Manhattan, and I may be taking liberties when I say that she shared my general “aesthetic.” If she liked it, how bad could it be?

After several challenging telephone conversations with Frank, the Polish grandfather who owned and lived in the building with his wife, two grown kids, their children, and various indeterminate relations, we agreed on a time for a viewing. As I made my way from the West Village, I figured we might be in for some exercise. But what’s a little extra walking to a girl who’s always described herself as “outdoorsy?” This logistical pitfall was easily transformed into a health-enhancing bonus.

Emerging from the Nassau Avenue subway, I gave wide berth to the drunks loitering by the top of the steps and sallied forth. There were Polish men with blond crew-cuts on their way to work, young blond women pushing strollers, old blond women walking with grocery carts, and one or two strikingly hot blond women heading who knows where. Some of the looks I got would have made you think the circus was in town. Clearly, this was not the best day to go bra-less.

I was pleased to see BMWs, Mercedes and Jaguars parked on the street. And to my carnivorous delight there were meat markets on just about every corner. Not to mention an abundance of flower shops which would surely beckon to my husband on his way home from work.

The building on Russell Street faced Msgnr. McGolrick Park, which is roughly the size and shape of Tompkins Square Park. Nevertheless, I smugly surmised, this was probably a Park even we could afford to live on. The apartment was a third floor walk-up and the doorways were made for skinny people carrying no bags, but it was newly renovated, bright and pleasant, with gleaming hardwood floors. The walls of glass brick were startling at first, but as Frank showed me around, his pride and delight in the place was so palpable (his son and son-in-law had done all of the work themselves), that I decided this quirky decorating device could more accurately be described as wainscoting. The kitchen was not Lilliputian, the real sized double-sided refrigerator even had an ice machine, and you could see lower Manhattan and the top of the Williamsburg Bridge from the kitchen window. There was a living room, dining room, office and a bedroom that had a large bay window facing the park. It was the nicest place I’d seen so far. But it was still Greenpoint. If we were going to sink so low as to actually move here, we wanted a deal. Negotiations ensued. Frank dropped the price. I still felt we were being somewhat ripped off, but in we moved.

For a while I had a very bad attitude. And the succulent cheap pierogies, pork cutlets, goulash, potato pancakes and red cabbage were not enough to cheer me.

When the weather got warmer, the Drunken Polish Guys (as we began calling them) sat on the benches facing our building, drinking vodka out of brown paper bags on Saturday mornings, singing, yelling and from time to time, coming to ineffectual blows. The “meat markets,” it turned out, didn’t sell the finest cuts of grass-fed beef, or organic free-range chickens but sausages, bologna and other smoked, processed meats. The Met Food on the corner with its under-ripe tomatoes and pathetic coffee selection me yearn for the Chelsea Market and Gourmet Garage. The hot summer days were sometimes interrupted by a not-so-refreshing farty breeze. What had my life had come to? I blamed my husband. It was not good for our marriage. I became obsessed with the real estate section of the Sunday Times.

Slowly though, I started to come around. The attitude adjustment began when Frank took care of our cats for a week and was genuinely upset and insulted when I included a check with my thank you note. He wouldn’t accept the money, made me feel silly for offering it, and told me that he enjoyed taking care of our cats, that he loved animals and if he couldn’t care for them, there would always be someone in his family who could. This made me rethink the whole “getting ripped off” thing.

I realized I could lock my bicycle in front of our building without it getting stolen, and those harmless inebriated scamps could be quite chivalrous if they mistakenly zigzagged across your path. I began to see that our neighborhood was a multigenerational family one, where grandparents live in the same buildings with their grandchildren who are respectful and who employ the term “moron” in favor of other, less polite expletives. Taking the G to the E made my uncrowded subway commute thirty-five minutes door to door. I am convinced that our block must be under some type of Polish Mafia surveillance, because even the most expensive cars are never broken into (there is always parking), the crime rate seems nonexistent, and no one has ever asked me for money on the street.

The friendly BQE Discount Wine and Liquor store on Meeker always has a bottle of wine or two open for tasting and the large affordable selection, makes me feel like a savvy connoisseur every time I find an excellent bottle for under $10 (20% off if you buy a case).

I’ve got an awesome new running route that takes me down Driggs, past McCarren Park with it’s running track, baseball diamond, soccer field and tennis courts, through Hipsterville, and across the Williamsburg Bridge. Traffic both automotive and pedestrian is mild on most streets allowing me to ride my bicycle everywhere, creating a sense of being in a small village far, far away. Key Food, Tops and the Garden give good grocery.

Plus, the nice lady at the Grand Slam Laundry greets me by name, the buildings are low, providing a sense of light and space, the majestic Sycamores in McGolrick Park remind me of Europe, and Enid’s, the best bar in the world, is only a few blocks away. This is a quiet neighborhood, but on Halloween, traditionally my least favorite holiday, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, I was psyched to hand out candy.

In Greenpoint, there is a Shih Tzu for every man woman and child. The Polish doughnuts — fried dough, not too sweet, glazed or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, twisted or round — were also an inducement. The first time I went into the Star Deli and started asking questions about filling, the girl at the counter said, “Jell-O” for each one. Were there different flavors of Jell-O?

“No,” she replied, “just grape Jell-O.”

Trust me, they rock.

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