Where East Village Meets West

by

01/18/2011

Neighborhood: East Harlem, East Village, West Village

Where East Village Meets West
Photo by Kent

Where East Village Meets West Village

I’ve spent the last ten years of my life in the East Village of Manhattan, movin’ on up Avenue B. Quite literally: I first lived at 4th and B, then briefly moved to 6th between B and C, ending up on 13th and B. I lived in a shoebox of an apartment—sans a single closet or cupboard, with a bedroom that, true to its name, was the size of a bed without an inch to spare, and a bathroom containing a toilet but no room for one’s knees. Despite the snug, sagging apartment, I’ve always enjoyed the quirky neighborhood, and specifically Avenue B.

My beautiful B!

Blasting bass from car stereos and drum beats in summer heat. Burning, baking streets. The blood and blossoms of Tompkins Square. Puerto Rican children bouncing through fire hydrants’ spray. Ancient Dominicans playing dominoes on stoops. Cubans, Haitians, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans. Hipsters, mobsters, punk and grunge. Has-been artists and aspiring musicians. Babies in buggies, French bulldogs in boots. Buzzing B. Bars, bouncers and beer. The B-side, Rue B, Boxcar Lounge, Barbone, Back Forty and B-Cup. Mexican bakeries, crowded bus stops. Bagels and lox, cool coffee shops. Bridge and tunnel barhopping. Bicycles with boomboxes in baskets. Taking care of business, trading paper bags. Babby-daddies and hootchie mamas. Baggy pants, boxers and bling. Bums and beggers, hunks and hippies. Beloved B. Between A and C, B is brighter, B is breezier.

And for me, B was belonging.

I had absolutely no intentions of leaving the area. What force was it, then, that ripped me out of my cozy comfort zone and landed me way out west, on the opposite side of Manhattan, transplanting me from near the East River to an apartment just shy of the Hudson? A very blonde Swede named Niklas Andersson. When we decided to cohabitate after dating long-distance, moving from the East Village to the West Village was his suggestion, so we could explore our new world together. We’d both be moving west—him to a new continent and me to a new neighborhood. Though he’d be transporting himself 3,938 miles across an ocean, and I was moving only 1.8 miles away across eight Avenues, I wasn’t sure who’d be making the more dramatic change.

New Yorkers are extremely neighborhood-centric—perhaps since people are on top of each other, fighting for a space to call their own, then required to pay exorbitant rents for it—they force themselves to believe, and then force that belief on others, that their chosen area of residence is far better than anything surrounding it. The Brooklyn versus Manhattan debate has crept into conversation at least once at every single gathering and dinner party I’ve attended over the past decade. And within each borough, the neighborhoods themselves have to be defended, analyzed, and scrutinized until people begin to leave in a huff, not budging, holding on to their loyalties as they head toward home. So, around here, changing neighborhoods is not to be taken lightly.

I was pleasantly surprised when Niklas befriended me on Facebook—ten years after we initially hooked up while backpacking. Now both in our thirties, both relatively content with our lives but becoming a bit complacent, we were both ready for this new adventure and open to each other. I never expected last year, that this year, I would be standing at City Hall with him, this beautiful boy—my gorgeous groom—getting married on a Monday morning.

I never imagined we’d be taking a number to wait our turn to see the priest, or minister, or government employee—whatever he was, surrounded by other brides of all colors and ages, some wearing gaudy white gowns, others in trendy spring fashions. One woman sported a full-grown mustache, groomed in the same fashion as her husband’s; perhaps, we thought, it was planned in that matchy-matchy kind of way. Dressed to the nines, their bright, wide smiles under the stubble made them quite the dashing couple, facial hairstyle and all. After the nuptials, looking for an apartment seemed the next logical step.

Moving can be a change, and change can be incredibly moving. Though initially unsure about leaving Avenue B, I warmed to the notion—after all, the West Village is one of New York’s most historic neighborhoods, nicknamed Little Bohemia in the early 1900s, and has been a haven for writers, artists, poets, and musicians for two centuries. I liked the idea of getting lost on the same streets tread by Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, EE Cummings, Norman Mailer, and Bob Dylan.

Getting lost was highly likely as its streets are set at an angle to the others in Manhattan. The west side seen from above is a cracked mirror, a cluster of acute triangles and intersections made of apexes, mixed with bending lanes and meandering mews that end unexpectedly. These cobblestone streets were laid out long before the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which created the main grid plan for the city, due to a yellow fever and cholera epidemic infesting the area. No one dared enter due to disease; I wondered whether I dare enter due to my bad sense of direction. Used to numbered streets and lettered avenues, I was afraid I’d be in a constant state of confusion with streets named Jane, Horatio, Charles, and Christopher—like a clique of prep school kids, they seemed hard to get to know. I was shocked to learn that Bleecker was only one block away from me; what the heck is it doing way up here? I thought to myself. Not a map person, I knew I’d be constantly disoriented, especially where West 4th Street crosses West 10th Street. That would never happen in the East Village.

Ironically, we found a charming railroad apartment on that very intersection, and my anticipation grew. But when telling an East Villager you’re moving to the West Village, don’t expect hugs and congratulatory smiles. Don’t tell them with too much enthusiasm; break it to them gently, let it soak in slowly. It’s like telling them you’re moving to live in a crater on the surface of the moon. Expect raised eyebrows. Shock. Confusion. Faked incomprehension. Even anger. Us and them accusations. Followed by an argumentative diatribe and lengthy closing statement explaining why it’s a bad idea.

Crime. That’s what I’ve heard, of all things. Watch yourself. Punks from Jersey hang out there. Please. This, coming from a neighborhood where tiny cocaine bags line the sidewalk where leaves should be. A neigborhood where people are shot for wearing the wrong expression. A neighborhood where there are thugs, and then there are the thugs’ thugs. A place where it’s not uncommon to overhear things like, I took that mother-fucker out and not in reference to a restaurant.

But now, after a twelve-hour move up a five-story walk up apartment, I’m in the West Village, and my more pressing concern is how I will fit in. I don’t know the culture here. Out west does one have to dress up and put on makeup just to go to the corner deli? In the E.V. a person can wear pajamas and army boots with curlers in a hot pink wig to the deli without so much as turning a head. Will the bars here be stuffy and the restaurants pretentious? In the E.V., I once saw a manly-looking man walk into an Irish bar wearing pink lipstick and a bra outside his clothes stuffed with two double-D water balloons and order a beer. I once saw a college student sitting at a bar French kissing his almost hairless parrot. I once saw a wild-haired man push a piano down the middle of the avenue into the park, where he proceeded to stand on it, using it as a pulpit to preach to the squirrels and rats. Oh, how I will miss, the wild, wild East.

With Niklas was back in Sweden wrapping things up for his big move, I was one in an apartment meant for two. Friends don’t return calls on moving day, I found out. I’ve never felt so alone as I did spending the first evening in a new apartment, which didn’t feel like home. Buried in boxes, after the exhaustion of days of packing along with the knowledge of the inevitable days of unpacking that would follow, I feared the “new” in every fiber of my sweat-soaked being. Weak with hunger and on the verge of tears, I wanted to call my new husband, but I couldn’t find my phone. I wanted to eat, but I couldn’t find a fork. Even if I could find the phone and the fork, I didn’t know who to call for take out. I didn’t even know the nearest deli and I most certainly didn’t know the cashier of that deli. I pictured the Pakistani at my deli on 13th and Avenue B and remembered him saying how sad he was that I was leaving in his sing-song voice. The tears came.

When I finally mustered the strength to venture to a corner store for a snack, I crossed the zig-zagging intersection, narrowly escaping a surge of honking cabs. Searching for landmarks like crumbs to find my way back, I stumbled into a dumpy deli. There I saw the Jersey crowd my old neighbors had warned me about, packed into the small space, yelling at the cashier and at each other, even out-blinging the boys on Avenue B. A tall, preppy over-dressed group spilled in to buy beer. I felt even more isolated in the crowd, which over-flowed onto the street.

Later that night I lay in bed, heavily fatigued. A steady stream of horns from Seventh Avenue created a most hateful harmony, blasting through my windows until dawn. As my mind raced along with the traffic—as congested as the streets—I understood that sleep wasn’t going to be an option. Perhaps marrying and finding an apartment within three weeks—in an area where I have only and exactly one friend—was a ridiculous idea. Feeling displaced and alone, I wanted nothing more than to be in my old room. There was something oddly comforting about the tightness of the walls, like a cave or cubbyhole. Or like a womb. I questioned the move, questioned the timing of the move, and above all, questioned the location of the move.

There is a place for change, and change takes you places. And that change, I soon realized, can allow you to stumble into something altogether more interesting. I’ve stumbled into a pile of horse poop, for example, because police here patrol on horseback instead of behind bullet-proof glass. I’ve blundered into bars boasting live jazz music that echoes in the street. I’ve found myself in flea markets and fallen upon enchanted church courtyards. I’ve bumped into boutiques and chanced upon fine chocolate shops. And I lost myself for hours last Sunday on a gorgeous grass-covered pier.

The West Village is wonderful, wonderment.

What better than the waiting and anticipating? Post-wedding; pre-life. The who to the what to the where to the when. The wanderlust! Our wonderland! An awakening! Walking aimlessly, whistling, wind in hair. Exploring the wilderness. A home, our world of warmth. A wink. Wanting. On a whim. Wherever, whenever. Whispering. Willing. His wife. Our west. Winged things. People-watching out our window. A drink at the White Horse Tavern, with my prince. A wish within a well. Near water—complete with waves. Waxing, widening, rising and swelling. Winding up in a whirlwind. Welcoming like a wrapped gift.

For me, the West Village is whispering, waiting.

Christie Grotheim is currently in the process of writing and publishing a series of humorous autobiographical essays. With a background of over fifteen years of creating award-winning graphic design and copywriting, she moved from Texas to Manhattan in the year 2000, where she runs her own graphic design studio in the West Village.

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§ One Response to “Where East Village Meets West”

  • her description of the east village was accurate. that is the reason why i would never live there. i had made the same move from 2nd ave. & 5th st. to jones st. (1970). i enjoyed the story. the west village will always be one of the most beautiful neigborhoods in new york.

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