Journey to Crown Heights

I lived on Park Place for ten weeks in a spacious apartment. We had no furniture other than two folding chairs and a card table that we bought at Target. My brother slept in the first bedroom, next to the front door and the bathroom. Tiles fell off the bathroom ceiling into the tub, which didn’t drain until week nine when the plumber extracted a plug of hair from the drain. The brown and black hair was compressed and stretched into a vaguely phallic shape, like a voodoo charm or a teratoma trapped under a young girl’s left lung, filled with baby teeth and a little beating heart. The plumber left it under the sink. I almost tripped over it.

The kitchen was no better. Two of the gas burners worked properly, enough for French toast or a pot of chicken curry, but certainly not for anything more elaborate. On the Fourth of July, I cooked pork chops, spinach, and sweet potatoes, a meal that just about strained the capacity of the stove to catastrophic failure. Early, perhaps the third week into our lease, we detached the kitchen smoke alarm. I prefer cast iron, and to cook properly in cast iron, one needs to heat the oiled metal till it splutters and blows thin smoke. The sink filled with flies, our milk went sour every Monday after Sunday shopping as though cursed, and I could barely manage to maintain a baseline threshold of cleanliness. No matter how much effort I put into scrubbing the Tupperware we used instead of china, grime seemed to accumulate in the corners with disturbing regularity. A minor tragedy. But in summation, the many minor tragedies of 600 Park Place made normal life a near impossibility. No air conditioning, broken windows, missing light fixtures, crumbling plaster, water damage, and the occasional rodent renter. Like with human cohabitants, the mouse demands a degree of privacy. When encountered in the middle of the night, on the way to the fridge for a sip of spoilt milk or a piss, the mouse darts for his lair behind the plastic garbage can. The intruder, equally startled and embarrassed, sidesteps towards his final destination with a nod of recognition, eyes turned down to avoid obligatory conversation.

The Franklin Avenue Shuttle runs above ground past Park Place. Every morning, I crossed the street, bounded up two flights of narrow stairs and snagged the train on its brief bobble between Prospect Park and Franklin. At night, however, the train still operated with the same regularity, departing in seven-minute intervals, or thereabouts depending on the style of the conductor on duty. Trains really do chug, I learned this summer: they clatter and rattle rhythmically like a predictable jazz drum kit warming up for a solo. Have you ever lived under the train tracks? Eventually, you fall asleep in a hypnotic daze, pounded into bewilderment by the continual crush of steel wheels on steel tracks. It is not a restful sleep, the slumber of those living under train tracks. But like Alvy, Woody Allen’s delicious nebechal who lives under a rollercoaster in Annie Hall, the trauma of mechanical motion becomes a part of ordinary life. I think I will miss the sound of the subway. An empty space will open in my sleeping mind, and something nasty will want to creep in, a hairy ball of waking neuroses. Right now, the train protects me from unconsciously turning daylight horrors about my palms; soon, I will need to face the plumber or the broker banging at the door and demanding to show the apartment to two clients who ‘came all the way from Texas.’ 

Time goes nowhere on Park Place. The first day I moved in, an old man with a cane was leaning against the front door, his mouth pinched in and thick lines curled around his cheeks. His skin was the truest expression of mahogany I have ever seen, a deep burnished brown that reflected the sun in mesmerizing rainbow spirals. He wore a beret. I saw him twice a day, every day, and I might say hello and ask how he was doing, or I might just nod and open the door. The entire neighborhood wobbled in place on its axis, like that man—name forever unknown—or a gyroscope kept standing only by its own spiral energy. Young kids on scooters blew past under the tracks, shot a basketball through a makeshift hoop they hammered to a chain link fence, and played with Nerf guns. They grow into the same kids who gossip and kiss on stoops, feed and taunt a tabby cat that disappeared in week eight, posture with hands stuck in lowslung jeans pockets, tilt straight-brim hats back and swagger in loose pure white wife beaters. They grow into the same guys who drink from cans in brown paper bags, feed and taunt the girls who sling ass in tight jeans and gossip on smartphones, the same guys who hang on the stoops of the bodega and smoke before bed, who get gray hairs and fat necks that bubble up around their once strong jaws, whose biceps sag and bellies swell in those once loose wife beaters, who lose those wives and watch their kids sit on stoops and then sit themselves, all day, until it is sufficiently late to stagger up the stairs with the help of a cane to bed. Time is not like the sunflowers that are already wilting in the planters along Park Place. Time does not erupt from seeds and grow into green life and die. Time is like the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, running the same point-to-point circuit forever.

I liked to eat in the African restaurant on Franklin Avenue called Fatima. Inside, there was a long buffet: chicken in mustard sauce, roasted chicken, barbecued goat, oxtail, baked fish, plantains, cassava, beans, and greens cooked with little fish. I am not sure of the exact pricing scheme. Something like five dollars a pound. Even though the restaurant was hot and unventilated, I usually took my Styrofoam plate to a table. From an open plastic jar, I would season my food with a spoonful of red pepper sauce. I could never tell whether I was sweating from the spice or the summer humidity. I am told the owners are from Guinea, which is fine, but I cared more that the food tasted good for the price.

There are four parties interested in the future of Crown Heights: Caribbean and African immigrants, Hasidic Jews, hipsters, and yuppies. The Crown Heights race riot of 1991 involved a clash between Caribbean residents and the Hasidim. Today, there is little open animosity; the tension has shifted to the newest intruders, young white professionals and poseurs. It is becoming easier and easier to mistake hipsters for yuppies, because bicycles, retro clothing, and waxed mustaches have gone mainstream. Nevertheless, the discerning spectator can still distinguish the yuppie from his younger cousin by conspicuous stroller pushing and an intolerance for late-nite partying. I do not think that the Caribbean faction bothers to discriminate. Their attitude, and rightfully so, is hostile. While “gentrification” of Franklin Avenue—the slow but steady displacement of bodegas and barbershops in favor of expensive bars—accompanied a decrease in crime, it also exerted a pressure on the Caribbean community.  The diaspora continues farther out into Brooklyn, where rent and the cost of living remain more reasonable. My brother and I fit into none of the above categories. Viewed with suspicion from all quarters, we went about our nerdy business without interference.

I consider dinner a serious business. Blogging requires the most rigorous of nourishments.

A digression of greatest importance: Here are some points of interest (and caution), in case you ever find yourself hungry in Crown Heights:

David’s Brisket House: The pastrami sandwich at David’s Brisket House is one of the few foods in the world deserving of the adjective “luscious.” For example, “the stronge may eate good looshiouse meate,” from Drant’s translation of Horace’s Medicinable Morall. Its fat percolates through layers of pink meat, bypassing bread, straight onto fingers.  Thin slices of rye prove insufficient to mop it all up. The brisket and corn beef—the “-ed” is silent—are also very good. Voluptuous women like to eat at David’s.

Trini-Gul: Warning: a roti is like a burrito filled with bones. Take care not to break a molar on a curry spiced filling of duck and potatoes. Wash it down with a giant glass of mauby, bitter as poison and a laxative to boot.

Joy & Snook: The curries come with enough rice for two. A salt cured fish drowned in yellow curry, also known as “curry fish,” is quite refreshing.

Super Wings: Not as cheap as possible. In spite of or maybe because of pricing, delicious. Among the many flavors, I like the mild Island BBQ, not too sweet, unlike the lava sauce. Underneath the goop, the wings are crispy as shit, so I might take them back to my house and sprinkle them with curry powder and salt and call it a night.

Tom’s Restaurant: Once upon a time, I ran a half marathon and went to Tom’s for brunch. I ordered the banana walnut pancakes. The rest of the day, I felt full. Once upon a time, I went to Tom’s for breakfast on a weekday. I ordered the sweet potato pancakes. The rest of the week, I felt full.

Café Shane: Like Tom’s but for the rest of us. Slow food, slow music, good omelets.

Chavela’s: Yuppies and a few hipsters go to Chavela’s for the “authentic Mexican” affectation. The brunch and lunch deals are tempting, but I don’t think they even serve dinner. Chavela’s seems to transition into a bar after 5 o’clock. At brunch, they pour you as much coffee as you want and bring you a stale conchita for free, which is reason enough for the stroller humpers to crowd the door.

Barboncino: I am addicted to the Americanos at Barboncino; they add just a little water to a shot of espresso, making for a rich and intense sip or three. The margherita pizza flops around the middle but the fior di latte tastes fresh and appropriately milky and the crust is chewy enough. In short, the best yuppie restaurant on Franklin.

Breukelen Coffee House: The coffee tastes like wood pulp.

Pulp and Bean: The bagels taste like wood pulp.

Little Zelda: A friendly and tiny coffee shop where the better hipster specimens go to preen. Alright Americanos, better than alright croissants. I think they sell quiche, if you’re into that.

The Islands: Having visited a few islands, I thought “island time” was a myth, that is, until I tried to obtain some jerk leg of lamb here on a Saturday night. The one time I did successfully acquire food, I was impressed by the jerk chicken and the curry goat.

James Restaurant: Sometimes, the burger is cheap ($10) and sometimes, the burger is expensive ($16). Enjoy one cocktail and the difference won’t matter.

I could continue, but the pattern is as follows: most of the Caribbean restaurants are worth a visit, because they are memorable, most of the yupster establishments are not, because they are annoying. [End: digression.]

Eventually, the novelty of living in a new place wears thin, and then, what once seemed enchanting feels either familiar or fucking awful. I wish I could stay in Crown Heights instead of returning to Morningside Heights. But I know it is for the best that I must move away. If I had squatted in 600 Park Place, I would have come to hate all that I once loved about the neighborhood. Now, when I go back to Fatima, finish my food, and stand in front of my old building, I can wax nostalgic in peace. The same wild wind will blow over the subway tracks, carrying the same horrible smell of sweat, sandalwood, and weed. The same garbage will rustle in the gutters, uncollected by the same absent authorities. But shady streets are creeping north up Park Place from Flatbush. First Vanderbilt, then Underhill, Washington, and soon, Classon. And in the shade, naught can grow except the delicate petals of discarded Shake Shack wrappers. At least on the concrete, broken glass and used condoms can flourish uninterrupted.

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Filed under Dining Suggestions, New York City, Restaurants

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