Moonstruck in Brooklyn Heights

Last week we joined our friends Jan and Alyssa for dinner and a twilight stroll around the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, directly across the East River from Manhattan.
Our plan was to have dinner and watch the sunset on the promenade looking out over the river. It was already late so we walked to a restaurant on the corner and ate quickly. After the meal, we stopped for just a moment to look at the cats in the window of the Brooklyn Cat Café, where people can stop in for refreshments and say hello to homeless cats. The café was closed but there were about seven feline specimens curled or sprawling in the bay window looking contented.




The promenade was only a couple of blocks away and we were in time to see the orange-red disc disappearing behind hazy high-rises. A clipper returned from its turn around Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty, soccer games played out in astro-turf fields by the river and couples walked hand in hand along the path lined with greenery.




Alyssa is a serious history buff and one of her special interests is the Revolutionary War. She’d read a newsletter John wrote about the Battle of Brooklyn and pointed out the very spot to where George Washington set up Fort Stirling after the British landed on Long Island, and from which he made a skillful retreat across the East River to Manhattan. The site was marked by a large rock and plaque.

As we turned from the monument, I thought I heard Alyssa periodically uttering the names of fruit.
“This is Pineapple…Orange…Cranberry…”
I found this a bit mysterious and wondered if it was some sort of word game, but my eyes caught a street sign and at last it became clear.

“Oh, the streets are named after fruit!”
“Yes. And it was all thanks to Lady Middagh.”
She had a ‘thereby hangs a tale’ expression and I picked up the cue.
“Lady Middagh was a descendent of one of the families who first settled in Brooklyn Heights. Legend has it that she objected to the streets being named after important people because she considered it pretentious. So she stuck different signs –the names of fruit– over the names given. Every time the authorities took them down, she put them right back up. And eventually they stuck. The funny thing is, though, she never covered up ‘Middagh’ street.”


19 Cranberry


“We have to show them the Moonstruck house!” Alyssa said, and we walked up Cranberry to number 19, where a beautiful and very familiar house stood, apparently empty.
“Tourists still come and photograph themselves outside it,” Jan explained.
Brooklyn Heights grew up in the nineteenth century, at the beginning of which it had a handful of residents. After becoming a village in 1816, it was advertised as a country retreat for the Manhattan elite—a prospect that gained appeal with the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822. It fast became a popular commuter suburb and the cultural and financial centre of Brooklyn. In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was complete and open for use, and by the 1890s, the area was completely developed.




Since the 1960s, the area has been protected from development by the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. As a result, the buildings are all old and elegant. Alyssa and Jan pointed out some of the different architectural styles: brownstone rowhouses; Victorian Gothic with gargoyles and angels; Italianate with gorgeous marble columns; Second Empire and even Late Federal—built of wood in the early nineteenth century. Our least favorite was probably the fussy American “Queen Anne” style featuring gables, overhanging eaves and black wooden strips. Standing next to one of these cute houses was an old-fashioned gas streetlight, with a flame burning inside.





One thing that I noticed as we strolled along was all the churches—there seemed to be one every couple of blocks. One building didn’t look anything like a church but it had a cast-iron bell outside and a sign saying ‘Danish Seaman’s Church’ . It’s the only one in the Americas (south and north) where the service is conducted in Danish. But the most remarkable church is undoubtedly Plymouth Church, the centre of anti-slavery activism in the mid-nineteenth century.

Its first minister was Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), a speaker renowned for using humor, dialect and slang in sermons that emphasized God’s love above everything. Jan’s comment, looking at his photograph, was that he looked like he’d be an animal in bed (or words to that effect). Indeed, Beecher ‘enjoyed the company of women’ and was even tried for adultery after seducing his friend’s wife. The “Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case” was one of the most sensational stories of its time. George Sand planned to write a novel about it but died so she didn’t.


hot stuff


In the years just before the Civil War Beecher joined the abolition effort. He raised money to purchase slaves from captivity and sent rifles to abolitionists fighting in Kansas and Nebraska. In the late eighteenth century, the Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped people escape slavery, offering shelter and aid. Churches throughout the country acted as ‘stations’ in this railroad and Plymouth Church was one of them. Ultimately, the goal of these escapees was to go to Canada, where they could live and move freely, sit on juries and even run for public office. We looked at the building in reverent silence. Fireflies flashed on the lawn. Alyssa said she liked to go sit in the garden sometimes because it was so peaceful.
Apart from its churches and history, Brooklyn Heights is also known for the writers who used to live there. Norman Mailer lived on the top floor of 142 Columbia Heights, which looks over the promenade. Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood on Willow Street on 70 Willow Street, which is now owned by the creator of Grand Theft Auto . Arthur Miller lived on the same street, 155 Willow, until he moved out and shacked up with Marilyn Monroe at 84 Remsen for five unhappy years. From October 1939 to September 1940 Auden lived at one Montague Terrace, where he wrote New Year Letter, a response (like Macniece’s excellent Autumn Journal) to the start of World War II.




By the time we returned to the Subway station, I realized that in a few blocks we’d walked in the footsteps of some of the most famous people in American history. And just two days before I hadn’t even known there was a place called Brooklyn Heights. It just goes to show. 


BK Heights 1854

Land of Morning Calm on West 32nd

Someday I’d like to visit Korea. Its ancient culture has a particular air of mystique that is captured in its beautiful pottery, romantic landscapes and delicious food. At the same time, I feel as if I’ve already been there because there are so many references to it in popular culture. I’ve seen snatches of it in K-Pop videos, Korean drama and in the novel White Monkey  by Carlos Hughes. I’ve also taught Korean students and spoken with other teachers who worked there and loved it.


Silla Ceramic
Ceramic ewer in the shape of a horse and warrior from the Silla kingdom (5-6th century BCE)


Although it is not the biggest country in Asia, it has deliberately publicized its culture to great effect around the world. The phenomenon of ‘Hallyu’ or ‘Korean Wave’  contributed to the fact that ‘Gangnam Style’ was the first video to reach 1 billion hits on Youtube and to the fact that my students in a remote corner of Saudi Arabia wanted to learn Korean and work in Seoul.   

Korea Town starts at the corner of Broadway and W. 32, Manhattan, and extends for a single block. As soon as you step past the sign saying ‘Korea Way’, you move from a world of yellow cabs,  hotdog stands and bemused tourists into a small city street in Seoul. My friend Jasmine, a native Korean who’s lived here for several years, offered to show me around so I jumped at the chance.

Much to my satisfaction, Jasmine first insisted on taking me on a quick tour of H-Mart, a Korean supermarket. Whenever I’m somewhere strange, which is often, my favorite thing to do is to pore over the supermarket aisles and reflect on the culinary habits of the people who purchase such odd things.

The first thing she pointed out were the sacks of rice, which were right at the entrance, being the staple of Korean cuisine. Although rice is difficult to grow in the mountainous country, Korean farmers are diligent about it and the product is of very high quality. 




Next, we zipped through the fruit and vegetable section. Here, she pointed to a bunch of dried red fruit. These were jujubes or daechu-cha from the Ziziphus jujube bush, also known as Chinese dates. In Korea they use it to make  a ruby-red tea full of vitamins, polyphenols and other nutrients . She also pointed to a long root, ginseng, from the Panax ginseng plant. Koreans have cultivated this plant for centuries, believing it improves their overall health, and they add it to tea, soups and other dishes.

Stopping by the sauce bottles, Jasmine picked up a bottle of fish sauce.

“This is for kimchee,” she explained.

Suddenly, all became clear—so that was the ingredient that gave the pickled cabbage that sharp, tangy flavor! Two weeks ago Jasmine gave me a jar of her homemade kimchi and I’ve been making my way through it ever since, analyzing its flavors and textures.


Jasmine’s kimchi


We went to the noodle section and she explained that Korean noodles are usually very spicy. Her husband Sergei is Russian and they are way too hot for his palate, she added with a chuckle. When I recalled that Muscovites consider tomatoes spicy, I could imagine the volcanic effect of superhot noodles on his delicate system. 


An ad for Korean noodles on an NYC City Bus (under a Hyundai ad)


We walked out of H-Mart and as we wandered down the street Jasmine pointed out all the shops–bookshops, cosmetics, clothing and restaurants–BBQ, fried chicken, tofu. Above every shop there was either a bar or a restaurant, so it was almost like two streets in one. 

“Korea Town never stops. Twenty-four seven,” she said. “At night, even when New York stops, Korea Town keeps going. Ah!” she pointed ahead of us as if she’d seen Father Christmas. “Ginseng!”




Sure enough, there was a whole fancy shop devoted to the leggy root. We went in to investigate. Here, it was sold as a dark paste in little jars, or as the naked root lovingly packaged in cellophane and displayed on a tiny pedestal. Jasmine said that it was very good for improving energy levels–that her grandmother used to make her own ginseng paste, it was very good–so I decided to get a small jar.

At the checkout, the shop assistant presented me with the world’s smallest spoon.

“First, just have one level spoonful a day,” she said seriously, “Then, after a month, increase the dose to two or three.”

“OK,” I nodded dutifully, wondering if I could spread it on toast like Marmite.

Taking the pretty red bag out of the store, I hoped we would soon be stopping for cake. Sure enough, Jasmine headed straight for a Parisian café of the Asian variety, with dainty sponge cakes and soft sweet buns. Together we shared a big green-tea roll.

Jasmine seemed a bit down. She explained that it was to do with the news about Korea and Japan, who are at one of the lowest points in their diplomatic relations since 1965. South Korea insists that reparations are owed to families of those forced to work for Japanese firms in World War II. Japan claims that that was already settled and has retaliated by limiting exports of materials Korea needs to produce electronic goods. In turn, South Korean consumers have started to boycott Japanese goods. Jasmine said this breach in relations is particularly hard because she works in an office where most of her other colleagues are Japanese.

In an effort to cheer her up a bit I produced a map of Korea from a book I was reading and asked her for recommendations for a future visit.

“Well, you must go to Seoul,” she said. “Then Geojedo Island. Very beautiful! And then the East Coast, the sea is very good–clear. Not like the Yellow Sea…” and pretty soon she was reeling off half-a-dozen places whose names I can’t remember.


Geojedo Island


As we were  finishing the cake, Sergei met us and we all went to the great Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya, a few blocks away and opposite Bryant Park. Jasmine pointed out a calligraphy aisle, saying that as a schoolgirl she used to have to practice writing katakana. She showed me the ‘inkstone’, the brushes, the ink and the thin, slightly roughened paper. When I asked if schoolkids still have to do it, she said no, they all learn English.

As we said goodbye at the Subway entrance, I thought about how many worlds New York City contains. On every trip into the city I see something new, and this time I’d learned a bunch about a whole country. It was pretty tiring. As soon as I got home I’d have a spoon of that ginseng.


Jeon Seon (1786-1856) ‘Taking a Rest after Reading Books’















The Day I Did American Democracy

I’m a fan of Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist candidate for the US presidency in 2020. So, when I got an email from his office asking for volunteers to attend a vote recount in support of Tiffany Cabán, I signed up for a Monday morning session.


Guess which one is the establishment candidate!


The race was for the democratic candidate who will eventually vie to become District Attorney of Queens, NY. I don’t know exactly what a district attorney is, but it seems to be a position of some importance. The two leading candidates are Tiffany Cabán and Melinda Katz. Katz is considered the establishment candidate, and Cabán is a socialist. Both women have said they intend to fight against mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and Cabán goes even further in that she intends to decriminalize sex work in the borough. 

Ordinarily, this sort of local election wouldn’t make big news but the fight has taken on wider significance because of this promise (or threat, depending on your point of view) of departure from  ‘business as usual’. As an article in Queens Eagle put it:


If Cabán does hold on to win, her victory would mark the stunning culmination of a grassroots movement focused on major reforms in the way prosecutors seek to punish people accused and convicted of crimes. It is also the latest contest between a growing faction of progressive Democrats and the Queens County Democratic Party, a powerful organization that has lost traction in the borough since the defeat of its former boss, ex-U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year. The county party and its leaders, including new chair, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, endorsed Katz for DA; Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Cabán. 


The election was held on June 25 this year and the initial results showed Cabán winning handily with a 1,090 vote lead. Re-canvassing of the vote machines increased Cabán’s lead to 1,199 votes. But after a count of absentee and affidavit ballots, Katz ended up leading by 20 votes, a small enough margin to necessitate a manual recount.

This was what I’d signed up for, so off I went. The thing started at 9.45am. Google maps suggested the journey would take 40 minutes. Factoring in subway repairs and my own difficulty in following simple directions, I decided to allow an hour and a half. Sure enough, I ended up getting on the wrong train twice and ended up arriving about five minutes late at a glass door at the back-end of a mall on Metropolitan Avenue. The corridor was full of other volunteers. I guessed that most of them were socialists because, like me, they were carrying canvas bags and looked bookish and depressed.


richard scully


A security guard swaggered in and told the people sitting on the floor that they had to get up.

‘Everyone line up against that wall,’ he growled, indicating one side of the corridor. This seemed a bit fascist but everyone wordlessly obeyed. I turned to the woman next to me, who looked permanently worried.

‘I missed the training video last night, do you know what we’re supposed to do?’ I asked.

She shrugged apologetically.

‘I’m not sure. We look at the vote and then make notes—that’s it I think.’ She had an Australian accent and I warmed to her as a fellow Australasian inexplicably dabbling in NY local politics.  

Someone came in asking for Katz’s volunteers. They were brought over to a different corner where they were briefed. Then Renee Paradis arrived. She is the lawyer for Cabán’s campaign, and looks a bit like Janis Joplin with her long free-flowing hair and bohemian élan. She sorted us into lawyers and ‘non-legal’ volunteers. She told us ‘non-legals’ that Robert would arrive soon and then she went to brief her lawyers. Robert arrived, a slim bearded youth with a kind face. He handed us papers to sign and told us to present them to the desk manned by security guards inside the door. We all filed in.

The setting was a big empty room that had the desolate institutional feel of a high school corridor or an abandoned hospital. There were eight tables in the center and chairs against the wall looking into the center of the room. Each chair had ‘BOARD OF ELECTIONS’ stamped on the back. Beside each table was a portable shelf containing four plastic boxes full of votes. The man in charge of wheeling the shelves around appeared to have no teeth. Each table had four seats–two for Katz’s people and two for Cabán’s—so the people who had diligently attended online training were sent to the tables. We wallflowers were assigned other tasks—mainly entering data using a laptop or phone. I had neither so it became my job to file the papers away in manila folders. Thusly briefed, we waited for everything to start.

As there was nothing else to do, I gazed around with interest at all the humanity. My first priority was to identify our rivals, the Katzes. From what I could make out, the Katz people were mainly rich old white people and middle-class black people. The Cabán people were generally young and slobby from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Katz’s men were clean-shaven, Cabán’s hirsute. As for lawyers, on our side we had Renee and Robert, both young and hip; Katz had two middle-aged men in suits. One was a very tall big man named Frank and assisting him was a smaller man with horn-rimmed glasses. As my neighbor muttered, with some justice, they looked like caricatures of lawyers.




Floating around between the tables was another lawyer, a glamorous woman with long blonde hair, snake-skin high heels and a tight skirt buttoned at the back, the type of character you might see in a Netflix law drama. She seemed to have high rank but I couldn’t tell what her role was in the whole thing.

The vote counting began. At each table, one of the lawyers produced a vote from the box, read  the name aloud and showed the page  to the three other people at the table, who squinted at it to see if it matched. Then they would each make a mark in the appropriate box on a tally sheet. If there was any question or disagreement, one of the lawyers raised his or her hand and call a big lawyer over. Katz’s people called Frank, Cabán’s called Renee. If Frank was called, Renee also hastened over and vice versa. If no one could settle it, the problem was recorded on a separate sheet of paper. We saw this little kerfuffle happen about six times in three hours.

My neighbors chatted away in quiet moments. The guy next to me was born in India but had immigrated to the US when he was young. He taught Creative Writing at a local university and the previous year had established a union for teachers and tutors, successfully negotiating a substantial pay rise. He said the university was now trying to squeeze him out, which suited him pretty well as he was thinking of taking a year off work. He just wanted to stay until he could wangle a big enough severance package. Next to him was a young Hungarian-born physician who’d lived in the Bronx for ten years. She worked in an ER unit and did seven days on, seven days off.  

Well, the morning wore on and I filed papers away as people handed them to me, feeling pleasantly useful, though wondering if this was really the most efficient way of doing a recount. There must have been a hundred people in the room and the whole thing would go on for days. I noticed there were an awful lot of votes for Katz on the tally sheets in these particular area districts and feared for my candidate’s chances.

At the lunch break, some people went home but a few of us opted to stay on just in case there weren’t enough volunteers for the afternoon shift. We followed Renee and Robert along to a corner deli and then to a little patch of grass where we picnicked near the parking lot. There was much talk of behind-the-scenes issues, very little of which I could follow. In fact, I was mainly appreciating the generous helping of mayonnaise on my sandwich and marveling at how dedicated these people were in such an uneven fight. Katz has powerful friends, including two attorneys working pro-bono on her side in the recount because they are intimately connected with the Democratic party; Cabán has to spend tens of thousands of dollars to pay her attorneys just for the recount. After finishing our lunch, it was time to return to the fray.




Another flood of Cabán volunteers arrived and again the security guard barked at us to stand against the wall. On this occasion a man in his sixties with a Roman nose and large bushy white beard laughed heartily and said shaking his head, ‘Civil disobedience. Civil disobedience.’

‘Just following orders sir,’ said the security guard tersely, but the laugh had done the job of deflating some of his pomposity. I felt very warm towards beardy.

Today the manual recount finished with Katz 60 votes ahead of Cabán. Katz has declared victory but Cabán is refusing to concede, insisting that hundreds of ballots were improperly invalidated and should be counted. The next court hearing will be on August 6…



Fricking Art Central!

One of the great New York traditions that I wouldn’t have seen except for our friends Michael and Jenny is Shakespeare in the Park, a series of free summer performances of Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

Joseph Papp, an A+ chap


The New York Shakespeare Festival (later to become Shakespeare in the Park) was set up in 1954 thanks to the vision and pep of theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp, whose aim was to make Shakespeare’s works accessible to the public. In 1957, he was granted the use of Central Park for the shows and in 1961 (after a legal scuffle with the groundskeeper) a theater was built especially for these performances. Since then, the Delacorte Theater has been the setting for annual summer performances, mostly of Shakespeare though there have also been seasons of Greek theater, Gilbert & Sullivan and other crowd-pleasers.


castle thingy


The Delacorte is an outdoor amphitheater perched on a bosky hill with a castle-like structure in the background. The first actors step onto the stage at eight o’clock, just as the clouds are turning pink and the birds are twittering in their roosts. As the play begins, darkness falls but no one notices because they’re under a spell.


a lanky Romeo and Juliet outside the box office


The fact that the performance is free and that seats are limited has led to the evolution of a particular box-office procedure. The tickets are all given out at noon on a first-come-first-served basis until the tickets are gone.  But even if you are last in line you have a chance at a good seat because the seats are assigned randomly. Each person can only take two tickets per performance. 

Michael, a Shakespeare-in-the-Park veteran, has perfected the art of ticket-getting and this year I had the privilege of participating in the time-honored ritual to get tickets for Coriolanus.  He said the line starts to form quite early but you could usually be sure of a ticket if you got there before ten.  

It was a hot day and I noticed that as soon as I entered the park, it got about five degrees cooler. Michael had set up two deckchairs under a big tree, so there was shade and even a little breeze. What’s more, he lent me a palm-leaf fan and gave me some ice-water that Jenny had prepared. Pretty soon we were completely comfortable and scoffing at the so-called ‘heat wave’ sweeping the East this week.

There were about forty other people in line, sitting on the grass chatting and watching a very athletic herding-dog chase a frisbee. The dog seemed to think we’d all come specifically to admire him and was putting on a real show. When its owner finally got tired and sat down, the dog picked up the frisbee and dropped it politely but firmly at a stranger’s feet. Then it ran to hide behind a tree, only to spring out as soon as the frisbee went whizzing past. Meanwhile, a saxophonist moved his way down the line, also looking for admiration (and money), honking out the sorts of tunes you play in high school jazz band. We all learned that he’d been studying architecture but had dropped out of classes to pursue his first love—music. He pointed out that the saxophone was really, really heavy, especially since he had to hold it for three hours.


Note that it does not say ‘Saxophone Music of Shakespeare’s Time’


The morning passed pleasantly in conversation, people-watching and guesses on whether or not the performance would be rained out (it would actually be thundered-and-flooded out!). Our cellphone weather apps seemed to suggest we might escape the predicted deluge. Suddenly, bright young volunteers organized us into groups and we were herded up to the box office to collect our tickets.

Everything having gone as planned, Michael headed home and I decided to stroll through the Park. Despite it being much hotter out of the shade of the big tree, it was a nice walk until I got to fifth avenue, at which point I realized that I was covered in sweat. Just then, I saw a large mansion with the words ‘Frick Collection.’ Supposing that it probably had air conditioning, I decided to go in before I got heat stroke.




Once in, I almost backed right out again because the place was extremely fancy. The museum staff were impeccably dressed and every square inch was polished. However, it definitely was air-conditioned so I decided to persevere. There was a bag search and then a bag check-in. I bought a ticket at a reduced price – well, it will be reduced if I go see two other museums this month.

The house used to be the residence of industrialist, financier and union-breaker Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). He made his fortune as founder of Frick Coke Company. Because coke was necessary for steel production, he partnered up with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and they formed the Carnegie Steel Company, later United States Steel.  




It may be an exaggeration to call Frick a mass-murderer, but at least two incidents suggest that he lacked the milk of human kindness. One was the 1889 Johnstown flood, which recent studies have shown his rich-guys’ club was largely responsible for. The second was his heavy-handed union-breaking behavior in Homestead strike. Unfortunately, however, when Emma Goldman’s lover, anarchist Alexander Berkman, made an assassination attempt on Frick, public sympathy for the strikers evaporated.


Debris from Johnstown flood


Meanwhile, like other big American capitalists of the period, Frick was busy hoarding European art. And, to give the bastard credit, he was exceptionally good at it. As you can see on the museum’s website, there are hundreds of items and most of them are very beautiful.

The house itself is ridiculously grandiose, clearly built to display artwork and to make an impression. On first glance though, the nicest room in the house was the open-air courtyard and garden. The sunlight, water and greenery provide a sense of relaxation and, whereas the galleries with their grand huge paintings end up feeling oppressive.  




I sat down in the video room and watched a clip of a nice man called Edmund de Waal nattering on about some porcelain and steel installations he’d made to compliment the gallery collections. You can see it here. Near the end of the video I heard a woman behind me whisper, ‘It’s ugly. I hate it. It’s wrong.’ I couldn’t decide if she was right or not. To me, de Waal’s porcelain cups looked like IKEA cups but I don’t know anything about art. The way he pinged the porcelain with his fingernail and rhapsodized about the beautiful sound made him seem like an appealing nerd anyway. On walking through the galleries later, though, I found I didn’t really notice these installations at all. Maybe I did subliminally. 

The Frick Collection certainly does have some impressive paintings. There is a Hogarth where there doesn’t seem to be any obvious joke and he actually likes his subject Miss Mary Edwards ; Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl ; and The Forge by Francisco Goya.




The one that bothered me the most was Frans Snyders by Anthony van Dyck. There’s something about the guy’s voluminous black robe, thin face and long pale fingers that seems frightening, almost inhuman and mysteriously vicious. I now wonder if it has anything to do with Snyders’ tendency to paint ghastly arrangements of carcasses.


‘Dead Game, Fruits and Vegetables in a Market’ by Frans Snyder


One piece that I found moving was a piece that is on special loan to the museum—Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John by Simone Martini, about the size of a paperback book.  If you click the link above and magnify the image on the screen, you can make out patterns that have been stamped or etched into the gold leaf, the flush of color on Mary’s and John’s cheeks and distress on their faces.




I guess I just prefer medieval art because after that I went into some baroque-themed room and saw a vapid Rococo lady on a sleigh who was supposed to represent Winter. At that point I decided I was cool enough and should be heading home. There’s only so much art you can look at in one go!


‘Winter’ by François Boucher

Selby Junior’s Sunset Park

Where we’re living now is not that rough, but you can sort of tell that it used to be. It’s the place Herbert Selby Jr. described in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), a novel that was described as ‘brutal’,   prosecuted for obscenity in the UK and outright banned in Italy. In spite of gentrification (today I saw an ‘avocaderia’) there are a few hints of that earlier age in the rusty junkyards, sex stores, used-car lots  and a ‘World-Class Gentleman’s Club’ called ‘PP’. So, as a way to summon up that age full of grime, violence and wretchedness, here are some images from Sunset Park with quotes from the novel.


“Everybody had money during the war. The waterfront was filled with drunken seamen. And of course the base was filled with doggies. And they were always good for a few bucks at least. Sometimes more. And Tralala always got her share. No tricks. All very simple.”




“The day had been long and hot. It had been many hours since anyone had looked up at the clear blue sky. It was still summertime and there were many more hot days to come.”




“Anyway, he had this 76 and Tommys long and kinda skinny and he sorta looked like the bike was growin outtaim; like he had a bike between his legs instead of a pecka. And when he kicked it over he just sat there like he was restin or something and gave a little push on the peddle and BaROOOM.”




“Sat down and lit a cigarette and stared out the window. Smoked. Nothing on the street. No one. Car parked across the street. empty.” 




“When he stopped moving he lay still for a moment hearing their heavy breathing then kissed her, caressed her arms then rolled slowly and gently onto the bed, stretched out and soon slept. Harry was happy.”




“Ada opened the window. The air was still and warm. She smiled and looked at the trees; the old ones, tall, big and strong; the young ones small, springy, hopeful; sunshine lighting the new leaves and buds. Even the budding leaves on the hedges and the young thin grass and dandelion sprouts were alive with sunshine.”




“Still like the Pontiac. If I was buyin a car. Put fender skirts on it, grill lights, a set a Caddy hubcap and a bigass aerial in the rear…shit, thats the sharpest job on the road. Your ass. Nothin can touch the 47 Continental convertible. Theyre the end. We saw one uptown the other day. What-a-fuckin-load. Man!!!”




“Anyway, the beach was nice even just sitting on a bench getting the sun. She watched a small child ride by on his tricycle then watched a group of children running after each other and yelling.”