21 September 2013

From The Neighborhood

Yesterday, for the first time in a couple of weeks, I felt decent and had a few free hours at the same time.  So I went, naturally, for a ride.

The sky was as blue as the air was crisp:  Fall had arrived, if not officially, and yet another summer, another season had passed.  On such a day, I can understand how someone can be agoraphobic:  An open space--whether of land or sea or sky--can seem like a huge, yawning emptiness when there are no markers, physical or emotional.

So all anyone can do--or, at least, all I could do-- was to move through it.  That I did by pedaling, by pedaling Tosca, my fixed-gear bike.  I had a feeling I wouldn't ride a lot of miles, and that I'd ride them slowly, so I wanted to get some kind of workout from them.

As it turned out, I rode about 50 or 60 km, or a bit more than 30 or 35 miles, along the steel and glass shorelines and brick byways that have lined so much of the path of my life. 

A meander from the East River and the bay took me into the heart of Brooklyn, specifically to this place:

On the sidewalks in front, and across the street, from this building careworn and harried, yet content, men and women prodded groups of pale but energetic children as their feet stuttered about the grid of concrete blocks.  Although those children looked different from the way my brothers, my peers and I looked, something was very, very familiar about the rhythm of their steps and their calls to each other.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised.  Although I had not been there in quite some time, I know that building, and that block, as well as any in this world.  In fact, I know it so well that I can tell you that nearly half a century ago, it didn't have the canopy you see in the photo.

Nor did it have the gate that now encloses the courtyard:

By now, you may have guessed that I lived in that building very early in my life.  Some of my oldest memories, for better and worse, are of those days.  

I think it's a co-operative now rather than the building of rental apartments it was in my childhood.  Also, as you probably have guessed, it's populated by families of Hasidic Jews.  In my day, nearly all of the families--of whom my family knew most--consisted of Italian- or Jewish (non-Hasidic)-Americans.  The men worked blue-collar jobs or had stores or other small businesses and the women stayed home and raised us.  In that sense, I guess we weren't so different from the people who live there now.

Then, as now, it was very unlikely that a woman--much less one like me--would have been riding a bicycle down that street--or, for that matter, any of the other streets I pedaled yesterday.  I turned, not quite at random, down a series of avenues and roads and other byways until I reached the southwestern part of Bensonhurst, not far from Coney Island.

I wasn't feeling hungry, but I stopped at a pizzeria--Il Grotto Azzuro--on 21st Avenue, near 85th Street.  From the street, it looks like one of many others of its kind.  But I went in anyway.

"Can I help you?"  The man's accent seemed even more familiar than anything else I'd experienced throughout my ride.

After ordering a classic Neapolitan slice and a white slice, he chimed, "You're gonna have the best pizza there is.   How did you know you were gonna find it here?"

"I followed my nose," I intoned, playing along.  "I always follow my nose when I'm riding my bike."

Somehow I sensed his claim wasn't hype.  Even if it wasn't the best pizza, the guy really believed that it was.  After finishing both slices, I ordered another Neapolitan, even though I was quite full.  "You're right!," I exclaimed.

Those Neapolitan slices were certainly the best I've had in a while.  Even though they were slices and it was five in the afternoon--near the end of the lull between lunch and dinner--it and the white slice tasted fresher than many I've had from just-cut whole pies.  

Sometimes, in the course of a bike ride, a slice of pizza or a bottle of beer can seem like the best you've ever had because you're tired or hungry. (I think now of the sugar and lemon crepe I gulped down after pedaling up Le Col du Galibier.  I've had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other crepes in France.  But that one was the best.) However, I felt surprisingly good in spite of my recent illness and, as I mentioned, I wasn't hungry when I found Il Grotto Azzuro.

It's been there a while.  As I ate, another customer--a lifelong resident of the neighborhood--told me he'd been going there for more than 30 years.  I hope it's there for at least that much longer: The neighborhood is changing. 

So fueled, I continued down to Coney Island where, after thumping and clattering along the boardwalk (All of it is now open), a guard waved me into Sea Gate, which counts Isaac Bashevis Singer and Beverly Sills among its onetime residents.   I'd heard the area, not surprisingly, took an even greater hit than the surrounding neighborhood from Superstorm Sandy.  But, while the beaches were as eroded as those in Coney Island (though less so than those of the Rockaways or parts of New Jersey), most of the houses seemed to weather the wind and tides well.  Most seemed little different from what they were at this time last year; a few were still being repaired. 

At one of those houses, someone who didn't know my name called me:

Of course I stopped.

He capped his head with the palm of my hand and tiptoed along the rails, rubbing the side of his body through my fingers.  I think he knew I'm "from the neighborhood."