Image by Alex Cook. Photo by Melanie Dunea.
I, like all exiles, live in the aftermath of my own life, but unlike other exiles, I have to go back every day on the subway. It's a painful path. I was the king of Avenue C in the East Village on the island of Manhattan, the chief glutton-in-charge of a block I hoped never to leave; now I'm just another ashen-faced Brooklyn zombie, trudging around and trying to see the brighter side of things. You may know how much I loved the East Village—I was in a VICE video in which I was almost visibly delirious with happiness with my neighborhood. Today I live somewhere in Crown Heights, on a cold and squalid block, subsisting on Zebra Cakes and quarter waters, an old bum with matted hair and dead, sad eyes. But I had my hour in paradise.
What a difference. It's even worse than I thought. When I lived in the East Village, I had so many good restaurants around me that I didn't know where to eat first. You may remember my Munchies video: I went to 11B, Barbone, and Hearth. I could make a Munchies video every day for a month and never return to the same sandwich twice. I bought the city's best ham at the East Village Meat Market, and the country's best hamburger at the Brindle Room (the former dense and porky, the latter all crust and dry-aged piquancy.) When it came to pizza, I was likewise living a glutton's dream. I had the quintessential New York slice joint in 11B, and the best of all Roman pizzas in Gnocco, and la vera pizza Napolitana at Motorino—which is there should you chose by some freak chance to go there instead of Gnocco. Were this not enough, you could get the—always underrated!— Nicoletta pizza, or even the Convivio lasagna delivered to your house for $17. I had Hearth. I was, after a lifetime as a tourist, within walking distance of Katz's. Think of that. Katz's. Katz's! I was on easy terms with the guy behind the counter at the Gem Spa, and the guy behind the counter at the Stage, and there were five different places vying to sell me pierogis.
And then, one day, it was all gone.
I don't believe that anyone moves to Brooklyn who can avoid it; and my current condition hasn't done anything to change my mind. My rent is a third of what it was, but my life is one-sixth as good. People don't pay that rent in the East Village because they like to pay high rent. They pay it because that's what they have to do. Neither they nor I give a shit whether the neighborhood has any character or not. Rockets Redglare has been dead for years. So what? If what we have over here in Crown Heights is character, give me vanilla. I said earlier that I was subsisting on Zebra Cakes. Even that is an exaggeration. I can't always find Zebra Cakes! Little Debbie would be a step up from the stuff they have in our bodegas; at KFC, they keep the chicken behind bulletproof glass.
The one exception to all this, of course, is one of the many mini-neighborhoods, oases of collegiate cool, that genteel types like me gravitate toward and cause to coalesce. In this case, Franklin Avenue is a boulevard of twee boutiques and several restaurants, at least two or three of which are surprisingly acceptable. Early on in this dismal misadventure, I found myself sitting at the bar at Mayfield's with Mr. Recipe, the frightening "spice guru" from my Munchies video. We ate some delicate and crispy fried clams, followed by a corned beef tongue on toast and a duck confit salad. "This isn't so bad," I said, too enthusiastically. There was a brief moment when this strip seemed enough to keep my mood up. There was a high-minded pizzeria in the Paulie G mold in Rosco's; a good-enough pasta house, Cent'Anni; a gourmet store with a better class of cookies; and of course, all the meat patties a man could want.
But it was no use. A restaurant like Mayfield's is good enough to hold its own in an actual good restaurant neighborhood, such as the one I was cast out from. But—and this is what the Brooklynite apologists never mention—in the good neighborhoods, it is one of 15 such establishments. I lived in the East Village on and off for ten years and never made it to Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar. I lived five minutes from the Redhead and six minutes from Bobwhite, and live to consume fried chicken. Neither place saw me more than three or four times a year. Veselka—Veselka!—was my third hamburger option. I have now been to Mayfield's five times and its menu is becoming as familiar to me as the inside of my refrigerator.
You ask me if I have a different opinion of Brooklyn now that I live here. The answer is yes. Brooklyn is even worse than I remembered it, particularly in its vast untamed stretches—the Canarsies and Brownsvilles and Bath Beaches that actually constitute the greater majority of the borough. And as for your Bedford Avenues and Smith Streets, you can have them. My life has now been bifurcated: I live half the time amid the very summit of cookery in the 212 most nights, and spend my days with blackened frozen fingers, gnawing on oxtails and off-brand snack cakes in the streets. It has been a long fall. But if nothing else, it did, at least, confirm just how right my prejudices were.
Brooklyn is the worst.