Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tuesday Night in Williamsburg: Jonathan Baumbach and Others for The Brooklyn Rail at Pierogi

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Tuesday, November 20, 2007:

Tuesday Night at Pierogi: Jonathan Baumbach and Others for The Brooklyn Rail

On Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. I walked the few blocks from home to the Williamsburg art gallery Pierogi for a reading sponsored by The Brooklyn Rail, the borough's great arts, politics and cultural monthly.

I was ill with bronchitis and had worked from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. but I wanted to hear and see Jonathan Baumbach reading from his new novel You: Or the Invention of Memory.

I wasn't disappointed. Baumbach read chapter 12 from his galleys. It was a record of four "couples therapy" sessions for an estranged couple, Jay and Lois, with the marriage counselor Leo.

Baumbach's forte is literature about the day-to-day frustrations and pleasures and dramas of domestic life, and the excerpt had the author's right-as-reigned-in-fury dialogues between the couple, who at one point get beyond their contempt for each other to gang up on Leo.

I very much enjoyed chapter 12 of You and look forward to reading the novel when it's published any day now. Baumbach has written a dozen novels since the late 1960s, as well as four short story collections, including 2006's superb On the Way to My Father's Funeral.

I was grateful that Baumbach went first, because a paroxysm of coughing (and the attendant embarrassment) following his reading caused me to miss most of the other writers featured by The Brooklyn Rail: short story writer Diane Williams (It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature), novelist Cees Nooteboom (Lost Paradise) and poet Jerome Rothenberg (Triptych). I hope I can catch them another time.

Full disclosure: I first met Jonathan Baumbach when I took him for a short story writing class at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1971, when he introduced me to such writers as Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Walter Abish and John Hawkes.

From 1974 to 1976, I was a student in Brooklyn's nascent MFA program in creative writing, and Baumbach was the director of the fiction program whom I had as my teacher in both workshops and tutorials. I also worked for him and another MFA professor, the novelist Peter Spielberg, for several years at the then-new Fiction Collective, of which they were the founding co-directors.

But until Tuesday's reading, I had not seen or spoken to Jonathan Baumbach in thirty years. However, I've continued to enjoy his writing. Long careers in fiction writing in America are rare and confined mostly to household names like Mailer, Updike and Roth. Baumbach's longevity is due to many of his strengths as a writer, and I am pretty sure that I would admire him even if I had never met him.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunday at the Lefferts Homestead: "Disappearing Dutch Brooklyn"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Monday, November 19, 2007:

I have a blog post reporting on yesterday's presentation at the Lefferts Historic House running today at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn:

Sunday was the last day of "5 Dutch Days, 5 Boroughs" – the annual celebration of Dutch culture in New York City. The day's events included a morning service at the Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street and Seventh Avenue as done in its congregation 300 years ago, using the Netherlands Liturgy of 1619, and an afternoon family exhibit at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House in Ridgewood to show kids what life was like for young people in the early years of the city.

Four centuries ago, of course, Brooklyn was part of the great Dutch commercial world empire, but traces of Dutch Brooklyn have all but vanished in my lifetime along with the dirt roads like Mill Lane I used to walk and the wooden planks that preceded sidewalks in my little corner of what had been Nieuw Amersfoort.

When I was born, about 70 Dutch-American farmhouses stood in Brooklyn. Today only 14 are left.

On Sunday afternoon, I was at the Lefferts Homestead for "Disappearing Dutch Brooklyn – Where Have All the Houses Gone?" -- a presentation by anthropologist and archaeologist Christopher Ricciardi, who showed slides from his dig at an old house I know well, the Hendrick I. Lott House on East 36th Street, down the block from my friend Ken Falk's house in Marine Park not far from where I grew up.

Living in this Dutch Colonial farmhouse from 1720 until 1989, members of the prominent Lott family participated in the Revolutionary War, supported abolition – freeing their slaves as early as 1801 and then hiring them as paid servants – and may have later used the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 2001 Ricciardi and his colleagues from the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center discovered the slave quarters, a windowless, cramped garret room roughly ten feet square. A tiny space – a closet within a closet, its door hidden behind coat hooks that would have held a curtain of garments – may have been a way station for escaping slaves.

Ricciardi acknowledged that just as many 18th century houses claim that George Washington slept there, most pre-Civil War houses in the North claim to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But two different descendants of the Lott family, who didn't know each other, both remembered the same story when given tours of the old homestead. "They said this was where they kept their runaway slaves," Ricciardi said.

Although southern Brooklyn Dutch farmers were quite wealthy, Ricciardi noted, apparently they were not materialists like their equally rich counterparts in Manhattan and what is today brownstone Brooklyn, who had more opulent homes.

The dig proved that the Lotts lived frugally, with plain dishes, glasses and pipes and no fancy materials in the construction of their house.

The Lott House is one of four Brooklyn sites owned by the Historic House Trust of New York City, along with the Lefferts Historic House Museum (c. 1783), the Old Stone House (1699), and the oldest structure in New York City, one I can recall my first girlfriend's mother, an East Flatbush community planning board member, fighting to save in the late 1960s: the original portion of the Pieter Classen Wyckoff House on Clarendon Road and East 58th Street, which dates from 1652.
The Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum now looks a lot better than the old dump with a caved-in roof sporting a crooked TV antenna I remember from that day in August 1970, when Mayor Lindsay presided over a ceremony marking the start of its restoration.

In a fascinating Q&A session following his presentation, Chris Ricciardi said that it's hard to get New Yorkers interested in southern Brooklyn's old Dutch farmhouses because they're a bit out of the way. But, he concluded, it's important to respect our borough's past and preserve our common heritage.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The PODler reviews Richard Grayson's And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street today:

Richard Grayson is a prolific writer of over 200 stories, articles, and books. In the 80s, he staged a satiric run for the White House against Ronald Reagan. He has obtained a J.D. degree from University of Florida with honors and is, in addition, a master satirist and a keen observer of the American scene from his own and unique viewpoint. Grayson writes in a deceptively simple style that is, nevertheless, hard to imitate. Using this kind of autobiographical method, bordering on a confessional, Grayson looks through shifting viewpoints (gay and straight; white and black; American and immigrant; young and old) at the people, times, and palaces of a fictional Brooklyn.

In these fictions, Grayson meditates on various topics, mostly race, sexual identity, age, and change by using the device of popular culture, mixing in liberally the icons of pop culture with persons and places from memory to construct a solid literary edifice.

The collection is filled with resonant stories about the lives of ordinary people, and this focus is what makes them interesting and memorable. Somehow, though Grayson's master touch, the ordinary becomes fascinating and highly readable literature. Many of these stories, however, reflect a deep sadness that exists in the heart of the common man and his experience. Nothing seems to happen for the protagonists in these stories, their lives stupefying their subjects. Grayson reminds us with his fiction that our lives are, in the end, rather banal, revolving around the mundane, the ordinary, and the common. At the same time, there seems to be a kind of weird current of apathy that flows beneath the surface of the stories. In the title story, we wonder, for example, whether the narrator is incredibly open-minded about his son's sexuality and the kiss between the boys, or whether he's just too apathetic to care, and we wonder because the title seems to be a kind of subconscious expression of protest by the protagonist. Apathy, or more precisely, a kind of stupefaction, perhaps synergized by the bathos of pop culture, rears its head in "Shirtless Tea-bag Eating White Boys," in which two characters, one stupefied by Haldol, the other just tranquilized by American culture, watch internet videos, which somehow are appropriate for the mentally dysfunctional character and the young elementary school teacher; the first prefers to watch a purple hippo, and the latter prefers to view shirtless tea-bag eating white boy clips.

Some of these stories are biographical, and those are the stories that I like the best. Especially likable are "Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn," in which Grayson's character reminisces about the libraries that he had known and how they had evolved over the years-this one is probably my favorite story, as I do love libraries, and it seems that Grayson is a true lover of the library as well - and "The Lost Movie Theatres of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach," another story of nostalgia and memory, where we are treated to reminiscences about the various theatres that the author remembers. "1001 Ways to Defeat Green Arrow" deals with change in gay relationships and the longing and emptiness that result. "My Life in The New York Post" is a collection of strange but somehow funny clips from, apparently, the Post regarding a fictional Grayson's plots and schemes.

Other stories that I liked were "In the Sixties," a kaleidoscope-like summary of the Sixties; "Diary of a Brooklyn Cyclones Hot Dog," which deals with the life of a lesbian Uzbek immigrant who is promoted to being the Relish in a Hot Dog Race; and "Mohammad's Therapy Monkey," in which the protagonist, a college student with some issues is assigned a roommate with a pet monkey, which helps him find acceptance and a relationship of his own in a place that he detests.

Grayson chronicles the real through his funny, sometimes sad, but always genuine, if slightly offbeat, fictional world.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Exploring Brooklyn by Bus: The B35 from Brownsville to Sunset Park

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Thursday, November 1, 2007:

"Exploring Brooklyn by Bus: The B35 from Brownsville to Sunset Park" at OTBKB

At Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn today, I have another in my "Exploring Brooklyn By Bus" series -- today it's on the B35, the Church Avenue/39th Street route from Brownsville to Sunset Park:

Several bus routes go east-west through nearly all of Brooklyn; closest to the center of the borough is the B35, Church Avenue/39 Street, which stretches from Brownsville to Sunset Park.

Many Brooklyn bus routes are based on the old trolley routes. The Church Avenue trolley is the only one I can recall riding; it was one of the last routes to go, lasting until I was five. On trips from her house to ours, Bubbe Ita, my great-grandmother, would let me stand on the wicker seat and pull the cord to request the stop.

The B35 begins at Mother Gaston Avenue, but I walk a few blocks up to where I began – at Brookdale Hospital, Beth-El Hospital in 1951, where I was delivered by the same Park Slope GP who'd delivered my mother twenty years before. I pass streets reflecting the earlier neighborhood ethnicity, Herzl Street and Strauss Street – but at Rockaway Parkway, Church Avenue's alternative name is Bob Marley Boulevard.

I once told someone in South Florida who asked me where I was from in Brooklyn, "Around Church and Utica," and the guy, a Jamaican, said, "That's not Brooklyn; that's the West Indies." The familiar colors of the Jamaican flag are on local storefronts and posters.

West Indians started to move into East Flatbush in the late 1950s, about the time we left our apartment on East 54 Street just south of Church for our new house in Old Mill Basin. All our relatives left the neighborhood as "blockbusters" came in and scared the white people into moving. Both sets of my grandparents left in 1967 for Rockaway.

The last time I went to our old block was in 1980, when black friends brought me along to a party given by Carol, whose Jamaican father, it turned out, owned the apartment building on the corner. When I told Carol that I'd lived on this very block until 1958, she said, "Oh, I envy you. It must have been beautiful here before the Haitians came and ruined it."

Around here, as in other places, Brooklyn's varied street numbering patterns collide: on one side of Ralph Avenue, it's the East 90s; on the other side the East 50s.

We pass the East Flatbush branch library, hair braiding places, Jerk City and the Brooklyn Jerk Center, and an inspirational mural of a (Caribbean?) beach with manna from heaving falling upon it. I spot, behind a car wash by Kings Highway, the third-story window of the bedroom where I misplaced my virginity in the spring of 1971.

Storefront houses of worship, like the Reviving Revelation Revivalist Pentacostal Church, its sign decorated with a crown, a cross, and a star of David, line Church Avenue. On lampposts are many signs of the times, all with some version of AVOID FORECLOSURE! By now the bus is jammed.

Most of the stores from my childhood are gone, of course, but SilverRod Pharmacy at the corner of Utica and Church, the crossroads of our neighborhood, still stands. As we stop, the driver calls over the PA system: "Does anyone know where Kingsbrook Hospital is?"

I hesitate, then yell out, "Get out here and take the Utica bus four or five blocks north and then go left a few blocks."

"Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure," I yell. I decide not to add how I know: "My grandmother had rectal surgery there."

I'm the only non-black person on the bus.

In the East 40s we pass restaurants like Linda's Guyanese, West Indian and American Cuisine. Every three or four blocks, the numbered streets are broken up by streets named after cities: Utica, Schenectady, Troy, Albany, New York, Brooklyn (Saratoga, Kingston and Buffalo don't go down this far).

We see more churches – Eglise Baptiste and Iglesia Pentecostal – as well as day care centers, a fast-food vegetarian restaurant and a storefront P.S. 245. At Nostrand Avenue lots of people leave for the subway. The corner Granada Theatre is long gone, in its place the Guyana Gold jewelry store. Banners decorated with a palm tree on a beach proclaim "East Flatbush, the Caribbean Heart and Soul of Brooklyn."

Soon East Flatbush becomes Flatbush, and we're at Flatbush Avenue, across from the old Dutch Reformed Church that I assume gave the avenue its name. This area was the Broadway of Brooklyn, with seven or eight theaters that no longer exist. The Kenmore, right by the bus stop, is a Modell's Sporting Goods store.

On the other side of Ocean Ave, near the B/Q train station, is West Indian Farm, a great place to buy Caribbean produce. At the subway stop, an Indian woman in a sari gets on, along with Hispanic people and old Jewish man who sits beside me, replacing the woman who was reading the Bible in Creole.

On the south side of Church, brick stanchions with the PPS crest signal Prospect Park South, and both the fronts and sides of Victorian homes line the street. For a few blocks, English street names displace the East Teens: Rugby, Westminister, Marlborough, Stratford, Buckingham, Argyle.

Past Coney Island Avenue and where Ocean Parkway becomes the Prospect Expressway, the signs proclaim Kensington's ethnic mélange: Transfer D'Argent Haiti, a taqueria, a giant yeshiva, Mazowsze Polish Deli, Plaza 5 de Mayo, Productos Mexicanos, Pinosha Albanian Village, Kadima Cell Phones, food from Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey. Just past Yummy Taco by McDonald Avenue's F train stop, a woman in a burqa pushes a shopping cart past Bangladesh Hair Design.

The East numbered streets are gone now as Kensington bleeds into Boro Park, and Church Avenue ends, diagonally interrupting the plain-numbered streets and avenues that dominate western Brooklyn.

The bus goes up 36 Street past auto body shops, a matzoh factory, the Heimishe Bakery a few stores down from a Mexican supermarket. Past Fort Hamilton Parkway, we pass Camp Warehouse, your spot to buy everything for summer campers.

The bus rides on 39 Street now, and I see some signs in Arabic, but also a kosher market with yarmulke-wearing customers, and a Mexican eagle in front of a barbershop.

It's kind of industrial here: auto repair shops, furniture stores and factories. Passing Fourteenth Avenue, there's The Largest Sukkah Manufacturer in the World, the Eretfsz Hachaim gas station and the Heimeshe Coffee Shop. But all the men with yarmulkes get off the bus and the only new passengers look Mexican or Central American.

Suddenly, the street is residential, mostly two-story brick houses, but there's a brand-new five-story building too. At Fort Hamilton Parkway, there's the mammoth white brick Lamp Warehouse, its sign featuring two portraits of Thomas Edison and the store's founder and these quotations: "Let there be light." – The inventor. "Let there be discounts." – The Maven

At Eleventh Ave only Chinese people get on, and by Tenth Avenue and the New Utrecht Avenue el, we pass mostly Chinese venues like Long Sing Bakery and Q Q Poultry Market, though I spot Korean signs as well. Eighth Avenue is dominated by stores featuring furniture, plumbing and heating supplies and what appear to be factories for some kind of electric, glass and stone products.

We start to go downhill as we pass Sixth and Fifth Avenues, and there's a weird Days Inn hotel tucked into a street otherwise filled with older houses with aluminum siding.

At Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, we stop a long time for a switch of bus drivers as a crowd gets on: a woman wearing a hijab, Hispanic teens, an elderly Chinese couple, a black woman chatting on a cell phone, more Arabs, and white couple speaking a language I can't make out.

Past the Gowanus Parkway exit, at Second Avenue, the cobblestone streets have old trolley tracks coming up in all directions. This area is industrial, with huge Mack tractor-trailer trucks, the Closeout Connection and the Eat It Corporation warehouses. A two-story Costco has a parking lot huge even by suburban standards. Very prominent on the street is Peyton's Play Pen, a Gentlemen's Club that's All Nude All the Time – not that I've ever been inside.

Getting off the bus, I walk to the barbed wire at the end of 39 Street. I smell the brackish harbor and look out at the water. The Bayonne Bridge seems surprisingly close. My journey across the heart of Brooklyn has taken over an hour and my unlimited MetroCard is ready to head back east.