Falling In and Out of Love With Brooklyn

Soon after moving to Brooklyn from Los Angeles (by way of a brief stop in Washington Heights) almost ten years ago, I was on the #2 Train, and a mariachi trio got on and started belting out a Mexican song.

Most train lines conjure images in New Yorkers’ heads, often ethnic in nature, and we all know that the 2 in Brooklyn is mostly Black, and much of that Caribbean, with a little Hasid and Hipster mixed in – the difference between the last two getting blurrier. Fascinating to a newcomer that the mariachi guys would choose this audience to raise a little cash.

Accordions are loud, and as soon as its wind filled the car an enchanted smile covered my face, and I turned to the woman sitting next to me, who looked around 70 years old. She just frowned and said, “Not these motherfuckers again.”

Within a few years I found myself muttering such things too. That’s part of love: brutal honesty. I love my neighbors, but when I see one dropping a diaper or styrofoam food box in front of my house, I holler out the window, “You gonna pick that up?!” We all piss and moan about one another, so I find it helps to say so when we get that fuzzy feeling of brother- and sisterhood.

The Danes apparently have a specialized concept something like “deliberate coziness,” hygge, that they credit with making them extraordinarily happy people despite their sunlight-deficient environment. New Yorkers have a kindred kind of tenderness for one another that people from everywhere else are prone to mis-reading completely. It rarely expresses itself via anything more than a raised eyebrow or an exasperated hunch of the shoulders, but occasionally crosses the line into a camaraderie-building shrug while keeping eye contact with a stranger: We acknowledge the effort it takes one another to stifle the R-rated politically incorrect broadsides we compose while we’re simply inconvenienced at times by the presence of eight million other people with multiple ideas about social constructs such as personal space, vocal volume, and the pedestrian speed limit. (Denmark, by comparison, has under six million.)

I was overcome by it while waiting in line to vote on Tuesday. The Giuliani-Bloomberg era was ending with a whimper, and the line was just a few persons, but taking longer than it felt like it should. My local bartender was in front of me. He turned around with his eyebrows high, then interrupted himself with some small talk to distract us. “You’re voting No on Question 5, right?” “Yup.”

The signs were like this:


I love this city.

“The Hive” of Subways

Whenever distant friends visit New York, and I’m called upon to give train directions, I take the opportunity to editorialize about private versus public services.

The subways in New York are so nonsensically laid out because they were once three competing companies. To transfer from the N Train to a 6 Train at Canal Street, for example, you have to walk up and down two separate stairways and down a dank corridor that smells like a sewage pipe. It’s because they weren’t designed to interface. They were designed to compete, and the city has done its best to make the lines interface with a sometimes baffling patchwork of connecting halls, stairs, and elevators.

You can still see signs that read “To I.R.T.” or “B.M.T. Trains” in the fixtures and tiles, but the old Interborough Rapid Transit and its competitors have long gone out of business, and just a handful of old-timers still call the lines by those names. Whenever someone under 50 refers to a 1-2-3 train on 7th Avenue as “the I.R.T.” I suspect that they’re putting on airs.

That’s our way of doing things. Start them as private ventures, and once they’re absolutely essential to lots of people’s well-being, run them knowing that if they’re mismanaged, then the government will have no choice but to take them over. (Sounds like our healthcare system.) Seventy years since the MTA took over the trains and unified it into one system, it is still just now getting around to making some improvements. One obvious one was the transfer from the BDF and M lines at Broadway-Lafayette to the uptown 6 Train, whose Bleecker Street Station is at the end of the block. (The transfer to the downtown 6 has been possible for years.)

Now that it’s finished the MTA commissioned an artist named Leo Villareal to install an LED display on the ceiling, which is most spectacular while you’re taking the escalator from the inbound D/F platform to the Bleecker Street Station.

One of its conspicuous elements is how fragile the lights look. During the 80s these lights wouldn’t have lasted a week. It gives the impression that the MTA system is a giant, electric hive, and we are the bees!


Of course – and New Yorkers will appreciate this – the first time I had an occasion to take the escalator and discovered “Hive (Bleecker Street)” – I got to the top and found…

…the uptown trains were not running that Sunday: