O Williamsburg! My Alma Mater!

williamsburgbridge O Williamsburg! My Alma Mater!When I came back to New York in 2005, I moved into an apartment in Williamsburg in a house owned by a friend of a friend. It was small—tiny, in fact—and, I thought, overpriced, but I had a dog and I was living in Philadelphia and would be going back to school in New York (which meant I would be even poorer than usual), and the combination of the three meant that I jumped at the chance to live in a fly-infested, aluminum-sided apartment almost an hour away from where I’d be going to school, across from a housing project and behind a gas station, because it meant I could stop looking and didn’t have to pay a broker’s fee.

It would’ve been a typical first-apartment-in-New-York tale, except that this wasn’t my first apartment in New York; I’d lived in a suspiciously similar apartment (at least on the inside) on the Lower East Side just after graduating from college, where the kids upstairs bounced basketballs on the floor at all hours and the bathroom ceiling leaked. Also, the shower did that thing where it gets superhot and then supercold without warning. Hate that. So even though I had already paid my crappy-first-apartment dues, I told myself that since I’d left New York and, years later, returned, that I deserved to be back at square one.

Also: Williamsburg? I had gone to that near-mythical land, “Bedford Avenue,” a couple of times, and vaguely remembered a bar with a reflecting pool named after an ecological paradise in the Pacific, and I had vague memories of going to a party back in the fuzzy days of my early 20s in the neighborhood off the Graham stop on the L, where I was now living. At the time, it had felt like the end of the earth. And now, years later, most of my friends were living in the more grown-up lands of Boerum Hill and Fort Greene and Park Slope, where there were also trees, and they sort of scoffed at my choice of neighborhood, as if they had outgrown it years before and could hardly deign to step foot in it, populated as it was with 22-year-olds in skinny jeans

Well, fine, I thought. There was a White Castle down the street, after all. Can’t get that in Cobble Hill, now can you?

As the months went by, my apartment didn’t get any better (the flies of summer turned into the mice and, outside, rats, of winter), but a funny thing happened: I fell a little bit in love with the neighborhood. There was the nice Korean man across the street who did my laundry for really cheap; the little park down the street with a dog run; the $17 manicure-pedicure place where they would happily use a razor blade on your heels even though it’s technically against the law (but it’s the best way to get all that dried skin off, I swear). Daddy’s on Graham Ave. had cheap beer and a backyard. I bought beans at Gimme! Coffee and ordered in from Cheers Thai at least twice a week. I joined the Greenpoint Y for $40 a month and rode my bike there to work out with the sweaty Poles and skinny tattooed guys who exercised in ratty black Converse.

Then the summer came. I had graduated from school and was interning (I felt like the oldest intern in the world) for $10 an hour while I looked, increasingly desperately, for a job and a new apartment; my roommate moved in with her boyfriend in Philadelphia, and a lesbian who had grown up in the Bronx and worked at a cell phone store, and owned a 10-pound hairless dog who made himself at home by peeing on my bedroom floor, moved in. I had been a serial monogamist of sorts for the previous few years, but since February of that year, I hadn’t been dating anyone, and without the structure of school and built-in camaraderie, I fell apart a little bit. I started telling people I was in a “transition phase.” I knew I had to leave my apartment, and, probably, the neighborhood.
That summer, Williamsburg became the friend I knew I would soon be leaving, kind of like how you always became besties with kids who were moving away at the end of the school year (letters would be written and mixtapes exchanged until, one day, they quietly weren’t). Sometimes I’d find myself on Friday or Saturday nights home alone, too embarrassed to call friends only to be told that they were hanging out with their boyfriends. I suddenly realized I was really bad at making plans because I had always, lazily, assumed that something would materialize.

So I started taking really long walks, alone, at dusk. I liked going over to Kent Avenue, where the condo towers now lining the banks of the East River had yet to go up, and so I could see across to Manhattan. I’d walk under the Williamsburg Bridge and by the empty Domino Sugar plant, where there were still signs on the door with information for workers and always a few random lights on inside. Then I’d hit Broadway and make a left, up the slight hill, and sometimes I would go into Marlow & Sons and sit alone at the bar and have a glass of red wine and, usually, some cheese. Other times I would just get a cup of ice cream to go from the little market in front, and then I’d walk back along Bedford Ave. There were usually men playing dominoes on folding beach chairs outside; sometimes there’d be a dance party that spilled out onto the sidewalk. Or I’d go to Dumont Burger, which had opened earlier that year, and sit at the bar and have a burger and onion rings and a glass of wine, and read a book. It was all a little deliberately melancholy, and it occurred to me that the sane and less dramatic thing to do would be to get delivery so I wouldn’t have to watch couples who, in my mind, were feeling sorry for me, just like I had always felt pity for those poor souls sitting alone at restaurants.

At a barbecue in late July, a friend mentioned that a friend of hers was looking for a tenant to move into her brownstone one-bedroom garden apartment in Fort Greene, and, sure, she’d be happy to put in a good word for me. The apartment was gorgeous and it seemed massive, and the landlord said I could bring my dog. I moved in Sept. 1, and I immediately loved my new neighborhood—what wasn’t there to love? There were trees, and beautiful brownstones, and I was closer to my friends, and a month or so after I moved in, I started dating someone, and then a couple weeks later, I got a job. The summer of transition had turned into the autumn of stability, and for the first time in months, I actually felt content. But sometimes, when I look around at my adorable little neighborhood with its happy children in fancy strollers and organic juice cafe and painfully earnest wine shop, I get just a bit nostalgic for when things were more complicated but, maybe, more interesting.

 

shafrir@observer.com