I spent a week in New York with a handful of Japanese writers and editors. They were in the States to promote Monkey Business, a Tokyo-based literary journal. That Friday, we had a reading in Brooklyn, so I decided to spend the entire day there.
I first heard of Brooklyn through Welcome Back, Kotter. It was 1975 and I was learning American culture mostly through a black and white television. I became very fond of Shirley Temple, Jimmy Snuka, Donny and Marie Osmond, Bugs Bunny and The Beaver. Since this was Tacoma, Washington, I also started to worship Slick Watts.
Welcome Back, Kotter featured a Jewish teacher and his wife, and among the students, there were a black, an Italian, a Puerto Rican Jew and another kid, Horshack, who was likely Jewish. This ethnic mix meant nothing to me, for I had no experience of American types nor knowledge of stereotypes. All three Tacoma schools I went to were majority white, with just a few blacks.
I visited New York for the first time in 1979, then went there somewhat regularly after settling in Philadelphia in 1982. As a wannabe painter, I was drawn to the Soho galleries. Most of my more ambitious friends also moved to NYC. One, Phong Bui, became the publisher of the Brooklyn Rail.
Phong’s parents had a lunch truck selling hoagies and cheesesteaks at UPenn. He was so broke at the University of the Arts, he slept on a cot in a classroom, with a hot plate next to him. Since Phong was a popular star student, the college looked the other way.
Though knowing no one in NYC, Phong was determined to go there, so a small group of us sent him off at a Lebanese restaurant with belly dancers. It was 1985, and Phong and I had just finished our summer jobs teaching art to inner city kids. Next thing I knew, Phong was hanging out with Meyer Shapiro, Willem de Kooning and Francesco Clemente, etc.
Now that he has some cash, Phong’s always buying everyone food and drinks, and before he got married recently, he’d yield his bed to any visiting friend and sleep on the couch. Phong is always attentive to your needs. At the Brooklyn Ale House in 1995, he introduced me to my fiction publisher, Dan Simon.
Whether an immigrant or native-born, there are those who try their best to fit in, those who resist integration but bother no one, and those who don’t give a flying rat’s ass.
Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, I kept pace with two Hasidic men, then saw many more in Brooklyn. In Philly, I’ve never spotted anyone with sidelocks or a shtreimel. Save for the constantly expanding Chinatown, the Dominican-dominated Washington Heights, central Harlem and still smallish Koreatown, Manhattan’s ethnic enclaves are history. Brooklyn is more heterogeneous.
In Williamsburg, the invasion of yuppies and hipsters are driving the Hasids half mad, but these newcomers only got in because Hadids themselves were selling real estate to cash in on the skyrocketing prices. One of the weirder battles between old and new involves bike lanes, for the Hasids object to so much female flesh rolling through their outwardly chaste neighborhood. Hasidic women are not supposed to show their hair and legs, much less cleavage.
Oy, just think of all the wondrous Old World traditions and mores one must give up to fit into the United States of America! Everything from honor killing, to female genital mutilation, to cockfighting, to dog eating, to thinking that male and female are distinct genders! Brit milah is fine, for it hurts no one to suck blood from a baby’s penis right after circumcision. If a mohel has herpes, however, he can give it to the newborn and even kill him. It has happened.
Those who think borders shouldn’t matter ignore the fact that in all American cities, borders are constantly being maintained, guarded and renegotiated, if not, literally, fought over. This is only natural, for every individual, everywhere, is always making decisions about who he wants as his neighbors. Where should I eat? Drink? Send my kids to school? Everyone is always drawing borders.
In Williamsburg, Hasidic Jews have a 50-men “shomrim” police patrol, as well as a “hatzolah” ambulance fleet. In 2010, a black teen attacked three Hasids over a two-week period, leaving one with a broken face, including a broken eye socket. In 2013, at least five Hasids jumped a gay black man at 5 AM after he had gotten off a party bus. They punched, kicked and stomped until he was permanently blinded in one eye. Across New York, blacks have assaulted Hasids in “knockout games.”
Walking south, I soon crossed into Bedford-Stuyvesant. It is 53% black, down from 70.1% of just six years ago. On its sidewalks were many African, Middle-Eastern, South Asian and Latin American immigrants, and no Hasids. I saw a bunch of men under a taqiyah, several cheerful women in colorful hijabs, and one shrouded in a black burqa. I strolled past Jamuna Bangladeshi grocery store, Ali’s Trinidad Roti, Original Soldier Jamaican restaurant, Le Paris Dakar bakery, a Korean-owned fried fish takeout, several Vietnamese nail salons and the decaying Slave Theater.
Suddenly, I heard a Muslim prayer call, which made me think of my recent trip to Istanbul. Its source was the Masjid At-Taqwa, where the imam, Siraj Wahhaj, was the first to intone an Islamic prayer to open a U.S. Congress session. Founded in 1981 with just 25 members, all native-born blacks, Masjid At-Taqwa now has over 1,300 worshippers each Friday, with at least two thirds immigrants. It can also boast of eliminating 15 crack houses from the area.
I grimaced at a baffling sign for a body guard service, “Natures Finest Security,” then perused a poster in a dirty shop window, “A Community Discussion. The Way Forward . . . REPARATIONS AND THE PLEBISCITE. Real Choices in 2016. Chairman Fred Hampton, ‘10th Point of BLACK PANTHER PARTY 10 POINT PROGRAM . . . We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.’”
On Nostrand, I chanced upon David’s Brisket House. Though serving mostly Jewish sandwiches, as its name implies, it’s run by a Yemeni Muslim. A sign said the owner was at Friday prayer, and would be back at 2 PM. When I returned just after 2, however, all I saw was an impatient group of customers, all black, frowning on the sidewalk. An old man sighed, “He’s often late.” Bypassing Bombay Curry, I ended up eating pork stew with rice and beans at a Dominican joint down the street.
Heading west, I stopped for three pints at Outpost in Clinton Hill. Here, I entered yet another world. Hot drinks included tangerine sencha and maté, Ommegang and Krombacher were on tap, and the light fixture behind the bar was cleverly crafted from drain pipes. Each patron was trim and smartly dressed in an offhanded way, and the music was Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Gershwin. Having not heard that in decades, I was actually moved to tears, and who cares if the bartender found me ridiculous. It’s striking how far this culture has sunk from such elegance and beauty. Just look around you, all we have left is rage and sneering idiocy.
Though our president is a mere figurehead for the entrenched military banking complex, it would be more than apt should the crass Trump become our next public face.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.