What I need to know, says the handsome teenager, Is if you’ll marry me.
He is proposing to a short, round woman who’s about twenty years older than him. She can’t believe what’s she hearing. We can’t believe it either and start laughing. The woman buries her hands in the pockets of her MTA jacket and stares at the ground. But Handsome isn’t finished yet.
Listen, he says and takes her by the shoulders, then starts to sing in a wavering falsetto.
When the visions around you
Bring tears to your eyes
And all that surrounds you
Are secrets and lies
I’ll be your strength
I’ll give you hope
Keeping your faith when it’s gone
The one you should call
When standing here all alone
We’re in the shadow of elevated train-tracks and Handsome is wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt. These visuals, along with the doo-wop crooning, make me feel like I’m watching an old movie – The Lords of Flatbush, maybe, or West Side Story or something about Dead-End Kids. Except that everything here is in color.
When you get off the subway at the Myrtle/Wyckoff stop you’re in the heart of modern New York City: bodegas, Chinese-Spanish restaurants, and beauty shops. Walk east though and you start going back in time. At first the neighborhood is racially mixed – black, Latino and some Asian – but the further east you go the lighter it becomes until, after about ten blocks, you’re in a mostly white world. The strange thing about finding all those Caucasians on the borough border is that they’re not all immigrants, like, say, the Poles in Greenpoint or members of insular religious sects like the Hasidim. No. A lot of the white folks in Ridgewood, maybe most of them, were born there. It’s like discovering a lost tribe of stone-age hunter-gatherers in the rain forest. You keep telling yourself, ‘I thought these people became extinct a long time ago.’
The little round woman tells Handsome she has to get back to work and heads for the bus depot under the M tracks. Handsome isn’t discouraged; the show must go on. He flexes a lean bicep for our edification and then walks down the street striking body-builder poses in store windows. Handsome’s older, quieter brother shakes his head. Out on Fresh Ponds Road the time shift is almost complete. The storefronts on the street are of the mom & pop variety and all the signs are in English: Krystal European Bakery, Alan Discount, Rainbow Gift shop, Henry’s Department Store. Ice coffee costs a buck, a loaf of bread, sixty cents. Most of the lettering over the shops is in archaic styles and dingy with age. The signs are decades old and missing letters.
The two brothers don’t exactly fit the Ridgewood motif. They’re extras from more modern movies – Boyz in the Hood, Colors and Dead Presidents, movies from the era of the crack wars. My friend Joe has just introduced us. He met them a few years back while driving the B56 bus through Bushwick. When they told him they wanted to box, he brought them to meet his boxing trainer. The interview didn’t go well: the trainer made fun of their boxing skills and the brothers threatened to shoot him (To this day Joe believes that only his intervention saved his trainer from death). The brothers never did start boxing but they remained on good terms with Joe.
The boys want ice cream and Joe leads us to a Carvel where we take seats in the back. Within seconds the manager is on top of us, saying that we have to buy something if we want to stay. Joe gets up and treats us to cones. I wonder why the manager is so uptight and decide it might be due to the quieter brother’s t-shirt, which reads Murder in big letters. The manager has seen the movies too and the TV cop shows and the nightly news and to him these Puerto-Rican brothers are advance guard for a nightmare, a nightmare spreading up from Bushwick to swamp his store.
On its border point between Bushwick and Glendale, Ridgewood is a divided neighborhood: half in Brooklyn, half in Queens; half urban, half suburban; half in the 30th congressional district, half in the 34th; half Democrat; half Republican; half white half…‘other’. Like all contested borders, it’s been a flashpoint for controversy. When she was a state senator in early 80s, Geraldine Ferraro pledged to change Ridgewood’s zip code from one in Bushwick to one in Glenwood (property owners in Ridgewood claimed the Bushwick code raised their insurance rates). More recently, a redistricting plan to move the southern, heavily-Latino section of Ridgewood into the Bushwick congressional district has brought protests and local headlines.
So the Caravel manager can’t tear his eyes away from the nightmare sitting on his benches, the Ridgewood that could come to pass. We take our ice cream and leave. I ask Quiet about the T-shirt. He tells me that it represents his gang, ‘The Murder Posse.’ His gang name, he says, is ‘Optimus Prime.’ I tell him I know some Cripps up in the Bronx. ‘We don’t like Cripps,’ he says, ‘We run with Bloods. We’re not violent though. Only when we have to protect ourselves.’
Handsome butts in.
‘We run with Bloods sometimes,’ he says, ‘But a few weeks ago a Blood cut one of our guys with a razor. Gave him a buck ten [he meant stitches]. Cut him here to here.’
He drew a line from the top of his cheek down under his chin.
‘So we caught the Blood,’ Handsome continued, Held him down and did the same thing. ‘See what you did? See how you like it.’ Gave him a buck fifty.’
Joe tries to lead us on a tour of the depot. The MTA security guard has other ideas and Joe can’t sweet-talk him into changing his mind. Security, Joe tells us, has been a lot tighter since 9/11. I try to imagine Al Qaeda swooping down on Fresh Ponds Road. ‘Terrorists wouldn’t care about this place,’ I say. ‘Oh no?’ Joe says, ‘With all buses and diesel fuel? Those guys would love to get in here.’
Joe shakes his head fiercely. ‘They would love it,’ he says.
My girlfriend wants to go to a restaurant a few blocks away so we start walking. Well-made, six family row houses of tan brick line the street in every direction. They give the neighborhood a strange but pleasing appearance, something of the Old World. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else in the city (In 1983, 2980 of these buildings were designated the largest historical district in the country). The owners live in about half of the buildings and they take care of their investments. The sidewalks are clean; trees shade the sidewalks and flowers fill yards and boxes. Of course, resident-owners have an easy time keeping out the ‘bad element.’
On the stoop of one of the buildings a fat woman is talking to a kid. ‘Well, when you decide, she says, ‘We can talk.’ Except that ‘decide’ sounds like ‘de-soid’ and ‘talk’ is ‘tawk.’ It’s Brooklynese, something I didn’t know existed outside old movies until my girlfriend moved to Ridgewood. Ridgewood is the last living link to old Brooklyn, a Brooklyn I’ve sensed the wreckage of in my own neighborhood of Williamsburg when seniors tell me how it was before the factories closed. The past is alive in Ridgewood; the neighborhood was built up by German and Italian immigration in the 20s and 30s and some churches still have Sunday mass in those languages. We walk by a restaurant called ‘Hans Gasthaus’ with a ski-lodge façade and a menu that includes weisswurst and schnitzel. Old Brooklyn has endured out here, decades after people stopped paying attention it, stopped representing it on television and in films (as the people who make television and films don’t grow up in places like this anymore).
It’s an insular world: Archie Bunker land. One my girlfriend’s neighbors has an army of cats that swarm through the backyards. The neighbor told me that two of her cats had disappeared. She pointed across the yard to a new development, all Chinese. ‘I think they ate them,’ she said, stone cold serious, ‘They do that you know.’ Other long-time residents show the same suspicion. There have been screaming matches in the street over the shoveling of snow and an old man who has lived here all his life watches a Chinese woman walk by and whispers: ‘None of us like them.’
Yet the future of Ridgewood belongs to the immigrants, to kids like Quiet and Handsome. The old-timers in Ridgewood are just that, old, and while some of their children stay, the majority move further into Queens or out to the suburbs. Every few months on my girlfriend’s block someone dies after fifty years in the same apartment and the debris of a lifetime is cast into a dumpster (and how old would Archie Bunker be now?). On our way to the restaurant, we pass a giant school complex just as the day is ending. There are hundreds of kids; most of them are Latino and black. They head toward Bushwick while the smaller numbers of white kids go deeper into Ridgewood. Old Ridgewood is in decline. There are shuttered businesses on every street. We pass the Ridgewood Democratic Club. It’s in a pretty corner brownstone with stained-glass windows but some of the panes are broken and plywood backs the glass.
We end up at a burger joint under the train tracks. The Bosnian owner talks about hamburger in rough tones. ‘I tried to buy meat in American grocery store but is disgusting, brown and grey. I would not feed to rat. I go to special butcher shop.’ He takes one of his beef patties and presents it like a newborn baby. The disc is the size of Frisbee, blood red and speckled with fat. ‘This,’ he says, ‘Is real meat.’ His tiny restaurant stands in an Eastern European enclave: there’s a Polish butcher, an Albanian café, a Montenegrin social club. These are the immigrants that old Ridgewood prefers.
Boxing photos fill the restaurant walls. This excites the brothers and Joe tells the owner he used to fight. ‘My son is boxer,’ says the Bosnian. A few minutes later the son walks in, a cruiserweight with a blonde crew cut and a square head. Everyone starts talking about boxing and that too seems like a scene from an old movie. Quiet asks my girlfriend if she has a rubber band. The one he was using for his red ponytail has broken. She gives him a scrunchie and explains that they’re better for hair. ‘I didn’t know that,’ he says, wrapping his ponytail. Looking at Quiet I realize that my perception makes the biggest difference between the teen gangsters of the 1950s and those of 2003; that one person’s urban predator is another’s troubled youth, what matters is the lens you look at them through (and whose kids they are). Of course things have changed since the 50s: Handsome points to the long scratches on his neck and tells us that his mother’s lesbian lover put them there. ‘She and I don’t get along,’ he says, ‘She’s jealous of us. I don’t like to hit women but she hit me first.’
Handsome notices some teenage girls across the street and runs up to the window to stare. He tells Joe to go get his car (a 1982 Cadillac Caprice) so we can cruise by and impress them. Joe is amenable and we head back toward the depot.