walking around downtown Brooklyn
Tuesday, January 15 2002
When the wind wasn't blowing directly on me, I didn't much mind being outside, especially while the sun was still out. Gretchen and I met up with Ray down at Ozzy's coffee shop in Park Slope and from there we walked down to Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. What better way to spend a New York Tuesday Afternoon in January, 2002? I'm collecting unemployment, Ray is collecting disaster relief and unemployment, and as for Gretchen, her employment status is the functional equivalent: she's almost never at work and what she makes is on the order of unemployment.
I hadn't realized how quickly the neighborhoods deteriorate as one heads northward from Flatbush. As long as one had functional locks on one's doors, it wouldn't be a bad place for an unemployed slacker/artist to live. You're within easy walking distance of all the good subway lines and the nicer amenities of Park Slope, yet you can find places where the rent is as low as 400 dollars per month. What's more, there are all manner of strange little stores selling disturbing varieties of dust-covered wares: voodoo dolls, powertools of uncertain origin, and exercise equipment from the 70s. In one such store, Gretchen purchased a plastic lemon squeezer for fifty cents.
Ray took us into the Whilliamsburgh Bank Building, the tallest building in all of Brooklyn, to show us the inside. I had my camera with me but a security guard saw it and warned us that photography was strictly forbidden. He then wordlessly shadowed us as we toured the grand first floor.
Now here was a bank done the way banks used to be done, back when they needed to spend a little extra to achieve that timeless Roman temple look as a demonstration that deposited money would be safe come hell or high water. The ceiling was a high vaulted structure far, far above our heads, and on either end of the room were great mosaics, one showing an oversized depiction of the Whilliamsburgh Bank tower dominating an airplane eye's view of Brooklyn. It also featured a 48 star American flag and the date 1928.
Nearly as impressive as the grand columns and towering ceiling were the lavish detailings of the banal little furnishings any bank must supply for its customers. Tables and interior windows were made of inch-and-a-half-thick slabs of greenish glass and lacey flourishes of wrought iron were everywhere. You see, though it looked as if we were standing in a Roman temple or perhaps a museum, this was simply a branch office of a genuine functioning bank, the HSBC Bank in fact. It was amazing that it was all in such a meticulous museum-grade state of upkeep. The only details contaminating the intoxicating aura of early 20th Century history were the computer monitors.
What followed next was a rather protracted tour of a number of antique shops up and down Atlantic Avenue. In addition to the antiques, Atlantic is also a hotbed of Islamic and Arabic schools, restaurants, shops and so forth. In compensation for this liability, there are also a great many patriotic displays, some with fervency bordering on the absurd.
In one of the antique stores, Gretchen fell in love with a set of drawers shaped like a cello. It was $250, but when bought with cash, it was only $200 and no sales tax. I don't know where we're going to fit it within our tiny little brownstone when she eventually takes delivery of the thing.
While Gretchen has a hankering for the magically absurd, Ray prefers the simple austerity of "classic" modernism. A couple stores later, we found ourselves walking around in a showroom filled with shiny new examples of retro-modern furniture. I was confused, asking Gretchen, "Does modern include furniture made nowadays?" (For authentic, non-retro "contemporary modernesque" furniture, picture, if you will, the flimsy austerity of a faux particleboard Ikea coffee table.) "No. Modern is not a contemporary style," Gretchen insisted. "But I thought 'Modern' meant 'now'!" I replied, more from a fussy grammatical standpoint than from a "taxonomy of furniture" standpoint. "No, what we have now is 'Post-Modern'," Gretchen maintained. "Wait, I thought 'Post-Modern' never happened and we've been in 'Modern' all along." I don't remember how this argument played out, except that at a certain point Gretchen turned to the woman at the desk and told her that, unlike her and Ray, issues of æsthetics bore me, "...but, strangely, he's an artist." She's right of course; whenever I'm in a furniture store, you can count on me being the most bored person there. My attitude is one of, "So what, it's a fucking chair."
As a reward for my indulgence in the antique stores, we eventually ducked into a bar for drinks. The bar was Bar Tabac, an authentically French bar & grill, complete with genuine French staff and french fries referred to by the gentleman bringing them to us simply as "fries." Bar Tabac's Frenchness was underscored by the absurd American-retro elements: a wooden foozeball table in the center of the front dining room and an older-model motorcycle parked in the center of the rear dining room. A recurring theme of our beer-enhanced conversation was the hotness of two (then three, then four) of the waitresses.
Via cell-phone, Gretchen called our upstairs neighbor Ernie and asked him to walk our dog Sally. How could he say no? We're his upstream internet provider!
Then she and Ray arranged to meet up with two more friends at a hip-but-inexpensive noodle restaurant called Joya. One of these people was Ray's friend "Hot Tom," the guy who is so hot that no one pays attention to anything he says (and he says a lot). The other was Gretchen's Causcasian friend Sarah Korean, who actually has a job (she's an urban planner).
By now I was feeling pretty tipsy from multiple-beer insult, and I could be seen writing the number of the beast repeatedly on one of my chopsticks, a chopstick I later swapped with one of Gretchen's. Drunk as I was, however, I wasn't impressed with my squid & noodle entrée. I usually don't mind my squid being tough, but this stuff was like little white loops of boot leather.
Somehow we were now in the neighborhood of Cobble Hill, and when Gretchen and I needed to get back home in time for Smallville, we walked into a car service headquarters and ordered up an overpriced ride for to-the-door service.
The Whilliamsburgh Bank building, the tallest building in Brooklyn.
A sign in the old Ex-lax headquarters lobby, which is now residential apartments.
Ray and Gretchen examine the modernist furniture in the modernist showroom of an antique store.
On the street in downtown Brooklyn. I think this is Atlantic Avenue.
Gretchen showcases her new perm, demonstrating that such body modifications are still available in 2002. Click for a huge version.
Gretchen and Ray in the elegant French retro-restaurant, Bar Tabac, in Brooklyn.
Ray and Sarah Korean in Joya.
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