February 12, 2012

The Land of Contrite Bums


The very first piece I ever wrote for the New York Press back in 1991 or ’92 was a brief bit about a Staten Island bowling alley. It prompted a strong and immediate response from the then-Staten Island borough president who, thinking I was being snotty, extolled at length the virtues of his fine borough. Even if I wasn’t being particularly snotty (as I recall anyway), I appreciated the response. I kind of liked the fact that Staten Island had such self-esteem issues that the borough president would assume anything written about it by anyone who didn’t live there was a swipe.

        Over the past twenty years I’d only been back to Staten Island once, briefly. But even then, in spite of its gimpy child reputation, there was something about it that I liked quite a bit. More than anything, it was the fact that Staten Island seemed to be trapped in some kind of weird time-bubble. No matter what happened in the world around it, it had somehow never managed to inch past 1959. You looked at the houses, you looked at the shops lining the streets, and it all seemed authentically old, as if it had always been there and always would be—an unchanging Twilight Zone set.

        In recent weeks Morgan and I have found ourselves talking more and more about Staten Island. That gimpy child of New York reputation left us thinking that it might be the one place on this stinking planet where we might actually fit in.

        (On top of everything, the great Joseph Mitchell, who is buried there, loved the place and wrote extensively about it. That’s a good enough endorsement for me.)

        We’d been talking for years about getting a place, so maybe this was it. Real estate was cheap, it was secluded, and this guy on the radio made it sound like a little pocket of outcast paradise. So on Thursday morning we hopped on a ferry and took the trip. Once on the other side, Morgan consulted a small map, found the neighborhood this guy was talking about, and we ventured off on foot into the vast unknown. It was a cool day with heavy cloud cover but no hint of rain. That was good.

        I wasn’t seeing those old shops with the ancient signs out front—the peeling delis and the typewriter repairmen and the hardware stores. There were some old houses in the distance, though, and we headed for those. I learned two things about Staten Island very quickly:  the streets curl and cross and double back with no rhyme or reason, and everything’s uphill no matter which direction you’re headed. I was immediately lost and out of breath as a result.

        The houses, however, were beautiful things—enormous Victorian edifices with peaked roofs perched atop hills of their own. Some seemed to cover an entire block, the wings going off in all directions. It was impossible to believe they were selling as cheaply as they were. It really was a wonderland out there, unblemished simply because no one wanted to make the trip.

        As we drew closer, however, the glimmer began to fade and drift away in the breeze (and what was that smell, anyway?). The wrought iron fences were bashed in, the windows were smashed, the porches collapsing. The wooden siding was buckling on some, and others were burned out completely. The sidewalks ran a few yards and then stopped, as if whoever was working on them simply gave up. Those sidewalks that did exist were wracked, overgrown, and nearly impossible to navigate, covered with dog shit and broken bottles. We decided it was easier to walk in the street.

        Towering behind the houses were the projects. In every direction, it seemed, with every turn we made, there was another one. Still we walked on, past the empty lots filled with discarded bottles of Olde English, crack vials, needles. Occasionally a feral cat darted across the road in front of us. Morgan caught a glimpse of a figure passing silently behind two houses. The whole scene was beginning to take on an eerie atmosphere.

        Something else I noticed, apart from the lack of inhabitants—the place seemed to be deserted once you got two blocks from the ferry terminal—was that not only were the old shops I remembered gone, there didn’t seem to be any stores of any kind apart from the occasional corner deli. No supermarkets or drug stores (not the kind you normally think of anyway), no bars or restaurants. Nothing at all apart from the curving streets and the decayed once-majestic homes.

        “Maybe they’re all really nice inside,” I offered helpfully. “Maybe they just make the outside look like this to deter robbers.” The fact that you could actually look in to most of these places through the broken windows pretty much put the lie to that little theory. There were no games going on here, no deception. Just a big slab of post-apocalyptic doom.

        It was becoming clear that the time bubble I’d so pined after—a world without cell phones or Facebook—had broken, and that the March of Time had stomped this place into the ground.

        Still we plodded on, thinking maybe we’d stumbled into the wrong neighborhood, that the one that guy on the radio was talking about was over there someplace. The further we walked, however, the worse things got. We hit the chemical depot on the shore and doubled back in another direction. The more we walked the more we began to think the whole thing was a grand practical joke. It wouldn’t have been the first one.

        We followed the road as it curved around to the right. There were voices up ahead. The first we’d heard since leaving the terminal. A few dozen yards before us, two flabby, unshaven white drunks in t-shirts stood in the middle of the street throwing sloppy punches.

        “I don’t know if they’re just screwing around or really fighting,” Morgan whispered. Not wanting to turn around at that point, we forged onward.

        “Fuck you!”

        “Fuck you!”

        More punches flew, and the larger, flabbier of the two men stumbled forward and tried to grapple the other one into a headlock.

        “You wanna sleep? Huh? You wanna sleep?”

        Then they saw us as we approached along the opposite side of the street, and they separated. They said nothing and didn’t look at us. The smaller of the drunks began walking away, almost as if he might find safety behind us somehow.

        I held my tongue, and didn’t even tip my hat as I was tempted.

        After we passed, one of them (I think it was the little one) caught the other with a sucker punch.

        “Fuck you!”

        “Fuck you!”

        A moment later I heard the unmistakable bang of a head hitting a car hood. Twice.

        “Well that was civil of them to let us pass that way.”

        We figured it was probably about time to start looking for the ferry terminal again. It had been a long walk, and we had the feeling there were a few beers waiting for us back on the other side.

        Along the way, we decided that maybe we’d look for a place in Brooklyn.


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