March 2, 2014

Perspective is a Funny Thing


My first night at the University of Chicago back in 1983, everyone in my dorm was ushered down to a common area for what was described as a mandatory security briefing. After we’d all taken a seat on one of the tattered couches or easy chairs, on window sills, or on the floor, a Chicago cop propped a map of the neighborhood on an easel. As he pointed to different parts of the map he said, “Do not cross this street, this street, this street, or this street. If you do, you’re on your own.” That was pretty much the extent of our security briefing, and it left me wondering how much time this cop had spent preparing his presentation.

            During my time in Chicago I crossed the streets in question countless times and never had a lick of trouble. Not real trouble anyway. Some hostility, some cold and hateful looks, but no trouble. Still, I saw what he was talking about. Once you left the insular safety of the campus, things got ugly quickly.

            In later years if I told people I was living on Chicago’s South Side in the early eighties without bothering to mention I spent most of my time in a dorm on a quiet, well-groomed and secure campus, they immediately envisioned burning tenements and ongoing race riots. Knowing this, and simply for my own amusement, I rarely mentioned the “secure, well-groomed campus” part, preferring to let them think I studied physics in a gutted and battle-scarred housing complex overrun with monstrous, disease-ridden rats and vicious drug dealers. It makes for a better picture. The ideas people cling to, particularly of places they may or may not know well, are pretty funny.

            A couple of years after leaving Chicago I was living in a nice little one-bedroom in a solid, two-story brick apartment building near a park in Minneapolis. It was a quiet building, and my place had hardwood floors, plenty of light, and all my windows looked out on an alley (which I kinda liked). It was a huge step up for me, considering a day before moving there I’d been sleeping on the floor of a filthy little crap box in Madison, Wisconsin. The crap box floor was swarming with huge black ants, the plumbing and electricity were more than a little iffy, and the back door didn’t close completely, which was a bitch in winter. Prior to that I spent nine months living in a short hallway. This new place though was clean and sunny, and my god, I had a real bed. I was living like a goddamn king for $365 a month.

            A few days after I moved in a couple of professors were supposed to pick me up to take me to an academic party of some kind, a meet and greet for the faculty and new students in the graduate program I’d just joined. To make things easy for them, I waited on the building’s front porch so all they had to do was swing by and slow down. When they arrived and I hopped in the back seat, the first thing one of them said was, “My God, I can’t believe you’d dare sit outside in a neighborhood like this.” He seemed honestly disturbed and shocked by my foolhardy recklessness.

            I looked out the car window and saw a row of neat red-brick buildings and clean sidewalks. The cars parked along the street were nice and unmolested, and the people didn’t seem deranged or drunk. I had no idea what he was talking about. Sure, things got a little skeevy if you walked a block over to Nicollett, what with the discount liquor stores and the check cashing joints and the Indians, but still. Jeepers, bud, calm down. Compared with my last place this was fucking Monte Carlo. How sheltered were these academics, anyway?

            I went looking for (and found) my own trouble in Minneapolis (no small task that, I’ll tell you), but apart from a couple of persistent and friendly panhandlers I ran into no trouble in my own apparently terrifying and desolate neighborhood. I mean my god, in the minds of everyone else in Minneapolis I might’ve been living in Watts north, but I had a Dairy Queen a block away. Later I would come to understand that if you saw a single discarded can in the gutter or a wadded napkin on the sidewalk, you were obviously in a bad neighborhood and had to keep an eye on your wallet. It was that kind of creepy place, with more than a little Stepford in its heart.

            Then I moved to Philly in eighty-seven. Took the apartment over the phone sight unseen because I was on my way out there and needed a place to stay in a hurry. Well, guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find it was a shithole. The whole building was a shithole. The walls both inside and out were cracked and crumbling, the ceiling was sagging, the woman living upstairs let her dog crap in the hallway, the neighbors were insane, and my place was hanging off the back of the building like Raskolnikov’s room. The front door wouldn’t lock and water bugs were everywhere.

            Still, though, if people asked where I was living, more often than not I got the whole “well, la-de-dah” routine when I told them. See, I was in Center City, a block away from Rittenhouse Square, which was apparently the swankiest, most desirable area of Philly at the time. My third day there a garbage truck split in two across the street from my front door and sat there for two weeks before anyone cleaned it up. Assaults and robberies on the street and inside my building were commonplace, but nope, I was living just off Rittenhouse Square so I was Mr. Fancypants. Again, though, like Minneapolis was Minneapolis, that was Philly at the time and I guess it was as good as things got there. (I had a lot more fun in Philly than I did in Minneapolis.)

            My parents, who never visited me in New York because they were afraid to come here, had no qualms at all about visiting me in Philly, even though in the eighties Philly was a hundred times uglier and meaner than New York. They had absolutely no idea why I’d be worried about them walking the streets of Philly at night. It simply never occurred to them they might well be in mortal danger, especially with my dad stopping to shake the outstretched hands of the bums. It was the City of Brotherly Love, after all.

            The night I moved into my place in Park Slope, drunks were smashing bottles in front of the building. It only took a couple of days to glean that the folks camped out on the corners every night were dealers and hookers, and that the bodega across the street was a front for a clip joint. The dry cleaners kitty corner from the clip joint was robbed, the owners brutally beaten, and my favorite bar over on Fifth Avenue became a savage zoo every night, filled with young Puerto Rican thugs who did nothing but deal, drink, and kill. People from elsewhere in the city were hesitant to come visit, at least after the sun went down.

            Five years later things had changed, and I was suddenly ashamed to tell people I lived in Park Slope. Had a woman from Coney ask me once, “do you live in Brooklyn, or do you live in Park Slope?” To this day given what that fucking place became around me, I’m still hesitant to admit I lived there for twenty years. Getting out of there, as ugly as the circumstances that made my decision for me, was a huge relief.

            When I first considered moving to Bay Ridge, all I knew was its reputation as Goombaville, populated with young Italian street hoods in wifebeaters and gold chains sprinkling “yo”s liberally throughout the simplest conversation. Once down here I discovered an older population, mostly Greek and Irish, with a new influx of Middle Easterners. Everyone was painfully, even absurdly pleasant and helpful. Walking down the commercial stretches and listening to the front stoop conversations as I passed, it struck me more than once that I’d found that last remaining vestige of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of Henry Miller and Hubert Selby Jr., the Brooklyn I’d always been looking for.

            But over the course of just these last few months, I’m starting to smell something bad on the horizon. Something filthy. It spread out of Manhattan and now it’s spreading through Brooklyn. I thought I was safe down here, that I was out of reach, that it was simply too far away from Manhattan to be a concern, but I think I was wrong. Five years from now Bay Ridge is going to be Park Slope. That is, full of money and smug, satisfied, self-righteous young assholes and their strollers and their awful children and their boutiques and wine bars and upscale chain stores. In other words it’s starting to feel like it’s time to look around for someplace they don’t know about. Because the sad truth is, I don’t want anyone to misperceive where I’m living anymore, or why the hell I’m living there.


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