SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 8, 2020

The Streets of Bensonhurst

 

I didn’t want to move to Bensonhurst. Apart from being closer to Morgan’s job, it seemed like a terrible fucking idea on every level. I liked Bay Ridge. I knew my way around, could find the drug store and the liquor store, the fish market and the vet with no problem. The people were decent, with folks at the bank, the stores, the Chinese mail lady, even passing acquaintances on the street calling me by name. I hadn’t experienced anything like that since I was a kid. We knew our neighbors and we all helped each other out as we could. Even if it felt like Mister Rogers Neighborhood a lot of the time, I didn’t want to leave it, but had no choice.

            When I told our old friend C.J. we’d taken a place in Bensonhurst, he said, “You don’t wanna go there. It’s a wasteland. You belong in Bay Ridge,” and I couldn’t argue with him. When I told the ornery old Egyptian who sold me cheap bootleg smokes I was headed to Bensonhurst, he just groaned, “Oh, God.” I couldn’t argue with that, either. No one I told about the impending move had anything good to say about the new neighborhood. The closest anyone came was the owner of an Italian deli who said, “Well, it used to be nice.”

            Simple fact was, apart from what little I could glean from the 1988 movie Spike of Bensonhurst, I knew absolutely nothing about the neighborhood, and that was the problem. I dreaded the prospect of having to learn my way around a new neighborhood from scratch. I was getting too old and cranky for that. When I moved to Bay Ridge ten years ago, I had a friend already living there who showed me around, pointing out things like the grocery stores and post office. He told me what bars to avoid, and which restaurants were all mobbed up. Even with that head start, it took a full year before I realized there was a bodega directly across the street from my apartment, and four years before I could navigate the neighborhood comfortably by myself. Christ, it was just two months ago, the forthcoming move inescapable, that I finally found a decent Italian butcher three blocks away. Starting over in a new place with no one at all to help me? Lord knows how long it would take before I found a drug store, let alone someone to sell me bootleg smokes. I had no idea what kind of people I was going to run into on the streets there. Maybe no one would stop to give directions. Maybe no one spoke English. Maybe they’d all be assholes. Yeah, I figured they’d all be assholes. It could very well be a complete nightmare. This was my working assumption.

            A few weeks before the move, I got on the train and headed from Bay Ridge to Bensonhurst to drop a few things off at the new place and maybe clean up a little in my own incompetent way. It was more experiment than anything else. I had never been in the Bensonhurst subway station before. All I knew was that it was a few blocks from the new apartment, though I had no idea how many blocks or in what direction. I didn’t even know how to get out of the station after stepping off the train. Christ, it was only after I was on the train heading in the general direction of Bensonhurst that it occurred to me I didn’t even know the name of the stop I was looking for.

            Well, thanks to the numbered grid system guessing the stop I was after was easier than expected, and once I got off the train I simply followed the footsteps in front of me to find my way out. But once through the turnstiles I stopped, confronted by several different exits. I had no clue which one would get me close to where I was headed. Take the wrong one and I could find myself lost for hours.

            “Where are you looking to go?” A woman asked. This startled the shit out of me, not expecting anyone in Bensonhurst to offer help of any kind. Once past that mild shock, I told her where I hoped to be going, and she told me which exit to use.

            Okay then, with that bit of assistance, I now had the trip and the subway station mapped out in my head. It was a first step, and a useful one, considering I figured I’d be making the trip from Bay Ridge to Bensonhurst a few times before the move proper. That someone had stopped and asked if I needed help was another promising portent, but she may well have been someone from Bay Ridge just there to visit a friend. That unexpected good vibe might well dry up and blow away the minute I hit the sidewalk.

            When I stepped out of the station a moment later, I suspect I looked understandably confused. I still had no clue where I was, exactly, or what direction I was supposed to be heading. That’s when an elderly Chinese woman took my arm and asked what I was looking for. Again I told her, and it turned out I was only a block and a half from the new apartment. That was cool. As she walked me there, I learned her name was Susan, she’d lived in the neighborhood for twenty-five years, she’d had two strokes, but had gone to physical therapy and could finally get around without a walker. It was the first brief life story I heard in Bensonhurst, but I was getting the sense, way things were going, there would be others.

            Since Morgan would be working full time and it would be up to me to explore the neighborhood myself, and since I didn’t have any friends there to show me around, and since I couldn’t very well stop random strangers and ask them to list every shop on that particular block by address, together with any obvious landmarks, I had to use a different technique.

            I made a list of the fundamental things I was initially looking for—pharmacy, bodegas, supermarkets, post office, etc.—and started doing a general online search for the nearest addresses. Much to my amazement, all the things I was looking for were within a ten-block radius. That was a pleasant surprise. Then just as methodically, I set out every morning to find one or more of them, just to see if I could find them, and how they were laid out once I did. Along the way, I found myself being stopped by strangers offering help or asking the standard blindo questions, same as had happened in Bay Ridge. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad over here. Of course that may be nothing more than wishful thinking after two or three days. It was early yet.

            Bensonhurst, it should be noted, is hardly the diaspora Bay Ridge had been. I began noting in these sidewalk encounters that the Italians who stopped me assumed I was Jewish, and the Jews who stopped me assumed I was Italian, because there was simply nothing in between save for the Chinese, and no one was going to take me for Chinese, a demographic which made up about sixty percent of the local population. I simply accepted all this, letting people believe whatever suited them. So long as they were being pleasant, why bother? Correcting them, telling them I was German, just seemed to be asking for trouble.

            All in all, things were going well. I found a bodega right across the street where I could get beer, though not smokes. The smokes were at another bodega a block to the south, and better still, it was the very first bodega I’ve found in New York that sold Pall Malls. The two grocery stores were enormous and tough to navigate, but well-stocked. I learned my way around the post office my second day there, only to be told when I made it to a window that the pre-paid package I hoped to drop off was for UPS. So I got to learn where the UPS drop-off was as well. I found my first local diner by accident. I was heading toward the grocery store and was on the right block. I knew I was getting close to the entrance when I heard a man say, “The door’s open.” I of course thanked him and walked inside. I’d been in that grocery store a couple of times, and at first things seemed fine. But when I found the produce aisle wasn’t directly to my left as it had been up until that point, it was clear someone had made a mistake. It took another two minutes before I decided asking someone might clear up my confusion, and I learned I was in the neighborhood’s only diner. Well, that was a good thing to know, and something else I could check off the list.

            As I slowly created a map of the area in my head, one tricky thing I discovered was that, in contrast with Bay Ridge, where so many of the places I frequented were on corners or accompanied by obvious landmarks, most of the places I was looking for in Bensonhurst were in the middle of the block, and initially devoid of any clear landmarks like bus stops or sidewalk benches. This forced me to adopt a new technique I’d not only never used before, but one I’d always mocked when other blindos brought it up.

            People sometimes ask me if I’m counting steps when I’m heading someplace specific. I always told them any blindo who claimed to count steps and actually get where they were going was a filthy liar. If you encounter an obstacle in your path like a construction site or a stray trash can, there goes your count right there. And what if your footsteps weren’t exactly and consistently equidistant? What if you trip? It was a system that simply couldn’t work.

            But just out of curiosity I began playing around with it while trying to find these places in the middle of the block. After leaving the bank, say, or the train station, I started counting how many steps it took to get to the corner. I then made a mental note of the corner and the number of steps. The next time I was heading to the bank and hit the corner of the proper block, I started counting my steps, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t more or less work. It might not drop me at the front door precisely, but it got me close enough that I could usually find the door in short order with a little wild arm waving. It wasn’t perfect, but was a helluva lot better than standing there on the sidewalk waiting for someone to stop and offer assistance. So shut my mouth.

            Yeah, I was liking Bensonhurst more than expected. The commercial strips were lined with mom and pop stores, it was more isolated than Bay Ridge had been, and it had an Old School Brooklyn feel about it, something I had to admit Bay Ridge was starting to lose. I promptly moved all my prescriptions from a Rite Aid to a family-owned pharmacy that had been around since 1927. Plus there was that Korean Karaoke joint around the corner. The apartment wasn’t ideal, no, far from it, but I was digging the surroundings.

            I was on my way home from the store one morning our first week here when a woman warned me I was about to stumble into some shrubbery. I stopped, stepped around the shrubbery, and thanked her. She then began with a few of the usual questions about blindo navigation. She was honestly curious, so I leaned on my cane and answered her questions as best I could, telling her I’d just moved there and was still learning my way around.

            Her name was Maria, and she was moving to Long Island in a month. “But I’m going to miss it here,” she said. “All the little shops. It’s not like this at all where I’m heading.” She pointed out in particular her favorite Italian bakery (everyone who recommends anything here recommends an Italian bakery, but never the same one), and a big grocery store I might like “because they carry a lot of Jewish food.”

            I told her I’d spent the last decade in Bay Ridge, so Bensonhurst was completely new to me.

            “Oh,” she said. “Bay Ridge is way too busy for me. It’s much quieter here.”

            Funny thing about that was that after being chased out of Park Slope with its sidewalks packed with strollers and assholes, I told a friend still trapped there that in Bay Ridge I could walk the twelve blocks to the post office and pass no more than two or three people along the way. If that was too busy for this woman, no wonder she was moving to Long Island. But she was right—it was much quieter in Bensonhurst.

            “I think part of the reason is that there are no bars in Bensonhurst,” she noted. “Not like Bay Ridge.”

            She then went on to tell me she was going to take her dog, who was not with her at the time, to the groomers in an hour. She wasn’t sure how that was going to go. It seems the dog, when he was little, loved to take walks, loved to go outside whenever he could, but ever since he got fixed he refused to go outside at all. She was going to bring him to a dog behavioral therapist to try and figure out what the problem was.

            Wait—had she just told me there were no bars in Bensonhurst?

 

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