In high school, I had a button I used to wear pinned to my long black overcoat (and yes, I am thankful every day that I graduated high school long before high school students were profiled as dangerous for wearing too much black) that read “I am now the person I swore I’d never become.” I wore it with a sense of what I believed to be subtle irony, because I was, y’know, in high school; when did I swear not to become a science fiction-reading, angst-ridden, Pink Floyd-quoting high school student, third grade?
I wore that button, along with half a bottle of hair gel and my Chuckie-Ts, to an eighties-themed benefit last year, and it was neither subtle nor ironic; I am, in fact, the person I swore I’d never become: a suit-wearing, mortgage-paying, big firm lawyer. But I’m also pretty happy with the way things have turned out – the wife, the kids, the house, the neighborhood, even the job (most of the time) — which leads to the inescapable conclusion that when I was 16, I didn’t know jack shit. Big surprise: 16-year-old boy generally clueless. Alert the media.
I’m reminiscing about my misspent youth because of an article in this morning’s paper. Apparently, everyone in New York hates my old neighborhood. At least, that’s the premise of an article in today’s New York Times, Park Slope: Where Is the Love? (Only in the Times; anyone else would have said, “Where’s the Love?” but it seems the NYT hates contractions almost as much as New Yorkers hate the Slope.) According to the article, Park Slope — so named because it is the neighborhood downhill from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park — has been taken over by obnoxious yuppies and stroller pushing, latte drinking, tavern invading mothers.
I don’t pretend to understand how this is different from any other upscale neighborhood in post-Giuliani New York, but I haven’t lived there (except for a couple of summers during college) in 20 years, so what do I know? What I do know is that darn near anybody — even me, at age 16 — could have looked at the changes in the neighborhood from 1976, when I moved to 6th Street, to 1985, when I turned 16, and predicted at least some of what’s happened to the ‘hood. By 1985, every block on Seventh Avenue (the main commercial strip, at least then) had a storefront real estate agency, and every other block had a little grocery store with a salad bar. The Associated supermarket hadn’t yet converted to a D’agostino’s, but you just knew something like it was coming. An upmarket pizza place opened up — I think it was called The Berkeley Kitchen — and was definitely a step above the other local pizza joints (it closed within a year or two; it seemed mysterious at the time, but the restaurant business ain’t easy, so there was probably nothing sinister about it). And then, there was the fern bar. Goddamn fern bar.
Look, we were teenagers. The number of neighborhood bars that would let us in could be counted on one finger of one hand, and that was because most nights we were the only customers. We never had more than a beer or two, because the woman who owned the place was nice, if a little dotty, and we didn’t want to abuse her hospitality; she probably wouldn’t have sold us any more than that, anyway, but I don’t think anyone ever pushed the issue.
But back to the fern bar. I think it was on the corner of Union Street and Seventh Ave., and I can’t for the life of me remember what was there before then, but around 1985 some bozo opened up a fancy-looking bar with great big ferns, in planters, visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Words like “yuppie scum” were tossed around a lot in the mid-eighties, and they were used in connection with the bar. My little group of friends vowed we would never patronize the soul-sucking place, and as far as I know, none of us ever did. I don’t even know whether it’s still around.
So we could have predicted the yuppie takeover of the Slope. I don’t know how bad that is; I understand that there are some excellent restaurants on Fifth Avenue now; Fifth was a commercial wasteland when I was a kid. I’m sure a lot of the grittiness I remember is long gone, but I was mugged a couple of times as a teenager, and if Park Slope has benefited from the general decline in crime in New York, that’s nothing to be sorry for.
I don’t get back to Brooklyn much. My mother moved out of the city back in 1999, and my father’s place is too small for us to stay in, so when we get to town for a social visit, we stay at a hotel in Manhattan; prices being what they are, we haven’t done that in a while. I’d like to go back there sometime soon and show the kids around. I just won’t take them to the fern bar.
Indeed, and one time we got mugged, after running many blocks, we stopped in at the Berkeley Kitchen to have a slice. Remember that?
Well, it was really good pizza. And it was a long run from 3rd Street to Berkeley Place, so we were hungry.