Friday, March 4, 2011

On Brooklyn

I’ve been thinking a lot about Brooklyn lately. Partly because we just moved to a new neighborhood, one that’s farther from Manhattan by train – and way farther culturally – from where we’d been living. But mostly because I just finished writing an issue of City Limits about the borough, its relatively newfound cachet, and the people who have and haven’t been affected by the changes. Besides its physical reality – a fairly large chunk of land, home of 2.5 million people – Brooklyn has long enjoyed a healthy parallel existence as a concept.

The fine points of that concept have been shifting lately, and that’s where we tried to find some new things to say in the issue. (Which you should read! And pay for if necessary!) But the gist of it is that, in the public imagination for a long time, Brooklyn has been shorthand for scrappy underdogs. It’s what unites Ralph Kramden and the Warriors. Except now that the place is cool, and has perfumes named after it and whatnot, things are a little topsy-turvy. The old Brooklyn isn’t gone; it’s just still figuring out how to wear its desirability.

I got a glimpse of that tension, the old and new, on visit a couple of weekends ago to DiFara Pizza, home of some of the very best pies in any borough. This, unfortunately, is not a secret. DiFara, which is on a nondescript corner in Midwood, Brooklyn and has the bones and décor of a corner slice place, is more or less always packed with people. Most are waiting; a lucky few are eating. (I don’t even want to get into the percentage of people, at any given moment in DiFara, who are taking pictures of their food. What new way can there be, at this point, to photograph a pizza? People: Your pizza photo is not necessary.)

Anyway, the point is that it’s a packed, stressful environment. And because one guy, Dom DeMarco, makes all the pies by hand, and because he’s been doing it for decades and has had some health problems lately, they close up shop in the afternoon to give him a couple of hours’ rest. This is where, on my group’s visit, the fun began. We were the last ones to order before the break, so we were the only ones in the store, eating our pie behind a locked door, while Dom’s son straightened up. Every now and then somebody would wander up, see the “Closed until 7” sign, and slink away. Or they’d try the door handles, and, finding them locked and hearing Dom’s son screaming “WE’RE CLOSED!” they’d get the hint more gradually.

Then, when we were about half done with our pizza, a blonde tween boy walked up to the door. He found it locked … he heard the shouts … and he just stood there. He tried the door again. He made an exaggerated frowny pleading face. We felt for him – the pizza was great. Then he went and ruined it, by disappearing for a few minutes and coming back with his mom and dad. Now the dad was going to make his case. He shook the door handle. He made the same exaggerated pleading face – and then he started whining. It was turning into a real spectacle.

“Just this once!” he said, as Dom’s son watched from behind the counter, muttering, “No. No.” Then he played what I assume must have seemed like his trump card. Raising his voice even higher, he burst out with:


I wondered, later, if this was the worst possible argument this guy could have made. He seemed to think it was a great point, because he kept repeating it: “MANHATTAN! WE CAME FROM MANHATTAN!”

Dom’s son was now pretending to ignore him, and at my table, we were laughing openly at him, and this goes to the heart of why it was such a uniquely unpersuasive plea. Because, if you unpack the point this guy was trying to make, here’s what he was saying: 1) “We’re rich” – because two-bedroom apartments in Manhattan, which you have to assume they have, with at least one kid, are super expensive. Or more than places in Midwood anyway. 2) “We didn’t think it was necessary to call in advance or check your hours on the web site” (although, if they had checked, they would have found that the hours on the web site were wrong. That’s another story.). 3) “Taking an hour-long interborough train ride (though probably a half-hour in a car, I’m guessing) is unusual for us,” which can’t help accentuating the fact that for most people in central Brooklyn, it’s a normal morning. And 3) “Our time is more important than yours. We know your dad’s like 90, but go wake him up and have him make us dinner.”

I’m not saying they meant to say all that. They’re probably lovely people who just wanted some delicious pizza. (Note: I don’t really think this.) But what I’m saying is, however much Brooklyn may have changed, however cool it’s gotten in its own right, the mention of Manhattan, the glamorous older brother next door, still strikes a strange chord in a lot of Brooklyn people’s hearts. The guy – maybe thinking the Manhattan trip would be impressive, or maybe just a little deaf to the undertones – was probably not realizing how this was coming across. Either way, when he said the M word, I knew that dude was not getting through that door. And we, eating our pizza on our side of the glass, felt schadenfreude. None of us are real Brooklyn people – I’ve been here eight years – but in that moment, in our heads, we were like, “Screw you Mr. Big Shot! Take your limo back uptown!”

Or at least I was. Maybe that makes me a jerk, independent of geography. Or maybe, just maybe, it means I tapped for a few seconds into Brooklyn’s collective unconscious. The place has gotten a lot fancier, but somewhere deep down is a little brother looking to tweak the big guys. Should you find yourself watching cartoons, and chuckling as Bugs Bunny de-pantses Elmer Fudd yet again, remember that the rascally rabbit is from Brooklyn too. Where else?

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