Editor’s Note: The Anonymous Lady has written again from her new home across the Atlantic.
One Sunday morning a couple of months ago, before the weather plunged its way into winter, I talked my dearest into walking with me up past De Kalb Avenue to collect some chairs. I had bought some old chairs, silver aluminium with quilted leather cushioning, black, while sitting at my computer one evening; and seeing that they were stored in an antiques warehouse near our part of Brooklyn, I had decided not to pay the delivery cost, but to make the trip up there and fetch them by myself. At the time, this seemed like a very smart idea, one which would save me the best part of fifty dollars. On the Sunday morning in question, however, it seemed like insanity, and I began to wonder whether the best part of fifty dollars was really all that much of a saving after all. The walk was long, the sun was still uncomfortably strong, and our heads were feeling pinched and sore from a night of bar-hopping on the other side of the Williamsburg bridge. But the collection had been arranged, and the lovely, high-backed chairs were waiting for their new home, and so we set off down Grand Street, past the bodegas and the bridal stores, the one-dollar markets and the diners with their brightly-coloured birthday cakes in the window. Here and there on the curb were pieces of furniture left there by owners who no longer wanted them. In this town, passers-by usually beat the binmen to these grubby jewels, sighting them from cars or pointed in their direction by chatrooms devoted to the sighting and swapping of other people’s rubbish. This white, damp-looking sofa, this battered wooden telephone table, this little yellow plastic stool; by the time we came back this way an hour later, all three would have disappeared into new homes, new lives, perhaps to be out on the curb again by evening, perhaps to be used, even treasured, for many years.
We crossed under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and suddenly all was different. Here, the street signs were in Hebrew, and in Yiddish, and men in black hats and coats dashed along the pavement with tightly-wrapped blankets under their arms. Others stood in groups, talking and gesturing with an urgency that suggested that something was very wrong, their looping side locks swinging almost comically as they spoke. All the men were dressed in exactly the same way; the elders with their long grey beards, the teenagers with their skin unshaved, the little boys with wide eyes who stared at us, then looked down hurriedly, as we passed. One boy stumbled out of our path as we approached, and I realised that he was afraid of us, and that we must have looked dangerous to him, with our short sleeves and our unkempt hair, this man and woman walking through his neighbourhood where they so clearly did not belong. Lee Avenue is the heartland of Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn, and the community here came from Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. On this Sunday morning, as hundreds of high-hatted men and long-skirted women went about their business, the men and boys heading for the Yeshiva, the women for the foodstore, with its kosher meat and bread, these could have been streets in Poland or Lithuania a hundred years ago. A sign on the school building—though it was Sunday, the children were at school—read, in English, No Women Through This Entrance, and in the dusty window of a children’s drapery, the tiny coats and dresses were in the dullest of colours, the heaviest of fabrics. Though it was hot, everyone wore woollen coats, even the little girls, their faces pale and beautiful under their neatly-cut black hair. We hurried on.
But hurrying in the same direction, bustling awkwardly with an enormous, steel-framed pram—a proper perambulator, with wheels like a bicycle and a hood like a horse-drawn carriage—was a young woman who turned to look at us, and kept looking, unlike the little boy we had passed, unlike the stern-faced old men. She practically ran behind that pram, its thin rubber types bouncing from street to pavement and back again, its springs squealing, its unseen inhabitant wailing its indignation. She was quite lovely, this woman, her face pale, her gaze sharp, her eyebrows dark and striking. Her head was wrapped in a scarf, piled high like a turban, and though designed to hide the regulation shaved head of married women in her sect of Hasidism, it looked oddly pretty, even fashionable. She kept pace with us for a moment as we walked, and just as I studied her, she surveyed me carefully, seeming to note the cut of my clothes, the beads on my throat, the freckles on my upper arms. And my boots. Cowboy boots, studded black leather, the toes capped with steel and the heels curved just so, to fit into a stirrup. The young woman looked at my boots, and she looked again, and then she looked me archly in the eye, and looked away, and trundled on down the hill with the pram that reminded me of fruit sellers on Moore Street, of black and white photographs of my cousins as children, of English nannies and colicky babies. Of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, the last of Victoriana. But this was not Victoriana, this was not relicry; this was Williamsburg with its lost ‘h’ restored. If the figures from twenty years ago still hold—and they must, since this remains a rapidly-growing community—about half the surviving Hasidic Jews in the world live within a subway ride of each other in this corner of Brooklyn.
We walked on, and we got our chairs, and we walked home again through the same neighbourhood, a chair under each arm, and beads of perspiration on our foreheads, and at intervals we stopped to rest, and sat curbside for a moment on our new chairs. And sometimes we were stared at, but mostly we were ignored; just two more trespassers over the line of the eyruv, the wire strung high to mark, like gangland graffiti, the borders of a sacred space.