Everything moves quickly, and noisily, and busily along Broadway on a hot Friday evening in May; not the Broadway of theatre marquees and steakhouses and gift shops and basement striptease, but the Broadway which forms a pulsing artery through the grimy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick. From beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, it stretches its colourful, cluttered way past all the long avenues—past the hipsters on Bedford, past the Hasids on Lee, past the whooping, swooping high school kids on Myrtle and De Kalb—and then disappears at a tangled junction, right in the shadow of the massive cemetery at Evergreen with all its new military graves.
Bushwick’s Broadway is not all that different to Manhattan’s Broadway, except that hardly anybody who walks along Bushwick’s Broadway is white. Like Manhattan’s Broadway, the shopfronts are bright and brash and glaring with unabashed kitsch. But this is not the kitsch of ornaments and key rings and shot glasses printed with the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings and the two lost towers silhouetted against a heart-red sky; this is the kitsch of polyester nightgowns and plywood furniture and summer sandals made of a marriage of plastic and foam; this is the kitsch of trying to hold together a life. Directly overhead, not very far above the street, the dark, clattering track of the J train hangs, and every five minutes or so there comes an awful noise, a ruckus overwhelming the sounds of the traffic, and the shouting mothers, and the slow, thumping music from the passing cars, though when you look around you at the people on Broadway as the rush-hour J train shuttles through, no face registers the assault of the sound, no hands rush to cover ears. The bustle pushes on. The next train will soon be along.
The other evening, Mr Long and I found ourselves on this other Broadway, waiting until it was time to go to an art exhibition in an old storehouse there. We walked up and down for a couple of blocks, through the end-of-the-week crowds, past a pet store with squirming puppies in the window, past a hair salon with faded hairstyle posters taped to every inch of the glass, past the racks of nightgowns, the buckets of sandals, the furniture and the mattresses standing, with their neon price tags, out in the street. We wanted to sit in and have a drink somewhere, but there seemed nowhere to sit in and have a drink. The one place which looked likely, with a Guinness sign in the window and red velvet drapes inside the door, looked dark and closed and empty. We looked gloomily at the door and at the sign in the window a moment, and began to walk on.
Then a man rushed out through the door we had just been eyeing. His smile was very wide and his eyebrows were very high, and his arms were stretched out towards us. As we turned to him he seemed to realise how frantic he appeared, how ruffled despite his sharp grey suit, his polished shoes, and he seemed to relax back into himself, to loosen his shoulders, to soften his smile. ‘Hi there,’ he said, and his voice was low and almost comically sensual, as though he were presenting a late-night radio show, or standing under an unseen spotlight, about to croon a love song. ‘Are you open?’ I asked him, and he stretched out his arms again, this time towards the door. ‘Sure we’re open,’ he said. ‘Come on in. Have a drink, have some food.’ He led us into the bar.
But they weren’t open, not really; that much was clear. The only light came from the kitchen at the back, and the chairs were stacked up on the tables, and the barstools up on the bar, and a man in a black chef’s tunic hovered uncertainly with a sweeping brush as we stood by the door. Like the manager, he was black, and around forty, and very pleased to see some customers, and very eager to make us comfortable. He propped the sweeping brush against the bar and started to pull some chairs to the floor, and to push some tables together, and when we had sat down, at a tiny, wobbling table that Mr Long steadied with a folded- over napkin, he turned the lights on and brought us a plastic bottle of water and two little glasses and gave us the menus, and he told us, in a nervous, quite high-pitched voice that the only thing they didn’t have was some kind of fish that neither of us had heard of anyway. I thought that was a good sign, that they had some unusual type of fish, even if it was off the menu. Then the man who seemed like the manager came, and told us what the drinks menu was, and he paused expectantly after he told us they had Guinness, and with his smooth voice he named some other drinks and said that they also had a very good lager, something with a name I’d never heard before and can’t remember now. I ordered the lager, and so did Mr Long, and when it came it was in a squat red bottle with ‘World Cup 2000’ written on the label. It tasted very good.
When the man in the chef’s tunic came back to take our food orders, he told us that the place was new, that they had just opened two nights before. I could see, then, that the jump in his voice was not all nervousness but partly pride, and not just pride but partly joy. Our food—wings and a burger—did not come too quickly like it does in some restaurants and when we had finished eating, he came back to our table and asked us what we had thought of the food. It had been excellent, so we told him that, and he nodded, not in a perfunctory way, not in a relieved way, but in a slow, slightly distant way that suggested he was thinking about what else to add to the menu. As he was talking to us, I looked at the buttons of his black tunic, and he noticed me, and he put a hand to his belly, which was high and round, and rubbed it a moment, and I felt bad for looking, because maybe I had been looking at his belly after all, and I had made him self-conscious; but some other customers arrived then, and he moved quickly to get them seats and menus and squat bottles of beer.
I hope it does well, that little place. It was so nice to be in. It had the lovely tin ceiling that so many bars have here, and the mismatched old furniture, the velvet armchairs and the scratched gilt mirrors, and on the walls parts of the plaster had been torn away to show the lovely red brickwork underneath, and the lights were low and soul music played and around the window seat, long drapes hung, like those on the stalls of a Moroccan bazaar. It’s a sign, I suppose, that this part of Bushwick is being gentrified now, too, just as has happened in our part; a sign that more chi-chi bars, and boutiques, and expensive apartments can’t be too far behind. Then the nightgowns and the sandals will be wheeled away, and the plywood furniture will be replaced with overpriced antiques, and perhaps these two men will be sorry to ever have gotten started, for their rent will climb and climb.
But the other evening, they were excited, and it was an infectious sort of excitement, so that when it came time for us to go to the art exhibition, we half wanted to stay, and we made promises to the manager and to the chef that we would be back soon—for brunch some Sunday, we said. We meant it at the time. Just one thing bothered me. When we were paying our bill, the manager had gone downstairs, and the chef was apologetic, and looked anxious. He couldn’t give us our change because he had to wait until the manager came back, with the keys to the till. Why didn’t he have keys to the till, I whispered to Mr Long. Did it mean that the manager didn’t trust him, did it mean that maybe he wouldn’t, after all, last in this place very long, as glad and as enthusiastic as he might have appeared? No, said Mr Long, it was probably just that the manager hadn’t had time to cut a second set of keys yet.
Probably. Maybe. Still, it made me sad. I hope the eager chef gets his own set of keys before too long.