Monthly Archives: October 2014

Los Mariachis

I had passed the faded sign countless times before: the words “Live Entertainment” next to a trumpet, cocktail glass, and music notes. It was a fabulous sign. In the window, neon likenesses of a mariachi band lit up the curb. This was Los Mariachis restaurant, on Coney Island Avenue near Dorchester, on the border of Ditmas Park and Kensington, and until last week I wondered what it was like inside. The interior decor looked to mirror the neon exterior — halogen lights of green and yellow cast a bright, harsh glare.

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But last week, my superintendent, a kind man named Fernando who has lived on Ocean Avenue most of his life, told me that Los Mariachis is true to its name: every Friday night, a mariachi band plays. I went with a friend. The scene inside was warm and jovial: families make an occasion of it, the four musicians moved slowly around the low-ceilinged room, moving from table to table taking requests. I wish I knew more Mexican classics to suggest. The guitarrón player was particularly adept. Just playing that oversized guitar seems like a challenge. The food wasn’t anything to write home about, but the music and margaritas were. We left close to 11, but the band, playing for more than two hours, still had another hour to go.

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Spielberg’s “St. James Place” filming in Ditmas Park

Yesterday, the historic section of Ditmas Park from E. 16th to E. 18th streets, and Dorchester to Ditmas, not far from where I live, was filled with old Studebakers and actors wearing period garb for the filming of 1960s spy thriller “St. James Place,” directed by Steven Spielberg. And Tom Hanks. None of the cars looked out of place next to early-20th century Victorian houses. With the streets blocked off and turned into one large vintage set, there was a quiet and mysterious feel to the neighborhood.

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There were about a dozen people milling about to get a sight of Hanks and one car scene being filmed. The most amusing part of this was a middle-aged Caribbean man named Leslie who was snapping as many photos of Hanks as he could on his bulky phone. He admitted he had no idea who Hanks was. One woman, stunned, asked him what he does if he doesn’t watch movies. “Read books,” he said. Hanks only rung a bell for him when this other gawker mentioned “You’ve Got Mail.” The mention of Forrest Gump drew a blank stare.

Here are some other photos.

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“Out there”

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I’m often told by my friends that I live out there. A shapeless, faceless, undefined place in south-central Brooklyn; too far from Manhattan, too far from the hip parts of Brooklyn, too far from anything that matters, too different. At first I resented that description. Now I enjoy it.

I have lived out there (Kensington, precisely) for more than a year now (14 months to be exact), and everything about it makes me feel at peace. Henry Miller wrote in “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” about feeling at home in the slums of New York, because these are where the immigrants are, and they’re European and hence not American in quality or outlook. I don’t live in the slums; in fact it is an unbelievably diverse, working-class, family-oriented community with folks who have landed from Tibet, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, and a dozen other countries I’m forgetting. There is a timeless quality to living out there; a satisfaction and contentment among folks who aren’t worried about getting their kids into an expensive private pre-school, or moving to a hipper neighborhood, or how they should spend their weekends according to what New York Magazine says. What’s better than living on Ocean Parkway? Playgrounds for your children, a tree-lined boulevard to stroll, concrete tables to play chess or backgammon, the sounds of dice competing with vehicular noise.

Many weeknights since I moved, I have jumped the B train to Brighton Beach for an evening swim or to walk the boardwalk. To be near the sea. This feels incredible to me, that I can get on a train and be on the sand in 15 minutes. Makes me think of early Lou Reed, singing “Coney Island Baby.” I took that above photo one night in the spring. An almost waif-like woman walking alone on the beach. Some nights I walk through Borough Park and feel transported in time. I see art-deco buildings and neon signs and think people would pay big bucks to live in these places, if it weren’t out there. People who tell me New York is dead are missing the picture. I mean, many parts of it are, and we all spend too much money to live here — Manhattan, save for Chinatown, feels like a foreign land to me now, a museum city, preserved in Formaldehyde. But out there, there’s a wildness to life. People fill the streets at night. When I lived in Cobble Hill for seven years, I used to walk through Brooklyn Heights on a summer night and see nobody on the street or on their front steps. Were they inside watching television? Upstate? They weren’t on the Promenade, which was rarely crowded. I never understood this. The playground next to my current building is like a children’s United Nations. On Coney Island Avenue, you can get a haircut or Sugarcane at any hour of the night. Men gather in small groups on Ocean Parkway, or outside cramped apartment houses. You almost never hear English, and I like that. On Ditmas Avenue, dozens of men, probably Russian or Azerbaijani, play backgammon late into the night at Brandon’s Tea & Grocery. They don’t sell produce there. Some nights, I have seen 40 people waiting to get on a table, or just watching the action. The other night at a new Turkish gyro place, four Russian men poured shots of vodka out of a porcelain tea kettle. It was 6:30. My friend and I call our neighborhood the Fertile Crescent; if you want to see what people looked like 3,000 years ago, come to Ditmas Avenue and Ocean Parkway.

If I want tranquility, I walk a few blocks into Ditmas Park. Down sycamore-lined Argyle Street, past the weeping willow on Dorchester, up streets with spacious front porches and privet hedges. It’s like walking through one large botanic garden, and I imagine it felt that way in the early 20th century when these districts were carved up from farmland. Some of these houses have turned over two or three times in a century. I tell people that I can see the stars at night, and they rarely believe me. And when I leave the Cortelyou Road station it’s like coming into a small village. Cafe Tibet looks like it’s about to tip over onto the tracks, at Vincent’s barbershop across the street prices haven’t changed in 25 years, and a few blocks away San Remo sells slices out of its window. I was sold on this area two years ago when I came on a Sunday, the farmer’s market was open, and I had never seen such humanity in my time in New York. This is what Old New York feels like.

And the food…I’ve never eaten so well in my life: Trinidadian, Pakistani, Tibetan, Turkish, Moldovan, Uighur, Uzbeki, Mexican, take your pick. I will write another essay on Shayna’s on Church Avenue, run by the matronly Joyce Bittan, one of my favorite people and favorite restaurants in the whole world. All cheap, all fresh, a little dirty, and bursting with life and character. No white tablecloths here, or fancy ratings, or preciousness.

Out there is not for everyone. It is not conventional, it is ageless, and I hope it stays that way.

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