I don't know what happened last night.
After work I went to the East Village for a writing session at my friend and co-writer L's apartment, but it didn't start until 6:30, so, as usual when I have time to kill in the East Village and I'm alone, I had dinner at Veselka (I say when I'm alone, because C doesn't like Veselka).
The restaurant looks very different from when I lived in the neighborhood, but enough of it remains (the counters in front, the big display case of cookies by the cash register) and the chicken soup, and really all the food, is exactly the same, which is why I go there. I loved it then, love it now, and it's a reassuring place to land in a neighborhood that has, since I returned to New York 4 years ago, made me feel very sad no matter how hard I brace myself against it.
C and I have been saving up a down payment because we want to buy an apartment. We have lots of conversations about where we'd like to live. It's mostly a conversation about location vs. affordability. We both like it in Inwood, and there are big apartments up here that we could never afford in say midtown or downtown. So there's always the question of how much space would you sacrifice to be more centrally located or the inverse, how far out would you be willing to live to have more space. But my one rule that had nothing to do with practical concerns was that I didn't want to live in the East Village or on the Lower East Side because they make me sad and angry. (C, who lived there in the 90s and loved it but moved uptown for cheaper rent, doesn't share my feelings.)
But it didn't come last night, that sadness. Apparently, I was in a defiant mood. The restaurant was more than half empty, so I sat down at a 4-top by the window. I was going to read and the light was good there. A waiter came over and asked "How many?"
I said, "Just me."
"Can you move to a smaller table?"
I snapped back, "You have like 8 empty 4-tops!" And I made a big sort of sweeping/cutting gesture with my whole arm, which is so unlike me, I think, that I was surprised and scared and felt like I might laugh, all at the same time.
He backed down immediately and took my order. When he came back with coffee, I apologized and said I would move if he needed the table. He was very sweet, said it was fine, and I left him a big tip.
I still had half an hour to kill and last night was cool and dry, and it was dusk, the time of day when New York is most magical, seductive, tingly with possibility. I thought I'd just walk around. I headed down to 2nd or 3rd Street and turned left, walked all the way to Avenue C. There were lots of people out, all ages, sizes, colors, walking,
standing in front of stoops and shops. It seemed like everyone was
cheerful. The weather, I guess. The liveliness, the mix of people, the fact that the most dramatic changes to the neighborhood are more apparent on the avenues than the streets, the growing darkness softening the edges, it started to look and feel familiar, like the old neighborhood.
Most times when I've visited the East Village in the last few years I haven't gone much east of Avenue B, and really I guess not often east of 1st. There's plenty to break your heart on 2nd Avenue -- a bank where 2nd Avenue Deli once stood, for example -- but let's be honest: even 30 years ago when I lived there 2nd Avenue was lined with restaurants and bars filled with mostly white middle class people, and by the late 90s when I left that scene had spread a few blocks east. All of which is to say that a lot of the changes to the neighborhood that I get so worked up about when I visit, and that I think of as having happened while I was gone, were happening already 30 years ago when I was there.
As I walked up Avenue C, something happened I don't know what. Strolling by the bars and restaurants where waiters were lighting candles on the tables, a bartender dusting bottles, and the public housing flanking the east side of the street, artsy college students on the corners and groups of younger kids up to no good, a very fashionably-dressed white lady pushing a stroller with determination and right behind her two young women talking loudly in Spanish, one of them also pushing a stroller and dragging a reluctant 4- or 5-year-old. Old women pushing wire laundry baskets on wheels and old men sitting on stoops. I just started to feel good, relaxed, and even though Avenue C is very different from what it was when I lived there, it looked familiar. I felt at home.
If I wasn't going to be pushed around by a waiter, I was certainly not willing to be pushed around by my own feelings. The sad indignation (indignant sadness?) over what I always call, with such drama, the obliteration of downtown Manhattan, for the first time didn't feel involuntary. I started to see daylight between my personal feelings of loss, sadness, regret on the one hand and on the other hand my I guess you'd call them political feelings about gentrification, income disparity, affordable housing, the poor, and all the rest.
I was (am) angry about those things, angry at politicians and corporations and a fucked up system that favors the rich at the expense of everyone else, but I've been directing my anger toward New York itself, the city I love, and especially toward the neighborhood that was my home for so many years and still, I realized last night, still feels so very much like my home, more than any other place ever has. Blaming the victim.
I continued up Avenue C to 11th Street. On the northwest corner is the building where I lived with B, my boyfriend for 6 years in my 20s, or really where he lived and I was just there all the time even though I had my own apartment down on Pitt St. The building -- a large apartment building unusual for the neighborhood which is mostly narrow tenements, kind of beautiful with contrasting red and white brick but a slightly terrifying wreck back then -- is now restored and clean and there's a fancy deli on the corner and at street level on 11th a restaurant with little tables on the sidewalk.
Across the street near the southwest corner is where Eduardo lived. I was at Eduardo's place most of the very hot summer of 1983 and then again for a period of several months the following year until that all blew up in my face. Oh my tumultuous early 20s. Eduardo's building is no longer there. There's a newish brick structure, 2-story townhouses set back from the street with large stoops. I stood on the corner looking up at the space in the air where Eduardo's apartment would have been, the fire escape where the neighborhood kids used to jump through the window into his bedroom, steal stuff and then try to sell it back to us the next day. And the little storefront social club (do they have these any more? the neighborhood used to be full of them) where Eduardo's old rheumy-eyed neighbor would invite us to come in and drink shots of something foul-tasting but powerful while he told us long stories about how to make women come. Eduardo understood his Spanglish, I didn't but I got the gist from his hand gestures.
In the early 80s, a lot of that block of 11th between B and C was rubble (maybe 20%?) and probably 30% of the standing buildings where burned out, or gutted, or boarded up. It was bleak. That's how the neighborhood was then. And there's no getting around the fact that that was a big part of why we loved it there. Now those empty lots are filled in with newer buildings, some of them modest, warmly institutional, probably subsidized housing, and others looking more like new luxury apartments. And the older buildings that are still there are renovated and charming. There are more trees. It's a nice block.
It was time for my writing session around the corner on 10th, so I ended my reverie and started walking .
I texted C, "I think I could live in the East Village again, if that became a possibility."
He responded, "Has someone else taken control of your body?"
"I don't know. Maybe. :) Just thinking that much of what I loved about it and miss is still here."
And then a few minutes later I texted, "I just need to get over myself sometimes."
"Amen to that."