Everything Old Is Old Again
By Royston Coppenger

Percy Archives


About 11 months ago I was almost ready to post another of my semimonthly (read: sporadic) "Percy Speaks!" columns to the Taste of Brooklyn web site. Pursuing my usual agenda of trying to stem the tide of gentrification in this part of Brooklyn, I'd decided to use the column to try to start some outlandish urban legends that might scare the haute bourgeoisie away from Carroll Gardens. It was a funny column, I think, maybe one of the best I've written, and no one will ever see it. Because just as I was adding a few finishing touches the tragic events of September 11th made an appalling joke of all my poorly-disguised class envy.

Almost a year later now and many writers, good and bad, have weighed in on the significance of the World Trade Center attacks. There's nothing more to say, at least nothing I can say here that will make any difference. Like everybody you or I would care to know I was appalled and frightened and riven with sorrow to see what a handful of fanatics could do to this city that adopted me years ago as it has adopted so many others. There isn't a sane person alive who doesn't wish September 11th hadn't happened, but I suspect a lot of us may miss the feeling of being a New Yorker in the weeks that followed. For a brief, surreal time New York revealed itself as the kindest city on earth, a city full of people who went beyond the call of duty and evidenced the shared sense of humanity that drew so many of us here in the first place. Policemen and firemen behaved like every kid's fantasy of the fearless heroes they were always meant to be. For a while Rudy Giuliani proved to be the best mayor any city could hope for, until his Shakespearean ego reared its ugly head and he started musing in public over the possibility of invalidating New York's election laws and grabbing a third term. To all the right-wing religious freaks and survivalist wackos who have spent the last few years making apocalyptic predictions about how America's cities would turn into raging infernos of anarchy at the first sign of disaster, I have one thing to say: screw you. We just weathered something far worse than the fairy tale Y2K bug was ever expected to be in Jerry Falwell's direst revenge fantasies. We watched a day unfold that made Hollywood's most lurid disaster epics look like Family Channel specials. And New York City survived this trauma, as it has so many others over the years.

A few things stand out in my memory of the 11th on this side of the river: the sight of Court Street deserted at noon on September 11th as a cloud of ashes darkened the sky and charred memos from the collapsed buildings blew down the streets like invitations to the end of the world; the handful of missing-persons signs and makeshift memorials that popped up around the neighborhood, more poignant than the shrines that blanketed Manhattan because of their frightful specificity; going into Mazzone's hardware to buy dust masks shortly after the towers collapsed, seeing the young man behind the counter fighting back tears because his best friend worked in the Trade Center and nobody had been able to reach him; my first view of the smoldering skyline on the 12th as I drove unwillingly to work. On the morning of the fourteenth I took my daughter to play in Carroll Park. It was the first day the air in the neighborhood was clear of smoke and ashes, the first day we'd let her out of the house. The park was full of parents and children that morning. A lot of fathers were there, guys who'd normally have been working downtown. The kids were all wired up and crazy from having been cooped up for three days. The parents, myself included, were tense, watchful, hovering nearer their kids than they might normally have done. The airports had just reopened, and every time a jet flew by all the parents would freeze and study the sky until it passed; this became a persistent habit for months afterward, all the grownups in the park standing stock still and watching the sky our their kids screamed and frolicked around us. At some point that morning the wind shifted and the park was suddenly inundated by a blizzard of toxic ash. All of us parents grabbed our kids and ran for home, hands clasped over their mouths, sippy cups and diaper bags left behind, whispering words of comfort into our frightened, squirming children's ears.

There wasn't a particular moment when life in New York got back to normal. Over the intervening months things gradually reverted to the usual carnival of dysfunction we've all come to expect. Besides the anthrax scare (checking the mail every day with a pair of rubber gloves and a can of Lysol - now that was fun!) no further attacks happened; and that tells you something about how traumatized this city was, when the fact of a right-wing nutbag sending mass biological destruction through the mail seemed like no big deal. Giuliani, like some banana-republic dictator who finally realizes his freshness date has run out, eventually abdicated in favor of Michael (The Upper East Side is Part of New York Too, I Think) Bloomberg, a nasal millionaire whose appeal seems to have been that, unlike the other candidates, he didn't know the first fucking thing about New York City. Bloomberg ran on his expertise as a rich entrepreneur, as did George W. Bush, and between the two of them they've managed to shepherd New York toward its worst fiscal crisis in decades. The housing market is still inflated, although the daily corporate indictments of the last few months are eroding what little confidence anybody still had in the strength of the new economy, or the old economy, or any economy for that matter. George W. just held a one-day financial summit in Wacko Texas to announce that the economy is in fine shape. He also announced that Elvis was alive and working as a cosmetologist in Baton Rouge and that aliens from the hollow earth were beaming stock market tips through the metal plates in his head. From his bunker underneath Bethesda Medical Center Dick Cheney released a statement that Americans should ignore the stuff about Elvis and aliens and "just focus on the good news about America's financial future". Alan Greenspan will issue a statement as soon as somebody in his office finds a telephone with a cord long enough to reach the window ledge. It seems like a good time to get back in the saddle.

A lot of things have changed around the neighborhood since Giuliani left office. The Smelly Video Store is gone.

Its nom de commerce was Top 40 Video, but to my wife and me it was always The Smelly Video Store, and its proprietor, a garrulous film buff on the downward slope of 45, was The Smelly Video Guy. The Smelly Video Guy traded in fantasies, and the range of his obsessions ran the gamut from Glory Hole Cheerleaders 3 to The Ten Commandments, from Coup de Torchon to Barney's Christmas Sing-Along. His dark, crowded shop sat in the middle of Court Street between Cuzin's III Deli on one side and Try Rae's First Fashions & Accessories on the other, like a hyperactive id forced to stay in its seat by an ego and a superego that are struggling to keep up appearances.

The odor of The Smelly Video Store was like a remembered refrain from a once-familiar song: difficult to describe but impossible to forget. If you've ever entered a dive bar at 10 o'clock in the morning to look for the address book you lost the night before, you would have felt at home in The Smelly Video Store. If you ever walked past the open door of a Chinatown restaurant on a hot August night, The Smelly Video Store would hold no surprises for you. If you spent any part of the 1980s at the Show World Center on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, The Smelly Video Store might, like Proust's madeleines, elicit a nostalgic reverie from which you would never return. Yet for all its familiar associations - the gym-class locker on the first day of school after Christmas Break, the back seat of an untidy taxi, all musk and vomit overlaid with the reek of those tree-shaped air fresheners - The Smelly Video Store had an aura all its own. It was the smell of sweat and old cigarettes and stale coffee, of a cavalier approach to housekeeping and a nebulous tinge of something that might have been pierogies simmered in WD-40.
The smelly video store has been replaced, now, by a vintage clothing store for women and children. I never heard of a market for vintage kid's clothing before. I guess it's for parents who long for the good old days before rampant government interventionism unjustly insisted that junior's pajamas be flame-retardant.

For those of you attracted to intense olfactory experiences, Me & My Eggroll re-opened in its old spot on the corner of Court Street and Second Place after a hiatus during which the building underwent major renovations that had something to do with its imminent threat of collapse. Me & My Eggroll (or M&ME for short) got gussied up a little in the process, but the kitchen looks and smells the way it always did. The food tastes the same, not terrible, not good really, but glutinous and filling and just exactly what you'd expect from a place with a name like M&ME. It's as if their forced closure never happened. In fact, it's as if they had a huge vat of General Tso's Chicken in the basement that got covered with an old tarp while everybody went away for six months, and has now been put back in service. And Four D Video underwent a slight cosmetic renovation and liquidation of its huge, eccentric video library before being reborn as Josie's Java. Now the suddenly spacious interior sports a handful of retro 50s dinette tables and a few salvaged booths, but walk through the cracked glass door and the place still smells the same, a chain-smoker's dark night of the soul with eggs cremating in their own flop sweat on the griddle and last night's coffee bubbling on the hot plate like the lake of the damned in Hell. It's comforting to know some things never change.

But what the hell happened to Finn's? Sometime last spring the dank watering hole on the corner of Court Street and Third Place just didn't open for business one night. It has remained closed ever since. The bar on that corner had been the site of one uninviting neighborhood dive after another until it reopened as Finn's two years ago. I thought somebody had finally got it right: a quiet, low-key place whose deep-cushioned sofas suggested an air of boho sophistication that had been sorely lacking west of Smith Street. There was hardly ever anybody in Finn's, of course, and it was hard to figure out exactly what their hours of operation were, but that can't explain the bar's closure. None of the joints that occupied that corner had ever been crowded, and this end of Court Street is home to a number of "businesses" that operate more like hobbies than money-making ventures. Adding to my confusion is the fact that there has never been a sign posted in the window explaining the bar's sudden absence from my drinking life: no, "Closed for Renovations", no "Going Out of Business", no harsh yellow health-department warnings, nothing. When I press my face against the plate-glass windows (like an eager urchin out of some dystopian Dickens story) the inside of the joint looks like it always did: a few ashtrays scattered around, liquor bottles in place behind the bar, a Brooklyn Yellow Pages lying open on one of the low coffee-tables. It's impossible to see what page the phone book is open to: is there a Yellow Pages category for "High-Tailing it Out of Town"? (*Note - in the last few days Finn's has filled up with sheets of plywood. Since I didn't see anybody bringing it in it's impossible to know if the bar is being prepared for another rebirth, if the walls and floors are being ripped out, or if the location has been pressed into the service of Brooklyn's fabled double-bottomed coffin industry. Only time can tell.)

Meanwhile Mayor Michael ("Call Me Mike and Look Like You Mean it") Bloomberg continues his crash course in fiddling while Rome burns. It's amazing the things you can learn from a repressed billionaire with no political experience. It turns out that not only does New York not have a solid-waste problem, but so many lesser states (think Pennsylvania, West Virginia, South Carolina) are clamoring for our garbage that it was necessary to gut the city's recycling program just to meet the increased demand. Message to the hinterlands: leave a light on in the window and refill the kid's asthma medication, because New York's got a bunch of glass and plastic (pop it into the incinerator and watch it go!) we can't wait to get rid of! When Bloomberg announced the suspension of plastic and glass recycling he said it was because New York's recycling program just didn't make enough money, exhibiting the "business savvy" that vaulted him from the lowly position of media baron to the daddyship of the largest dysfunctional family in the free world. What he didn't say, of course, was that the savings generated by eliminating glass and plastic recycling would show up on this year's budget; the added cost of processing and disposing of all that extra waste wouldn't show up on New York City's ledger sheets until next fiscal year. It's a common enough maneuver in the business world, when you can put off charging yourself for equipment replacements and stretch vendor payments out a few months. It's a very different thing when you're in charge of a city, which unlike a corporation routinely does things that don't turn a profit. Fixing potholes, for example, is not a directly profitable venture. Nor is building playgrounds or cleaning sidewalks, operating a police department or throwing Greek Independence Day parades. Cities do these things because it's good for the citizenry, good for the world, good for the future of the community.

Mayor Mike does, of course, have a soft spot for the environment. Just look at his latest proposal to ban smoking in all bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes and city parks and beaches. Oh sure, I know smoking is bad for everybody concerned, but this is New York City, for god's sake! Just walking out the door is bad for you, staying indoors is bad for you, anybody in their right mind shouldn't be here in the first place! Shouldn't the city be encouraging a freewheeling party atmosphere to offset New Yorkers' uneasiness about the economy? Given New York's current fiscal crisis, Mayor Mike should have New York City cops posted at the entrances to the city handing out a free pack of cigarettes, a six of Old English and the number of a good hooker to everybody who ventures into town. But I guess if New York is descending into the miasma of 70s-style fiscal crises, the bluestockings who dreamed up this peevish regulation want to make damned sure nobody enjoys themselves in the meantime.

For the last gasp (so to speak) of New York in its good old-fashioned, I-just-got-indicted-and-I-need-a-drink heyday, you can do worse than visiting the Brooklyn Inn on Bergen Street. Inside you'll find a lovely vintage hardwood bar, a good eclectic jukebox and a staff of vaguely legal Irish immigrants who'll pour you a good stiff drink and light up your smoke as long as they can. For those of you who don't smoke, a night in the Brooklyn Inn is guaranteed to send you home at least smelling as though you sucked down a few Kool Filter Kings on your way home from the unemployment office.

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