I got off the F train at Carroll Street. I was on my way home from work and still had my business suit on. My suit was in urgent need of dry cleaning after the heat wave of the previous week. As I walked down President past Carroll Park I overheard the familiar sound of a Brooklyn accent. A group of neighborhood kids were standing near a parked car on the other side of the street. One kid was threatening or rather promising to beat up another. I hadn’t heard anyone use the term “dead-ass” in a long time. The young woman walking in front of me, a pale apparent transplant turned to look at them. The relative suaveness of the local dialect being spoken by someone comfortable in his own skin was in such stark contrast to the self consciousness of the newcomers to the neighborhood I imagined that she was forced to take notice.
I stopped to buy a pack of cigarettes and continued down President past Court Street. I heard another familiar pattern of speech; it was Barese, the dialect of my father’s hometown in Italy being spoken by an old lady sitting on her stoop talking on her portable house phone. I suddenly began to notice the neatly kept front yards, cleaner than in Park Slope or Windsor Terrace. It was the kind of cleanliness that only results from daily sweeping and hosing off of the front of the property. I saw a beautiful dark, blue-eyed young mother speaking Italian to her ragazzino as she pushed his stroller. Yep, this was still an Italian neighborhood after all.
I found 513 Henry Street and entered. I was immediately welcomed by a man who called himself the head soda jerk.
“Can I do anything to make your day better?” I sat down and ordered a vanilla egg cream. It seemed as if the sound of my own Brooklyn accent as I ordered was music to his ears. “Sure, we’ve got pretzels and Candyland in the back, anything for you,” he said with sincere earnestness. I looked around at the other employees who seemed to all be women and at the impressive restored interior meant to make the place look like an old-time drug store with a soda fountain. I turned to my right and noticed that I was sitting 2 stools down from a celebrity. It was Lili Taylor the actress from Six Feet Under and Factotum. She was chatting with friends and trying to be low key. Both that and the fact that I couldn’t think of her name kept me from approaching her and potentially blowing up her spot.
I tried the egg cream and it was amazing. The perfectly proportioned vanilla syrup combined with whatever else was coming through from the grass-fed organic milk from the Hudson Valley created a nutty complexity I’ve never tasted before. Some flavor notes reminded me of Torani Orgeat, sweet almond syrup that is added to water to make a kind of flat soda. The egg cream was far from flat however. It was whipped up with the same frenzy and large bubbly head of an egg cream that a waitress at the Purity Diner had once made for me trying show up another waitress that I had been flirting with. The head soda jerk offered me a pretzel. Just as I began to chat with him about it being the end of a long day at work one of the female employees got my attention.
“I just have to say, you look so handsome and classy sitting there in that suit eating that pretzel and drinking that egg cream; classic!” I turned to the male soda jerk.
“This is turning out to be a good day after all.” Everyone laughed. Geez, I thought to myself. Here I am sitting next to a Hollywood Star and I’m the center of attention. I was a sweaty mess in a dirty suit from Garage Clothing on Stillwell Ave and I was getting my ego stroked like it hadn’t been in a long time. Ladies, I thought, “compliments will get you everywhere.”
After paying and leaving with the assurance that I would be back soon I stood outside on the corner and lit up a cigarette. I noticed an old timer from the neighborhood chatting with a young couple with a baby. This guy was a regular mayor; he was constantly waving to and chatting with passerby in cars and on bikes, pushing strollers and coming home from work, long time locals and transplants alike. I overheard him inviting someone to his club.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Do you mean the Niccolo van Westerhout Club, the Molese club on Court street.”
“No,” he said with a smile of sudden recognition, “my club, over heah. My name is Gaetano.”
We talked about the neighborhood, the Court Street feasts we both attended as children, albeit many decades apart. He spoke of yuppies getting mugged and burglarized. Easy victims, pushovers full of empathy for the people who preyed on them; so unlike the streetwise neighborhood people who weren’t afraid to throw a burglar out of a third story window. Gaetano told me how like my grandfather, he had been a longshoreman on the Brooklyn waterfront. He told me how the dock workers were responsible for making the United States the superpower it is today. How my generation’s lack of participation in the neighborhood social clubs was responsible for the shrinking and disappearance of summertime feasts and neighborhood identity. I was inclined to agree with everything this charismatic dynamo said. A few minutes of small talk and an old fashioned handshake later I was on my way home.
As I got back into the F train station I passed a voluptuous young black woman. We caught each other’s eyes. Her expression said she wanted me to initiate a conversation. I had the urge to stop and make an introduction but I was too worn out from the day’s work; too smelly and sweaty to do anything about it. Even with these insecurities in tow I was amazed I had the juju to attract the hungry gaze of such an attractive female. “Confidence,” I thought to myself, “It must be a Brooklyn thing.”