“Keep going down Atlantic, then hang a left at Bedford,” advised the lot attendant, a white guy in his 60s, as my pal Patrick and I dropped off a U-Haul truck at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic. “But be careful, Fellas. You’ll be driving through God’s country.” It was a white guy’s way of advising other white guys that we would be entering a Black neighborhood.
It was Saturday, August 1, 1998 and yes, there was a U-Haul lot at the corner where the Barclays Center now stands. Bed-Stuy had plenty of churches, but “God’s country” was a bigot’s euphemism for a lawless Black ghetto. Over the preceding decade, Spike Lee and Biggie had put Bed-Stuy on the pop culture map. A quarter-century later, the upscale terrain features wine bars and Japanese tacos.
The U-Haul guy’s advice taught me on my first day as a Brooklyn resident that race was not exactly beneath the surface here. A few other preliminary encounters informed me that ethnicity also mattered. I was not wealthy and had only a handful of connections when I arrived in the fast-gentrifying borough. But being a white guy opened a few doors.
My then-wife Emily and I had just gotten hitched at the end of June 1998 at her family’s home in the Berkshires. She had a free ride for an MFA in dramatic writing at NYU that started in September. I was in my early 30s and preparing to join the city’s over-flow ranks of adjunct professors. We spent our honeymoon looking for a pad.
We checked out a few apartments in Prospect Heights, where we definitely seemed out of place. I recall a Black teenage girl looking at our white faces like she was seeing aliens coming up her stairs. Williamsburg seemed like a more natural fit.
I had a bunch of pals there, stemming from my undergrad days at Rutgers in the 1980s. There was Patrick, an intense Irish-American writer from Staten Island; Joe, an Italian-American filmmaker from Buffalo; and Christian, a Chilean art critic. Emily’s Italian-Am heritage—mother raised in Hell’s Kitchen, father in Astoria—came in handy.
On a hot afternoon in mid-July, Emily and I visited a grimy realty storefront on Graham Avenue run by a salty middle-age woman named Rosemarie. We asked what units she had available and Rosemarie then sent us to meet Jimmy T. on North 8th between Bedford and Driggs. The apartment he showed us was a dump, with a filthy shower and empty beer cans stacked high on the kitchen counter.
“So whaddya looking for?” asked Jimmy, seeing that this was not it.
“We kind of like the Italian section,” I replied.
“Oh yeah? I’m gonna make your fuckin’ day,” said Jimmy. “But it’s gonna cost you an extra hundred dollas for Rosemarie.”
Sufficiently tantalized, we walked with Jimmy a few blocks to 43 Withers Street, across from Bamonte’s, which had been serving up Italian fare for nearly a century. Along the way it became clear that Jimmy was some sort of wise guy, or at least fancied himself as such. When we arrived on Withers, Mary, an elderly but stout Italian-Am woman in a patterned house frock, was waiting at the front door. Jimmy extended his hand as a greeting, but Mary declined to touch it.
Mary then gave Emily and me a once-over from head to toe. “You’ll do,” she announced. Her background check was complete.
Before long we would regularly hear Mary and her chain-smoking gal-pal neighbor spew venom towards Rev. Al Sharpton while watching the local news. It’s highly doubtful that any Black couple would have gotten Mary’s instant green-light to live in the building.
But upon entering the top-floor unit, we were instantly hooked. The front door opened into a large kitchen with a view of the Chrysler Building. The living room had original details including Art-Deco era sconces. The place had plenty of Old Brooklyn charm, and Mary proudly informed us that her family had owned the building since it went up 75 years prior.
“It’s $950 per month,” Mary said, which was a good price at the time for a two-bedroom apartment. “Pay in cash and it doesn’t go up.” That was an even better deal, one that lasted until Mary died around six years later.
A few days after securing the apartment, I went to Jimmy’s office in Greenpoint to deliver his broker’s fee. An extremely large Polish bodybuilder manned the front desk. The 90s were the era of “’roid rage” and this guy was a ticking time bomb. Nervously, I handed over an envelope with cash.
“There’s only $950 here,” Jimmy said, as his right-hand man grew agitated. “What about Rosemarie’s cut?”
“I’ll drop it by her office,” I said.
In truth, I had zero intention of doing so. I didn’t see why we owed her anything. I was new to Brooklyn, after all.
A noble version of the local custom is that if you give your word, you keep it. A less-charitable explanation is that everybody is always finding some way to take your money for nothing.
After several weeks went by, I thought we were in the clear. But on Monday, September 7, Jimmy came to see me on Withers.
A day earlier, Jets starting QB Vinny Testaverde tore his achilles in the season opener, causing the team to lose the game and shattering their Super Bowl hopes. On Monday morning, Jimmy looked distraught and disheveled.
“You got that hundred for Rosemarie?” he said, with an air of desperation. I had to cough it up. I hope Rosemarie spent it wisely.
Patrick and I made it through Bed-Stuy without incident that Saturday, August 1. We experienced a memorable minute of road rage in Williamsburg, though. As we drove along in my aqua-blue Toyota Corolla station wagon, Patrick explained some of the changes seen in the neighborhood over the past few years—e.g. an influx of hipsters and the newfound availability of the New York Times in print.
As I inched slowly towards Bedford, a pioneer artisan hipster guy in a pick-up truck behind me got antsy. “While I’m young!” he barked at a stop sign on Driggs. As I grow older, that remains a favorite phrase of mine.
Over the next several years I would travel throughout Brooklyn in my Corolla station wagon delivering copies of a certain print publication. For a few years around 2005, I also owned a second, much more stylish delivery vehicle: a brown-and-blue Ford Country Squire. Living close to the BQE may not have provided the freshest air, but it did furnish a near-utopia of free parking.
Amid our first two weeks on Withers Street, Emily and I decided to launch the publication, which she named the Brooklyn Rail and my Rutgers chums helped build. Eventually, the Rail would clutter our apartment, destroy our marriage, launch my writing career and make me a full-time professor.
That’s pretty weighty stuff, and I’d be happy to tell you more about it. But it will cost you an extra hundred bucks for Rosemarie.
Ted Hamm, a German/Slovak-American, currently lives with his wife Toni, a Haitian-American, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He runs the journalism program at St. Joseph’s University in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
*Main featured photo: Williamsburg’s Feast of Mount Carmel in the 1990s by Anders Goldfarb.