Growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s, Brooklyn was a far off and wild land, a strange place filled with wise-cracking Mr. Kotters and Vinnie Barbarinos, steeped in the perpetual twilight of elevated railways and bridges (an image I created myself by combining the opening credits of Taxi and Welcome Back Kotter, the two TV programs I most hated).
My only regular experience of the borough of Kings was a semi-annual shopping excursion for children’s clothing. Evidently, some supply line of over-indulgent-but-sensible Manhattan mothers had spread the word that there were beautiful European brands to be had at discount in the depths of Williamsburg. So we’d schlep over the Williamsburg Bridge, whose outer roadways in those days felt like cardboard shelves attached to the sides of the “real” bridge.
Once in Brooklyn, it was a matter of two turns, and we’d park on Havemeyer, usually right in front of the store. I remember black streets paved with keys and bottle caps, and Italian ice vendors, never seen on the streets of my Manhattan, who plied their wares on the sidewalk.
Inside were racks and racks of clothes, a trade largely directed at the Hassidim in the neighborhood, whose tastes in garments still hover around the turn of the last century. I’d make a break for the rack of sleepwear straight away: love of The Nutcracker, in which Clara plays all her big scenes in her nightgown, taught me that a good satin number, with ribbons, was to a 7 year old what a great black dress was to her adult counterpart. After all, I made all my big dinner-party appearances in my nightgown, just before saying good night.
Between fits of joy and sessions in the changing booth, I spent a lot of time marveling at the shopkeepers: heavily accented, impossibly old and unglamorous, (nothing like the perfumey ladies at Bloomingdales) they all had numbers tattooed on their forearms. Tattoos had never crossed my radar before. And, quizzing my mother in the hot car on the way back over the bridge, I learned about the Holocaust, about identification numbers and concentration camps. And that store, that experience, taught me one thing I still believe to be true about New York: it’s the place where people come after really tangling with history. And they come not for the luxury condos, or The Gates, or the Olympics — they come to stay.