A good friend of mine asked me this afternoon if I had ever read “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” a short story by Thomas Wolfe (a very short story). She knows of my endeavor to walk all of Brooklyn and she knows of this blog and she thought I should know of the story.
I know Thomas Wolfe’s work and have read Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again. In fact, the family of other long time friends is from Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and it was well known down there that some of the characters in Look Homeward are thinly disguised portraits of his neighbors, members of this family included. In some cases, not such sympathetic portraits either, I understand.
And I vaguely knew the phrase “only the dead know Brooklyn,” though I didn’t know where it came from. It turns out that besides the Wolfe short story, it is the name of an album and a track on that album by a group called The Shirts, a rap album by someone called the Brooklyn Brawler, and also the title of a crime novel by Thomas Boyle about a serial killer in Brooklyn. A very catchy phrase and one that Wolfe apparently originated.
But for me, what is eerie about the Wolfe short story is that it is about an unnamed character doing almost exactly what I am doing: Going all over Brooklyn (with a map) because the names of the neighborhoods interest him and he wants to see them:
"Oh," duh guy says, "I'm just goin' out to see duh place," he says. "I like duh sound of duh name - Bensonhoist, y'know - so I t'ought I'd go out an' have a look at it."
"Whatcha tryin' t'hand me?" I says. "Whatcha tryin' t'do - kid me?" You know, I t'ought duh guy was bein' wise wit me.
"No," he says. "I'm tellin' yuh duh troot. I like to go out an' take a look at places wit nice names like dat. I like to go out an' look at all kinds of places," he says.
"How'd yuh know deh was such a place," I says, "if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?"
"Oh," he says, "I got a map."
"A map?" I says.
"Sure," he says, "I got a map dat tells me about all dese places. I take it wit me every time I come out heah," he says.
And Jesus! Wit dat, he pulls it out of his pocket, an' so help me, but he's got it - he's tellin' duh troot - a big map of duh whole f______ place with all duh different pahts mahked out. You know - Canarsie an' East Noo Yawk an' Flatbush, Bensonhoist, Sout' Brooklyn, duh Heights, Bay Ridge, Greenpernt - duh whole goddam layout, he's got it right deh on duh map.
Trying to reproduce the Brooklyn accent is a mistake, I think. I’ve never liked it when authors try to do that sort of thing, it’s really distracting and rarely done well; let the readers hear the voices whichever way they want. Other than that, boy, did he have my number seventy-five years ago! I have walked to and through each of those places (among others), sometimes even with a little sketch map in my pocket to keep track of streets I want to take. The only difference is that Wolfe’s man is taking trains while I am walking.
One thing I do agree with Wolfe on is his ending:
“Maybe he's found out by now dat he'll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn. It'd take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t'roo an' t'roo. An' even den, yuh wouldn't know it all.”
You could hardly say it any better; I don’t ever expect to know Brooklyn through and through, either, no matter how many years I walk around it, but it sure as hell is fun trying.
One correction, for now, to my first Bushwick post, and it come from relying on neighborhood maps that aren’t very well detailed. I was assuming that Bushwick began at the foot of Bushwick Avenue where it meets Metropolitan Avenue. It seemed like a natural border. Unh-unh, Bushwick doesn’t begin until Flushing Avenue, many blocks further up. All those less than complimentary things I was saying about gritty, run down, industrial Bushwick really should apply to Williamsburg. It looks like even the Bushwick Houses are in Williamsburg. Go figure. But more on this later because I found out by reading some posts at another web site recently that the perceived border between Bushwick and Williamsburg down in that area is a sore point among the young and hip. Bragging rights or naming rights or something. Interesting.
Flushing Avenue at Wyckoff Avenue; Bushwick to the right, Williamsburg to the left.
Looking up Wyckoff Avenue into Bushwick from Flushing Avenue
These photos don't really show you much but I just couldn't add a post without pictures.