We’re trading Brooklyns, moving from the thriving, throbbing 24-hour Crown Heights – where the noise of blasting reggae at 3 AM is matched only by the noise of blasting cantorial music at 3 AM – trading it in for the placid, tree-lined, and, yes, backyard-filled streets of Flatbush. My Hasidic friends think I’m selling out and moving to a Modern Orthodox neighborhood. My non-Hasidic friends think I’m selling out and moving to the suburbs.
The truth is, they both might be right.
Last week I wrote about having crushes on cities, and how I can never write about a place until I’ve moved on from there. That’s not a total lie, but it’s a bit of one. I could never write about San Francisco until I left it, stopped touching girls, and wrote a memoir about living there and touching girls (well, one girl) a little too much. Crown Heights, though, is impossible not to write about. It’s like dating Christian Bale and getting a call from your best friend asking how your date went.
When my wife was eight months pregnant, we were walking to her great-uncle’s house for dinner a few blocks away, and we got caught in the middle of a gunfight. My wife’s great-uncle was BFFs with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. They live right across the street from the biggest synagogue in the neighborhood, 770 Eastern Parkway, which you’ve probably heard of; about 10,000 people pray there every Friday night, which is why I can’t stand praying there. It’s gregarious and welcoming and complete chaos, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch third-hand, but it’s a little too much like a party for me. I like to talk to G*d the old-fashioned way, with some silence and a prayerbook. (I never got “plays well with others” written on my report-card, either – so it’s probably just me.)
That night I prayed at my usual place, a tiny, crumbling shtiebel, then stopped at home to pick up my wife. We turned the corner. I saw more than heard the gun — if you’ve never seen it before, you actually see the sparks from the gunpowder; it’s the orange-white of lightning — and if you’ve never seen a pregnant woman run, man, my wife could have won marathons. Afterward, I told people that I let her run in front of me so I’d catch the bullets. The truth was, she was way quicker than anyone else.
Of course, there were no stray bullets. It was a drug deal gone bad, no less and no more — the gunner wasn’t looking for any more bodies. But that didn’t make us run any less. We turned the corner so he couldn’t see us, then ran for blocks — and then, not knowing what to do, we went to dinner, where we didn’t mention it until after the fish course (I’m a vegetarian, so Uncle Chaim, who runs a sophisticated brining system in his living room, served me fresh olives and pickles instead).
I don’t know why. We didn’t even think to bring it up in conversation, and people at the scene had already called 911.
I didn’t know how to process it. No, I knew: I should write about it. When I sat down to do that (or, rather, stood up — the only time I have to write is on the subway on the way to work, standing up and writing longhand), I couldn’t do it in the first person. Instead, it came out in the voice of Jupiter, the protagonist from my book Losers, which had just come out.
You’d expect that to be productive, but it was actually a massive cognitive disconnect. I was supposed to be doing the publicity blitz for Losers, which I’d written three years before, which meant I was supposed to talk about this happy, smartass little book about the first day of school and sneaking into punk shows and meeting gay metalheads, while instead I was writing this hyperaware book about a 14-year-old kid who gets caught in a gunfight and starts double-daring G*d to kill him.
And, also disconnect-ally, I was writing a book that was deeply, fundamentally about Crown Heights – but it was taking place in Northeast Philadelphia, where I grew up and where Jupiter did, too, a neighborhood that you wouldn’t have called a ghetto, but had enough trash on the streets and cheap-ass deep-fried restaurants to qualify.
I do have mixed feelings about leaving. Hasidic enclaves are super comfortable in a way: where you’re related to half the people, and best friends with the other half, and everyone understands the weird things you do and the weird Yiddish-English-Hebrew-Aramaic way you talk about them. And while the cultural barriers are more like cultural barricades, thick and impermeable, every time you got an inch of understanding across, it felt like a battle you’d both won – like when I was living in my bachelor apartment, complaining about the roaches and the leaks, and the old Trinidad ladies who play cards on the first floor had a “wait, your apartment sucks, too?” moment. Or when I almost bumped into some guy while we were both trying to keep our long hair (his dreads, my payos) out of our eyes because of the fierce wind.
I finished the novel last month. We’ll finish packing our house next week. I don’t know if the book will go anywhere, but we certainly are. Not far, just a mile or two down the street, but a different world, as every place in Brooklyn ends up being – and yet, just like happy-rocking-out Jupiter in the first book and depressive-introspective-theocidal Jupiter in the second, it’s somehow the same entity.