Monday, May 24, 2010

Greenpoint streets

Greenpoint, Brooklyn is something of a backwater. North of McCarren Park in Williamsburg, this quiet neighborhood is still a working-class enclave. It is not well-served by New York's subway system - only the isolated and often unreliable "G" Train goes through it.

This isolation has kept Greenpoint from the rampant inflation of hipster-cool and real estate speculation that has driven its neighbor Williamsburg - at least, it has delayed the boom.

Originally a neighborhood of second generation Italian and Eastern European immigrants, Greenpoint experienced a new influx of immigration in the 1980s after political upheaval in Poland. Polish language signs are on all the stores, and people passing on the street speak Polish. This is a young immigrant population - on Saturday night we passed a clutch of twenty-somethings, hanging out near a parked car, drinking beer and arguing in Polish, one young woman reeling out a long slurred diatribe against someone named Christina.

Other than that, the streets are quiet. On a Saturday, older residents sit on the stoops in front of the row houses, chatting with passing neighbors. Some wash their cars at the curbside. The houses here show no sheen of inflated real estate values - the old brownstone row houses are sooty, with old black-painted wrought iron fences surrounding concrete pads lined with battered metal trash cans. Some houses are covered with aluminum siding, awkward vestibules, and curved awnings.

Manhattan Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, and it is a bustling street with Polish restaurants, pharmacies, bakeries and bar-rooms. Unlike Williamsburg, where even the roughests saloons reveals painstakingly restored pressed-tin ceilings, paintings displayed on the wall beneath track lights, and lithe, elegant bar-tenders covered with tattoos, these bar-rooms are unabashed neighborhood dives, serving pedestrian Budweiser instead of trendy Stella and PBR.

Our flat was 13 blocks north of Manhattan Avenue. The further north you walked on Nassau Street, the busy commerce of restaurants and bars gave way to more domestic services - laundromats and convenience stores. We walked past a small park, where even at eight o'clock on a spring night, children's voices rang in the air. Familes walked along or sat on benches by the laundromat. Not families in yoga-garb pushing jogging strollers, but working-class families - housewifely moms and dads in basketball jerseys. Older couples carrying shopping bags from the local stores shuffled slowly, going home.

We were tired; we were hungry. We had just changed flats and weren't sure where to go. We walked into a Polish deli where a long glass case displayed dozens of meats and cheeses and pans of salads. Bright tags stuck on the glass were written in Polish. We had no idea what anything was, but it all looked good. Behind the counter, two blond women worked - one filling orders, the other breaking down and cleaning one of the two slicing machines.

"Hi," I said. "We just got into our apartment, and we don't know the neighborhood. Can you make us some sandwiches?"

At first she hesitated, looking at her co-worker. It was closing time - you could tell she just wanted to go home. "You can buy by the pound," she suggested, in accented English.

"Oh, please, we just got in and we're so tired, can't you just make two sandwiches, whatever's easiest, please? We don't have anything in the apartment."

She looked, then she nodded. She motioned to the bins of bread near the doorway. "Choose your bread," she said. "You like ham? Salami?" We agreed enthusiastically. "Cheese - American or Polish?" "Polish, please," we said. "You like pickle? Cole slaw?"

By the time she gave us the bag with two nicely wrapped sandwiches, some sodas, napkins and plastic cups, we were all smiling at one another. The sandwiches cost three dollars each. We left a couple singles in the tip jar.

Back home in the apartment, here's our sandwich. Whole-grain bread with sunflower seeds, Polish salami and cheese with mayo, slices of pickle, and some cole slaw. It was the best sandwich I've ever eaten - nourishment combined with generosity and friendship.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Looks good! I visited my local Polish deli last Thursday and bought some kyscka. I picked up an appreciation of la cucina polaca while dating a Krakow girl for a year and a half.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

That sandwich looks pretty good right now.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Wow, looking at that deli awning, I can't believe that both Thunder and I missed the "RELEASE THE KRAJAN!" joke.

Gilly said...

That sandwich looks delicious! I'm fascinated by all the nigbourhood locations you keep telling us about! I suspect that somewhere in England there is a Polish community, with Polish deli's etc. but I have never met it! New York sounds wonderful - is there anywhere you wouldn't go? Its just like a collection of little villages really!

giorno26 ¸¸.•*¨*•. said...

questo sandwich deve essere veramente troppo buono per le nostre papille gustative... ma non ( sigh ) per le nostre coronarie !
Happy day.

Beverly said...

What a nice memory. I bet that she would like to know that she helped make this nice memory for you.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Wonderfully told ♥