And pickles are just pickles

29 11 2009

Russ & Daughters makes great pickles. Sour, with a corona of heat around the edge of each bite.

That’s a pickle.

Russ & Daughters is one of the remnants of the late 19th/early 20th centuries still living in the early 21st: they and Katz’s Deli (packed with tourists as I sidled by) are among the few outposts of the great Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side, each nailed into a corner on Houston.

They’re both north of the Williamsburg Bridge, and a few blocks beyond Delancey—does this make them a part of the East Village rather than the LES? I’m no umpire, here, but they’re tugged from behind by the LES; the other side of Houston heads toward a city far beyond the modesty of the LES.

Or former modesty. The Lower East Side is, as everywhere in Manhattan, bending under the influx of money and cool. Not completely—there are sites in the LES and even the East Village which are more rather than less dodgy, and few would argue that the F and JMZ lines are among the city’s best—but gentrification creeps on.

It’s Manhattan. The desire for the Next Great Deal will always out.

I shouldn’t romanticize either the East Village or the LES. I’ve been in some of those apartments, and they’re awful: tiny, dark, and likely to lack basic amenities (such as, say, a sink in the bathroom). The streets are close together, so lower level windows likely never see sun. And twenty-five years ago ‘Alphabet City’ was a warning against trespassing beyond First.

But they (and the Bowery—why not?) used to be places. Not always good places, but there was something more to them than just. . . well, money.

Money is dull. Don’t get me wrong—I could certainly use more of it—but in and of itself it all-too-often adds nothing but that which caters to it. It doesn’t have to be that way, but money makes it too easy to be lazy in one’s tastes. What can I get? What can I buy? What is everyone else getting and buying?

Lack of money is never dull. Poverty or fear thereof can certainly dull one’s sensibilities, especially in a city (or a country) where money is IT!, but sometimes, sometimes, the lack of money drives those so lacking to seek pleasures and meanings beyond that literal coin of the realm.

Again, I shouldn’t romanticize: So many of those who lived in and constituted the history of these neighborhoods scuffled and hustled and did whatever they could to escape those places. They wanted the money they saw flowing from the pockets of those living further uptown. And my own skepticism of community ought to force me to scrape away the sepia from what could be a violent and oppressive past.

But I miss what was there, what is gone. It’s in large measure the cheap nostalgia of the passer-by: the one who strolls through and marvels and doesn’t have to live in the dim and the dank.

But there was life beyond—within—the dim and the dank, a life unseen by the mere passer-by. The people who lived in these neighborhoods were visible in the streets, but there was something more which connected these people to the tenements and narrow streets and one another.

Perhaps it’s still there, or somewhere, in this city. Perhaps I need to open my eyes and see what’s here, now. There is always something more.