If things go as planned, next year there will be a television show on FOX called Weird Loners, described on the network’s site as a “single-camera comedy about four relationship-phobic, quasi-underdog 30-somethings who are unexpectedly thrust into one another’s lives, forming unlikely bonds in a Queens, NY, townhouse.” Quasi was not part of the original copy. I know because I’ve been following the development of this program (and wondering how three conventionally attractive people, plus the guy who played Rebel Wilson’s boyfriend on that show no one DVR’d except for me, could be friendless in Queens) since I first heard it was meant to take place in Ridgewood. “Quooklyn,” as the locals like to call it.
On Oscar night I was in Ridgewood sipping a pint of Sweet Action while Joy Division took turns with ‘60s bubblegum pop over the speakers and Jared Leto’s pretty ombre appeared on screen. The bartender, bearded, plaid-shirted and wearing a small hoop earring, was giving an off-duty kitchen worker his first taste of Fernet. Two men late into middle age huddled over bottles of Bud Light at the far end of bar, remnants similar to the worn shuffleboard repurposed into wall art when Caskey’s transformed into Queens Tavern last fall.
It took well over a decade but Williamsburg’s spillover into Bushwick finally oozed into Queens. I saw the signs over the years: an indie arcade, the Chinese buffet that moonlighted as diy performance space, friends’ apartments border-hopping from the L train to the Forest M station. Now there are where-to-eat round-ups incorporating both pork belly and bureks, and reality show pilots being filmed that include makers of children’s pants with “I like big bugs and I can not lie” screen-printed across the posterior. Newcomers are proudly calling blocks mapped as Brooklyn “Ridgewood.” Ridgewood hasn’t held such cachet since the 1970s when residents were granted a Queens zip code distinct from Bushwick’s as a blight-distancing measure.
Even though I left Ridgewood at the turn of the century vowing never to return, I feel possessive of the neighborhood still unknown to the average New Yorker, as if it’s more mine because I suffered it first. Casual mentions of Ridgewood induce stomach-tensing, followed by the need to assert my expertise despite no one fighting to own the subject. (See also: chain restaurants, the malls of Dubai, and pre-Portlandia Portland.) I now waver between I-was-there-before-it-was-cool “Columbusing” and fits of boosterism fueled by little more than nostalgia. It’s a common New York impulse to claim something as yours, freeze it in the era you discovered it, and become outraged when interlopers warp it to their needs. But Ridgewood isn’t Times Square going Disney or John Varvatos replacing CBGB. The stakes are smaller and personal.
The first time I went to Ridgewood it turned out to be Bushwick—and the rookie mistake cost me two years. The weekend I arrived in NYC from Portland, Oregon I tagged along with one of the girls whose couch I’d been sleeping on in Williamsburg to her friend’s new apartment, supposedly in Ridgewood. It was cavernous, it was cheap, it was still on the L train. It was also on a block that smelled like pee and was inhabited by chickens. Everyone on their stoops knew we were there to visit Lynn and directed us to her place without our even asking.
Even in Ridgewood I’d still have to pay double my Northwest rent, but I’ve never had roommates and in my newcomer’s wisdom concluded that this was the only neighborhood where I could afford the luxury of solitude. So with no job or references needed, I signed a two-year lease on the first apartment I saw, a $585 one bedroom with chisel-gouged wood floors and lace curtains, stiff and waxed with yellowed grease and what I imagined to be turmeric based on the initially pleasant scent of curry. It was plenty of room for one person, but seemed less than ideal for the multi-generational family that was still occupying the space. An elderly woman who’d given in to the oppressive July heat was splayed-out face-down atop one of the bare mattresses on the ground.
“I’ll take it,” I told the landlady.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Earlier her son had driven me around the neighborhood in his truck explaining why Ridgewood was so great. “Manhattan is a ten-pound shit in a five-pound bag,” he stated with no trace of his mother’s Polish accent, and I believed him.
I now lived in Ridgewood, one transfer and three subway stops farther from the farthest part of Brooklyn anyone was willing to travel to in 1998. Sleeping on one of the abandoned mattresses my first night, I woke to find cockroaches owned the apartment and I was in their way. A baby, no bigger than my pinkie nail was eye-to-eye with me on my pillow brought from home, wiggling its antennae in a slow scissors motion as if I were the curiosity. The curry perfume lingered until I eventually cut down the curtains, leaving the upper two inches of fabric surrounding the rods I couldn’t reach standing on tiptoe. The combination of Raid and garam masala can now induce feelings of humility on the rare occasion I catch a whiff.
Not counting visitors from west coast, I don’t think I had company once. This was a neighborhood where twenty-somethings moved away from not to on purpose. While almost everyone I knew lived in the East Village or Lower East Side, I was stuck in an Archie Bunker episode but with more Poles, Serbians and Romanians.
When I went to check out a German bar in neighboring Glendale (where the house used in Archie Bunker’s opening credits was located) for a New York Post Oktoberfest article, my first paid writing assignment when publications still paid, I encountered neo-Nazis, an anomaly I thought was exclusive to homogenous cities like the one I’d just left behind. A young man walked in the door and approached the much larger man with a silver crew cut who had just been yelling expletives at The Green Mile on the TV above the bar. The two greeted each other with a jerky sieg heil and said “white power” aloud in case there was any mistake about the salute.
A disproportionate number of residents were elderly or had mobility issues. I took it as a bad sign when the neighborhood hot mom, resembling a miniature Pam Anderson with her sunny hair and penciled-on eyebrows and lips, started using a cane. The morning that a little person heading to the subway fell face-first onto the pavement as I whizzed past, I worried that I’d knocked him over with my negative energy.
I’d been drawn to Ridgewood’s quaintness and illusion of safety. During my first few weeks floating around Brooklyn I began missing Portland’s predictability and sense of decorum. I couldn’t acclimate to the chicken bones littering the sidewalks (once I even saw a sparrow dragging a fried chicken breast down the street), people standing next to me instead of in line (I still just can’t with the “on line”) while shoving their stuff on the counter before I’d paid, or dodging traffic to cross faster in the middle of the street. I was yelled at for looking both ways first. I was also screamed at in the Myrtle Avenue Lucille Roberts that I’m half-convinced was a women’s correctional institute—if prisons had locker rooms where everyone ate McDonald’s. While trying to use a bathroom stall for its intended purpose, a stubby woman with a pompadour shouted around the corner, “You better not be changing in there because you don’t got anything I haven’t seen before!”
Upper Ridgewood, as my section centered around Fresh Pond Road was called, was quieter than anyplace I’d encountered in NYC. Some might say the opposite of a steaming bag overflowing with feces. By 10pm most gates were down, the streets emptied and so did the subways. Anyone who had a habit of venturing out after dark was bound to get noticed.
The first time I met Benny we were two of three people on the M train back to Ridgewood at 5am. He was at the opposite end of the car, a guy with rough skin, half a foot shorter than me and at least half a decade older, discussing where to find pot with his friend and how I had pretty eyes. He got off before I did and handed me a pink, metal butterfly barrette that was missing the clip, saying “Stay safe.” Instead of tossing the token gifted by a subway freak, I held on to it like a charm.
Over the next year Benny would appear every few months in random patterns that led me to think he was my very mundane guardian angel. He materialized during my morning commute to tell me about a sale at Caldor, at 3am with a Styrofoam container of yellow rice in one hand and a bathroom scale in the other while I huddled in the subway stairwell trying to keep warm, at a street fair during my mom and grandma’s first visit to New York, and pushing groceries down Fresh Pond Road like a normal citizen while shouting “Hey you!”
The last time I ran into the only person I knew by name in the neighborhood, it was nearly two years after I’d arrived in Ridgewood and just three months before I’d escape Queens for good.
“Hey beautiful, remember me?” he asked.
“Yeah, you’re Benny,” I replied, laughing at such an obvious question.
“See ya round,” he said, sending me off with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
After a fourteen-year absence, I’ve been back to Ridgewood more times than I can count in 2014. A friend, part of the recent exodus of Williamsburg old-timers to Queens, traded in her glorified studio for three rooms and a spacious kitchen—in a building no one would ever call a townhouse—owned and occupied by an extended Sicilian family, including two grown twin brothers. Sometimes the hall smells like Sunday gravy and cigarettes, which isn’t a complaint. Though the rents aren’t quite ‘90s throwbacks, they’ve barely doubled either.
Now I’m able to patronize the kinds of bars, some barely a notch above private social club, that used to intimidate me when I was younger and solo, like the nameless Romanian cafe where the only other female, a young Hungarian bartender who would rather be in Bushwick or Williamsburg, hands out cigarettes and everyone ignores the patron who falls to the ground still attached to his chair. There is a giant plastic tub of pink Queen Helene hair gel in the ladies’ room that may have been there days or decades. Despite the narrative that hipsters are saving endangered drinking spots, I’ve never seen a bar in Ridgewood with every seat occupied.
Heading home one of these evenings when the temperature was barely in the double digits, I was asked for a swipe by the only other would-be customer in the elevated subway station, a guy somewhere on the spectrum between teen and adult who had just been pestering the clerk in the booth. Normally I’d ignore a request for a ride at my expense but I like to believe that there’s a kinship among fellow post-midnight M train riders.
For nearly two years my Friday and Saturday night routine consisted of traveling to the East Village from Ridgewood to try and convince a boy that he liked me as much as I liked him, M to the L, and then back again alone just before sunrise. One night at the Myrtle-Wyckoff station, up on the platform that’s level with the fourth-floor windows of neighboring buildings where tenants could put on puppet shows if they wanted, a group of teens were back-flipping and doing handstands to blasting music. “Hey!” one of them yelled while I closed my eyes and rested my chin on my palm in a passive attempt to shut-down the peacocking.
“Leave her alone. Homegirl’s depressed,” scolded another member of the crew.
Neighborhoods define us. For some, the arrival of Starbucks signals the end while those that have run on Dunkin’ for years think it’s curtains when young men in fitted v-necks and straw hats begin to trickle in. Neighborhoods change. Just because my Ridgewood felt like purgatory doesn’t mean that a “Wall Street player” forced to live in the neighborhood with his toll collector cousin, a street artist, and a dental hygienist wouldn’t have the right in 2030 to look back fondly on that time he cheered Argentina’s defeat with old men born in German-speaking regions of Slovenia or that awesome black truffle pizza wood-fired in an unmarked warehouse. He might not be weird or a loner, but he would be no more wrong than I am.