Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Cobble Hill Mafia: An Encounter

There aren’t many places in my section of Brooklyn that are actually noire, which to me means “ambient with mystery or potential intrigue.” My neighborhood is usually a sedate sort of place where even the whiff of potential sociopathic activity would be out of keeping with its stroller-friendly, artisanal grocery store type vibes. In fact I sometimes wonder why I, at the age of 23, live in a place so amenable to the raising of children, a place that looks and feels older than I feel or wish I could feel—in other words, a place unique for its total lack of spontaneity. Any number of times I’ve strolled through Williamsburg and found myself in a place I never planned on going to: sucked for an hour into the whimsical quicksand of a bookstore that sells nothing but zines, drawn trance-like into a motorcycle repair shop where a three-piece punk band played its heart out for ten or fifteen people, who, like me, had probably been walking down the street, and were unable perhaps on the level of instinct to simply ignore the rhythmic artillery fire emanating nearby. This would never happen in Cobble Hill. Nothing fun or interesting happens by surprise here.

This bar wasn’t noire per se, but it was the only one in the neighborhood that could sometimes feel noire. It’s a dim, cash-only sort of place near the subway, mostly empty on a Tuesday night, staffed by a stocky, slightly dwarvish Mexican and a shaved, corn-stalk hipster in suspenders. A mismatched pair, communicating in furtive sentences of badly-accented Spanish, and, jarringly, unaccented English. Not a busy night, so the hipster would disappear into and then re-appear from a back closet every few minutes, leaving a rare scene, at least in these parts, during his temporary absences—a single, aproned bar-back stoically presiding over a fancy cocktail bar, hard bop and 70s calypso and Afrobeat playing softly but somehow anxiously from a single stereo, a cold draft blowing in from an open back door, conversation absent or whispered to the point of instant sonic evaporation. Sometimes you get a dreary feeling sitting in a bar like this on a weeknight, like who are these people and why are they here, and why am I here, and what drove me here, and why this languidness, this static quiet, this sense of nothing happening or about to happen, in senses both more and less immediate, or senses more and less, how to put it, existential? But sometimes this dreariness gives way to the occasional and for a moment overpoweringly weird and weirdly promising tableaux —i.e. the Mexican presiding over the bar, without the authority to pour or mix a drink for his six or seven customers, all of whom were sitting almost in the dark, clutching or staring into highball glasses or cocktail glasses and hunching to avoid exposure to the wind blowing through the back door.

I wasn’t there alone, of course. We were coming back from the Village and the girlfriend insisted I have a look at the jukebox, which was quite an impressive jukebox actually: a half-dozen Chess records compilations, an ethnographic oddity or two (there are at least 12 Chilean early-70s psychedelia tracks in existence, apparently), and a couple of records that were just wildly out of place: a Budos Band full-length, for instance. Donning my ethnomusicological hat for a moment, the jukebox seemed aimed at constructing a certain cosmopolitan classiness tethered more to a worldly sense of urbanity than to one particular region or time-period. I guess I’m trying to say that it had a lot of world music and jazz. My girlfriend says that she imagined that if I could design my ideal jukebox it would look quite like this one. Neither an accurate nor particularly inaccurate description, so I assume it was meant as a compliment.

Anyway, I was nursing a Manhattan at the bar while the girlfriend was browsing the jukebox when a couple of wiseguys walked in. One walk down Court St. and you understand intuitively that wiseguys still exist in this neighborhood: how else to explain the existence of the Marco Polo, an expensive and altogether mediocre restaurant with a secretive upstairs dining room—and a downstairs dining room that is always, but always totally empty? Or how to explain the persistently old-timey Italiany feel of a neighborhood as succofactingly yuppified as this one? I mean look, I’m not saying that Caputos or Cusamano’s funeral parlor are part of some violent criminal enterprise or another, or that this neighborhood’s unusual preponderance of native Italian speakers in their 60s and 70s means that organized crime has a presence here. And I realize that, if you read the past couple of sentences like really closely, you’ll see that I actually imply that organized crime is caused by the presence of Caputo’s, Cusimano’s, Italian-speaking old folks, etc. But I don’t want to say this. What I want to say that it’s immediately obvious that some of the Italians and some of the old world immigrant spirit that showed up in the neighborhood in the 20s or 30s or even earlier never really left. Who’s to say what stuck behind with them (or with it), or what part of this neighborhood’s 20s or 30s character still endures? Cobble Hill is so palimpsestic, such a sometimes-personality-free tangle of social and economic and ethnic enclaves (the yuppies, the Yemenites, the hipsters, the yupsters, the Italians, the folks from the public housing development on Hoyt St.) as to make an answer to this question utterly impossible to arrive at.

But you can intuit an answer. You just sorta know there’s something organized-crime-y afoot. When a Genovese associate slashed the owner of Lucali at the corner of Smith and Carroll a week ago, the only thing shocking about it was the way in which the neighborhood’s unseemly underbelly started to bleed into its yuppified exterior. That was unexpected. Yuppies love the shit out of Lucali. Place is packed every night. But the fact of the owner of a Cobble Hill Italian restaurant having his faced slashed in broad daylight on the busiest street of an otherwise-safe, otherwise-boring neighborhood was not in itself particularly surprising.

Anyway, the wise guys. They were muscular and slightly squat and very clean-smelling, but they didn’t reek of cologne or seem as if they were trying to smell clean, more as if they’d just gotten out of the shower, or actually, more as if they possessed a freshness, an innate sort of hygiene that’s endemic to gangsters of a certain class, or endemic to gangsters of a certain class patronizing a joint of a certain class. And they were polite, but in a menacingly passive-aggressive sort of way, menacing passive-aggression being one the chief skills of a mobster who can really inhabit the part, at least in my own mind. For instance, they shook the hipster’s hand before they ordered their drinks. I had never seen this before. Who does this—who shakes the hand of a service employee who is not a friend or acquaintance of some kind? Why this familiarity, this familiarity that might not even be familiarity? It seemed like a threatening gesture, an establishment of a kind of icily conditional collegiality, or of a power relationship whose terms the hipster was powerless to dictate. I think one of the wiseguys ordered a vodka tonic and the other a vodka cranberry, after they were done shaking hands. The bartender disappeared for a bit.

I don’t know what the wiseguys were talking about, even thought I was sitting right next to them. The girlfriend swears it was something about beating or at best harassing a woman, and she was so scared or curious or both that she pretended to review the contents of the entire jukebox two or three times, even though she was, in spite of not being in any physical danger herself, too paralyzed by the whole situation to arrive at a selection. But I couldn’t tell. They spoke with a cadence, with a tone that suggested that they were used to speaking so as not to be understood or heard, even by people sitting directly next to them. Theirs was a language of evasion and secrets, and I would steal a glance at them every now and then, just to study their body language, their unsmiling faces, their short, greaseless hair, the oddly detached way in which the shorter one rocked back and forth, pivoting on the balls of his feet, or I’d catch the taller one’s lazy stare over the small cluster of bar patrons, all of whom were too busy gazing into their drinks to notice that they were in the presence of two actual, genuine mobsters. They weren’t exactly dressed like gangsters though, or not dressed like the traditional stereotype of a gangster, at least. They weren’t ostentatious at all, and they both wore a matching ensemble of white shirts and dark, casual pants, as if their gang had a dress code or something.

I fidgeted with a hairclip that I’d found on the bar and had assumed to be girlfriend’s, although she later told me that it wasn’t hers.

The bartender returned.

“I put just a splash of cranberry in there. And some extra vodka.”

“Thank you very much” the shorter one said. Again the menacing politeness. The hipster, I should add, didn’t seem the least bit unnerved by all this. He knew exactly who these fuckers were, knew them by demeanor, although not, I think, by name. The taller one then placed a 100 dollar bill on the table, although he didn’t really place it on the bar, he just sort of set it on its side perpendicular to the bar and cupped it in its hand. I’ve only seen four $100 bills in my life, and two of them were in the same drawer in a college friend’s dorm room. My initial thought at seeing these two dudes, basically a “fuck, could these guys be mobsters?” metastasized into certainty as soon as I saw the bill, which hardened into absolute, lead-pipe certainty when the bill immediately disappeared from view and the bartender refused both that and any further payment.

“Mind if we sit in a booth?” the short one asked, in what is in retrospect the most ominous part of this entire episode: these guys don’t have to ask permission to sit in a corner booth. They know this. The bartender knows this. But asking an unnecessary question is a way of normalizing the whole situation, but in a way that inadvertently or perhaps all too advertently highlights how fucked up the whole situation actually is: “Mind if we sit in a booth?” could be translated as “we’re gonna sit in a booth and do whatever the hell we want, and remind you and every other customer who really runs this place.” But the option of saying no—a false option, a fraudulent option, a lie—at least reinforces the fiction that the bartender is still in control. But he isn’t.

So they walked to their booth, and the girlfriend and I gulped our Manhattans because we were pretty eager to leave at that point. What sort of a city did I live in? An unavoidable thought during the walk back to the apartment, which was shorter than perhaps I was comfortable with, given what we’d just seen. This is a city where hipster-friendly cocktail bars still pay protection money to the mob; worse, it’s a city where something like that could be thought of as a signifier of authenticity, a last, enduring outpost of urban grit in a neighborhood blighted by expensive French bistros and boutique pet stores and bars with growler service, whatever the fuck a growler is. How dare I think for even a second that that was cool, I thought during the walk home. How dare I.

I think this would go well with this post:

1 comment: