Welcome to Ohio (2008)

Toni Schlesinger

Ma-aaaaaaaa, I'm goin' to the store," said the man in the Napolitano Pharmacy, with the So-Dri Towels on sale. Come up the Graham Street L stop stairs in East Williamsburg and all you can see is a big, blank, blue sky, American flags in the breeze. Down the block is the Surgical Supplies store, the Pain Management Clinic, and frankly, this neighborhood looks like Cleveland. Though I do not know what Cleveland looks like, because the one time I visited someone, we spent the whole weekend in the health club. But the image of East Williamsburg, no matter how many have moved in with their sparkling media lives, is like a place before or after some war, forgotten when others moved on. The houses look like the insides of hardware stores—all those doorknob displays. Which makes me wonder. What about the Italian immigrants who grew up with white stucco near the sea? After they celebrated getting to the land of opportunity, did they then turn to each other and say, "Non è possibile!"?

Anyway, I was waiting for a parking space one day on Humboldt Street near Graham. A man who grew up there said, "Put it near the Chinese place." There was this building with aluminum awnings and small pedestals with points. They did not even look like pagodas. But for all his life, it had been the Temple of Xi'an. For me, the same thing happens with that crumbling brick wall on Prince and Mulberry streets where the light becomes marbly yellow and there are peeling frescoes in the sky and lemon trees and the Don and the Donna are in the loggia and she asks if he is going to have an olive. The whole thing is so Tuscany. Yet the 1815 St. Patrick's Old Cathedral was co-built by a French architect, Joseph Mangin (who also built the French Renaissance-federalist City Hall), for a then Irish population.

At first thought, the phenomenon of one place becoming another, a geographic alchemy of the mind, could occur more frequently in New York because neighborhoods are so liquid with populations and languages changing, and more historical shifts per block than other places. But on second thought—no. Williamstown, Massachusetts always makes me think of a red brick orphanage in Troy, Alabama. So transmutations can occur everywhere with the madly associative, including the dreamy man on Humboldt Street. Yet—this conversation went on for quite a while in my head—maybe New Yorkers are more prone to having mirages because they are trapped in small rooms, having come here with big dreams. They are thirsty for the mirus, mirage's root, which means "wonderful." But there are no statistics.

Lupe's, the Mexican restaurant, is not on the Pacific Ocean but with the windows open to the street and the light coming from behind the green, red, and blue glass bottles it makes Sixth Avenue look kind of wet and tropical. Steps near the corner of 70th Street and First Avenue are, for a friend, "South Carolina," though later he thought it was more a matter of the air than the steps, and only "when it is kind of misty out, like a seaside town. Maybe it's when you smell the river." But it is just for a second, then it's gone.

Artists Matt Freedman and Jude Tallichet are negotiating to buy and live in a synagogue in Ridgewood, Queens, with broken windows, neon Star of David on top (a story for another time). The neighborhood Rite-Aid is in a former 1930s bank building. It had Thanksgiving decorations up in August and it made them think of—"We don't know what." Later, Freedman, who knew I had to end this story somehow, said the neighborhood reminded him of Pilsen in Chicago where he once lived. "But I have a feeling," he said, taking the anti-romantic position, "that whenever you come to a new neighborhood, you're not prepared to see it on its own terms. You always try to make it familiar, say, 'It is like this other place I was before.' After living there a while, you begin to have your own store of memories. You stop saying it's like Chicago. Instead it is where I got milk, got mugged, things that make the neighborhood a part of you."


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