Vinegar and Water


LOCATION Vinegar Hill

RENT $1,695 [market]

SQUARE FEET 1,750 [two floors of 1840s house with garden]

OCCUPANT Raimund Serba [private chef, caterer, Vinegar Hill Kitchens]

Can you hear the pipes of Ireland here? I can. I read that Vinegar Hill was named after a famous battle in Ireland. Though I always think Vinegar Hill’s going to look like a bottle of balsamic vinegar but then it doesn’t. It’s one of those small watery places, old peeling stable doors, a pale-green storefront leaning to the side. White paper sign in a window reads, “PRAY WITHOUT CEASING.” In the early morning, no one’s around except two cats pouncing on each other. People feed them here. There was a famous person in the neighborhood, Verushka. She went to a lot of the cat-feeding stations. She moved away a year ago. The life of a street cat is two years.

That guard dog on the corner! He’s like a wolf. I was just on the corner talking to one of my neighbors. I asked her, What’s going on with that building? It’s a new one going up, seven stories. Vinegar Hill is landmarked but we have to pay attention.

This building on Hudson has a sign: “Luxury Condos.” They never advertise poor condos. It’s all about rich people now.

Is everyone rich? In DUMBO they are—all the baby carriages outside Jacques Torres’s chocolate store. I figured out one day that DUMBO, just a few streets west, is like an artificial city. The developer brought in all the businesses, created this village. If you go on a weekday at noon to the Peas and Pickles intersection, it’s like a movie set—as though someone is saying, OK, everybody over there move left, everybody else move right. Then at night, the people are all gone. One Friday afternoon what you described was exactly my experience. I bumped into my neighbor. I said, Monique, last year those people weren’t there.

Vinegar Hill’s between the East River and the Navy Yard. It was bawdy back in the early 20th century—bootleggers, drug peddlers, sailors, thieves. The sea brings with it the half-life, people searching for unrooted plea-sure, not caring that they lack a respectable fixed place. You know how unreflective sociopaths are. Also, a life of sin and vice makes people disposable. They fall off the busy trajectory, vanish into some gurgling underworld existence. In World War II, it got worse here. I have a friend who died in 9-11. When I met him, he said he grew up in Vinegar Hill. He was the chaplain in the fire department.

That photograph, the firemen are carrying him, covered with the dust. Father Mychal Judge—we met at a party. He was telling me the story of his childhood, the craziness of the sailors, the hookers. He said it was like a big drunk neighborhood.

The condos built on the remains of alcohol. When we were talking on the phone the other day, you were at Sahabi on Atlantic Avenue buying food for a client. As you were telling me that your parents came in the ’50s from Germany to Chicago. And that you don’t know anybody in Chicago anymore as a lot of your friends died of AIDS and you were in the Caribbean for eight years. Then you said, “Two pounds of roasted unsalted almonds.” Later you said, “I need some olives.” You moved to New York in ’91 but now I can’t remember why. To be with a boyfriend. I was living in the East Village. I was disgusted. I opened the Voice. I just saw “Brooklyn waterfront.” I wasn’t familiar with Brooklyn at all. I came. The landlord, an artist, said, A lot came to look. She called the next day and said I got it. I said, I’m just curious, why me? She said, You were the only person who walked in, went right to the garden, and started weeding while you were talking.

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