Returning from my brief respite in the country, I am already pressed on every nerve end by being able to do no better than to double park behind a moving van which had picked the exact moment of my return to unload seven rooms of furniture into our usual mob scene of a West Side apartment house. I squeeze myself like a safecracker along the cars at the curb to unload my own car. And suddenly hear an insanely magnified voice screaming through a bullhorn, “Brownsville slumlord!”
Since I saw many evictions from the Brownsville tenement in which I spent my first twenty years, I feel much confused by the manic reversal on West End Avenue as I watch half a dozen young black women with placards denouncing the cheerful songwriter in the penthouse, whose father left him some property in that once prime (and most promising) American shtetl, Brunzvil. A young Jew with a bullhorn, who looks exactly like the pictures of Trotsky in 1905, is leading his chorus in a rhythmic chant. “Ostrofsky is a slumlord! We refuse to pay any more rent to Ostrofsky the slumlord! Brownsville demands decent living conditions! We protest!”
The Puerto Rican elevator men look on without malice and without comprehension. The passersby manage with that inimitable New York look of angry self-occupation to walk past the demonstration as if the blacks from Brownsville were shouting from a distant planet. All goes on as usual—the psychiatrists and museum curators in our building fight each other for taxis, transvestites wearing pink hair-rollers and needing a shave defiantly make eyes at glum, unseeing laundry drivers, the kook twins hold up crudely lettered pieces of shirt cardboard that denounce the nameless conspirators who have seized our government and are poisoning all the breakfast cereal. And I, staggering under my “portable” electric typewriter, cartons of books and papers, suitcases, and the certain knowledge that I will soon get a ticket and have probably left the key in the ignition, recognize that I am being welcomed back in style as the moving men, transporting their loads past me, hoarsely announce that I am in their way.
The songwriter in the penthouse, who is an amateur scholar of ancient American theology and has done an up-to-the-minute anthology called Jonathan Edwards On Hellfire, is aware that I was brought up in what is now the most undesirable of all living spaces since the Black Hole of Calcutta. In my time Brownsville was remote. As Mailer once wrote, Brooklyn is not the center of anything. But it was a great human community, and to tell the truth, there were people there, the purest of the old Jewish socialists and anarchists, whom almost forty years later I often talk to in my dreams as if everything that has happened since I left them need not have happened.
When Lindsay took some touring mayors down to see Brownsville last year, Kevin White of Boston called Brownsville “the first tangible sign of the …