This is an excerpt from Roof Alexander's debut novel To Be Heard.
Chapter 10 excerpt: Williamsburg
It was a Saturday night in June. Paige wasn't working, so I wasn't working. The other bartenders liked to clean their own bathrooms. I had nodded off while writing and woke up just before midnight. It was quiet around 99, no strangers using my bathroom, no house parties down stairs, and no backyard bicycle powwows. I went out to the telescope or should I say the telescope seemed to draw me out to the balcony. I looked over the balcony at South 6th Street. Seth just walked out of the front door, most likely to make one of his seven daily runs to the bodega. There were some guys smoking outside of East River Bar. A couple of cars passed slowly by. To the left there was a Coors Light billboard over Broadway that displayed the Rocky Mountains. The river to the right, the mountains to the left, and one of the most unique neighborhood cultures in the country in front of me. I looked through the telescope over the Hasidic community. It seemed very quiet, peaceful, the rooftops, the air above rooftops. Across the street was a building that seemed as if only a handful of people lived there. Through a window on the third floor I saw a naked girl practicing modern dance. I watched her for a while, her movement, the nakedness of her energy. The telescope gave so many versions of life; I don't think I could live there without it. Observing from a glass lens to the where the Gods shine down to where the humans carry out their orders.
I smoked a bowl and went down to actually be a part of these humans. I headed south on Bedford, crossing over Broadway, the divider of the Latino and the Hasidic. Shabbos was just ending by the three stars in the sky. I'm not exactly sure what three stars are supposed to come out before the Hasid's could come out and play, but there they all were, the men in their long black bekishe coats, the women in their shpitzel hairpieces, the boys with payot curls, and the girls in little dresses that looked like they were made two centuries ago.
I learned about the Orthodox Jewish community through Abe and the times when the messengers approached me on Bedford asking, "Are you Jewish?"
Even though I'm not Jewish, I look more Jewish than not. So I would answer, "No I'm not, but can you tell me why you asked me?" And that would lead to further questions and answers, and they always obliged me in the nicest way. That's how I found out about the siren that pierced through Williamsburg at dusk every Friday. The siren was the signal to light the candles for Shabbos. That's how I found out about the three stars that end Shabbos. They told me that Shabbos is just a weekly tradition to spend undistracted time with family. I thought that was pretty neat, and it made me miss my family. One day I would rejoin them, but at the time the light of my Gods distracted me. There were orders out there bigger than my loyalty.
I learned many of the teachings of Hasidic Judaism, and one of the beliefs that I whole-heartedly agreed with and tried to practice in my own life was their belief in the omnipresent god or the immanent presence of the divine in everything. It was nice to understand them more. Walking through their neighborhood that night, it made me feel comfortable being among them. We were all practicing mysticism, trying to figure out the relationship between the mortal and the eternal. I constantly asked the question, "Why would we put ourselves in this position of struggling to create these things that may or may not ever be seen or heard, much less recognized? Why couldn't we just live to survive and then accept what comes after that?" There is never a real answer, except that we never had a choice. Maybe that's the way my neighbors in the south of Williamsburg explained it also.
I crossed over the intersection of Roebling and Broadway, where the Marcy Projects and the Hasidic tenements faced off. At the triangle median, there was a Dominican woman mad out of her mind. She was throwing bottles at passing cars and screaming obscenities at the top of her lungs. Ahead of me was a girl that seemed lost. Once she saw that she might have to deal with the crazy woman, she looked back toward me. Then she stopped and waited for me to catch up. "Do you know where the J train is?"
"Yeah just up ahead a few blocks."
"Thanks." She walked slowly in front of me. We both quietly passed by the woman throwing bottles. We almost made it by without being noticed, but the glaring lights from the lamp store must have given us away. She came running at us while screaming something about how we didn't belong in the neighborhood. I had my fist half-cocked, ready to knock her in the head. She was small, but clearly on a drug that probably gave her super adrenaline strength. Right before she got to me, and right before I almost swung at her face, she stopped on a dime.
"Fucking bitch, fucking white fucking bitch!" She tried to get in the girl's face, but I stepped in between them.
"Come on," I told the girl. "Just stay on the other side of me." I walked in between the two women while showing my cocked fist to the lunatic. The whole time she cursed at us, telling us in several ways why we didn't belong in her territory. Maybe it was true at that moment. It was still dangerous on those blocks in those days. The hipsters had been mostly accepted on the North side, but were still greatly outnumbered and unwanted on the South side. The crazy lady finally backed off as we got toward the end of the block, but still screamed at us until I got the girl up to the subway steps. She thanked me and we said goodbye without any other words.
I walked down Havemeyer, and cut over on South 4th to the little park with the large statue of George Washington. I opened up my whiskey flask, and shared a moment with good old George. It reminded me of something Hemingway wrote while in Paris. He had just been talking with Gertrude Stein about his generation. She told him that they were 'lost' and that 'they were going to drink themselves to death.' Hemingway stopped at a statue outside of the famous artist's café La Closerie des Lilas. He wrote: "I stopped at the Lilas to keep the statue company and drank a cold beer before going home to the flat over the sawmill. I thought all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be."
I suppose we were also lost and I suppose we also would drink ourselves to death. Delbert told me once that generations are defined by what the 'nowhere's' do after the war. But we didn't have a war. There was the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and whatever other country that could have held responsibility for the first ever attack on U.S. soil. But this generation started before all the towers fell, and unbeknownst to every American, those wars were a long way from ending. This was about finding the last scrap of mainstream and fighting against it. We gathered in Brooklyn, we gathered in San Francisco, we gathered in small enclaves between these coasts, we gathered in the places that held a freedom to create, we gathered in bar room support systems. We were individuals within a group that rejected the group mentality. We saw how humans gathering together made them stupid and dangerous, governments, corporations and religions. Once we became a group we would move on and keep fighting until that became another marketed and despised culture. But that was 2006, right before indie rock would become pop rock, right before skinny jeans would decorate the Gap display windows, right before the kids would turn in their baseball caps for fedoras, and right before Williamsburg became a travel guide destination.
I suppose we were also a nowhere generation. Just as, once you know everything you know you know nothing, the same goes for, once you can be everywhere you know that you are nowhere.
I left George Washington. I went down Driggs Street until getting to Henry Miller's childhood home right before Metropolitan. I sat on his porch and once again shared a flask moment with another expat. I couldn't help but clearly see the relation almost a hundred years later, Montparnasse, the bourgeoisie and poor artists finding a way to evolve together. Then they moved, defying space and time, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They came from all over the world to be a part of these streets, be a part of the stone's throw city inspiration, and be a part of something they couldn't get in the malls from whence they came.
Roof Alexander is a literary fiction writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has spent most of his life traveling the world and putting his stories to paper. His debut novel To Be Heard was released in 2012. He is also the author of the short story collection They Always Leave.