a literary review
When the city was bright and new and I was fresh to the avenues, I mapped it in dots. My wife and I moved from the tidewater of Virginia into eight hundred square feet tucked alongside the 92nd Street off-ramp of the Gowanus Expressway. We made camp in a basement complete with boiler room, impractically-shaped closet, useless anteroom, and uninsulated shed. Beyond the enormous concrete piles of the Verrazano Bridge and brownstones of Fort Hamilton Parkway lay a maze of brick and asphalt. There was a Little Italy for each borough, three Chinatowns, two botanic gardens, and two zoos. Monet, Cezanne, Raphael, and Warhol spilled from the Museum Mile in heaps. A pastrami queen, a falafel king, Central Park, Prospect Park, the Bombers, the Mets, the Knicks, the Nets, a SoHo, a NoHo, Coney Island, the Rockaways, boutiques, graffiti, and a dozen jazz clubs all tumbled from the glittering skyline at the center. We stepped out the door with a world to explore and nowhere to start. But Bay Ridge is a food neighborhood and we were willing to walk.
We sketched a geography in pointillism, made sense of the city one meal at a time. A map on the wall recorded our progress. Dozens of ink pricks marked lunch counters, dive bars, eat-ins, pizza joints, and bagel shops. We found “the nuclear bagel” (our name) at Bagel Supreme. We devoured Brooklyn Blackouts at Little Cupcake and partook of wine and charcuterie at The Owl’s Head. We learned the neighborhood through its food, and if the door opened in the gargantuan shadow of the bridge, we patronized. Tea, shawarma, and baklava at First Oasis. Lemon paste and pickled beet at Karam. The fried Korzo Burger at Brooklyn Beet Company. Farangs and satay at Glow.
A mass of dots suggested the city underneath.
Fei Long market pinned Sunset Park above the Bay Ridge of Bagel Schmagel, Peppino’s, and Mike’s Donuts. Sushi Hana and Dyker Park Bagel formed the gateway to the heights. Fort Hamilton was tacked to Third Avenue by Pegasus, Paneantico, and Espresso Pizzeria.
We learned the city bite by bite. We discovered Australian cuisine on Ditmars Boulevard, blocks from Steinway Street’s pine nut hummus. There are at least six bakeries along the local 1-train that serve French macarons, close enough together to visit on a single birthday. There’s just enough wait time between B1 buses to hop off at West 11th Street, get square slices at L&B Spumoni Gardens, and grab the next bus to Coney Island without missing a beat.
We found a bagel for every locale. Each was a bit different, but they lent the sprawl a continuity. Bergen Bagel in Park Slope. Brooklyn Bagel in Astoria (which is in Queens). The Bagel Shop in Williamsburg. Absolute on the Upper West Side; Tal Bagels on the East. We ate from them all and there emerged a coherent city with shape and meaning.
But a year ago I began to get sick. Convulsions left my stomach empty, complexion sallow, and joints aching. I stopped eating adventurous foods, but the symptoms grew worse. Doctors poked, prodded, prescribed and shrugged, until several vials of blood and a piece of my small intestine answered their questions.
Celiac disease was simple enough to deal with. An autoimmune disorder triggered by diet, in my case, it came with no illness or cumbersome treatment so long as I avoided the offending foods. Wheat, barley, rye. Anything that touched wheat, barley, rye. The knife, the cutting board, stray crumbs, rice processed improperly. Oats sometimes. Eating away from home became difficult, and one by one, the dots faded.
For a while, I worried about my health. I ate better and began to exercise. Mostly I ran; a mile here, a mile there. Two miles. Four miles. Six miles. One evening, when the leaves were changing color and white smoke rose off the high-rises in wisps, I ran past the bright Colombian bakery on Metropolitan Avenue. In the spring, I briefly raced a mouse down the dark canopied stretch of Myrtle Avenue that bisects Forest Park. One morning in May, I stopped for water in front of the tortilla factory on Grand Avenue. Every Sunday I marveled atop the hill by the cemetery where the sky splits and the boroughless steppe spills out and races to the river.
New York is barely twenty miles from one end to the other and a long run is all it takes to discover neighborhoods that didn’t exist before. Lines of asphalt and ribbons of concrete connect Long Island City to the quiet Hasidic enclave by the highway. The barren industry of northern Bushwick tangles with the clamor and vitality of the Queens J-train. Park Slope locks arms with the Pulaski Bridge, Junction Boulevard with the Queensboro, home with the world. A jumble of string; lines and curls; twirls and lasers; squiggles and arcs. From the chaos a picture of the city underneath.
We used to plan for parents’ visits with a map and a list of restaurants. In October of our first year, long before my diagnosis, I gave my dad a slice of the margherita pie that he called “the best food I’ve ever tasted.” My best friend visited a few weeks later and we went straight to H&L Bagels for my Saturday morning staple: bacon and swiss on an untoasted everything bagel, wrapped in foil, grease dripping through the brown bag. Coffee light and sweet. Now I cook for visitors with vegetables and chicken from the grocer–the one next door to the pastrami and rye I no longer eat. I meet my parents on crowded Amsterdam Avenue sidewalks, near Barney Greengrass and bagels with scallion spread. I meet friends for Mets games in the Sunday sun, just without the sausage or beer. We rendezvous by the handball courts on Sixth Avenue for music and drinks in a nearby West Village basement where I used to order pizza con gorgonzola e noci with sliced salami. The dots aren’t gone. They appear suddenly, a reminder of old patterns buried under layer after layer of habits formed. But they aren’t relevant the way they were before.
The city is different now. We left Bay Ridge years ago for the fanned roads and drives of central Queens, but it’s more than that. I ride the same trains and visit the same friends in the same neighborhoods. I see the same city as before, but from a different angle; a sprawling city of pictures and sounds instead of smells and tastes. The boroughs hang from close-lines, loop in lassos, and wind like a river. They’re sewn together by threads of concrete; a map lying in the tangle rather than implied in the negative space. It changes. New York meets me halfway. When I barely know it anymore, it shifts its shape so that I see it better.
Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.