Back when the G.I.s of World War II were still drifting back into civilian life in the late forties a bunch of smart fuckups, like a Columbia University football player named Kerouac, started hanging out in New York City. Going to jazz clubs, writing awkward but ambitious scraps of poetry. Drinking a hell of a lot and hanging out with young theater types like my mother. These men were the Beats. They created great work in amidst their drinking and screwing and thieving and lying. And little by little their wanderings got broader and their fame started to oppress them and, usually, their work got worse. Most of them died young of stupid destructive things like alcoholism and freezing on the train tracks, strung out on drugs. The kind of deaths that only seem romantic to those of you who have never had to share your home with a heroin addict and check your pants pockets each morning to make sure that nothing has been stolen.
But by the early fifties the Beats had inspired a hell of a lot of men and women from places like, say, St Joseph, Missouri. Men like my father who had maybe done a hitch or two in the army, hadn't grown up anywhere cool or hip, had stayed in school and gotten their degrees and were holding solid, respectable jobs. They started wearing lots of dark clothing, letting their hair get longer than was considered respectable, and went to poetry readings in dark basements in questionable neighborhoods. They dressed and talked and read the same things they believed the Beats did. These people came to be known as Beatniks and were thought of, with a certain validity, as latecomers to the party, people without the fierce creativity or commitment to living outside the system of the Beats but wanting that anti-establishment cool to rub off on them as they wore their black turtlenecks and snapped their fingers in approval - far too hip to do anything as crass as applauding. But only until midnight or so when they went home to be in bed early enough to be up at 8:00 and at work by 9:00.
Well, I can tell you that my mother, who was studying dance and listening to jazz by 1946, was, by 1985, about as esthetically leading edge as a Coke commercial while my father, the onetime gawky kid from Poverty Knob who was still wearing polyester plaid shirts from Montgomery Ward, was in Sri Lanka arguing about academic culture and sending me cards with a return address poste restante from wherever he next expected to able to pick up mail. Maybe.
Sometimes the kids from nowhere we dismiss as posers turn out to be the edgiest ones of all. Even the most inspiring.
I first started spending time in Williamsburg round about 1989 when I would drop by the loft a girl I knew shared in a barely habitable loft building. I still remember the cracked skylights, the paint-spattered splintery floors and nominal heat, and how absolutely abandoned the streets around there seemed. And while it took me quite a few years to get comfortable there, like the Lower East Side, eventually it came to be more of a home to me than the places I picked up my mail and paid rent ever could be.
But that Williamsburg is gone. Utterly. None of us will ever again be offered a cup of tea on a cold day by Amanda at Clovis Books. The crowd of clubgoers ordering burritos at one in the morning in the Mexican grocery a block from the L train is a thing of the past. Walking on a summer evening and discovering some temporary three thousand foot art space from the sound reaching the street just doesn't happen anymore. I miss those things and a hundred others. Almost as much as I miss the simple sensation of walking around on those nights juiced up just by the awareness that all of that was going on and there to be taken advantage of.
But maybe the posers and solid corporate citizens who have overrun what used to be our world aren't entirely useless. I haven't seen a good painting there in years but some of the industrial and graphic design out there is still damn good. Lucky Cat may not be what it was but when I grabbed a beer there a few months ago it still looked like a good place to spend a Saturday night and you can still head a few blocks down Grand and get late night Japanese food right off Bedford. JUNK has raised their prices enough to not be such a casual yes anymore but their selection is still massive and their dozens of semi-anarchic shadowy corners still conceal many a treasure.
What I'm trying to say is that while the vibrant, demanding, creatively fecund neighborhood that so many of us loved has undoubtedly been murdered by high real estate prices, Guilianiism, and the relentless blanding that media attention always creates, let's not be too quick to dismiss what is still there as a complete loss. If somebody who has never been to New York before says that they want to go off and see Williamsburg with the inevitably annoying glee of the newcomer, reign in your reflexive cool derision, explain Beacon's Closet, tell them to try the falafel near the subway entrance, and admit to yourself and them that there actually is still a good time to be had a stop or two past First Avenue.