Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Excerpt of “The Book Signing” by Pete Hamill, from Brooklyn Noir

(Park Slope)

Carmody came up from the subway before dusk, and his eyeglasses fogged in the sudden cold. He lifted them off his nose, holding them while they cooled, and saw his own face smiling from a pale green leaflet taped to the wall. There he was, in a six-year-old photograph, and the words Reading and Book Signing and the date and place, and he paused for a moment, shivering in the hard wind. The subway was his idea. The publisher could have sent him to Brooklyn in a limousine, but he wanted to go to the old neighborhood the way he always did, long ago. He might, after all, never come this way again.

The subway stairs seemed steeper than he remembered and he felt twinges in his knees that he never felt in California. Sharp little needles of pain, like rumors of mortality. He didn’t feel these pains after tennis, or even after speed-walking along the Malibu roads. But the pain was there now, and was not eased by the weather. The wind was blowing fiercely from the harbor, which lay off in the darkness to his right, and he donned his glasses again and used both gloved hands to pull his brown fedora more securely to his brow. His watch told him that he had more than a half hour to get to the bookstore. Just as he had hoped. He’d have some time for a visit, but not too much time. He crossed the street with his back to the place where the bookstore awaited him, and passed along the avenue where he once was young.

His own aging face peered at him from the leaflets as he passed, some pasted on walls, others taped inside the windows of shops. In a way, he thought, they looked like Wanted posters. He felt a sudden . . . what was the word? Not fear. Certainly not panic. Unease. That was the word. An uneasiness in the stomach. A flexing and then relaxing of muscles, an unwilled release of liquids or acids, all those secret wordless messages that in California were cured by the beach and the surf or a quick hit of Maalox. He told himself to stop. This was no drama. It was just a trip through a few streets where once he had lived but had not seen for decades. After seventeen novels, this would be his first signing in the borough that had formed him. But the leaflets made clear that here, in this neighborhood, his appearance might be some kind of big deal. It might draw many people. And Carmody felt apprehensive, nervous, wormy with unease.

“How does it feel, going back to Brooklyn?” Charlie Rose had asked him the night before, in a small dark television studio on Park Avenue.

“I don’t know,” Carmody said, and chuckled. “I just hope they don’t throw books at me. Particularly my own books.”

And wanted to add: I’ve never really left. Or to be more exact: Those streets have never left me.

The buildings themselves were as Carmody remembered them. They were old-law tenements, with fire escapes on the facades, but they seemed oddly comforting to Carmody. This was not one of those New York neighborhoods desolated by time and arson and decay. On the coast of California, he had seen photographs of the enrubbled lots of Brownsville and East New York. There were no lots here in the old neighborhood. If anything, the buildings looked better now, with fresh paint and clear glass on the street level doors instead of hammered tin painted gray. He knew from reading the New York Times that the neighborhood had been gentrified, that most of the old families had moved away, to be replaced by younger people who paid higher rents. There was some unhappiness to all of that, the paper said, but still, the place looked better. As a boy he had walked these streets many times on nights like this, when most people retreated swiftly from the bitter cold to the uncertain warmth of the flats. Nights of piled snow and stranded streetcars. Now he noticed lights coming on in many of those old apartments, and shadows moving like ghosts behind drawn shades and curtains. He peered down a street toward the harbor, noticed some stubborn scabs of old snow, black between parked cars, and in the distance saw a thin scarlet band where the sun was setting in New Jersey. On this high slope, the harbor wind turned old snow into iron. But the sliver of sun was the same too. The day was dying. It would soon be night.

If the buildings were the same, the shops along the avenue were all different. Fitzgerald’s bar was gone, where his father did most of his drinking, and so was Sussman’s Hardware and Fischetti’s Fruit and Vegetable and the Freedom Meats store and the pharmacy. What was the name of that drugstore? Right there. On that corner. An art supply store now. An art supply store! Moloff’s. The drugstore was called Moloff’s, and next door was a bakery. “Our Own” they called it. And now there was a computer store where a TV repair shop once stood. And a dry cleaners where men once stood at the bar of Rattigan’s, singing the old songs. All gone. Even the old clock factory had been converted into a condominium.

None of this surprised Carmody. He knew they’d all be gone. Nothing lasts. Marriages don’t last. Ball clubs don’t last. Why should shops last? Wasn’t that the point of each one of his seventeen books? The critics never saw that point, but he didn’t care. Those novels were not literature, even to Carmody. He would say in interviews that he wrote for readers, not for critics. And said to himself: I’m not Stendhal, or Hemingway, or Faulkner. He knew that from the beginning. Those novels were the work he did after turning forty, when he reached the age limit for screenwriting. He worked at the top of his talent, to be sure, and used his knowledge of movies to create plots that kept readers turning the pages. But he knew they were commercial products, novels about industries and how they worked, his characters woven from gossip and profiles in Fortune or Business Week. He had started with the automobile industry, and then moved to the television industry, and the sugar industry, and the weapons industry. In each of them the old was destroyed by the new, the old ruling families decayed and collapsed and newer, more ruthless men and women took their places. The new one was about the food industry, from the farms of California to the dinner plates of New York and Los Angeles. Like the others, it had no aspirations to be seen as art. That would be pretentious. But they were good examples of craft, as honest as well-made chairs. In each of them, he knew, research served as a substitute for imagination and art and memory. Three different researchers had filed memos on this last one, the new one, the novel he would sign here tonight, in the Barnes & Noble store five blocks behind him. He hoped nobody in the audience would ask why he had never once written about Brooklyn.

To be sure, he had never denied his origins. There was a profile in People magazine in 1984, when his novel about the gambling industry went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and stayed there for seventeen weeks. He was photographed on the terrace of the house in Malibu with the Pacific stretched out beyond him, and they used an old high school newspaper photograph showing him in pegged pants and a t-shirt, looking like an apprentice gangster or some variation on the persona of James Dean. The article mentioned his two ex-wives (there was now a third woman receiving his alimony checks), but the reporter was also from Brooklyn and was more intrigued by the Brooklyn mug who had become a bestselling author.

“You went west in 1957,” the reporter said. “Just like the Dodgers.”

“When they left, I left too, because that was the end of Brooklyn as I knew it,” Carmody said. “I figured I’d have my revenge on Los Angeles by forcing it to pay me a decent living.”

That was a lie, of course. One among many. He didn’t leave Brooklyn because of the Dodgers. He left because of Molly Mulrane.

Now he was standing across the street from the building where both of them had lived. The entrance then was between a meat market and a fruit store, converted now into a toy store and a cellphone shop. Molly lived on the first floor left. Carmody on the top floor right. She was three years younger than Carmody and he didn’t pay her much attention until he returned from the Army in 1954. An old story: She had blossomed. And one thing had led to another.

He remembered her father’s rough, unhappy, threatening face when he first came calling to take her to the movies. Patty Mulrane, the cop. And the way he looked when he went out in his police uniform for a 4-to-12 shift, his gun on his hip, his usual slouch shifting as he walked taller and assumed a kind of swagger. And how appalled Patty Mulrane was when Carmody told him he was using the GI Bill to become a writer. “A writer? What the hell is that? I’m a writer too. I write tickets. Ha ha. A writer . . . How do you make a living with that? What about being about a lawyer? A doctor? What about, what do they call it now, criminology? At least you’d have a shot at becoming a lieutenant . . .” The father liked his Fleischman’s and beer and used the Dodgers as a substitute for conversation. The mother was a dim, shadowy woman, who did very little talking. That summer, Molly was the youngest of the three children, and the only one still at home. Her brother, Frankie, was a fireman and lived with his wife in Bay Ridge. There was another brother: What was his name? Sean. Seanie. Flat face, hooded eyes, a hard tank-like body. Carmody didn’t remember much about him. There had been some kind of trouble, something about a robbery, which meant he could never follow his father into the police department, and Seanie had moved to Florida where he was said to be a fisherman in the Keys. Every Sunday morning, father, mother, and daughter went to mass together.

Now, on this frozen night, decades later, Carmody’s unease rushed back. Ah, Molly, my Molly-O . . . The fire escapes still climbed three stories to the top floor where the Carmodys lived. But the building looked better, like all the others on the avenue. On the top floor right on this frozen night, the shades were up and Carmody could see ochre-colored walls, and a warm light cast by table lamps. This startled him. In memory, the Carmody flat was always cold, the windows rimmed with frost in winter, he and his sisters making drawings with their fingernails in the cold bluish light cast from a fluorescent ceiling lamp. His father was cold too, a withdrawn bitter man who resented the world, and the youth of his children. His mother was a drinker, and her own chilly remorse was relieved only by occasional bursts of rage. They nodded or grunted when Carmody told them about his ambitions, and his mother once said, in a slurred voice, “Who do you think you are, anyway?”

One Saturday afternoon in the Mulrane flat, he and Molly were alone, her parents gone off to see Frankie and his small child. Molly proudly showed him her father’s winter uniform, encased in plastic from Kent’s dry cleaners, and the medals he had won, and the extra gun, a nickel-plated .38 caliber Smith and Wesson, oiled and ready in a felt box. She talked to him about a book she was reading by A.J. Cronin and he told her she should read F. Scott Fitzgerald. She made him a ham-and-swiss-cheese sandwich for lunch. They sipped tea with milk, thick with sugar. And then, for the first time, they went to bed together in her tiny room with its window leading to the fire escape. She was in an agony, murmuring prayers, her hands and arms moving in a jittery way to cover breasts and hair, trembling with fear and desire. “Hold me tight,” she whispered. “Don’t ever leave me.”

He had never written any of that, or how at the end of his first year of college, at the same time that she graduated from St. Joseph’s, he rented the room near New York University, to get away from his parents and hers, and how she would come to him after work as a file clerk at Metropolitan Life and they would vanish into each other. He still went back to Brooklyn. He still visited the ice house of his parents. He still called formally in the Mulrane apartment to take Molly to the Sanders or the RKO Prospect. He was learning how to perform. But the tiny room had become their place, their gangster’s hideout, the secret place to which they went for sin.

Now on this frozen night he stared at the dark windows of the first floor left, wondering who lived there now, and whether Molly’s bones were lying in some frozen piece of the Brooklyn earth. He could still hear her voice, trembling and tentative: “We’re sinners, aren’t we?” He could hear her saying: “What’s to become of us?” He could hear the common sense in her words and the curl of Brooklyn in her accent. “Where are we going?” she said. “Please don’t ever leave me.” He could see the mole inside her left thigh. He could see the fine hair at the top of her neck.

“Well, will ya lookit this,” a hoarse male voice said from behind him. “If it ain’t Buddy Carmody.”