11:14 am Aug. 9, 2012
Robert Anasi’s new book, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, comes with a lengthy epigraph by the author William Gibson suggesting that Bohemian subcultures are going extinct. Yet it’s easy to imagine an alternate epigraph in which the following LCD Soundsystem lyric appears alone on the page: “I was there.”
Anasi was there, for example, at what some consider the Altamont of Williamsburg: the night in 1998, during a performance of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus at the Brooklyn Brewery, when a dreadlocked tugboat crewman stabbed a local bike messenger in the chest three times with a Leatherman knife, killing him.
He was there when Kokie’s, the now long-defunct after-hours club at the corner of Berry Street and Metropolitan Avenue that was known for selling cocaine, hosted a Halloween party, and everyone—the bartenders, the D.J., the bouncer, the patrons—came dressed as a cop. Years later, he was there when Kyp Malone and the late Gerard Smith of TV on the Radio were most famous for being baristas at the Verb coffee shop on Bedford Avenue.
All of these moments are lovingly drawn in The Last Bohemia, a personal, street-level account of the drastic changes that gripped Williamsburg from 1988 to 2008. Half memoir, half ethnographic study, the book offers a brave and unusually sincere appraisal of one of the global epicenters of irony.
On Monday afternoon, Anasi was back at the Verb, observing the parade of shoppers and European tourists making its way down Bedford Ave. He wore a tight black T-shirt, shorts, and Teva-like sandals, having seemingly abandoned any attempt to look hip in his old neighborhood.
“I didn’t wear shorts in New York City for twenty years,” he said, sipping on an iced coffee as a woman who appeared to have collagen lip implants sauntered past. “But I finally gave up and exposed my hairy legs to the world.”
The shorts were partly a tribute to Anasi’s new home in California, where he teaches literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine. The college town’s lack of nightlife prompted a move to Long Beach several years ago.
“There are no bars in Irvine,” he said. “If you want to open a bar, you have to open a restaurant. It’s crazy.”
On a tour through the neighborhood, Anasi pointed out some landmarks featured in the book, like the enduring Greenpoint Tavern and Veracruz restaurant, as well as the site of the legendary L Café, now Brooklyn Bagelsmith.
“This used to be a Mafia restaurant," he said, passing a weathered three-story brick building on Kent Avenue. "But it was hardly ever open for business. A bunch of prostitutes were found dead around here, and the theory was that the owners had them killed.”
For the hipster haters out there, The Last Bohemia provides plenty of fodder, even if much of took place two decades ago. Some of the first characters we see are two Sarah Lawrence graduates—one of whom is named Kai—busily renovating a 2,000-square-foot apartment next to a crack house in 1988. Anasi, a punk rock kid from a working class part of Providence, mentions that a “Trotskyist friend of mine ran the music collective up at Bard College,” and a character is shown “doing dope off the top of the Alien Lanes C.D. I’d loaned him.” Anasi, then an aspiring novelist, and his girlfriend, a poet, read their drafts to one another while huddled naked under the sheets in their heatless apartment. And so on.
But beyond the occasional crankiness and posturing that come with being a displaced proto-hipster pioneer, Anasi provides some deeply felt portraits of the community and its eccentric characters. These include Frank Versace, a former bare-knuckle boxer who sleeps his way through the staff of the L Cafe, and Marcin, a charismatic Polish photographer from Greenpoint who, Anasi later discovers, introduced dozens of local teenagers to heroin. An extended section on the fallout of Marcin’s actions owes much to the immersive reportage of William T. Vollmann—an icon to many literary Williamsburgers whom Anasi calls the “intellectual’s Bukowski.”
Marcin has since died, Anasi noted, along with several others in the book.
“Heroin really takes a toll on your immune system,” he said. Chris Miskiewicz, however, a Polish-Italian native who blended with the hipster crowd in the '90s, is now a successful TV actor with credits on “Bored to Death” and “How to Make It in America.”
Anasi conceived the idea for the book after leaving for Irvine in 2008. “It sort of put a frame around my experience here,” he said, adding that he’d kept a rigorous journal for years. “Every day I’d see something weird and unique and think, ‘This is such a strange, magical little enclave.”
He took many notes on the early performances of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a hardcore progenitor of the Brooklyn burlesque and carny acts that appear today at venues like East Williamsburg’s House of Yes. Amid the gutted factories and freezing lofts, he writes in the book, “the Bindlestiffs put us in touch with what bodies suffered and could do.”
In a way, it’s surprising more Williamsburg memoirs haven't yet been written. Anasi said that his literary agency had turned down plenty of proposals, partly because most of them focused on personal experience at the expense of the neighborhood’s larger cultural significance.
“Everyone knows what Williamsburg is,” he said. “A fight breaks out at the McCarren Park Pool and the story’s reposted in Honolulu newspapers.”
Anasi’s first book, a first-person account of his entry into the world of amateur boxing called The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle, was published in 2002. Despite positive reviews and a glowing blurb from George Plimpton, the book never really caught on, Anasi said. “No one wants to read about boxing anymore."
He was given just nine months to complete the next book. In keeping with his Bohemian idols like Jack Kerouac, he composed it with the help of copious stimulants—namely nicotine gum (though he's never smoked) and an “herbal remedy” called Kratom.
“Kratom was picked up by the hippie shaman set,” Anasi said with a laugh. “It’s illegal in Thailand, but it’s perfectly legal here.”
Wandering the glittering new Williamsburg waterfront, Anasi addressed the book’s provocative, quarrel-starting title.
“There aren’t really places where Bohemias can develop in the same way they did 15 or 20 years ago, especially in New York,” he said. “The Bohemian fringe element has been tainted and incorporated into the gentrification machinery."
In The Last Bohemia, Anasi describes the old look of the Williamsburg riverfront, which he frequented as a drifting, heartsick, but wildly energetic twenty-something.
“People lived on the waterfront: the ‘deinstitutionalized’ insane, those prostitutes—and their pimps—who worked the truck stop near Kokie’s, migrants—Mexicans who broke down old freight containers by hand and sold the aluminum scrap.”
The waterfront’s current incarnation—the high-rise apartments and sanitized parks—causes him obvious pain.
“I know it’s dangerous to be a reactionary,” he said, “but I just liked it better when it was a dangerous, scary, open wasteland.” He pointed out that none other than Jane Jacobs, in a letter, had tried to dissuade Mayor Bloomberg from erecting luxury towers on the waterfront.
“They could have built 20,000 units of middle- and lower-income housing,” he said. “Why does it have to be either or?”
Yet despite all the changes, Anasi can see himself moving back to New York City one day.
“I’d need a job, though,” he said, laughing. “It’s harder to be poor in New York now, and harder to be poor when you’re 45 than when you’re 25.”
Where would he like to live?
“Well, if you gave me a penthouse at The Edge for 500 bucks a month, I’d be happy to live there.”
More by this author:
- John Holmstrom talks about founding and editing 'Punk,' the chronicle of late-'70s New York
- Ups and downs of the Great New York City Chicken Frenzy