This was Williamsburg

My old building on Johnson Avenue. ()
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The first time I moved to Williamsburg was in 1998.

After looking at a few run-down places with a man from an unfamiliar former Soviet republic in a big old-model luxury car with too-comfortable tan leather seats, we settled on something that was far, far from Bedford Avenue, but close enough to the seventh stop on the L at Jefferson to be at least rational. It was a giant raw space, recently a factory floor, the walls of which weren't even built yet. We signed on the spot.

There was nothing around there back then. I mean really, nothing but working factories, mostly textile mills with giant mechanized looms churning out cheap sweaters, amazing late-industrial objects to watch, the noises of which became familiar to us quickly as one was still operating on the other end of our floor.

Civilization was just across the Flushing Avenue border with Bushwick, where Knickerbocker offered the attractions of a well-established if slightly down-at-heel neighborhood that was a radical and sometimes combustible mix of Chicano and Latino heritages and origins.

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Chiefly, to us, this meant great, cheap Mexican food; barbers; hardware stores; bodegas selling beer and chorizo and Ben & Jerry's (it was here that I learned one chief warning sign of gentrification: If your bodega suddenly starts carrying tonic water, you're about to be priced out); and very cheap cafe con leche served in styrofoam cups with a modernist-looking concentric-circles pattern embossed on them and flimsy tops.

Less usefully to us, there were: botanicas, beeper stores, storefront Evangelical churches, discount shoe outlets, storefront MRI locations.

The most convenient takeout was, during the day, the sandwich truck that serviced the factory workers in the surrounding buildings, including the Waste Management facility that masked the smell of garbage with a treatment that sometimes made the air in our apartment smell like the cherry-powder pouch in a Lik-'m'-Aid. "The Roach Coach," the guys waiting in line never tired of calling it, though they cheerfully ate two meals a day that emerged from it. But there was also the quiet, almost recessive woman who had used bungee cords to lash large drywall-compound tubs to luggage handtrucks which emitted billows of steam as she roamed the area, lifting the oversized pot-lids and pulling out delicious tamales to sell to whoever stopped her.

My roommate was a sculptor. A very good one, too. At the time, he had developed an obsession with the process of making paper—often, exploiting that middle moment of the paper-making process to create sculptural material that would ultimately harden to the light-weight substantiality of cardboard, but in unexpected shapes and tinted to create quite incredible and organic color combinations. At the time, he was much under the influence of the old Arte Povera movement.

What was I under the influence of? Well, partly, Jim Beam. We were 26. But I had given up my job at an independent publisher of academic books—I had worked on the marketing plan for, among other things, an anthology of feminist essays on the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal—and refashioned myself as a graphic designer, based on a few ads I'd made for that publisher when they were short-handed.

It was not a confidence-inspiring resume but I think the fact that I didn't get any work had more to do with the fact that I never tried hard to get any than the fact that anyone who looked at my portfolio would have quickly dismissed it. For one thing, I thought it completely reasonable to depend for internet access on the practice of stacking up those free CD-ROMs from AOL you used to get in the mail and registering with a new identity every three months once they asked for billing information. This resulted in long periods with no internet access. At the time, I didn't think that was a big deal.

I also flattered myself that I was a favorite of several established and wonderful poets who taught at The Poetry Project at St. Mark's in the Bowery church. You see, my new insight in poetry was to be that psychological, expressive poetry was bullshit, and that poetry needed to be a giant language game of the sort only someone who was clever with language could pull off. (As I said, I flattered myself.)

When we moved in to our 1,300-square-foot loft with 20-foot ceilings and a giant bank of windows offering a view of Brooklyn and, beyond it, the Manhattan skyline stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Queensboro Bridge, there were rough-outs for a kitchen and bathroom, a hole drilled into the floor with a sewage outtake for establishing a toilet, and electricity was coming in the front door. That was it. All the rest was up to us. It cost $1,300 a month—a dollar a square foot—and we got a 10-year lease.

We were among the first to move in. The building, which had been a doll factory, had an abandoned basement that, astonishingly, still had all the old copper moldings for all the dolls stored there, for the taking, as well as boxes and boxes of dolls and doll parts. We'd run down there and pick up boxes of self-opening doll eyes, all ensconced in foam, as gifts for visitors. You'd tilt the box and all the eyes would open, rows and rows of them, slowly and in a perfect negligent near-coordination, like 64 hangovers starting a wink; tilt them back and they closed with the same bad coordination, finishing it. As other residents filled in the other loft spaces they, too, had their moments of flirtation with stealing old doll parts and copper doll-head molds before they, too, got tired of the joke.

Across the hall was a couple; one was a carpenter and the other had the same strain of generalized literary-aspiration disorder I did. They were 22 and seemed to us to be very young. The boy had a lip-ring, and the girl was much more like the lead singer of the Sundays.

I seem to remember her in a purple cotton cardigan with patch pockets on the front that were constantly occupied by her balled-up fists, pushing the hemline of the cardigan down to nearly the ripping point. They had various subtenants, undergraduates and art students who measured their subleases by the semester. They built out a carpentry studio and kitchen, and split the entire thing into two stories with several tiny, windowless upstairs rooms that were suffocating in the warm weather.

They made furniture, at a slow pace and at rather exorbitant prices, for what we called "yuppies," the people who were moving in around Bedford Avenue, but more often for people who were redoing condos and coops in Chelsea and the East Village and wanted authentic, custom, local work. It helped that our carpenter friend was very good-looking and had that 26-inch waist that seemed to be specific to a generation of boys about three years younger than myself. (Had the water changed?)

We wandered back and forth often between the two lofts in the early days. We introduced them to Os Mutantes and Rain Parade and The Sea and Cake, they introduced us to Neutral Milk Hotel and Cat Power.

In another loft was the dashing and affable kid with a jockey's build who was never there and built almost his entire space into a half-pipe. He was wealthy, but self-made in that insane way of young skaters who are paid ridiculous sums to help market skateboard brands during competitions. We'd never heard of him or the skateboard company he worked for, but when we brought him up to authorities in the field they were impressed with our neighbor.

There was the older couple, in their 50s. She was a German documentary filmmaker who mostly made work for German television, much of it quite important and all of it impressive. He was a science-fiction novelist who also had in the old days gotten lots of work doing testosterone-fueled human-interest stories about scrapyard workers and dog tracks and the like, for the Metro section and the tabloids, during their flirtations with New Journalism and after The New Yorker and Esquire got too glossy for that sort of thing.

They alone were not amazed to be here, having lost a lease on a giant loft at 14th Street and 9th Avenue, when their building was condominiumized and sold to a developer. They put a wood floor on top of the concrete floor at some ridiculous expense, and when they painted their kitchen walls a shade of turquoise I imagined that a few trips to Europe I had made gave me the authority to declare that this was a peculiarly German choice of color. They became our best friends in the building. We called ourselves "the grown-ups."

There was the dude from Michigan who was an artist but was completely flummoxed by the burgeoning Williamsburg art scene and its ways. He'd mostly made art-fair stuff, it had seemed to me, a bit crafty and beholden to heavy-metal imagery. And he didn't have a degree from Rhode Island or Yale or any college at all. He drank too much even by my ridiculously libertine standards, or else he handled it differently: Instead of sobbing and confessing and breaking up with people, he punched walls and started fights and kicked people out of places. He also liked that fusion of rap and metal that, I think, marked him as a nonsophisticate.

Years later I bumped into him at a mass at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Forest Hills, where I'd gone to see my dad sing in the choir. He had a wife and three really good-looking kids in tow. I saw him again not long after that at a Key Food in Kew Gardens.

There was the young couple from Portland, in their early 20s. The guy had aspirations to be a well-paid international D.J., and while he did get himself to Berlin and London a few times, he never, that I knew of, scaled it up to the point where he could support his wife, who had an infant child living with them in the loft. She left and went back to live with her parents after a while.

The one indisputably successful person on our floor was a woman who silk-screened T-shirts all day and had distribution in real national outlets catering to indie sensibilities. She didn't talk too too much to the rest of us, but was always friendly when she did. She, probably, had a real reason to live in the Goldberger Doll Factory besides vanity, besides a strange idea of what constituted urbanity and independence and cultural capital that couldn't be bought with money or status but was a pure reflection of actual genius.

I had taken a job as an administrative assistant at a French investment bank. When I started, I had one suit, and no money for shoes, so for the first three weeks I wore Doc Martens combat boots under the gray slacks. "Boots 'n' suits!" my roommate would call out to me as I left each morning for my job.

My sculptor roommate had a job at Windows on the World, in the top of the World Trade Center, organizing the multimedia presentations for corporate meetings. I worked in Midtown and was stuffing files for a company that I thought was a soft-drink manufacturer into another one that was NBC-Universal, not comprehending why, and also not caring.

At night we and our neighbors showed up at one another's doors, drank beer and whiskey and tequila and talked about art and poetry and traded Harpers for Mother Jones and learned more about psychedelic music; we developed a fondness for Erik Satie together. We scoped out dollar-beer nights on Bedford and free gallery openings on Kent and Wythe or in West Chelsea.

We had giant cookouts on the 10,000-square-foot roof, taking turns DJing and manning the grill, and invited friends who lived in similar places, who had similar ideas about their futures and similarly pedestrian jobs to support themselves, as well as our friends who lived in the East Village or the Lower East Side or Park Slope or Carroll Gardens. They pretended that they were pretending to protest the price of the cab but the protest was real, underneath. What right did we have to impose this bullshit on them? Just how fascinating did we think we were?

The word in those days was not, as I remember it, "hipster." To me, that still resonated more strongly of the '40s era white kids who gravitated toward Hot Jazz and extended its influence into painting, music, poetry and novels. The Beats, the New York School in poetry and art, and so forth. Didn't it come up a lot in Peggy Sue Got Married?

Were we hipsters? When the Metro section did a sort-of Gazetteer feature on our neighborhood the carpenter cut it out of the newspaper and taped it to the doors of the hand-cranked freight elevator we used to get up and down from the street. We were psyched about it.

On the other hand, we were really off the grid. Nobody understood where we lived, in professional New York, or in white New York, or in college-graduate New York. There are a few ways to slice it. All of us thought we were thrillingly exempt from the requirements of the society that had produced us: It was simply a matter of choosing to opt out. No TV, no internet, no newspapers. No Hollywood, no Washington, no Financial District, no Midtown. No marriage, no family, no responsibility except to ourselves. That was, really, no small point of pride; the only problem was that the one responsibility we acknowledged was not so easy to meet.

I might not have really known what a hipster was yet, but I knew who the squares were. What we were was not them. We had not left college with trust funds; we had not sailed into entry-level, 80-hour-a-week investment-banker jobs paying $75,000; we had not, slavishly, gone straight to graduate school to continue toiling in that factory that perversely produces nothing but more of its own workers.

Nor, though, had any of our poems or paintings or sculptures or compositions gotten any interest from gallerists or publishers or record labels, nor was our excellent education and native intelligence valued by any employer we could think of. We had the right demeanor to be: coffee servers, waiters, bartenders, bookstore clerks, record-store clerks. We looked like the crowd proprietors in Brooklyn wanted to serve but couldn't reach yet, so they wanted us to work for them.

We didn't ourselves have the money to buy what we'd have been selling, and, in all likelihood, neither did the clients these proprietors imagined attracting, not enough of them at any rate to support a business. And, on my floor at the doll factory at least, all of us considered ourselves too old, too talented, too well-educated, too independent-minded or too sophisticated to take those jobs anymore.

Fashion? I don't remember us having any. But when a friend of mine sent out a clipping of a comic strip we all laughed, recognizing it. A guy is walking angrily down a street and a kid in a ball-cap calls to him, "HEY JUNKIE! HOW COME YOU'RE WEARING THREE SHIRTS AND TWO PAIRS A PANTS?" In the next frame, he has kept walking but now is muttering to himself, "I'M NOT A JUNKIE!" We often just screamed "Hey, junkie!" to each other as a summons after that.

***

"How I Became a Hipster," reads the headline on an article published in the Thursday Styles section of The New York Times. It's not the original headline: That had an unfortunate ring to it, using the term "Will.i.amsburg." This was laughable to everyone, since Will.i.am is a pop artist whom nobody in Williamsburg—at least, no white "hipsters" in Williamsburg—would possibly take seriously.

The writer, Henry Alford, who writes that he is a "middle-aged, avowed Manhattanite," goes for a long weekend to Williamsburg to get a hipster makeover and try to experience the life of a Williamsburg hipster firsthand, reporting on his findings. It is, primarily, a writing exercise (and a pretty heavy-handed one; he's had a bunch of pieces that are better).

There are lots of beards and there is lots of special locavore and food-allergy talk, lots of fashion statements, some of them ludicrously misjudged ("I want to look like Mumford and Sons," he tells a patient clerk, whose assiduousness in providing the goods Alford should not mistake for assent, especially if the clerk's pay is commission-based).

That this experiment has little of serious science, or even the dreaded serious social science, about it, is something the author acknowledges in several asides. He is, essentially, in labeling himself an outsider to a culture he describes as a hipster culture, acknowledging, I think to his way of thinking, his own squareness. But square is not a word that hipsters use, bafflingly. On the other hand, hipster is not a word that hipsters use, to describe themselves. They often use it to describe other people in their own social milieu, as a way of separating themselves from them.

I can understand it. Not long ago, maybe seven years ago, I was actually in the retrospectively absurd position of MacBook-DJing a coldwave/early techno/Krautrock set at a bar on Broadway near the Williamsburg waterfront that was heavy on unreleased singles from the Factory record label and what I had thought of, creatively, as "minimal techno." I was lamenting the fact that Pratt students wearing glasses that looked like they belonged on Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and harem pants and teased hair, all ironically, and guys who were dressed like Mr. Rogers after he changes into his sneakers, were invading the clientele because they wanted to dance to my music and do cocaine in the bathroom and go home with each other. They ordered only canned beer and didn't tip well. Hipsters! How do we keep them out of our neighborhood?

This, of course, is one of the identity games that young people play, and if you're still playing them at a certain age, you probably need to rethink things. I stuck around too long in hipsterdom, myself, and I wasn't particularly successful at it.

The connection between the term, its usefulness and the rebellion against it, is not accidental; it's all right there in the word itself. "Hip" means you know the score, things that not everybody knows. Being hip to something means that you are the right person to pick up something on a frequency not everyone hears. You're tuned in to something—a weird ethos that somehow travels on air that not everyone else is tuned into.

So, when the top 40 station starts broadcasting on that frequency, as it inevitably will, it's time to go. Constantly dodging legibility by authority figures—the media, parents, employers—is the key to authenticity, is the thinking. It's a bit optimistic about the human capacity to resist social pressures, a bit hypocritical in its inability to acknowledge the strictness of the norms of the subcultures it creates, the fact that those norms shift constantly only making them worse and more authoritarian, not less, as any of several factions of Trotskyite still living might tell you, and it's a bit pessimistic about the real sources of character and where they lie, even in a highly organized society.