Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dispatches from the Brooklyn Bureau

It snowed. In related news, that made things smelly. Wait--what? Well, when it snows in the daytime like it did today, with the wind blowing into your eyes and your ears and making a pebbly frozenwet blanket on your woolen coat, and you just can't wait to get down into the subway station and you hope a seat on the incoming train so the heaters underneath can you wring you out, it turns out you're not the only one with that idea, or first to the chase. I saw more homeless people on the train cars today than I've seen since I moved here (admittedly only three years ago). There was the white lady with the scraggly black hair with flecks of silver in it hunched into the corner on the 2 train asleep, her mouth hanging open to reveal a missing tooth. There were dudes in huge raggedy jackets with the hoods pulled way down and the sleeves of their shirts underneath all holey and dirtsmudged, shuffling or dozing under the watchful of the NYPD, who said nothing so long as they maintained some semblance of upright and didn't let their trashbags get in anyoone's way.

This makeshift in motion tent city, zooming from one end of the city to the other, results in things getting a bit, uh, fragrant. The body odor in one of the cars I remember today was palpably sharp; it cut into you and didn't let you breathe too deeply. Nobody was even begging today--too tired, I guess, and just trying to withstand nature for now. I can tell you from just being out in it a couple hours, that I sure as shit would have packed myself into a seat above one of those heaters and spaced out.

I was out today because I was running errands, one of which was to send some stuff FedEx. There's a place on Flatbush Avenue, Mailboxes Park Slope, that I thought I just couldn't see because of the blinding snow and my general retardation (I wound up finding another place in its stead), but talking to Olivia tonight she informed me, after letting me know she had been thrown out of our local branch of the post office (don't ask...), that Mailboxes Park Slope had shut down. And so had High Steaks Cheesesteaks, and that restaurant Sugar Beet, and who knows how many Chinese/Vietnamese dry cleaners, all on this three-four block span of Flatbush. And it was weird how she knew all this and was talking about, because I passed by Mooney's, which was an /institution/ even my newbie eyes could discern, and saw how the place looked sullenly vacant, nobody cozed up to the bar stools facing the window, just empty paper coffee cups and some dusty looking boards. Yowza--I've never been through a recession in a city before. Let the games begin!

And now some sad news (har): the potato peeler man is dead. He died on Superbowl Sunday. This guy was like a virtual soundtrack to the farmer's market, and I actually wound up buying a peeler--they're called Star Peelers--from him just a few months ago, in October, after leaving mine in a kitchen in a cabin on Lake George. It was the Borough Hall farmer's market in Brooklyn, on a Tuesday--he also always, always always always, would haunt the Union Square one on Wednesdays; he'd park his ass in the northwest corner up by 16th and University and just spiel all damn day (that's where the footage for the video in the NY Times article comes from), which was exactly what he was doing that Tuesday at Borough Hall:

"It doesn't matter if you're right handed, left handed, like a politician all you have to do is have it underhanded."

"People tell me five dollars is a lot for a veg-uh-tab-ul peeler, and I tell you: I could get you one I could sell for a dollar, made in China. They'll last about a month and you'll be back to get another from me. These are made in Switzerland--they're not cheap--nothing cheap ever came from the Swiss. Watches, bank accounts, even their knives will cost you seventy-five dollars. But they're well-made. You don't buy it because it's cheap, you buy it because it'll last."

"In 1993 I was in the New York Post. Three years ago I was in Vanity Fair--Julia Roberts on the cover and me in the middle," (and here he would pantomine with a laminated issue flipping to the article which he had hanging from his little display setup).

Nobody quite knew the story behind him, as he had these fancy suits and reportedly (and I guess this is confirmed by the Times article) lived in a swank apt. on the upper something side. But as far as how he made his money--Olivia told me he made millions in Wall St. then just walked away in the early nineties--nobody really seems to have nailed that down.

I liked just listening to him, my canvas saddlebags bulging full on either side of me, both of us sweating, and him getting the crowd involved as they gathered around, having ladies (it always seemed to be ladies) pull the peeler all the way through the carrot to make "lovely thin slices. Now when you're slicing you don't want to hold it up in the air like you do when you're peeling. You want to keep it down like this, see." And then he'd have the ladies do a slice themselves, and everyone would oohhh and ahhhh and crowd closer with their money in their tight hands and say, "I'll take three."

"How many do you want?" With his eyes all squinted. "They're one for five, five for twenty. They make great gifts for the ho-luh-days."

When I finally got around to buying one, though, he was pretty gruff and surly. I had no idea at the time that he was 76 years old, so he might not have been feeling so hot, but I had a question about whether you could peel away from your body instead of just toward, which in retrospect was a stupid question given the design of the thing, and he was a tad grumpy. His basic MO was: spiel spiel spiel, sell sell sell, lather rinse repeat. There was no Q and A session. Anyway, I got one, disenchanted with my experience, and immediately began to feel like I'd been ripped off. Then I found all kinds of flaws with the peeler, and even tried to break it (or 'accidentally' spun the blade around so it wouldn't work right). But it's still here with me, and though I haven't quite mastered it to the point of five petaled flower carrots a la chinese stir frys or managed to get the little node on the side to do much of anything useful, let alone carve out the brown spots on potatoes, I can tell you I like it a whole lot more since that first day of bringing it home. And now I'm thinking I better make it last, because I don't want to buy a peeler from anyone else.