An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Rapping on Dean Street

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 18, 2010

Leah Hart & friends, ready to rap

When I picked up my camera this afternoon and headed outside, I never thought I’d come across a bunch of rappers: eight of them, along with a woman with a video camera and a car blasting background music, right outside my house. The videographer was Leah Hart, and they were performing a rap cypher, a 16 bar chant to which all eight add their own individual rhythm. They live nearby — Leah’s on Park Place — and they chose my street because they liked the graffiti.

I love my new neighbourhood, Crown Heights in Brooklyn. There’s something magical about it, a community feel with creative artistry sewn in. It’s ethnically diverse and has not always fared well. In 1991 riots broke out after a 7-year-old African American boy was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic man. In the three days of violence that followed, one man was killed and almost 200 injured. Now, though, such conflict seems a thing of the past, and all sorts of groups co-exist and work together, literally, with businesses that are side by side.

Nearby Franklin Avenue is a hive of activity: locals gather on their apartment stoops, businesses thrive. Yesterday I discovered a bijou community center, where freelancers, artists, and local organizations can meet, for free. One or two organic groceries and swish coffee shops bear witness to change: gentrification, which is raising rents and bringing double-edged benefits.

Off Franklin, warehouses and factories overshadow the sidewalks, some in their original function, others converted (legally & illegally) into artists’ lofts and collectives. Everyone seems to have something on the go. At the end of my road, canopied by orange parasols, a man sells watermelons, and plants from his garage.

These are pictures from my 15 minute walk.

Poem by James Wright, on a lampost at Franklin & St. Johns (click to enlarge)

Locals plan to appropriate this disused lot & make it into a community garden (this weekend)

Notice on on Franklin Ave.

Factories on Bergen St.

Local film-maker, McClinton Karma Stanley (see

A graffito on Franklin Avenue


New York blues

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 10, 2010

The view from my house yesterday

If you’re in a bad mood in New York the best thing to do (if possible) is to stay indoors. Don’t go to the shops, don’t buy coffee, don’t get on public transport or walk on crowded pavements. Don’t even check email. Wear a helmet. There’s something strangely responsive about this city, as if it senses your troubles and chooses not to help, deciding instead to hurl irritations, hindrances and crazy people in your way. On a good day the sun shines and people will be astonishingly nice, but if you’re having a difficult time the environment easily becomes hostile. And, to be frank, bad things may happen.

Last Thursday was a case in point. In the morning I attended an MTA appeal. After going through a three-hour process, I was given the maximum fine. A few hours later, as I cycled tired and annoyed along a street near my home, my bike hit a pothole and I flew over the handlebars, landing on my left elbow.

Within two hours of my bike accident I had inadvertently managed to offend a friend’s friend. He was extremely angry with me and I was angry back. We have resolved the matter, but the offense was as unintentional as my bike accident, and it seemed odd: I truly didn’t mean to stir up trouble.

All that took its toll. This week I’ve felt as if the whole city has been fighting with me, and my misery only seemed to attract more of the same; or as a rather more expressive writer once put it, ‘when sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.’ Things have kept going wrong. On Monday I waited for the subway, huddling towards the upper end of the platform away from other people, but when the train arrived, the conductor yelled, ‘First three carriages are not in use!’ Cradling my coffee I stepped toward carriage four, only to see the subway doors close, as the train pulled off.  The conductor could have waited for me, he just didn’t. (It’s also true that I didn’t smile at him when he made his announcement, when normally I would have).

My computer started to play up and went into ‘Panic’ mode without my asking; Google refused to work, linking instead to a weird Wiki page full of meaningless text. But Tuesday was the nadir of my New York blues. I was walking down the street to a coffee shop near my house when a woman approached me. Something in her step put me off, and I wondered if she would be mad, or hostile. I didn’t have to wonder long. She walked towards me and thrust her face at mine and said in a tone that was almost sane, ‘I am everything. You are nothing! I am everything. You are nothing!’ I was scared. I ducked and ran away from her, across the quiet street. Yet she’d got something right: she had articulated, succinctly, aggressively and in a way that was fittingly unhinged, the world’s hostility.

After that, and after I spoke to a friend, things gradually improved. Today even Google has cooperated, miraculously righting itself without intervention from the ‘Genius’ men at Apple (perhaps the weirdness had to do with this). Still, it has rained all day — see the pic above.


One day on, we are on good terms again — the city seems back to its magical self. On the subway this morning, a man smiled and gave me his seat. ‘Your bag looks heavy,’ he said, as he thought up a beautiful image: ‘What are you carrying? Golden bricks?’

The door leading up to my roof

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Crime & punishment

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 3, 2010

Don't mess with the MTA

It’s well known that the Metropolitan Transport Authority is utterly strapped for cash at the moment. This means they’re cutting services and firing employees. It also means it’s a bad, bad time to offend them in any way. About a a month ago I made a foolhardy attempt to save 18 minutes by skipping under a turnstyle (all excuses can be found here). I had my hearing today and received my just desserts — or unjust ones, depending on your perspective.

MTA officials are often very unpleasant, but the office at 29 Gallatin Place was surprisingly calm, much like an NHS hospital waiting room. My number flashed up and I moved from ticketing desk to another desk to an adjudicating official within three hours.

29 Gallatin -- actually quite an insalubrious area

Most people there were African American and Hispanic: laconic teens, ironical women who had seen it all, and aggravated, angry men. Most seemed a bit down at heel, but a few men in shirt suits sat looking around them in bewilderment. I felt acutely aware of race and gender. It was notable that none of the adjudicating officials were African American or Hispanic — I spotted a blond woman, a white man with bushy eyebrows, and another woman with dark hair and glasses. I hoped I’d get a man, thinking he might be more sympathetic.

Well, Mr. Andrew R., watery-eyed and middle-aged, was nice enough. He switched on an ancient vintage-style tape-recorder, read out my charge, and other details, read me my rights, and got me to swear to tell the truth holding up my right hand. It seemed rather melodramatic. I recounted my take on the situation and he listened with what appeared to be a friendly ear.

Back in the main office, I awaited the verdict. Because we were all in the same boat the atmosphere was friendly, and people began to chat about how much they hated the MTA. The man across from me had been booked for going through the emergency door, after he had swiped through with his card. He had paid with the card! he said. Another man, dignified and bespectacled, was quiet about his crime. It was hard to imagine what he could have done. ‘They just need money,’ he said. ‘They’re fining everyone for everything.’ I thought, uneasily, how if I was in charge of the MTA, it would make sense to ask all adjudicators to fine everyone uniformly at the maximum amount.

The dignified old man was called up to the window, and we all jumped when he waved his arms and shouted, ‘This is ridiculous!’ He stomped out the door without looking over at us.

Next was a young, anxious-looking Asian-American man who’d been sitting beside me and who seemed worried about getting back to work. Next was me. My heart beat when I looked at my form, where Andrew R. had written that my tale of having bought the monthly travel card did not diminish the fact that I’d broken the law. The fine was the maximum: $100.

So that’s the way things are at the moment in New York. There’s no leeway, no discretion, there are no excuses or explanations: if you get booked for something here — regardless of X or Y or P or Q, the morals of the situation, or whatever plaintive reasons or motives you may have had — you’ve broken the law and you will be punished.

The funny thing is people do break rules here all the time in flagrant, flamboyant ways. It’s only a problem, as it always is, if you get caught.

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Moving house — most stressful?

Posted in Brooklyn, New York, Real estate by Frieda on April 27, 2010

It's never that simple.

We all know that statistic — that moving house is the third most traumatic life experience you can have after death of a loved one and divorce (I even checked the fact; let’s believe the NS). Blissfully ignoring this stat I’ve moved house four times in the past year-and-a-half and am about to depart for a fifth new home. When I told a prospective housemate about it he said this meant I was a nomad. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

In London and probably Dublin too, moving house is tough, but New York takes the cake. Real estate has a grand narrative here; it’s a site of tragedy and (less often) comedy. There are gossip blogs about it, local blogs, newspaper sections, and specialist blogs, all testifying to the passions that lie within the New York housing market.

In the past moving has stressed me out but this time I was determined to stay calm; which was a good thing. Let me tell you a few stories.

I saw several places before making my decision. The third was a commune/co-op where food and chores were shared among six occupants. Everyone was a member of the Park Slope Food Coop. There were two guys and four girls. The house was a gorgeous Park Slope brownstone with original 19th century features. A little old lady owned it  and it had been a commune since the 70s. At $800 per month including bills it was a steal, for New York. And it wasn’t a cult (I asked). So far, so innocuous.

One of the two men, tall and affable, gave me the tour. Then I went downstairs to the kitchen where seven or eight other prospective housemates were milling around with anxious eyes. We each had to make sure to speak to each of the five housemates because if we didn’t we’d automatically be disqualified. That was more or less fine, until one girl said to me: “So! Tell me about yourself.” It was too abrupt, and job-interview-like. But, of course, worse was to follow. We were given sheets of paper to fill out, with five or six different questions, including “What are the strengths and skills you’d bring to this house?” and “Why should we choose you?” Then, in case we were not memorable, each of us had to stand, holding a piece of paper with our name on it to our chest, while one of the housemates took a photo.

So I didn’t get that room. I got one much nicer, in an artists’ commune in a converted factory in Prospect Heights — here’s a pic:

My new apartment! (entrance)

When I gave the landlord, who will be a housemate, my deposit last weekend he said, “Oh, I think the roof leaks by the way. Did I mention that?” He hadn’t. But I am hopeful.

I kept a record of the weirdest housing ads I found on craigslist. Here are two you might enjoy.

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[I got the pic from]

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Waiting for paint to dry

Posted in Brooklyn, Local by Frieda on April 9, 2010

My house in Brooklyn, today: picturesque, no?

This is what I came home to on Tuesday. Our landlord — who’s otherwise very nice — has made an executive decision to paint the front door dark green and to further improve our living situation by retiling the porch. Today I returned around lunchtime to find both the main door and the door of our apartment wide open (the green paint was drying). This was annoying. Our little cat Booboo could have made a bid for freedom and met her end on the street outside. More crucially, someone could have crept into my bedroom and stolen some of my stuff.

I came in and sat down in the kitchen to do some work. But the big orange contraption you can see in the photo started to make the beep — beep — beep sound that it has been making all week from 8.30 am onwards. I flew out the door in a rage to ask the men who were working (now doing something on the third floor as you can see) to keep it down.

The door slammed behind me and all of a sudden I was outside without phone or keys or purse. I shouted up to the men asking if they had keys. They didn’t, our landlord’s dad had opened the door for them that morning. How about the landlord or his dad? They were at work.

The younger of the men, a pallid guy in his early twenties with short spiky hair who spoke with an unidentifiable accent, climbed in the upstairs window and came downstairs to help me. Taking a set of cards from his wallet he began to slide one into the lock to open our door, with worrying expertise. The trick failed. Then, when I told him the back door was open, he knocked on the upstairs apartment. After, I have to assume, leaping off the roof and entering through the back door, he opened my front door from the inside and politely let me in.

An emergency was averted, I wasn’t going to have to sit on my steps for hours waiting for a key-bearer to arrive. I could feel ambiguous relief: the people working on our apartment, performing whatever mysterious tasks they’re engaged in, are friendly and helpful and chivalrous; they just happen to be good at breaking into houses too.

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Things I love about Brooklyn

Posted in Brooklyn, coffee, Local by Frieda on March 30, 2010

Jamey Hamm making a latte at Roots

Today’s post is the first in an occasional series I’m going to do about people & places that I love in New York. I’m going to start with Roots Cafe.

I’ve written before about this subject: New York is chock-full of freelancers, who drift from place to place bringing nothing but their shiny silver mac powerbooks with them. These mobile workers range from impecunious freelance journalists to a man I met at the weekend who designs video games. A host of cafes has arisen to serve this tribe, each with its own atmosphere and clientele: in posh Boerum Hill, my computer-game friend works alongside well-known writers and established journalists. In my part of town, grad students and younger writers ply their trade.

Which brings me to Roots, owned by an Alabaman named Jamey Hamm. It’s a delightful place. The cafe is located in a very slowly gentrifying part of Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue (at 18th Street), which is nice enough for there to be some cool bars nearby, but where you’ll still see old men spitting on the sidewalks. Last week a nail salon on this street, north of Roots and close to where I live, was totally trashed, the windows shattered and the interior looking like it was in the midst of renovations. Somehow people are finding the cafe, though, and it recently featured in the New York Times as one of the best places to get a coffee in Brooklyn.

Hamm wanted to create a community as well as a cafe. This could be just jargon, but if you go there as regularly as I do, you’ll see it’s not. Hamm himself works there almost everyday and is friendly and full of smiles and always ready to chat (perhaps it’s a southern thing). His niceness means it’s hard to be grumpy here — it puts everyone else on their best behaviour.

The cafe is tiny and narrow and somewhat dark. Tables and stools line the walls, with armchairs and a couch squishing up against bookshelves. One wall is festooned with guitars and rock posters; the other works as a rotating gallery for local artists. The music is a mix of pop and rock from recent decades — while I’ve been writing this Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in my pocket” has given way to the Beatles’ “Here comes the sun” — and plays at a crooning level.

Although it started up mid-recession last year Roots does a great business. In February when it snowed you’d have expected it to be deathly quiet. Instead it was packed, as locals sought refuge when the electricity/heating/coffee-makers in their own homes broke down.

A group of friends and freelance-colleagues has sprung up around the cafe, which has become a place of networking and serendipitous meetings. The man sitting beside me today, for instance — a writer, who is wearing a nice peaked cap — came to look at my apartment when I was thinking of subletting it last summer. I’ve bumped into friends here; and I’ve listened in as people exchanged contacts and got gigs.

Last night (ok, so I was here yesterday as well) two older men, one sporting a pony-tail, the other with fluffy white hair and spectacles, started twanging on a guitar and singing. I threw them dirty looks, but as more and more guitar-wielding guys came in the door I realized I was outnumbered. It was open-mic night. The barista picked up a guitar and started to sing; a newcomer joined him and began playing the cello. It felt a far cry from the alienation you’d associate with a big city and which, I imagine, is more a feature of Manhattan life.

It’s raining now, as it’s been doing non-stop for several days. Roots may not not quite be the place where everybody knows your name but most people there will at least know your face. On a wet, cold day it is cosy and warm, a sort of Cheers for the 21st century Brooklynite. Plus, I’m sure it’s cooler than that cheesy Boston pub ever was.

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Brooklyn pays tribute to MLK

Posted in Brooklyn, US politics by Frieda on January 19, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther King jr.

NEW YORK* — It’s astonishing to think that Martin Luther King was just 39 years old when he died. Had he not been shot by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, he would be 81 this year.

Today is Martin Luther King day in the US, the only American public holiday dedicated to an individual. It falls on the Monday closest to January 15, MLK’s birthday. It’s designated as a “day of service,” the idea being that people use the holiday to volunteer to do good work of some kind. To mark it, I went with friend L. to a tribute to this brave man at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

L. had warned me to arrive early. In previous years, after the event featured in the media, it was impossible to get in. So I turned up at 9.45am, a good 45 minutes before it began, and joined the line outside. It was fascinating to see who was there — a small number of white people (why so few?) but mostly elegant African Americans in their Sunday best.

We were bowled over by the brilliance of the gospel singers from the New Life Tabernacle Mass Choir. The pastor himself was musically gifted, and he led the choir with a smooth warm voice. The singers swayed and clapped and sang their hearts out, while several in the audience stood up and whooped and sang along, including one adorable little boy in the seats in front of us. For some songs, a woman led the choir, wearing a short black dress, high heels (of course) and a delicate long coat that looked like a dressing gown. She was joyously over the top, urging the choir to sing out and at one point lying on the stage in a fetching pose.

One of the preachers summed up the mood perfectly. In his church, he said (in the underprivileged area of Bedstuy in Brooklyn), the congregation tell him they are “too blessed to be stressed.”

Actor Danny Glover was the keynote speaker, and he described America as living in the wake, not of MLK’s death, but of his absence. Glover wondered what questions MLK would ask if he were alive today. Wouldn’t he ask why Haiti had been treated so badly by history? Glover, who is 63, broke down, his voice cracking.

Brooklyn has the largest population of Haitians in the world outside that country. There must be many who are suffering here.

The district attorney, Charles Hynes, said that at any point in time, 25% of young African Americans are in prison or on probation or parole. This statistic was so shocking I wondered if I’d misheard it, but L. said that was right.

One of the last speakers was Dr. William Pollard, president of  Medgar Evers College, a historically black school. He too spoke of Haiti. A student from the college recently visited Haiti with his mother for a holiday and is still there now, trying to return. Pollard said the student had told him, over email, that US embassy officials had arranged a line at the airport. It was for journalists and caucasian Americans only.

At the tribute’s end, the choir-master preacher returned to the stage and said, “Let’s have some more church!” And the singing began again.

*I got back to NYC last week.

Time for the Co-Op

Posted in Brooklyn, Local by Frieda on December 8, 2009
The Park Slope Food Co-Op at night -- eerie, or friendly? (Pic is from image from

The Park Slope Food Co-Op at night -- eerie, or welcoming?*

Ah, the Park Slope Food Co-Op. Today I pulled two brown cloth bags bearing its logo over my shoulder and made my way to the subway for my twice-a-month expedition there. It’s 10 minutes away from me by subway and an average shopping trip takes one-and-a-half hours minimum.

The Co-Op is a divisive entity in Park Slope, Brooklyn (which is where I live). It’s a food co-op where you buy organic/freerange/greenie items cheaply, but at a cost — you have to work there. You really do. The work requirement is two and three quarter hours per month and if you do a cleaning shift, like I do, that shrinks to two hours. If you miss one shift you have to do two within  the next month. If you miss two, you’re out, suspended. You can’t shop there until you make up the work you’ve shirked, which by now will be about eight hours.

But the benefits are brilliant. Contrary to what lots of people say, food is extremely expensive in New York. I’ll never forget an evening in my first month here when I popped out to a local deli (bodegas, they call them here) to buy pasta and sauce and an onion — and came home with $20 less in my pocket. The PS Food Co-Op makes it possible for an impoverished journalist like myself to live on a diet of organic wild Alaskan salmon, free-range eggs, seasonal organic veg, etc., etc. This is important in a country where scary food stories are rife.

Two hours per month may not sound like much but in a busy city life it feels exhausting, on a Monday evening even once a month, to trail my way to the Co-Op and clean and mop and scrub from 8pm to 10. The Co-Op has 15,000 members, which is a lot, but the work requirement is what puts many Park Slopers off. They feel vehement about it. At a recent dinner in a family member’s house in Park Slope, my uncle and cousin disagreed with me about a minor detail of the Co-Op work requirement, insisting they were right, even though they don’t work or shop there, and I do (they were wrong, I checked later).

The burdensome work requirement has also spawned a spate of articles about the place. Park Slope is full of writers and you annoy them at your peril.

So today in the Co-Op I picked up the Co-Op’s own little paper, the Linewaiters’ Gazette — probably so called because you will often stand in a line for up to half an hour before you reach the cash register. It’s usually highly entertaining, full of letters complaining about how certain workers don’t have the right attitude and don’t smile enough. Anyhow an article on the Gazette’s front page read, “They write about working when they don’t do the work.” The author went on to complain about the writers who write pissy articles about the Co-Op in the New York Times.

I’m between two minds about the Co-op myself. As I said, it helps me keep healthy, but on the days my work was piling up and I was under pressure, hauling out my bike and cycling through the dark (or getting the subway) to clean floors seemed like a terrible punishment. And the system is inflexible. A friend of mine left the Co-Op because when he called up to say he couldn’t make his shift since his grandmother had died and he wanted to attend her funeral, the person on the other end of the line said, “We only let you off your shift for death of immediate family members.”

My next work-shift is December 21, when I’ll be flying through the sky to Dublin. I won’t get away with missing it, though, I’ll have to swop the shift with someone. But after today’s shop, my fridge is stocked with veg and that wild Alaskan salmon ($2.15) is in my freezer, and I’m making a wholesome vegetarian shepherds’ pie for dinner tonight. You might hate or love the Co-Op — in my case, it’s both.

[* The pic above is from image from

The hazards of working in a cafe

Posted in Brooklyn, Freelance life, Local by Frieda on December 4, 2009

Red Horse Cafe (in summer): not as benign as it might look

There are a number of cafes that I work in near my flat in Brooklyn. If you freelance, cafes are wonderful places to bring your laptop. You can strike up random conversations with strangers and listen in on people’s private chats. You escape the cabin-fever of working from home and your life doesn’t involve sitting alone all day in the room where you normally eat your dinner or, worse, your bedroom (I’ve done that before and I really don’t recommend it, it’s not good for you).

But being surrounded by people has its own inconveniences. You can’t choose the company you keep. Humans can be annoying, as anyone who has ever worked in an office knows — the cough, the laugh, the shuffle, any tiny movement can get on your nerves if repeated often enough.

Right now, for example, I’m in the Red Horse Cafe on 12th street & 5th in Brooklyn, which is so cool that it has both a ning network and a blog (actually the ning site is the new one). I’m sharing a black leather couch with a man who is very sweet I’m sure. And who knows, he might be a famous writer or a little known multimillionaire or just a lonely person looking for human interaction. Still, I can tell you that he is chomping and crunching his lunch noisily, and clearing his throat every 12 seconds. His lunch began with an orange-coloured soup (slurp, slurp), followed by a dish of crisps and a sandwich (munch, chew, chew). It’s winter but he wears a waistcoat that leaves his slightly plump arms bare and in close proximity to mine. He is accompanied by four ring-binder notebooks, a rucksack and a paper-bag filled with other paper-bags.

The man opposite me catches my eye and his eyebrows twitch. He throws a disapproving glance at my couch-mate.

As I write, the snuffly man is gathering his belongings. First I think he’s talking to himself but then I realize he’s addressing me. “This isn’t a good place for short people. You see, I’m unusual because I’m short but I have a terribly long torso. These couches just aren’t comfortable.” Innocently, I gesture to the chairs on the other side of the room. I’m sure they’re far more comfortable. Indeed, that’s where I’d be sitting if that side of the room had computer plugs.

Spanish music is playing in the background. The twitchy guy asks the girl opposite me, who’s wearing a lovely pink and orange shirt, where she got her green MacBook cover.  I don’t really listen in, but it all seems very pleasant.

A fellow with grey hair and a green coat looms over me and asks if I mind if he sits down. I don’t. But unnervingly, the eyebrow-twitcher looks over. I meet his glance, then look away, then meet his glance again. What?!

“Am I typing too loud? I’ve been told before I type too loudly,” I say. This is true. When taking the GRE exams for US college, I was reprimanded by the exam supervisor. The person beside me had complained about my typing.  “Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Twitchy says. “It’s ok.”

Cars beep outside, an alarm goes off. Over by the window the snuffly man is finishing his lunch. On the couches, we sit in a square, Mr. Twitchy, the pink-and-orange-shirted girl, and the green coated man, all typing away on our computers, engrossed in our work and tapping, tapping, tapping.

[The image above is from]