:: Article

This is U

By Russell Bittner.

Ugliness in the hoopla of spring isn’t easy to come by even for the most jaded among us.  But turn a keen eye on the wrong neighborhood, you’ll find it.  In Brooklyn, certainly – and no doubt in other ‘hoods, too.  Neighborhoods by the growing score in this last year before the second Great Depression.  All of them wrong, and becoming more wrong by the day.

On today’s round for the Census Bureau, I’ve taken the “N” line to Avenue U in Grave’s End –  and I think I may’ve just found the ugliest station in the entire crumble of the NYC subway system.


 ‘Urban blight’ is a facile phrase – facile, that is, until you come face to face with it on a spring morning bursting with vigor and calling to all passers-by:  Hey!  Look at me!


Instead, I look at the peeling paint, the garbage, the graffiti, the grey faces – however few of them there might be with somewhere to go at this mid-morning hour.  One poster on the wall advertising HBO’s “The Tudors” catches my particular attention because someone has carefully keyed away the paper over the queen’s tit precisely where her nipple would be.  ‘Scratch ‘n’ sniff?’ I wonder.  Looking for a lucky lotto number?  Maybe just groping, with a scratch, for a glimpse.


I exit the station and turn, quite arbitrarily, in one direction – pass the RAMBUG Termite & Pest Control; and then, following hard on, the Beautie Bounty Hair Salon.


Next to both, a Russian video store with a couple of English-language titles in the window advertising “30 Days of Night” and “Extinction” is beginning to set a genial mood.  Our Lady of Perpetual Help stands willing on the opposite side of the street just in case I’m not yet getting into the swing of things.

I turn ‘round – this can’t be right – and head out in the opposite direction.

More constant ugliness (in what might’ve been dayglo in former times) is what I next find at the Wrong Number Cocktail Lounge at the corner of Avenue T and W. 7th Street, just half a block down from the station.  If this is a lounge, I think, give me nails – a whole bed’s worth.  The letters of the Wrong Number – each of them in a different (and differently bad) original choice of color – hang, fading, on the exterior wall.


The front door opens, and I see a sign hanging on the inside face:  “Caution:  We don’t call 911.”  Nice touch, I think.  A woman walks out; takes a last drag on her cigarette; flicks the butt out into the street.  She’s somewhere between twenty and a hundred and twenty – and looks as if she’s never taken a breath of unconditioned air in her life, never tasted water that wasn’t meant as a mixer, never walked into sunlight unless pushed out of a door or window.  I decide it’s time to get a little scratch ‘n’ sniff myself, to go in and meddle.

I enter.  Another woman with a buffo hairdo and huge tits sees the camera and tripod I’m carrying and says “Hey, honey, let’s go in the back room and take a picture of these!” as she spreads open her blouse and gives an extra push to her push-up bra.  I force a smile, then move on to the other end of the bar, sit down and order a beer from a lady behind the bar named ‘Carol,’ but otherwise keep quiet.  The place is in every sense nondescript:  filled with video games, a couple of overhead televisions – both showing today’s Mets versus Cubs game – and a foursome playing a very loud card game.  The lounge is a low-hanging cloud of foul voices mouthing banalities, complaints about aches and pains, complaints in general about the state of the planet.  I drink my beer, then grab my stuff and walk off towards the “Caution:  We don’t call 911” front door.

Thankfully, at least, no one says ‘Have a nice day’ as I’m exiting.  This, after all, ain’t a Starbucks.

I’m sorry.  You were expecting a story?  The only story here is that there is no story – just a neighborhood in decline and with no disaster plan even within wishful thinking distance.  No need to Google this ‘hood – never was; never will be.  The Wrong Number doesn’t answer to the right number, doesn’t call 911, doesn’t even bother with a street address.

And your Census guy – me?

I’ll just keep on counting, taking numbers, collecting data.  Heads and bodies – as long as they’re connected and still in motion.  Your tax dollars at work, right? – though not at the Wrong Number.  Those tax dollars are what keep me out of Shantytown, thank you, though not by much.  But hey, I’m an ‘information worker,’ know how to Google and use Mapquest, know how to work the subway system, know how to talk to people who clearly don’t want to talk to me.  In short, I’m part of the ‘New Society.’

After all, we’ll still need data come the second Great Depression.  We can eat data, right?


Russell lives, works and writes on a small island off the East Coast of the U. S. called ‘Long’ – just over the bridge from another funny-sounding island called ‘Manhattan.’  That bridge, named after the same borough he calls ‘home,’ is the Brooklyn Bridge.  One day before he dies, he’d like to build or write something as enduring.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 27th, 2008.