I am following the map on an hour and a half meander through Brooklyn to Prospect Park (today I’ll make it).
It’s about 29° C. I’m wearing a summery jumpsuit- baggy, not too short. Not sexy. Sunglasses. Converse. Nothing special. Beautiful sunny day for walking. Yeeeeeaaah. I am moseying, podcast going (I know, lame). Feeling groovy. (Not sure where that word came from… but …you know it when the feeling hits you.)
I look up,
and realise that everyone around me is a Hasidic Jew.
*takes earphones out of ears*
I was the only woman not pushing a pram, not wearing thick tights and without my hair clasped back in a bonnet or headscarf. The men wore black cloaks that billowed and big black hats pulled down over their corkscrew curls. All of the men, even the ones in their late teens, seemed to be wearing thick, old-fashioned, yellow-lensed glasses. They all peered down at their feet as they passed me. The women just seemed to act as if I wasn’t there.
A little boy in a pram laughed and gurgled as his mother hurried him past me, his long curls bouncing past his little ears.
I suddenly felt embarrassed at my inappropriate appearance, and stupid for being so ignorant about the neighborhood right next to me, and for not doing some research before setting out on my walk. Only 30 minutes walk and I was in a totally different world- one where the person I am was (maybe?) a visual affront to the people around me. I felt as exposed as if I had turned up at a funeral service wearing a bikini.
Suddenly I could not read the language written on the bright yellow school buses.
(Later I looked it up and found that these buses, called Yeshiva buses, are becoming a touchstone for some of the tensions in these Brooklyn neighborhoods.)
As I walked down the quiet streets, two men worked silently on some guttering high above me: on an old-fashioned wooden platform, suspended from what looked like thick shipping rope, tied in big clumsy knots. It looked dangerous.
The voices in my earphones felt like they were being broadcast to me from another planet. The streets felt hot, and quiet. I felt suddenly very alone- as if I was being watched, silently, by a hundred of those silent and well-groomed women: heads tilted to one side as they gazed down from their windows..
I continued walking through beautiful, laid-back, leafy neighborhoods, and gradually the everyday ordinary people I had been used to (god, I’m ignorant and sheltered) started reappearing and I stopped tugging at the back of my jumpsuit and feeling awkward. The writing on the shops and signs was in English. People were jogging and talking on iPhones. I relaxed again.
There was lots around to make me happy:
unexpected and beautiful street art
beautiful architecture and comfortable, friendy looking apartment blocks
turning a corner and coming up against a strange cityscape…
And then, finally, Prospect Park- shining like a big green jewel in the sunshine
I made it safely back into hipsterville and as I write this, I am in a cafe which serves toast and craft beer (yes!), eating a gluten-free omelette, tomato and avocado sandwich. I am sitting next to a guy with facial hair like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, who is talking about Marx (that’s not poetic license on my part: he actually is talking about Marx). When I told the waiter (backwards cap, tattoos, black-framed glasses) my name so he could put it on my iced cappuccino, he quoted QUITE a lot of the Shakespeare play that my name comes from- despite a very low level of enthusiasm or encouragement from his audience (me). I wondered if he has been memorising Shakespeare quotes for months – on the offchance that someone named Lysander or Desdemona might drop in.
Yes, I feel a tinge of embarrassment that this is a neighborhood where I feel relaxed, and comfortable.
*(This guy has written an interesting, possibly slightly lazy-but-very amusing blog about what it’s like to live in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn. As a lazy writer myself who can’t be bothered to do any more of my own research into the matter, I’m all for it- worth a read.)