On Williamsburg: A 95% fictional tribute to Joan Didion


Author’s note: I read my first Joan Didion book this week. (I know, I know. I knooooow.) Naturally, as is to be expected when people say things like “What do you fucking mean you haven’t read Joan Didion?” it was everything. Sheer elegant perfection that I have absolutely no idea how to review. How does the apprentice critique the master? The parishioner judge the pope? So instead I just wrote this. 


The center was not holding. It was a time of celebrities and sensationalism, 24/7 news coverage, mob-like vitriol and profound cultural change. Debt begat debt begat debt. Politics devolved to the starkest red and the muddiest blue; together they became a bruise. I decided to go to Williamsburg. Brooklyn was where they congregated, the mustachioed intellectuals of the next generation, the Great Young Hope, self-named guardians of a nostalgic ethos that valued art and fashion, but also social justice and making things by hand. Williamsburg was a leading franchise of the post-2000 hipster revolution, the era of artisanal bath products and ironic suspenders.

A sign on Berry Street:

MISSING: Atticus
3-year-old French bulldog, black
Last seen 8/19/2010, wearing navy turtleneck sweater with red cat-silhouette pattern
Please do not feed him!!! unless GF and organic
Call 718-375-2899

I am looking for someone named Anna. She is meeting me at the frozen yogurt shop on Bedford, and having passed two I am waiting at an intersection equidistant from both, scanning the street for her recently texted distinguishing features: red plastic-framed glasses and “gorg American flag harem pants.”

“I got so fucked up last night,” petite Anna tells me over soft-serve and cappuccinos at Momofuku Milk Bar. “There was this party on Ludlow that I totally didn’t want to go to because you know, like, nothing happens on Ludlow anymore, but my friend convinced me to go and these guys bought us a bunch of shots and wanted to take us with them to some warehouse party in Chelsea but we went to a speakeasy in the Meatpacking instead.” I jot a few words in my slim reporter’s notebook: nothing on ludlow, prohibition?? Anna finishes her coffee and says she has to go take a nap.

Rand and Penny and their lab mix Carlos live in a third-floor walkup on South Third, in a building on the ground floor of which is a restaurant selling “the best fucking empanadas in the fucking world.” Penny tells me this as she shows me around the spacious two-bedroom; absent a child — “Que sera, sera” she shrugs — the second bedroom has been converted into a display room for Penny’s plants and Rand’s collection of antiquated tattoo machines. Both Rand (who goes by his middle name because Stanley is “wholly unacceptable”) and Penny are professional tattoo artists, working out of Marcy Ink, a five-person shop just one block over, sandwiched between a bodega with a one-eyed cat and an immaculate Bank of America branch.

“The way I see it, in fifty years we’re all going to be shuffling around here with our wrinkled old arms and their wrinkled old tattoos,” Amy says, munching on kale chips that she proffers to me without irony. “It’ll be an entire generation of inked-up old people not noticing their liver spots through sleeves of koi fish and giant squids. It’ll be marvelous.”

“Mahhh-velous,” repeats Rand from the kitchen table, where he’s meticulously cleaning, re-cleaning and tightening the screws on a pair of tortoise-shell Warby Parkers. “Plus, we’re almost definitely going to die from a tsunami or hurricane before then. Fucking carbon.”

I take recommendations, write up itineraries. I brunch at Enid’s and Egg and Buttermilk Channel. I wander through the Salvation Army and Brooklyn Flea and funky boutiques with repurposed-bike-tire bracelets and houndstooth t-shirts in various shades of neon. I drink $3 PBRs with opinionated 20-somethings, rail-thin guys in unwashed t-shirts and pristine sneakers, heavyset men in beards and flannel, guys with skinny jeans and favorite Dr. Who episodes and whiskey-fueled writerly aspirations. Sam works on a lunch truck by day and runs a catering company at night, preparing meals for 100 out of his apartment’s tiny kitchen. Mark is in “event promotion” but upon further questioning seems more knowledgable about weed and video games. Austin is a graphic designer with a five-product daily hair care regimen.

“The hipster thing, it feels almost like it was for the guys.” This from Layke, a 22-year-old magazine intern-slash-“independent fashion blogger” who I found smoking a cigarette outside of Hair Metal while her dye set in. “I mean, girls generally give a shit about that kind of stuff already. Clothes are how you express yourself, you know, how you send a first-impression vibe out to like, the world.”

Layke — whose driver’s license says Charlene but no matter — posits that the “hipster thing” mostly gave guys some freedom to express interest in aesthetics. “Suddenly it wasn’t uncool to choose an outfit because it was fashionable, or wear jeans that actually made contact with your calves. And dudes were like, ‘fuck yeah I want to drink craft beers and shop for rustic furniture at West Elm!’ I mean, people will tell you it’s about creativity and artistic expression, but come on: it’s about the style.”

Layke invites me into the salon to watch her hair emerge, a fiery red bob that she smooths down behind her ears, exposing a small musical note tattooed just above her jawline.

Rand and Penny bring me to an art gallery opening on Bushwick Avenue, in a small space with white walls and a total of three paintings on display. Each is a different shade of blue with bright splatters of red that remind me of ketchup. The room is full of decked-out intellectuals holding stemless wine glasses, murmuring to one another and glancing at their cell phones. A young woman to my left is wearing denim overalls over a lace bodysuit; by the door, someone has on a black sequined mask. I count 14 mustaches, three with curled tips. Across the street is a cluster of public-housing high-rises.

Anna is at the opening, wearing high-waisted black leather shorts and a beaded halter top–“Armani. Vintage,” she offers. “I was supposed to go to this party in Red Hook with these Lebanese guys, but then they bailed on me to do coke and I was like I could do coke but then my friend Ashley texted me about doing molly and so after this I’m going to a bar off Lorimer where my coworker’s friend’s band is playing. Wanna come? “

I dig out my little notebook. midriffs back in. molly?


TITLE: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
AUTHOR: Joan Didion
PAGES: Read as part of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live
SORTA LIKE: Fran Leibowitz meets Annie Hall
FIRST LINE: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.”

3 thoughts on “On Williamsburg: A 95% fictional tribute to Joan Didion”

  1. Great post! By the way, I love the way you have your reviews set up! It’s very interesting and unique, and really fun to read! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I’m a Joan Didion fan. Play It As It Lays is one of those books I always read each year. Hope you read that next. ๐Ÿ™‚

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