The fact that Brooklyn is part of Long Island often comes as a shock to people unfamiliar with New York geography. But there it is: the blatant truth. The island shoots toward Manhattan torpedo style, its back end all Atlantic Ocean; its front nosing towards the Upper New York Bay, Lady Liberty, the former World Trade Center. The slice of Brooklyn in full view of this convergence is a neighborhood called Red Hook. You can see it all from the pier on Coffey Street, where, during most hours, on most days, local anglers cast into Buttermilk Channel, wedging their rods into the stylized ironwork fence, swigging from bottles of beer, and watching the slow progress of the Staten Island Ferry in the distance. My friend Allen, who lives a few blocks away on Beard Street, caught a crab there once and ate it. “Were you scared?” I asked him.
“It was delicious,” he replied.
In order to get to this part of Red Hook, you first need to decide how you will get there. It is not easy to do. It lies at the far end of the spine of Van Brunt Street, and the closest subway stop is a good twenty minute walk through the housing projects. It is a land of large, seemingly empty brick warehouse buildings with arching windows and insect-like cranes. There are blocks of old brick row houses, parallel to others of boarded up forget-me-nots. There is the water, the breeze, the occasional whiff of sea air, and the guttural moan of a fog horn. There are abrupt dead-ends and canopied intersections, and places like the lot on Beard Street, where sit four gargantuan satellite dishes and nothing else. Red Hook has a charm insinuating secrets and unpredictable spoils.
About a hundred feet from the satellite dishes, down Conover Street, is a bar that is not really a bar, a speak-easy of sorts, which is open only on Fridays. It is run by a painter named Sonny, and referred to as “Sonny’s” for this reason, but for many of the folks from Red Hook who walk over for beer and bluegrass and/or Elvis covers every Friday night, it is simply known as “The Bar.” Sonny, who inherited the bar from his father, greets his customers with warm hugs, handshakes that press like warm bread dough, soft kisses, and incidental strokes from his very long, curly hair. “Thank you for coming, darling,” he whispers, in an intimacy that is so absurd it arrives at sincere. The sign inside Sonny’s advertises itself as a yachting and kayaking club, and indeed, Sonny is one of the people whose kayak regularly navigates the passage between Governor’s Island and Brooklyn known as Buttermilk Channel, en route to the East River, or in the opposite direction, to The Gowanus Bay or the Verrazano Narrows.
Sonny’s is an extraordinarily pleasant place. Either that or it is loud and crowded. Ever since the magazine Time Out New York wrote an article about Brooklyn in the summer of 1998, which included a piece about Sonny’s, it has tended towards the latter. But the lure of “$3 suggested donation” drinks, Sonny’s doughy hands, and the inherent magic of a once-a-week event, keeps many dedicated customers, like myself, returning time and again.
One recent Friday, I sat in the back room of Sonny’s with a group of friends. Our nautically decorated business-size cards, which kept a tally of the number of drinks we’d drunken, were scattered across our table, along with the empty pretzel bowl, the ubiquitous ashtrays, and glasses in varying degrees of emptiness. A painting of Sonny’s hung over our heads. It was a few minutes before I noted the conspicuous absence of Lauren from the table. Lauren, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend of seven years, has not coincidentally taken to sporadic spurts of uncontrollable sadness. She has managed to find a way to blame herself for everything that went wrong in her relationship, and to decide that through her misconduct, she has lost her opportunity for lasting love. Consequently, I worry.
“Has anyone seen Lauren?” I asked no one in particular. Suzanne looked up from her conversation. “Bathroom?” she suggested with raised eyebrows. I wiggled through the congested doorway and turned right under the sign reading, “P Street.” I knocked. No Lauren. I made my way through the packed room in the other direction -- out the mouth of the bar. A dozen or so folks sat on the curb. The Atlantic was sending a delicious, smokeless breeze.
“Have you seen a woman?” I asked. “Short? Cute? With funky glasses?”
They shook their heads no, and across the street, Lauren stepped out from under a tree and called my name. “I’m over here.”
She’d been feeling nauseous, she explained. She needed some air. “And look what I found.”
Lauren grabbed my arm and pulled me down the cobblestones in the direction of the water. It was the end of summer and felt like it. We walked down the center of the street with no thought of doing anything else.
Half a block away was a small building -- a well made shack really -- emerging out of a fenced-in lot. Its walls were fashioned from yellow plywood and the roof was a flat rectangle which looked as if it had been dropped on top. A soda machine stood as sentry on its side, casting garish red light onto the sidewalk. Four wooden steps led up to the gated glass window, above which was an overhang which read simply, “Redemption Window.”
Lauren stared at it prodigiously. “The Redemption Window,” she proclaimed. “I found the Redemption Window.”
It was an ominous looking thing. It stood not 200 feet from the water, at the edge of a neighborhood on the edge of Brooklyn, within dim sight of the Statue of Liberty and the twinkling lights of New Jersey. Standing in one of the greatest cities on the continent, it was also, somehow simultaneously, in the most desolate spot imaginable: the end of the road, without a house or a context, just itself, inexplicable: The Redemption Window.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The Redemption Window.”
“Is anyone in there?”
“No,” she said. “I checked.”
We approached the window, and without thought, I took a hold of the grate with all ten fingers and began to shake it. “Hello? Is anyone in there? Hello!” I yelled.
Suddenly, a man appeared. His head slipped into view from the side, as if tilting upright. From a cot, I remember thinking. He slid open the window, and it was at this moment that I screamed. Lauren and I clutched hands and stepped back.
“Hi,” she began unsteadily. “We didn’t know anyone was in there.”
Redemption Man woozily smiled.
“Hi,” I repeated.
Redemption Man rubbed his eyes.
“So.” Lauren slipped into an interview voice. “What are you doing here so late at night?”
He shrugged, and she fired away again.
“What’s your job here? What do you do?” Her voice rang of the inquisitive academic.
Redemption Man opened his mouth to answer, but I, having recovered from my initial shock, shook my head violently, knowing instantly this was all wrong. I laid my hand on Lauren’s arm. “Lauren. Tell the man what you need.”
She looked at me blankly.
“Go on,” I instructed. “Tell him. He’s the Redemption Man.”
She looked down, looked away, and then back at me.
Her eyes met the Redemption Man’s.
Maybe it was Sonny’s drinks or the magic of a summer almost over. Perhaps, in that moment, Lauren simply decided to believe. Whatever it was, I knew I had her. We were of one mind. She took a deep breath.
“I need redemption,” she declared.
He cocked his head and opened his mouth.
I stepped back and nodded slowly at the Redemption Man. “She needs redemption,” I repeated. I continued nodding in this slow, conspiratorial way. “Can you help her?”
Redemption Man looked at Lauren. He opened his mouth and closed it. It was a small, still world between the three of us. Lauren and I on the wooden platform; the Redemption Man in his nether room on the other side of the open window. All of us at the end of the street under an awning which advertised a way out, the promise of new beginnings.
Redemption Man opened his mouth again. He looked at Lauren and his eyes shone. “You’re redeemed,” he proclaimed.
The silence took his words, spread them out, and laid everything flat.
I nodded, smiling. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Lauren repeated.
“Good night,” we said, and we backed down the wooden steps without another word. The window slid shut behind us.
“Wow,” Lauren breathed.
We made or way back down the middle of the street.
“That was really weird.”
“What do you think goes on there?”
“Why was he there so late?”
“Do you think it’s a place where people...”
“Lauren,” I interrupted. “The only thing stopping that from being Jesus is you.”
We halted in the middle of the street and stared at one other.
She smiled and then I smiled, and then we grabbed hands. It was a perfect night on the calm water in the huge, overwhelming city in which we live. There we stood in one small part of it, witnessing it, being part of it, watching it become whatever we made of it.
Two good Jews, we held hands and walked the rest of the way back to Sonny’s, redeemed now, ready for another drink.