Aug 30 2012

The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg by Robert Anasi

Stephen Squibb

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Bohemia, as we know, is the definitive post-industrial industry. It germinated locally in New York's West Village in the 50s and 60s, was unleashed as a productive force by the rezoning of SoHo in the 70s, and then swept through the Village, Alphabet City and Williamsburg in the 80s and 90s. A global pattern, this steady advance of a middle-class avant-garde has transformed cities nationwide. Horrified by the rural and disaffected towards suburbia, these pilgrims' capacity to capitalize on urban decay is what accounts for their relative freedom. More to the point, they love to write about it. Enter the 'authenticity memoir': a subgenre self-conscious about overly romanticizing a lost world of drugs and violence and art, precisely as it overly romanticizes a lost world of drugs and violence and art. Either these books are nostalgiacs addressed to the kinds of people who inhabit them, or they're postcards intended for the ones who need to be told, on every page, just how really real that shit was, really. Such is the case with The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Robert Anasi's aggressively insecure memoir-cum-travelogue spanning his fourteen years as a resident in that most memetastic of neighborhoods.

Anasi, who teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine and is the author of The Gloves, a memoir about amateur boxing, first moved to Williamsburg in 1994. He begins his book earlier, mixing stories of artists who had arrived in the late 80s with accounts of people like Chris Miskiewicz, a Williamsburg native who grew up in the then-Polish Northside. Anasi's care to include local perspectives is admirable, and especially satisfying is that of Napoleon, the Southside kid who brought the fade to north Brooklyn as an amateur barber and went on to open the infamous bar Black Betty. But this neat set-up—one character from Northside and another from Southside—points to Anasi's uncomfortable position in the landscape of the book. Vibrating back and forth between reporter and memoirist, Anasi is never quite at home in either role. His fidelity to Williamsburg the idea leads him to betray Williamsburg the character, and pushes him towards the kind of touristy copy he would reject. Introduced in breathless bursts of descriptive engineering, people are treated as objects, hard evidence of the neighborhood's former cool:

"Back then she worked for a sports book, boxed competitively and was an occasional stripper. We drank at Black Betty. We drank at Rosemary's Greenpoint tavern (which actually is not in Greenpoint). Now she's a writer whose first book is about to be released as a Hollywood feature film. She's given up boxing for yoga but still looks great in her cutoffs."

No doubt. Anasi's own appearances in the book are similarly rendered in the fugitive machismo of lifestyle-magazine longform. Over the years, his voice never changes. "Breaking and entering doesn't leave you time to cry about the past." "Nursing my drink, I scanned the room: I'd arrived solo and wanted to connect." When faced with actually revealing anything about his life or the people in it, he wilts. Of the three ex-girlfriends who figure heavily in the story, all are nondescript and "beautiful." Memo to future memoirists: if you can't write about your exes, don't write about your exes.

Such narratives are most successful when the author doesn't fully valorize her subjects. The same proves true here, in a long middle section about a neighbor, a photographer-cum-heroin-junkie who begins collaborating with Anasi on a project about Greenpoint's teenage drug problem. Before long, Anasi realizes that this neighbor has been the one providing the drugs to the teens in question. This story is entwined with a fascinating account or the rise and fall of the sugar industry along the waterfront, and Kokie's, the legendary coke bar that lived in what is now the Levee. Though Anasi's telling of the respective impacts of sugar, coke, and heroin on the neighborhood over decades finds him at his best, it also highlights what is missing from the rest of the book. This is the problem with talking about Williamsburg, or anywhere, in terms of bohemia; there isn't enough room for local history, memorable relationships, or anything, really, that isn't bound up in making the case for inclusion in that scene. What then inevitably stands out is Anasi's relentless signification of bohemia, which, like the Hot Topic sitting comfortably in a New Jersey shopping mall, must overcompensate lest someone recognize its affinity with its surroundings.

In the end, The Last Bohemia diagnoses itself. Comparing a burlesque act called the Bindlestiff Family Circus to the fad for drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, Anasi writes:

"PBR parodied what the Bindlestiffs were doing with their embrace of side show, carny and burlesque . . . PBR was safe. PBR was completely safe and sideshow was one risk after another. The first was a 'lifestyle choice,' the second a life."

Anasi remains in a world where there is a right way to drink the right beer. And so he gives us his cursory sketches, vivid and unsurprising, of an adult cartoon Bohemia. Williamsburg was what we thought it was, but more important, he was there and we weren't. I'm reminded of a story told by a friend who spent a year in the notoriously authentic McKibben Lofts, to the east of Williamsburg, which was only the belief, articulated constantly throughout the building, that someday, someone was going to write a book about this. This book is that book, a lifestyle odyssey painted in colors bright enough to see from the mainland.

Stephen Squibb is familiar with the bus between New York and Boston.

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