As soon as I moved into Vinegar Hill last April, I couldn’t wait to show my parents the new place. Some years beyond thirty, I finally had a home to call my own: a little one bedroom on the second floor of a three-story standalone house.
Green and white, the house, which according to New York Department of City Planning data was built in 1920, exudes the rustic atmosphere that has made Vinegar Hill an object of some fascination. A bit decrepit, yes, but fashionably so. Dilapidated, sure, but nothing near unlivable.
The apartment is not huge, but it’s got a separate bedroom, kitchen and a tiny outcove office from which I type these very words and many others. The wide, soft-wood floor planks are worn in a way that makes them appear rough hewn, making for a lovely artifact you actually use every day of your life without fail. The bathroom was tiny, but delightfully so, with a sink that can barely hold two hands and a shower about the size of a phone booth; I like to tell people to think of it as a boat bathroom on an old luxurious yacht that’s fallen into disrepair.
The power flickers and occasionally goes out when I use the air conditioner and another appliance at the same time. I didn’t even know screw-in fuses, rather than breaker switches, were still a thing, but there was the actual fuse box in the basement (the unfamiliarity bred a fear of electrocution and yet I survived). There are ominous cracks in the walls throughout the house.
Oh, and did I even mention the backyard? There’s a backyard, a lovely two-lot-wide bucolic paradise lined with rusted sheet metal and bearing for my pleasure a hammock, a picnic table and even a little fire pit of arranged Belgian blocks, the signature neighborhood pavement (though far too much of it has been, criminally, laid over with asphalt). The smoke stack of a defunct ConEd plant looms over everything, a constant reminder that all this exists right here in the hyper-urban confines of Brooklyn.
The rent was a little more than I could afford, but how could I have passed this up?
My tone on the telephone must have seemed obvious to my folks: It was one of beaming pride. Not only was their boy all grow’d up, but he’d found a gem of a house, too! In the years I’d lived in New York, they had only come up to visit a handful of times, maybe three. And I couldn’t wait for the next trip.
By mid-May, they were on their way, not in response to my entreaties, of course, but for a cousin’s wedding. I made sure they would stop by in Brooklyn on their way to the hotel in Manhattan, not least because I had them bring several bags of bulk supplies from Costco in the D.C. suburbs from which we all hail.
I greeted them at the door, the too-often-worried but extraordinarily sweet mother and the doctor father with a wickedly bright-white smile. As I showed them to the backyard, however, there were no teeth, no smiles. There was instead a look of consternation. I caught my father glancing at the rusted sheet metal. Inside, my mom put on a nice face when I showed her the bathroom. She was at least impressed by the office, such that it was.
A generational chasm? A case of lowered Gen Y expectations clashing with the upper-middle class roots of his parents? They’d reared my sister and I in the suburbs, hadn’t they, so we could have a proper yard—grass!—and space, not mulch and large pipes with railroad stakes holding up a low terrace of brick patio, old school chairs strewn about a small fire pit. Or was it a cultural divide? These folks were raised in the walled courtyards of upper-class Iran; by their mid-thirties, they had children and suburban bliss. Or was it merely a geographical rift? Those 225 miles separating New York and Washington a kind of impenetrable force field through which understandings of appropriate levels of personal space and luxury should not pass, where the charms of dilapidation, at the southern end, scream squalor and, on the northern side, spell a kind of quaint glamour.
I’ve come to terms with my parents’ lack of enthusiasm for my new home, but thinking back on looks on their faces still makes me ill at ease. It’s probably that nagging insecurity most of us share: We want our parents to think we’ve done right—or at least fake it and tell us convincingly that this is all great. Speaking by phone once, my mom asked when I would buy a place. Feverishly sensitive over an impending deadline, I snapped that I loved my place and Couldn’t. Even. Right. Now. She hasn’t raised it since then, but several relatives have gently hinted that she still wonders (“Your mom wants to know when you’re going to buy a place,” a beloved aunt told me recently on a visit from London).
Since I settled in, I’ve set all that anxiety aside—though certainly not all anxieties (rent)—and hosted any number of barbecues and dinners and just plain-old nights by the fire for friends, friends who live here in Brooklyn. For their part, every New Yorker I’ve had over, no matter how old, no matter how many kids, no matter where from, has admired the small second-floor apartment I hold dear. They rant and rave about the yard. And they love the sheet metal, in all its post-apocalyptic glory.
Illustration by Alisha Sofia