Which reading/event marks our second foray to the heart of South Brooklyn’s historic “Italian Waterfront.” What a difference a month makes! January 3 found me lugubriously covering the neighborhood’s desolate wind and snow-swept rutted streets in search of Sunny’s Bar, doubting the scheduled reading would even run given the frigid clime; mulling if it did how to disclaim my way out of having written a book on the great Port that berthed but fleetingly alongside the docks of Red Hook? I tell you I was in a bad neighborhood that Sunday afternoon: not Red Hook the confines of me own mind!
Then I spotted Sunny’s readings’ organizer/host Gabriel Cohen lugging a big sign in from the cold against winds so powerful the signage like to set sail; but soon Gabriel had me and fellow reader Lauren Weber slicing pastries for guests, enjoying warm conversation and tea; the makings of a wonderful long afternoon to come. But…the historian’s torment was not immediately assuaged, not even after in walked the delightful Catherine Osborne, a Fordham grad student the world’ll be hearing from in good time; followed by my good friend Sean from all the way cross-Harbor in Essex County; followed by kind folks all kinds til I finally started to relax: why fret over putative slight to Red Hook in presence of fellow landlubber literati?
And then Carolina Salguero introduced herself and some colleagues from PortSide New York, a visionary Red Hook initiative berthed on and around the tanker “Mary Whalen.” PortSide does what I dream: Carolina and crew treat the waterfronts of history and memory but focus on the most important lesson of all: this great port remains a working port; featuring not only vast container terminals plying the international trade but local, “brown-water” and coastwise workaday maritime commerce that continues to move goods and people; forging vital connections originating in places like Red Hook. Lest I misrepresent PortSide’s breathtaking appeal and prospects please do see for yourself.
A déjà vu moment on meeting Carolina was later confirmed in learning she is alum. of the same most lively American Studies program where I taught for seven years (we just missed meeting then). Such dimly-glimpsed connections were on my mind all through the sets of readings that Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn; it was only much later, while traveling between the Verrazano and Goethals that it finally kicked in and how could I forget: my dear comrade and inspiration Adam Davis had regaled me for weeks back in Sept. 2007 with tales of his role in the cast of Il Tabarro, the Puccini opera staged on, you got it, the tanker Mary Whalen, at its berth along Red Hook’s Pier 9B in the Buttermilk Channel of the Great Harbor. Co-produced by PortSide New York.
There is so much more to report on Carolina and PortSide and Red Hook and Adam, who last autumn also alerted me to a production of William Bolcom’s operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s South Brooklyn-inspired View from the Bridge, a production staged by the same Vertical Players Repertory who mounted Il Tabarro on Pier 9B. And now comes a separate production of Miller’s play to open on Broadway January 24. A recent NY Times piece, while interesting, repeated some unfortunately longstanding historical misrepresentations; misperceptions redressed rather squarely in On the Irish Waterfront as among the critical “Brooklyn issues” the book does treat. These in turn are apropos to a story I told at Sunny’s on that Sunday, which most fortuitously made its way into print the following week. Round and round we historians go: Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?
Perhaps, though I’m currently imagining instead the penultimate scene of director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s tri-color films trilogy: the scene in Red in which the various characters from all three films converge in helping one another from a life raft perilously bobbling against the shore. When I think of Adam Davis, for instance, I think of our Charlie and vice versa. Adam has been ceaselessly kind and concerned for Charlie’s wellbeing since we first met in a Fordham classroom three years ago this week. Charlie is our maritime navigator, guide and steadfast companion: we share a life, Charlie, Dr. Chew and me that may not allow just now for much theater, opera, or movie-going but with such warm friends as Adam we’re truly blessed. And to envision that someday—perhaps not far off—Charlie and us and Adam and Carolina and her colleagues and opera and the Mary Whalen: PortSide in the Great Harbor. How can we ever forget; we’re all vitally connected, all waterfront companions sharing this journey in a manner most lovely.