Brooklyn Bridge - New York

There are many cities in the world that I’d especially love to visit in this lifetime. Some of those cities on my list to see I’ve already been very fortunate to explore: Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, St. Petersburg, Moscow. Tomorrow I’m off to another city-legend – New York. I’m going there for a week on a business trip, and will be conducting a training during the day, so I’ll have only evenings left for sightseeing. Nevertheless I’m taking my camera with me and will do my best to see as much of New York as I possibly can.
I wonder if any of my readers live in NYC or will happen to drop by there next week. Then perhaps we could meet at one of the Big Apple’s funky cafes. Give me a shout if you would.

I was wondering if I could find a short story dedicated to New York for my today’s bit of literature. Some time ago I bought a book of 50 Great Short Stories, so I opened that book’s contents page and there it was – “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”, written by Thomas Wolfe, one of the distinguished American writers of the twentieth century.

In his short life (1900-1938) he managed to write four autobiographical novels and many short stories. This story was first published in 1935 in the magazine New Yorker. He had a very unique literary style, and was great at his impressionistic abilities to imitate life in his prose. See it for yourself, and dive into a vivid Brooklyn dialect. I wonder if New Yorkers still talk like that. Well, I guess I’ll find that out soon :-)

Only The Dead Know Brooklyn

by Thomas Wolfe

Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh goddam town.
So like I say, I’m waitin’ for my train t’come when I sees dis big guy standin’ deh – dis is duh foist I eveh see of him. Well, he’s lookin’ wild, y’know, an’ I can see dat he’s had plenty, but still he’s holdin’ it; he talks good an’ is walkin’ straight enough. So den, dis big guy steps up to a little guy dat’s standin’ deh, an’ says, “How d’yuh get t’ Eighteent’ Avenoo an’ Sixty-sevent’ Street?” he says.
“Jesus! Yuh got me, chief,” duh little guy says to him. “I ain’t been heah long myself. Where is duh place?” he says. “Out in duh Flatbush section somewhere?”
“Nah,” duh big guy says. “it’s out in Bensonhoist. But I was neveh deh befoeh. How d’yuh get deh?”
“Jesus,” duh little guy says, scratchin’ his head, y’know – yuh could see duh litle guy didn’t know his way about – “yuh got me, chief, I neveh hoid of it. Do any of youse guys know where it is?” he says to me.
“Sure,” I says. “It’s out in Bensonhoist. Yuh take duh Fourt’ Avenoo express, get off at Fifty-nint’ Street, change to a Sea Beach local deh, get off at Eighteent’ Avenoo an’ Sixty-toid, and walk down foeh blocks. Dat’s all yuh got to do,” I says.
“G’wan!” some wise guy dat I neveh seen befoeh pipes up. “Whatcha talkin’ about?” he says – oh, he was wise, y’know. “Duh guy is crazy! I tell yuh what yuh do,” he says to duh big guy. “Yuh change to duh West End line at Toity-sixt’,” he tells him. “Walk two blocks oveh, foeh blocks up,” he says, “an’ you’ll be right deh.” Oh, a wise guy, y’know.
“Oh, yeah?” I says. “Who told you so much?” He got me sore because he was so wise about it. “How long you been livin’ heah?” I says.
“All my life,” he says. “I was bawn in Williamsboig,” he says. “An’ I can tell you t’ings about dis town you neveh hoid of,” he says.
“Yeah?” I says.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Well, den, you can tell me t’ings about dis town dat nobody else has eveh hoid of, either. Maybe you make it all up yoehself at night,” I says, “befoeh you go to sleep – like cuttin’ out papeh dolls, or somp’n.”
“Oh, yeah?” he says. “You’re pretty wise, ain’t yuh?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I says. “Duh boids ain’t usin’ my head for Lincoln’s statue yet,” I says. “But I’m wise enough to know a phony when I see one.”
“Yeah?” he says. “A wise guy, huh? Well, you’re so wise date some one’s goin’ t’bust yuh one right on duh snoot some day,” he says. “Dat’s how wise you are.”

Well, my train was comin’, or I’da smacked him den and dere, but when I seen duh train was comin’, all I said was, “All right, mugg! I’m sorry I can’t stay to take keh of you, but I’ll be seein’ yuh sometime, I hope, out in duh cemetery.” So den I says to duh big guy, who’d been standin’ deh all duh time, “You come wit me,” I says. So when we gets onto duh train I says to him, “Where yuh goin’ out in Bensonhoist?” I says. “What numbeh are yuh lookin’ for?” I says. You know – I t’ought if he told me duh address I might be able to help him out.
“Oh,” he says, “I’m not lookin’ for no one. I don’t know no one out deh.”
“Then whatcha goin’ out deh for?” I says.
“Oh,” duh guy says, “I’m just goin’ out to see duh place,” he says. “I like duh sound of duh name – Bensonhoist, y’know – so I t’ought I’d go out an’ have a look at it.”
“Whatcha tryin’ t’hand me?” I says. “Whatcha tryin’ t’do – kid me?” You know, I t’ought duh guy was bein’ wise wit me.
“No,” he says. “I’m tellin’ yuh duh troot. I like to go out an’ take a look at places wit nice names like dat. I like to go out an’ look at all kinds of places,” he says.
“How’d yuh know deh was such a place,” I says, “if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?”
“Oh,” he says, “I got a map.”
“A map?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “I got a map dat tells me about all dese places. I take it wit me every time I come out heah,” he says.
And Jesus! Wit dat, he pulls it out of his pocket, an’ so help me, but he’s got it – he’s tellin’ duh troot – a big map of duh whole goddam place with all duh different pahts mahked out. You know – Canarsie an’ East Noo Yawk an’ Flatbush, Bensonhoist, Sout’ Brooklyn, duh Heights, Bay Ridge, Greenpernt – duh whole goddam layout, he’s got it right deh on duh map.
“You been to any of dose places?” I says.
“Sure,” he says. “I been to most of ‘em. I was down in Red Hook just last night,” he says.
“Jesus! Red Hook!” I says. “Whatcha do down deh?”
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I just walked aroun’. I went into a coupla places an’ had a drink,” he says, “but most of the time I just walked aroun’.”
“Just walked aroun’?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “just lookin’ at t’ings, y’know.”
“Where’d yuh go?” I asts him.
“Oh,” he says, “I don’t know duh name of duh place, but I could find it on my map,” he says. “One time I was walkin’ across some big fields where deh ain’t no houses,” he says, “but I could see ships oveh deh all lighted up. Dey was loadin’. So I walks across duh fields,” he says, “to where duh ships are.”
“Sure,” I says, “I know where you was. You was down to duh Erie Basin.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess dat was it. Dey had some of dose big elevators an’ cranes an’ dey was loadin’ ships, an’ I could see some ships in drydock all lighted up, so I walks across duh fields to where dey are,” he says.
“Den what did yuh do?” I says.
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I came on back across duh fields after a while an’ went into a coupla places an’ had a drink.”
“Didn’t nuttin’ happen while yuh was in dere?” I says.
“No,” he says. “Nuttin’ much. A coupla guys was drunk in one of duh places an’ started a fight, but dey bounced ‘em out,” he says, “an’ den one of duh guys stahted to come back again, but duh bartender gets his baseball bat out from under duh counteh, so duh guy goes on.”
“Jesus!” I said. “Red Hook!”
“Sure,” he says. “Dat’s where it was, all right.”
“Well, you keep outa deh,” I says. “You stay away from deh.”
“Why?” he says. “What’s wrong wit it?”
“Oh,” I says, “it’s a good place to stay away from, dat’s all. It’s a good place to keep out of.”
“Why?” he says. “Why is it?”
Jesus! Whatcha gonna do wit a guy as dumb as that! I saw it wasn’t no use to try to tell him nuttin’, he wouldn’t know what I was talkin’ about, so I just says to him, “Oh, nuttin’. Yuh might get lost down deh, dat’s all.”
“Lost?” he says. “No, I wouldn’t get lost. I got a map,” he says.
A map! Red Hook! Jesus!

So den duh guy begins to ast me all kinds of nutty questions: how big was Brooklyn an’ could I find my way aroun’ in it, an’ how long would it take a guy to know duh place.
“Listen!” I says. “You get dat idea outa yoeh head right now,” I says. “You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn,” I says. “Not in a hunderd yeahs. I been livin’ heah all my life,” I says, “an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it, so how do you expect to know duh town,” I says, “when you don’t even live heah?”
“Yes,” he says, “but I got a map to help me find my way about.”
“Map or no map,” I says, “yuh ain’t gonna get to know Brooklyn wit no map,” I says.
“Can you swim?” he says, just like dat. Jesus! By dat time, y’know, I begun to see dat duh guy was some kind of nut. He’d had plenty to drink, of course, but he had dat crazy look in his eye I didn’t like. “Can you swim?” he says.
“Sure,” I says. “Can’t you?”
“No,” he says. “Not more’n a stroke or two. I neveh loined good.”
“Well, it’s easy,” I says. “All yuh need is a little confidence. Duh way I loined, me older bruddeh pitched me off duh dock one day when I was eight yeahs old, cloes an’ all. ‘You’ll swim,’ he says. ‘You’ll swim all right – or drown.’ An’, believe me, I swam! When yuh know yuh got to, you’ll do it. Duh only t’ing yuh need is confidence. An’ once you’ve loined,” I says, “you’ve got nuttin’ else to worry about. You’ll neveh forget it. It’s somp’n dat stays wit yuh as long as yuh live.”
“Can yuh swim good?” he says.
“Like a fish,” I tells him. “I’m a regulah fish in duh wateh,” I says. “I loined to swim right off duh docks wit all duh oddeh kids,” I says.
“What would you do if yuh saw a man drownin’?” duh guy says.
“Do? Why, I’d jump in an’ pull him out,” I says. “Dat’s what I’d do.”
“Did yuh eveh see a man drown?” he says.
“Sure, ” I says. “I see two guys – bot’ times at Coney Island. Dey got out too far, an’ neider one could swim. Dey drowned befoeh any one could get to ‘em.”
“What becomes of people after dey’ve drowned out heah?” he says.
“Drowned out where?” I says.
“Out heah in Brooklyn.”
“I don’t know whatcha mean,” I says. “Neveh hoid of no one drownin’ heah in Brooklyn, unless you mean a swimmin’ pool. Yuh can’t drown in Brooklyn,” I says. “Yuh gotta drown somewhere else – in duh ocean, where dere’s wateh.”
“Drownin’,” duh guy says, lookin’ at his map. “Drownin’.” Jesus! I could see by den he was some kind of nut, he had dat crazy expression in his eyes when he looked at you, an’ I didn’t know what he might do. So we was comin’ to a station, an’ it wasn’t my stop, but I got off anyway, an’ waited for duh next train.
“Well, so long, chief,” I says. “Take it easy, now.”
“Drownin’,” duh guy says, lookin’ at his map. “Drownin’.”
Jesus! I’ve t’ought about dat guy a t’ousand times since den an’ wondered what eveh happened to ‘m goin’ out to look at Bensonhoist because he liked duh name! Walkin’ aroun’ t’roo Red Hook by himself at night an’ lookin’ at his map! How many people did I see get drowned out heah in Brooklyn! How long would it take a guy wit a good map to know all deh was to know about Brooklyn!
Jesus! What a nut he was! I wondeh what eveh happened to ‘im, anyway! I wondeh if some one knocked him on duh head, or if he’s still wanderin’ aroun’ in duh subway in duh middle of duh night wit his little map! Duh poor guy! Say, I’ve got to laugh, at dat, when I t’ink about him! Maybe he’s found out by now dat he’ll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn. It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.

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5 Insightful Bits in response to “A Bit Of Literature – Only The Dead Know Brooklyn”

  1. Don’t know that you’ll hear that kind of dialect anymore; don’t remember whether I heard it quite that way growing up there. I’m told, tho’, that it’s still there in my voice: kind of a nasally something, dropped “g”s at the end of “ing” words. I can still pick it up if I hear a recording of myself. It’s there in the interview Paula Berinstein did with me on The Writing Show.

    Funny reading about your trip to the city in the middle of the night now. Sometime in the morning I’m hoping to arrange the latest installment of an annual pilgrimage I take into Brooklyn with my father and a buddy of mine. We usually do it in early September, a day or two after Labor Day often enough. Generally we’ll cruise in on the Long Island Expressway to the Grand Central and then the Belt. We’ll take that around following the coast past Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach (that area now a kind of little Moscow, and where I went to high school many years ago), past Coney Island, and around to the south, swinging up into Park Slope and the old neighborhood.

    I always drive thru looking at the old apartment house I grew up in, looking for a face I’ll remember, when the truth is people are either dead or at work on a weekday morning. And I’m not to sure I really want to recognize anyone anyway. But it seems like the thing to do: look for a familiar face on the street.

    Sometimes we’ll detour thru Green-Wood Cemetery, overlooking the street I grew up on and the streets I played ball on years ago. The corners I played cards on, too. The cemetery’s so cool to me now. I recognize the history there. (The guy who invented the soda fountain’s buried there. And there’s a section for vets of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.) Parklike, Green-Wood was designed by the same guy who designed Central and Prospect Parks. It’s got, I think, two or three lakes, tho’ we make a point of stopping by only one. (I remember going to school at the Catholic school, St. John the Evangelist, the story of a kid who played hooky from the school one day and went ice skating on one of the lakes–the one visible from Fifth Avenue (this is Brooklyn now, remember, not Manhattan’s toney Fifth Avenue) and, like, 37th or 28th Street, if I’m remembering correctly. And that story ended with the ice breaking, the kid falling thru and drowning. Tho’ I usually get a look at the old school, opposite the church, once a year now, I still stop to see it in the Adam Sandler movie, Big Daddy anytime it’s on TV. No longer a school–it may actually be apartments now, I don’t know for sure–they used it for the set of Sandler’s apartment in that silly movie. It was actually on in the background a year or two ago when I was working at home, and I immediately recognized something about the room the scene was in. Don’t even know whether it was a converted classroom, the old auditorium or what. But it registered and it took a sec for me to figure it out. But then I caught a shot of the outside.

    Sometimes we’ll cruise my father’s old neighborhood in what I guess is now Cobble Hill and head up from what was the Navy Yard thru Fort Greene, now an internationally-flavored neighborhood where some of my dad’s family lived–and, indeed where I spent the first year or two of my life, I’m told; at the time we exited the city for the suburbs over 35 years ago now, Fort Greene was considered “changed” and “dangerous”.

    And we end up by stopping in Coney Island, at the original Nathan’s Famous for stuff I’ll no-longer eat but for this trip: a hot dog and their great French fries. What I used to like there as a kid, tho, was a kind of Roumanian roast beef (called “BBQ,” back then), the frog’s legs (I swear; but only once in a blue moon), and he craziest thing: chow mein on a bun.

    We delayed the trip this year because my buddy Charlie, a reired cop, has been under the weather. F—-ay, I hope he’s up to the trip in a day or two.

  2. Vivien

    Glad you had such a nice trip down the memory lane, Stephen :-)
    I haven’t seen much of New York yet, arrived here last night very late, and now it’s only 6:15am here, I’ll be leaving for work soon. Haven’t met any New Yorkers yet, the taxi driver was from Spain :-)
    I’ll be most probably writing a post on my impressions of New York when I’m back. Thanks so much for your comment here. I know that Brighton Beach was a little Russia long time ago, lots of immigrants who left Russia after the Revolution live there. There are even songs dedicated to Russians who live on Brighton Beach :-)

  3. Ah, too late to hitch a ride in your suitcase. I’ve never been to New York. Be sure to share your photos on your return.

  4. I’ve been living in New York for seven years. Never heard anyone talk like that, but then again this was seventy years ago. Red Hook isn’t much of a down and dirty loading area for ships anymore, which is what I think had the narrator so worked up when this wandering guy said he had walked around there at night. But it’s hard to say. Every spot mentioned has probably had four different iterations since that story was written.
    Hope your trip went well.

  5. Vivien

    Johno, I just published a post with some photos and my impressions of New York. Hope you’ll get a chance to visit this city that never sleeps, then you can justify your no-sleep schedule :-)

    Thanks, Joseph. I had a very exciting trip to NY. Very impressed by everything I saw there. I too haven’t really heard much of that New York accent that’s depicted in this story. But then I haven’t met that many local New Yorkers either. :-)

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on