Monday, April 25, 2011

Jim Mason

In recent years, a handful of under-appreciated Brooklyn writers have been rediscovered and republished. Jonathan Franzen championed Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, Jonathan Lethem revived L.J. Davis' A Meaningful Life, and now--on the hyperlocal scale--Peter Miller, owner of Freebird Books, has brought Red Hook writer Jim Mason's Positively No Dancing back to print.

All photos by Peter Miller

Jim had originally self-published his story collection and sold copies at the store on consignment. The copies went fast. When the supply ran out, Freebird took on the task of reprinting it. Says Peter, "Jim was too tied to the history of the store and the neighborhood to let it get away. He's the best representative of homegrown writing we have in the neighborhood--sorry, carpetbaggers like Martin Amis don't count."

Since writing the stories in Positively No Dancing, Jim has been priced out of Red Hook--pushed all the way to Ohio, where he's inadvertently taken Patti Smith's advice and found a new city. He came back to Freebird this month for a reading and book party. I interviewed him over email.

Q: In the preface to your book, you write about “the new bicycle path that now carries white people from better neighborhoods through our neighborhood on their bikes, looking for real estate deals to price me out of yet another home.” What would you say to the pro-bike path people who argue that the paths are all-good additions to the city and its ecology?

A: I'd say they're right. It was more just the result of it. The site of the bike path on Columbia Street used to be what, when I moved there, was called "The Puerto Rican Beach." There were a lot of old guys who used to sit all day along the fence before there was a bike path, with both American and Puerto Rican flags proudly tacked onto it, drinking beer, saying hello to passersby, bothering no one, but taking advantage of some sun before they had to go back to their little compartment apartments. They lived there long before I did. But when the bike path came in, it seems those people coming to either slum or speculate in Red Hook were bothered or scared by them, and they were booted.

I have one friend who continues to set up shop on the path (with plenty of room for bikes to go by, he's against the fence), and somebody keeps knocking down his cardboard home and "rescuing" his cats, and it pisses me off. Again, they were there first. And is it that hard just to steer around him a little bit?

Q: Throughout your preface you paint a picture of the “new folks,” on their bicycles, eating organic, knitting. If you imagine yourself in their heads, as they look out onto Red Hook, what are they thinking?

A: They're thinking, "This is so lovely, the breathtaking city views, the waterfront. If only we could get rid of those dreadful chicken slaughterhouses and those awful cranes and shipping containers and that terrible bodega with the bulletproof glass. We could organize for the city to build a nice park. We can keep a couple cranes the way IKEA did, just for the nautical flavor. But it would be so much more pleasant here without all these trucks and the factories. The factories would make such wonderful townhouses, if we could only convert them."

Well, you know what? Fuck you. The slaughterhouses were here before you were. The factories were here before you, and they employ hundreds of neighborhood people. (All right, I'm not an activist, just a classist, so I don't know if those numbers are 100% correct.) The trucks were here before you. Why the fuck did you buy a condo next to a chicken slaughterhouse in the first place? When I moved to Williamsburg in '87, I didn't look around and try to see how I could change it. I was in Rome. I tried to figure out how the Romans do.

Q: In your story “Ashes,” you talk about the gentrification of dive bars and very neatly run down the way it happens, how a dive bar can become “corrupted by yuppies or artists.” Should artists stay the hell out of dive bars?

A: Absolutely not. I was an aspiring artist who went into dive bars. That was the aesthetic that drove me to NYC. I'd just say don't let the yuppies see you going in there, because then they'll think it's safe. That's the problem with NYC. Artists are like Vietnam point men. And I guess someone on your site will make the very valid point that artists are coming in and changing the neighborhoods just as much as yuppies. (By the way, "yuppies" seems so dated, but I don't know what we call them anymore). I think I had a character in the book make that statement, so he's allowed to be wrong-headed. I take no responsibility for what he said. I was just transcribing.

Q: Perhaps the most heartbreaking statement you make is: “There’s no place for me here anymore. But there’s also no other place for me but here. I don’t know what to do.” How did you cope with this impossible situation? What did you do?

A: I climbed into the front seat of the car I was living in for my last month there and drove away. Spent the last 8 months in my parents' basement in Elyria, Ohio. I am moving to the East Side of Cleveland, where I will be getting a 1-bedroom apartment right on Lake Erie, with a front porch that spans the entire length of the house and a back porch that looks onto Lake Erie, which can look like an ocean. $400 a month.

Q: People like to say that Brooklyn is the place where all the creative Manhattan people went when they were priced out of Manhattan, and that young artists can make it there. Yet the wave of gentrification keeps rolling out across the boroughs. Is Brooklyn an artist and writer’s paradise?

A: Sure. For connected and or published writers and artists. I think it's a paradise, but to me paradise doesn't involve having to pay $950 a month for a 8 x 12 bedroom apartment share with some 25-year-old kid above a metal shop on Van Brunt. Again, coming from the Midwest, as a kid drinking Genny Cream Ale in my buddy's rec room watching everyone playing ping pong or some shit, my dream was to leave and move to NYC, to Greenwich Village like Dylan or Kerouac and live in a cheap little apartment and be "an artist."

A buddy of mine told me recently that his friend's son just got accepted into a really good elementary school in the Village under the "Diversity" program. What was the diversity? His dad is an artist.

And the rest of the city is filling up with ping pong tables. I'm hoping paradise may be the East Side of Cleveland.

Click here to order a copy of the book at Freebird Books


Tricia said...

A lot more people will be pushed out of New York City if the state doesn't renew the rent control and stabilization laws set to expire on June 15. Added lakeside apt in another state to list of potential places to move!

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Great interview - thanks. I really want to read the book. The whole "dive" bar business is a tough one - once a bar is known by that term it's already changing. I often feel like a hypocrite for being at places I want to keep others out of (but it doesn't stop me wanting veto power!). What's the tipping point at which a place changes, & who passes muster to come into a neighborhood and become a real part of it? Or not. I've lived in my area for 25 years & often feel in a weird spot between two very different worlds, but I feel a lot more comfortable in the older one. It takes a long long time to build up relationships with people who were born here, but it's a lot more satisfying than getting to know my Fresh Direct "neighbors", who don't want seem to want to interact with anyone that's not just like them. Well, I'm clearly becoming old & sour.
Those IKEA "decorative" cranes seem so sad, & Van Brunt on the weekends is hellish.

VisuaLingual said...

I hope I don't sound like I lack empathy for his situation, but NYC artists and writers have been living in squalor for a long time, though where that squalor is located and the exact living conditions have changed over the years.

I think it's evidence of his naiveté that he moved to the city expecting to live like the Beats. So, he had to live in a different neighborhood. He probably had central heat, and his bathroom wasn't a shared one in the hallway. Instead, he had a room mate. People have been making sacrifices to live in the city for a long time, and they've been getting pushed out for a long time as well.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to checking out the book.

Marty Wombacher said...

I'm going to order the book for sure. Great interview with an interesting writer. Hate to see people like this getting priced out of New York. Good luck in Cleveland, Jim! And Bravo to Peter Miller and Freebird Books for supporting writers.

sLr said...

people live in awful conditions in new york. the young ones w/no $. NYTs had an article about this & many comments were made in response. they were appalling, sounded like a third world nation. i think it has gotton worse not better than it was during the time of the 'beats" or sometime after that. i should know, ive been around NY city since 1963 (high school), i visited people & saw how they lived. apts were larger in general. there was less requirements to have a lease. there were no huge corporation colleges so there werent thousands of kids looking for a place. yes there were bathtubs in the kitchens as you see now in old walkups. & the rents in manhattan were still very high next to any other place. you rarely saw a 8x12 bedroom, though i did see lots of kids sqeezed into small spaces. this wasnt the norm. people would come & go so there were 2 paying roommates & 3 sleep overs 2 any given time. i remember my friends got a huge loft on the corner of clinton & delancy. it was an up grade from their tiny 3 room walk thru on e. 24th st. it was like 25 times larger than that place. i chose to stay in the EV as i had a rent controlled $60 a month 3 1/2 rooms. no closet, an amoire in a tiny back room, a pull chain toilet no bathroom sink! but new refrigerator & sink in kitch. 5 flights up w/a beautiful marble tiny lobby. i did have a room mate for a few months but i didnt need the $ so i lived solo for that year& a half. (i read that they closed down a club in that building like this year-like its a famous corner or something). i up graded later to jones street west vill, it was 150. per month, all renovated, nice one bedrm. brooklyn was mega cheap. but after years of the subways (from my parents house to manhattan) i wouldnt have been caught dead there! now it looks pretty good.