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Brooklyn’s Comforting Infinitude

By Mark Helprin

[First printed in the New York Times on April 28,  1985; posted with permission of  the author,  for which many thanks]

You can’t know Brooklyn. Not even the dead know Brooklyn, since it covers more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface, and their proportionately huge cemeteries are confusing even to someone who is awake and full of energy. That the place is virtually infinite has several consequences and effects.

For example, when you ask directions in Brooklyn, the reply you get most of the time is not a Manhattan-like “Drop dead,” but rather a genuinely curious “Where the hell is that?”

Someone might way, “Can you direct me to Force Tube Avenue?”

The likely answer would be, “Force Tube Avenue? What the hell is that?”

Dare ask a police officer, “How do I get to Nestepol Marsh?” and he will take off his hat, squint at you, and reply, “Nestepol Marsh? What the hell is it?”

But Force Tube Avenue and Nestepol Marsh are places in Brooklyn, and not the strangest places either, unless you are perfectly content with the euphonia of, let us say, Bocchino-Dente Memorial Playground. You can go from Force Tube Avenue to Conduit Avenue via Fountain Avenue, and you can get to Nestepol Marsh by way of Pennsylvania Avenue (which you might have thought was in the District of Columbia), Malta Street, Freeport Loop, Marginal Street Place and Canarsie Pol. If you desire to, you can go from the Nedlloyd African Service pier, past Owls Head Park and Monastery Square, to Oliver Street. Or, if you like to spit vowels, you can wander around Southgate, Bouck, Cobeck, Dank, Bokee and Colby Courts—in sequence, because they more or less abut.

The names of the streets sometimes are so beautiful and suggestive that, when used correctly, the borough can be employed as a language generator, a colossal assemblage of ivory mah-jongg blocks engraved with arresting words—Albemarle, Clarendon, Geneva, Cortelyou (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable), Pacific, Brightwater, Beverly—that tumble and cross to make stories, novels and songs.

Lest you think that the value of these citations lies in the history, complexity or whimsy they connote, consider that the real beauty of Brooklyn lies in its infinitude, in the ever-varying angles of the streets, the circles they make, the paths that lead around and forward and back and then to places of which no one has ever heard. It lies in the special quality Brooklyn has of never being fully known. Like the stars, the sea, and those profound mysteries in which Brooklyn’s inhabitants live from day to day but of which they rarely speak (except in Brooklyn Heights, where you overhear people talking about profound mysteries at every street corner), it cannot fail you, you cannot fail it; its internal horizons share the peace of the prairies and oceans after which its streets are named, and it puts the soul at rest.

Though perhaps Brooklyn is not quite a refuge anymore where sheep may safely graze, there are places there where you can listen in the dark of winter to the wind attacking from the Atlantic as moon-whitened waves break against the beach. There are neighborhoods of nations so alien and incredible that crossing into them mobilizes beyond any expectation both distance and time. There are streets where, on January nights, fires burn on every floor of every house, sending fragrant smoke through the cold black trees. There are meadows and fields, long rows of old oaks, bridges that sparkle from afar, ships about to leave for Asia, lakes, horses, and islands in the marsh.

In this vastness, this superb expanse, this human and natural paradise, purgatory and hell, the world has been preserved—not as a series of artifacts that can be displayed, reviewed, purchased and consumed, but as something alive. And to whatever degree the world is alive here, it is because of the freedom and delight of the limitless streets, where, if you set out when you are very young to tell a millionth of a millionth of their stories, you will find yourself still entranced when you are very old.

[Note: Most of the places that the estimable Mr. Helprin finds so mysterious and obscure are undoubtedly familiar to the webmaster of Forgotten New York, whose limitless peregrinations in Brooklyn and beyond you can follow here.]