What It Cost

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My favorite thing at the Brooklyn Historical Society was the tile floor.  The same people who put in the floor worked on the Capitol.  The building also has huge terra cotta busts on the outside, Columbus, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin.  The Brooklyn Historical Society is, itself, a National Historic Landmark.  For whatever sense that makes.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is not like the grateful and hopeful ticket sellers, and like some Dickensian character, I believe, after research, Mr. Wilkins “something will turn up” Micawber, at the Teddy Roosevelt house or the Merchant House.  The Brooklyn Historical Society politely hardly noticed me.  Ten dollars.

They are passing the time.

The display on abolitionism in Kings County (the fictionalized name of the county I grew up in, in the only novel I’ve ever read to mention the county I grew up in, and the actual name of Brooklyn’s county) happily included some happy stories of slaves or free blacks who got names, were brave, made money, founded schools, escaped, built things.

The bank on the corner where I get the subway was the Kings County Bank when they built it.  Kings County Bank is carved into the top of the building.  Above the doorway, another carving: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  I see this from time to time when I am going home, and first I think that I have never saved any money, and fault myself, and then I think, well, that’s true of other journeys, too, and I’ve been on many journeys.

There were two black communities in Brooklyn, one in Williamsburg, one near the Brooklyn Bridge.  The oldest black school and black church were originally near there.  Frederick Douglass and and Harriet Tubman spoke at the first black church.  Yes, that Frederick Douglass and that Harriet Tubman.  The church still exists, as an institution.  It is now located in Bed-Stuy.

The worst part of the history they covered (all plenty bad) was the draft riots.  White New Yorkers attacking their black neighbors like they just realized they were Hutus living with Tutsis, powerless Hutus, maybe that’s a wrong or offensive simile.  Stabbing people and throwing their bodies in the river, all I can think of is the Rwandan genocide, the only thing I remember reading about that was as sudden and so vicious and unbelievable.  The good old days, when race riots were started by white people.

Poor white people burned down an orphanage.  The kids were okay.  If that makes you feel any better.

The white people are mad because black people can’t be drafted, and poor white people will have to go to war to fight to save the union they don’t get much from.  Black people can’t be drafted because they are not people.

Perhaps our worst race riot.  It depends on how you measure.

They had a small display about the development of sewers in New York, revealing to me that for a time, Coney Island was too smelly with sewage to let anyone stroll or lounge or bathe there.  The New York City sewers, like many, combine storm water and sewage, and this has its plusses and minuses.  I have seen this in Kansas City, where backed up sewers from too much storm water mean rubber gloves and filling bins of bleach water for the Christmas tree ornaments.

I remember visiting New York City as a child and being told, “This is some of the best tap water in the country,” and thinking that someone had told me that of Kansas City’s water, too.  Was the water in every town so talked-up?  I knew only that the water from my great-grandparents’ well tasted like it had turned.

They have a library at the Historical Society, the prettiest I have ever seen, elegant but still cozy.  It was closed for the month of August, to horde its prettiness.  Locked glass doors.

They have photos taken on a tour of Brooklyn led by Truman Capote.  Brooklyn in 1958, looking much more like current Brooklyn than many other cities resemble themselves.  Black and white kids in parochial school uniforms goofing off together on the street.  Storefronts with handprinted signs, just the same.  Restaurants looking remarkably like restaurants now except the people are more dressed up.  This photographer took the shots to illustrate “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”  Have I dressed up as Holly Golightly for Halloween before?  Of course I have.  Not letting being blonde stop me from anything brunette people can do.

I had the feeling that so much money, for so long, had gone into the institution, that it existed largely to give Brooklynites something honorable to give their money, and to maintain its own elegance, which is not the worst thing, dour Americans!

There were current photos, too, taken of people who had gotten food from food banks.  I was, coincidentally, starving.  I was starving because it is my usual practice to eat a minor breakfast, lie about, get inspired to go out, and then discover it is 4 pm, and my mouth is watering and my hands are shaking.  It was embarrassing to see the photos that way, particularly the one of a table someone had set with the food she had gotten, and I thought, I wouldn’t eat any of that food, God, I am a brat.

A child asleep on a couch because he’s walked four miles, round trip, to two different food banks in Queens, to get the groceries for the week.  The hungry and the closed glass doors to the prettiest library, there on the second and third floors, with the beautiful tile floors.

As a counterweight to the busts of the magnificent dead white men on the outside, there is a bust of a girl whose freedom was purchased with donations from Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation.  He would turn his sermon into an auction.  Sally Maria Diggs cost $900.

The exhibit of photos on hunger, by Joey O’laughlin, suggests you contribute to (among other worthy charities) the Food Bank for New York City.

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