Henry Miller loved to write about how much he hated New York, but all his life he remained nostalgic for the youth he spent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He called himself “a patriot—of the Fourteenth Ward.”
A century ago, the Fourteenth Ward, as Williamsburg was then more commonly known, was a densely populated, working-class district, where the various ethnic groups—Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Polish—lived elbow to elbow and constantly clashed. In his many recollections, Henry Miller described the neighborhood as “tender with violence,” filled with both warmth and sudden ferocity.
The unsparing honesty that distinguishes Miller’s writing was learned in the streets of Williamsburg. Nothing was hidden; everything was out in the open and seen by all. Love, sex, death, heartbreak, madness—the entire human spectrum—was there for Miller to observe. The dramas played out on the streets were as entertaining as any of the plays performed in the theaters and burlesques lining Broadway between Graham Avenue and the waterfront.
Here he met such friends as Lester Reardon, Eddie Carney, and Stanley Borowski, who later became characters in his novels and who, till the end of his life, he revered more than any Napoleon, Lenin, or Capone. Neighborhood personalities supported names that might have been borrowed from a playbill: Apple Mary, Jimmy Pasta, Crazy George, Crazy Willie Maine, Billy Wheeler the oyster seller.
Miller’s time in Williamsburg was the happiest of his life; he called it his paradise time. Like Hemingway’s Paris, the Fourteenth Ward was Miller’s moveable feast.
Between 1891 and 1901 Miller lived with his family—mother, father, sister, and grandfather, and the occasional aunt—at 662 Driggs, between North First and North Second. Virtually unchanged in a hundred years, the brick building is typical of much of the architecture of the neighborhood, with two floors of apartments above a nondescript, and now disused, storefront.
In the 1890s the storefront was a barber’s shop run by Stanley Borowski’s father, a bitter and violent Pole. Occasionally, when Miller left the house he would glimpse Stanley taking a beating with the razor strop, a sight that made Miller’s blood boil. One day as he was leaving Miller was elated to see another Pole go for Stanley’s father with a straight razor. The old man stumbled backwards into the street, blood streaming from his neck, his face turning white. Miller felt “absolutely contented and happy” about the incident, and the whole street turned out to watch as Stanley’s father was loaded into the ambulance, his head and shoulders covered with a sheet.
Across from Miller’s house, on the current site of European Marble Works, was Dr. McKinney’s veterinary office, where, on occasional afternoons, a small crowd would gather to watch the castration of a stallion. These public operations remained fast in Miller’s memory: the smell of the hot iron and the quivering of the horse’s legs, Dr. McKinney’s goatee, the taste of raw onion and sour rye, the smell of sewer gas up the street where a new main was being laid. The reason for the operation was unknown to Miller and his friends, and this led to a long post-operative discussions that usually ended in a brawl. Down at Driggs and South First, he wrote in Black Spring of an ironworks as a dark and evil place.
Where the red furnace glowed and men walked toward the glowing pits with huge shovels in their hands, while outside were the shallow wooden forms like coffins…on which you scraped your shins or broke your neck. I remember the black hands of the iron-molders, the grit that had sunk so deep into the skin that nothing could remove it, not soap, nor elbow grease, nor money, nor love, nor death.
Miller attended the funerals of a number of these ironworkers, whose wives would bend over the caskets and spill tears onto their husband’s faces, so that it seemed to young Miller that the men were actually weeping over their own deaths. All his life Miller held a deep disdain for hard pointless work he learned of in the Fourteenth Ward, watching these men go early and unrewarded to their graves.
Embodying the best of the neighborhood for Miller was Fillmore Place, a block-long street obliquely across from 622 Driggs. Indulging his love of lists, he wrote in Tropic of Capricorn: “It was the most enchanting street I have ever seen…ideal for a boy, a lover, a maniac, a drunkard, a crook, a lecher, a thug, an astronomer, a musician, a poet, a tailor, a shoemaker, a politician. [It was] a street of value, of dignity, of light, of surprises.” Fillmore became a place of myth one afternoon when Joey Silverstein, the tailor’s son, knocked unconscious Joe Gerhardt, a local tough. The incident was considered a calamity, a stunning reversal of the status quo. “Who ever heard of a Jew beating up a gentile?” Miller recalled.
Whenever company came to call at 662 Driggs Henry would be sent to rush the growler, which meant running to the corner saloon to refill the family beer bucket. The saloon, at Driggs and Metropolitan, was owned by Pat McCarren, the local politician and current namesake of the local park, who was instrumental in passing the legislation to construct the Williamsburg Bridge. (McCarren would often stroll through the neighborhood to mingle with his constituency, sporting a large shamrock in his buttonhole.) For Miller these runs to the saloon were of the utmost importance, offering him the chance to witness the scenes played out above the spilled beer, the cigarettes butts, and the sawdust floor.
Similar chances came on warm summer evenings when Miller and his pals congregated on the doorstep of his friend Rob Ramsey, across from a small burlesque hall called the Bum, at Driggs and Grand. The proprietors of the Bum never bothered to pull the blinds, allowing the gang a full view of the various goings-on. From Black Spring: “Saturday nights there was a long line outside, milling and pushing and squirming to get at the ticket window. Saturday nights, when the Girl in Blue was in her glory, some wild tar from the Navy Yard would be sure to jump out of his seat and grab off one of Millie de Leon’s garters.” Meanwhile, above them, Ramsey’s old man would be saying his prayers and later would come down in his nightshirt and scatter them with a broomstick.
Another enticing element in Miller’s landscape was the waterfront, a chaotic sprawl of docks, shipyards, warehouses, distilleries, taverns, breweries, mills, and sugar refineries: a feast for the senses of curious kids. There was also of course the Brooklyn Navy Yard where “you could feel the war vessels lying at anchor in the big basin.... I could see the decks being scrubbed down and the guns polished and the weight of those big sea-monsters…was a luxurious weight on me. I was already dreaming of running away, of going to far places.”
The terminal of the Manhattan ferry, at the end of Broadway—now the site of Giando restaurant—was an especially romantic place. Many years later Miller could “still feel the slipperiness of the big handrail which I leaned against in fog and rain, which sent through my cool forehead the shrill blasts of the ferryboat as she slid out of the slip.” In one of the saloons surrounding the ferry house Miller would often meet his father, who was then in his 30s, a healthy, genial soul with a smile for everyone and a pleasant quip to pass the time of day. This was how he preferred to remember his father, who at home was most often silent and dour amidst the constant nagging of Miller’s quick-tempered and unyielding mother.
In 1901 Miller and his family moved to 1063 Decatur Street in genteel (and gentile) Bushwick, to escape the wave of the Italian and Jewish immigration sweeping into Williamsburg. Miller was bitterly disappointed to leave his friends and the streets he loved so well. He called the new place “the street of early sorrows.” Four years later he convinced his parents to let him attend Eastern District High School on Marcy Avenue, back in the Fourteenth Ward.
At Eastern District Miller met his first love, Cora Seward (who became Una Gifford in his writings). She lived at 181 Devoe Street. The love was unrequited and long-enduring. In First Love, written when Miller was in his fifties, his attraction to Cora was undiminished. ”In her China-blue eyes, so cold and inviting… I see myself forever and ever as…the restless frustrated artist…always seeking the unattainable. Her image remains fresh and vivid as of yore, and nothing, it seems, can tarnish it or cause it to fade away.” Almost every evening for three or four years Miller would walk past her house in the hope of catching a glimpse of her in the parlor window, but alas, he was never able to work up the nerve to ring her doorbell.
In attending Eastern District, Miller had hoped to return to the neighborhood of his childhood, but to his dismay he discovered the neighborhood he had known was gone. The Fourteenth Ward, with the opening of the bridge, had become solidly Jewish and Italian, an extension of the overcrowded Lower East Side. To Miller, his old block, including his beloved Fillmore Place, was like “a dirty mouth with all the prominent teeth missing….[G]arbage was knee deep in the gutter and the fire escapes filled with bloated bedding, with cockroaches, with dried blood.” It was about this time that North Second Street was renamed Metropolitan Avenue, a name rejected by Henry and his gang to protest the immigrant invasion. In Tropic of Capricorn, he recalled that the “approaches of the various new bridges created plazas, comfort stations, poolrooms, stationary shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, clothing stores, hock shops, etc. In short everything was becoming Metropolitan, in the odious sense of the word.”
Miller remained nostalgic for his childhood (as we all do) because it was in this early time that the most lasting impressions—the foundations for all impressions to come—were made. The view of life Miller gained in the streets of the Fourteenth Ward—that life was open and honest and unrestrained—followed him wherever he went, to Park Slope with his first wife, Beatrice; to Brooklyn Heights with his second wife, June; to Paris, with many women; and finally to Big Sur.
Everything he ever saw was filtered through the primal lens of Driggs Avenue and its environs. Everything he encountered afterwards took him back to a fragment of the past. In Black Spring, Miller reflected on his nostalgia:
If we are stirred by a fat bust it is the fat bust of a whore who bent over on a rainy night and showed us for the first time the wonder of the great milky globes; if we are stirred by the reflections on a wet pavement it is because at the age of seven we were suddenly speared by a premonition of the life to come as we stared unthinkingly into that bright, liquid mirror of the street. If the sight of a swinging door intrigues us it is the memory of a summer’s evening when all the doors were swinging softly, [and through them] drifted the music and the incense of gorgeous unknown bodies.
He lived only nine years in Williamsburg but these years, and this neighborhood, were always with him. To his dying day Henry Miller remained a patriot—of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn.
San Silleck is a writer living in Brooklyn.