But the main ethnic type is old German Jewish ladies who have lived here for decades. According to one woman I met at the coffee shop (and who, by the way, spoke fluent Russian), this area was heavily populated after World War II by Holocaust survivors. “Of course, there are fewer of them every day,” said my informant. But I was elated. What better place for an aspiring comedian than a region suffused with Yiddish?
The most amazing thing about this region is that it really does have a sense of community. I’ve become a regular at the breakfast place already, and whenever I’m there, a regular cast of characters files in, grabbing coffee, chatting and gossiping, and showing genuine concern for each other. (“How’s your mother doing?” “Did your sister get over that cold?” etc.) I like to think that at least part of the reason is that the neighborhood was settled by Jewish mothers and other yenta types. But there’s such a spectrum of languages, skin tones, ages and lifestyles that I really feel like I’m at the snack bar in the U.N. I’d heard this truth about New York for years, but it’s quite something else to experience it. After my very first day of this—when a middle-aged Haitian woman asked about a German shopkeeper’s grandson in New Orleans—that I realized, “No wonder everyone says Friends is fake!”
I’ve never been much of a joiner of any group or community, preferring to keep my membership on the outskirts----close enough to make knowledgeable jokes, far away enough not to be implicated in any absurdity. But this is the first time that I’ve actually understood what people value about a sense of community, and why so many people in New York (and other large cities) identify themselves by their neighborhood. I could suddenly see why, if the place was on fire, people might actually choose to stay and die rather than lose their memories. It’s still not my thing, but it feels to me the way I felt when I first noticed children are actually cute: I’m not one of those normal people, but I could see myself being converted. I think I get it now, and it’s quite a thing to learn.
I live, by the way, right across from a monument to Fort Washington, which was established during the Revolutionary War and has a plaque that mentions, alluringly, that it was briefly lost to the British and then taken back “after a fierce battle” that I’ve never heard of. There’s also a place called The Cloisters about ten blocks up the street, which apparently used to be an operating cloister and is now some kind of park or museum. And in between them is the coffee shop, the bank, the supermarket, the local bar. Again, I’m getting a sense of what it must be like to live in a place with actual historical resonance, like Rome or Paris. So now, for the first time in my life, I’m actually interested in the history of the place where I live. This never happened in Tucson or Kansas City, and certainly wasn’t an issue in Tallahassee. But now I have the bug. Now all I need is money to support my research habit . . .
Dang, but I’m happy.