During a recent walk, far from home and with no particular destination, I came upon Newkirk Plaza. The shabby little subway station/mall in the middle of nowhere gave me more delight than would seem warranted by such a place, for I had passed this way before.
Twenty years ago, when I first moved to Brooklyn, I worked for my friend’s little two-man construction company and the job we were doing was in Midwood, renovating a couple’s basement (in a house on a tree-lined cul de sac, right next to the train tracks). And every morning we took the D train to Newkirk Plaza, which came to symbolize for me the dreariness of those sleepy early mornings and that work for which I was totally unsuited. The trip would register in my head like a tape loop of misery: “Newkirk, Newkirk, Newkirk, Newkirk.” Today, though, with the routine long behind me and trumped by the curious accident that summoned the memory, Newkirk Plaza just makes me smile.
The Brooklyn Bulk District, home to Costco, Lowe’s, and Home Depot, is a place where mass and variety are the watchwords. These so-called “big box” stores are in fact brimming with big boxes.
I went to Lowe’s just to bask in the excess: 85 varieties of work gloves, 30 types of doormats, 54 styles of toilet seats. As I wandered around awestruck, I fondled scatter rugs and appliances; I picked up cedar hangings, tiles, a “double hook Madrid half pot rack,” a “telescopic gutter blaster,” and basically luxuriated in the textures of commerce. Continuous pop hits from the eternal present played (“My Eyes Adored You,” “If She knew What She Wants,” etc.) . . . “Special assistance needed in the pipe-threading area” . . . The Fork lift beeps . . . sight and sound, touch and smell: a cornucopia for the senses.
Lowe’s is a wonder of mercantile giganticism and represents the transformation of the shopping experience. There’s nothing I really need there, but I like the idea that it exists, as an ideal of plenitude.
I set out for Costco late in the afternoon on a Thursday. The weekend was approaching and I needed to stock up. I also had to replenish for the following week (and the one after that). It was my maiden voyage to the “membership warehouse club,” which I had joined only the week before. It would be a lie to say I wasn't excited, in fact I was giddy.
After only a few minutes wheeling my cart through the bulging aisles of condiments, snack foods, and staples, I realized this was no mundane trip to the grocery store, but rather a journey to the threshold of bloat.
Costco is a retort to scarcity and an icon of abundance. It also epitomizes the downside of affluence. Casualties of over-indulgence abound there, listless and corpulent, object reminders of how the promise of America has been reduced to the promise of self-gratification.
There was too much I wanted, in quantities well beyond my needs, at unreal prices, too. I became paralyzed by so many tantalizing options, so I fled empty-handed. Outside I saw the aftermath of one family’s trip to Costco. Apparently too excited to even get their goods into the car (let alone all the way home), they scarfed them all up right there in the parking lot.
Kensington is a strange entity, where tree-lined streets abut ragged stretches of laundromats, car washes, and garages—blight and charm intertwined. There’s a heady ethnic mix, too; the neighborhood is a series of distinct districts that have their own culture ecosystems. Is all of this a key to why the neighborhoods of Brooklyn are so evocative?
In the "olde English" section of Kensington, with its quiet, residential streets named in an iconic English way (Westminster, Argyle, Stratford, etc.), the houses are old and charming. It doesn’t even look like Brooklyn. But that would be a contradiction for Brooklyn contains multitudes.
“In 1996, Parks began converting barren concrete triangles and traffic islands into Greenstreets, making the pavement spring to life by planting trees, shrubs and flowers.”
Source: New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation
The need to understand nature, in order to maintain our own survival as well as sate our curiosity, is central to human nature.
Nature simply exists, but knowledge invests it with functionality. The tobacco plant knows not what miseries and delights of which it is capable. Hemlock is ignorant of its toxicity, blind to its infamy.
Above: Shrine to Inari, the god of harvest and protector of plants
Man sanctifies “mother nature,” but she is deeply, eternally indifferent. And all of the temples and rites and celebrations intended for her are really for us alone.
When culture imposes itself on nature, when human priorities clash with the environment, the results can be catastrophic . . . or simply kitsch.
The nature of man is to pervert nature, through display and ornamentation, language, and neglect. The latter, of course, often causes great suffering and is a pervasive threat. Habitually, though, man shows that improving on nature is more than possible, if not preferable.