Fish Brawl in a Brooklyn Barroom; Weird Ave. B

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I'd never seen fish fight before, but there they were in a fishbowl on the bar counter. One red, one blue (how patriotic), each about the length of my index finger, undulant and groovy, billowing their elaborate peacock fins, suspended there in the clear water.

Watching fish fight is like watching extreme fighting, or a street fight. The violence occurs within those split-second, banal intervals in which violence tends to occur in real life. It's rarely exciting, and there's rarely more than a couple blows exchanged. There's just a meeting of two bodies on a sidewalk, and then, before it's even registered itself on you, one guy's sprawled and looking up at gray Lower East Side sky and the other guy?nondescript, in a colorless coat, you couldn't pick him out of a lineup if they paid you?is moving through the crowd, growing distant, sucked back into mundanity, his head down, his hands in his pockets.

The fish were kind of like that: violence not as spectacle, but as something that just sort of happened, violence as queasily titillating fact rather than unfolding spectacle. The bar's tiny and warm, there's just a small crowd of us, there's a late-night dorm-room atmosphere in the place, everybody's guard is down, a good energy?and the two fish, floating within inches of each other, but at different latitudes and their lippy, dumb little faces pointed in different directions?and then there's this almost imperceptible flash of motion in the water and adrenaline pumps through your body and?

"Whoaaaaaaaa!" everybody groans, and the fish float motionless again, quick as a blink having returned to their previous positions, staring into space, moving their lips and bugging their eyes, almost as if they were ritualistically avoiding each other out of respect for the horrible implications of their death match. Or else they resembled two portly MPs avoiding each other in the bathroom between hostile sessions.

But it's no use ascribing human qualities to a fish. Because fish are dumb, dumb, dumb beasts, fit for wagering on, maybe, or frying in cornmeal, but little else.

Red and blue confetti drifts down through the water?ripped and torn scraps of fin.


I'd missed it again. Another spark of motion, too fast to see, the fish darting at each other and taking quick sharp bites?and then they were flapping their lips in their respective corners again. The lanky guy behind the bar laughed, his face lit up by the many candles that flickered around the snug little place, and that littered the bar along with the bottles. He looked around at the crowd across from him, all of the people sitting or kneeling on stools or standing, making sure they were enjoying this. It seemed as if he owned the place, and wanted to make sure we were having a good time.

"Anybody wanna place a wager?" someone joked.

Meanwhile, we leaned over the bowl in wonder, our eyes wide, our bodies drifting against each other. I smelled clean girl-cotton and powder, and everybody's face was flushed and pretty in the candlelight.

"Ohhhhhh, maaaaaan!" we groaned, and confetti filled the world and I disentangled myself from a tangle of girl-limbs.

Down at the other end, Sarah talked to an off-duty bartender, the two of them leaning into each other, sitting catty-corner at the edge of the short bar. I fit myself in between them. We were both pretty looped, Sarah and I, filled with beer, wine and then more beer. This warm indigo and candlelit place is a good secret for late winter. Walk in and look straight up the back wall and you'll see there's this crazy cozy little loft-level up there, with all sorts of junk up in the warm swirling shadows, and it's nice, you're in some homey fun-place.

"Dead?" she said?of the fish, it took me a moment to realize.

"Awww," I laughed, and also winced, and I guess she understood, and bottles of Sierra Nevada continued to appear in front of ourselves and we talked about real estate, I believe.

(Ate earlier that night at Rose Water, that newish place on Union St. in Park Slope. Tiny, about the size of your living room, with these gorgeous lime-green walls, though they might have been aquamarine, or something else. Excellent food?a Park Slope restaurant fully as good and casually elegant?as I learned to say in restaurant reviewer's school?as al di la, and populated by the kind, stolid thirtysomething women of Park Slope, gentle and I hope happy at their tables unshared by men. Park Slope is a city of women, a gynocracy. What men there are wear sandals and push strollers with awkward splayfooted gaits.

The service at Rose Water is very kind. We drank Gavi, and ate fattoush and lentil soup and I ate this amazing roasted wild striped bass. This fish had no fight in it. I consumed it. It had nothing to say.)

We walked homeward up 5th Ave. from the bar. Head along empty 5th Ave. late on a sullen late-winter night and it's almost beautiful the way the taverns glow. This huge layered rusting baroque heap of a city, through the infinite paths of which you can chart your own course, you can keep moving, you can experience an incredible feeling of freedom and propulsion and capability and power, whenever you muster the energy for it.

Got a cab somehow and rode up to Sarah's new place in Windsor Terrace across the street from the park. High ceilings and bright light and unpacked boxes still stacked up on the newly varnished floor and Sarah walking through the rooms, drunk and talking to her boyfriend on the cordless, and the smell of paint. Then I walked home alone back to the Slope, past the movie theater, through brown and blue streets. The forest of the park, amber smudges from lampposts and late-night restaurants, stoop, bodega, bodega, bar.

Rose Water, 787 Union St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), Brooklyn, 718-783-3800.


One night a couple weeks ago I walked all the way down to the East Village from our offices up here near FIT with a coworker, who abandoned me at 14th St. and vanished into the hole that leads down into the Brooklyn-bound train.

"Enjoy your B-strolling," she sang, and then she was skipping down into another dimension, into secret tunnels. So I was left alone.

I slid my way down Ave. B, hewing close to the buildings as if it were necessary for me to maintain contact with their materiality, with the reality of damp East Village brick and stone. As a point of reference, sort of. In the weird abandoned city. And I kept thinking the word nighttown, getting off on that idea, as if I were less in a real city than in some perfect approximation of it, as if I'd wandered onto a soundstage somewhere (SOUNDSTAGE B: DEEP EAST VILLAGE), and I was the only one on it, besides a couple extras, and the tenements hulked down over the ice-buckled streets and the indigo sky throbbed over Brooklyn. Light spilled from the foggy bistro windows, and from some distance that I couldn't quite figure Bob Dylan drawled It's all over now, baby bluuuuuue, wheezing and droning and rasping, as if some abandoned record player had turned itself on in some empty building and set this music to drift out a broken window and across the still world.

A couple Hispanic kids congregated under the eaves of a building. A big middle-aged guy lumped out from that place Rue B, holding a cigar whose tip glowed against the deep night, and stood watching a car fit itself against the curb. It was a rusty old dinosaur, lumbering against the curb, looking for a perfect 6-inch margin, a brontosaurus trying to play it gentle. I watched the cigar watch the car, which shuddered to a stop.

"Yo, I can park here?"

"Yeah, yeah." The cigar waved, a little signal fire in the night. "Back it up a little, back it up." And the car shook back into life and inched backward, finding the right proportion, finding its own little space in this nutty hyperreal night.

And then if you walk into Guernica?down there closer to Houston St.?the atmosphere changes and everything's different. What is this place? It's a restaurant, but it's got that lounge decor and vibe. You know, moody lighting shining out from behind banquettes, and the bar's not straight, it's squiggle-curved, like someone's scrawled it arrogantly across the room. Everything's glossy black and high concept and cheaply dramatic and too stylish and as cold and hard as the techno they're pumping out, as cold as the appraising eyes of the leather-encased bartender chick as she cards you (honey bee, I'm 29, every minute of those years is etched into my face, come on already), as cold and hard and self-conscious as a cocaine jag.

Nor was the food so hot, and it was sort of expensive (and I'll tell you all about it sometime), and in all ways it was an experience that made me rue going in there, underdressed in my trousers and shoes, a fat novel under my arm. Then the place began to fill up with cocaine guys?you know what I mean?and I was sitting there at the bar with my shrimp cocktail and my something diablo and my fat novel. And I thought, Jesus, this is the sort of place where you don't want people to know that you like to read. They'll go stand on the other side of the room and make faces at you.

Paid the bill and bailed out into my familiar old blue, wheezing, ramshackle, tenement city, which fits around my body like an old leather garment and where none of the lines are really straight and cold-cracked streets somehow look soft to me, and welcoming. Guernica? Check it out if you want, but don't blame me. And hurry, because I bet the dying economy smashes it like a grape.

Guernica, 25 Ave. B (betw. 2nd & 3rd Sts.), 674-0984.

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