I’m not anything, really. I don’t have one specific homeland, and can’t really say where any of my ancestors were 150 years ago. I think about that a lot, how splintered the two sides of my family are, but how the common bond is wandering, fleeing, getting settled before having to get up and go somewhere else. I’ve got a religion, but I’m not religious. Like Saul Bellow’s most famous character, I am an American, Chicago born. (Well, Skokie, IL, to be exact—close enough.)
Like my ancestors, my teenage years into my early 20s were also spent wandering, picking up, and moving to the next cheap apartment I’d hear of. When I hit 23, I made the move to Brooklyn, a nice-sized apartment near the end of the borough, close to the bridge that connects it to Queens. I’d often take walks from my apartment on Nassau Ave., up to the bodega where I’d buy a big bottle of Warka beer for three dollars, then walk up McGuinness Boulevard, up to the Pulaski Bridge, and just drink it while looking out at the city. After that, I’d maybe buy another beer, feel a little drunk, stop somewhere and eat some pierogies, and I’d be good to go. That was how I relaxed when I first moved to New York City, a place where relaxing is a rare luxury. I’d think about how familiar it all felt. How it reminded me of home.
I’ve tried to play barstool historian and explain that the city I’m from sort of set the template for Brooklyn. How before Williamsburg was the place to be if you wanted to do things, and long before it became the place you wanted to be if you had a lot of money to live in one of the soulless new condos they tore down little apartments and shops to live in, the Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park was it. Wicker Park was Williamsburg before Williamsburg—a sentence that disgusts me to my core just typing it.
As a teen who knew how to get around the city via public transportation, I was drawn to Wicker Park when I was about 15, after reading somewhere that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth had dubbed it the coolest place in America. And to me, a kid, it was. I drank in bars with my fake I.D., saw weird bands play music I lied about liking, and got into the kind of trouble that thankfully didn’t stick with me. I was learning my way into adulthood, walking on the same sidewalks Nelson Algren once walked to get to his apartment on West Evergreen Avenue.
By the time I was old enough to live in the city, Wicker Park was already “done,” as an older friend put it. The yuppies were taking over, and that meant the apartments weren’t affordable anymore. I’d have to look elsewhere, so I ended up in the Ukrainian Village for my first apartment, then moved from there to Logan Square, a part of town known for its large Polish population. In a weird way, I was mimicking my grandmother’s family’s own journey when she was a child, thinking that leaving Stalin’s Russia for Poland was a safer bet. They were doing it for survival; I was doing it for cheaper rent. They ended up getting the Nazis, I partied and overstayed my welcome. They were in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s, I was in America as we marched towards the end of the century. They went from a part of New Russia that would someday become part of Ukraine to Poland. I went from a part of Chicago that was predominantly Ukrainian to a neighborhood not too far away with a significant Polish population. That felt significant.
My nights in Logan Square blur into one long failure. We’d start out with a “dirty thirty” (a 30-pack) of “The Beast” (Milwaukee’s Best) and end it with bottles of whatever Polish beer looked the cheapest. Then I’d wake up and seek out any hearty Polish food I could to cure me.
When I eventually made the move to Greenpoint, it was pretty much the same deal, though The Beast was a little difficult to find, too classy for New York City, I’d joke. We’d just keep drinking local—and by local, I mean Polish—beer. Sometimes I’d be able to stop and talk about my Wicker Park and Williamsburg theory, adding an interesting twist about how both of those neighborhoods were located very close to parts of their respective cities with lots of Polish people. It became my way of linking the place where I’m from to the place where I ended up. Somehow I found myself in these very similar situations, some funny twist of fate that these two big towns sort of ended up mimicking each other.
After I moved away from my apartment in Greenpoint, inching deeper and more southbound into my borough, I found myself in the perfect sweet spot within walking distance of one of the great cemeteries of America, Green-Wood, and a small—compared to my former neighborhood—Polish population in the South Slope neighborhood a few blocks from my apartment. Mixed in with pockets of black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Jewish, and not too far from Brooklyn’s Chinatown, I felt like I was at home right away in my little melting pot.
I could walk a few minutes to Crown Heights and get food from the Caribbean. (My favorite place that served jerk chicken patties closed down a year after I moved near it.) I had Raskin’s, whose motto is: “If it swims and it’s kosher, we have it.” I could ride my bike to Defonte's, the Red Hook sandwich spot that I still go to for the roast beef and eggplant sandwich once every year around Christmas for no real reason other than I’d like to have some traditions in my life. I’d look at the wall with signed pictures of nearly every cast member from The Sopranos, and wonder to myself if maybe Arthur Miller ate lunch in the very same spot while researching the local dockworkers for his original version of On the Waterfront—title: The Hook—that would never be made.
But maybe, most importantly, there was a small Polish population right down the street from me. I didn’t know this when I agreed to move in, but I was delighted to discover it.
I’ve been to Poland, but I don’t speak Polish. I don’t have some deep fascination with Polish people or culture, no real warm memories instilled by some older Polish person when I was younger. In fact, just like most of Central and Eastern Europe, I grew up hearing only bad things about the country from my family who still had all kinds of bad memories and stories fresh in their heads. And yet, there’s something about knowing I’m within a Polish or other Eastern European community that just makes me feel at home. And when I moved to the South Slope, no place made me feel quite as good as Eagle Provisions.
Opened in 1979, long before the borough became littered with specialty beer stores and bars, people often told me that Eagle had the biggest beer selection in the neighborhood. Some swore in all of Brooklyn. I’d go out of my way to go there for beer, maybe picking up the occasional roll of paper towels or some missing ingredient for whatever it was I was maybe cooking that night, but I mostly went there for the food. Dried sausages, pierogies, borscht, latkes (they just called them potato pancakes), all kinds of unidentifiable parts of the pig, and other foods that will keep you warm through a cold winter in Lublin.
It wasn’t especially great. The people weren’t all that friendly if you didn’t speak their language. From what I could gather, expiration dates didn’t totally matter. And, hey, you know, I may have gotten food poisoning from cabbage stuffed with—what I assumed was—beef that I bought from them. But it was still there, goddammit. And it was always warm and dim. And it didn’t look like your typical, cookie-cutter grocery store with the stock images of meats and cheeses and lighting that could render you blind. The place had personality. I like that in a place.
And then, in the spring of 2015, Eagle was gone. Another place that sold me goods that I’d grown attached to was shuttered and faced the wrecking ball. The Zawisny family that had bought the store a few decades earlier for $65,000, and sold it for $7.5 million to another developer who was looking to build another set of apartments that, if like a lot of the big units built in the area over the last decade, would probably end up being too expensive and hard to fill. Good for the Zawisnys, I thought. Get the bastards before they get you. That’s sort of how it goes in New York City real estate.
In her eulogy for Eagle Provisions, Rosie Schaap wrote, “Unlike many other local merchants—at bars and delis, coffeehouses and cafes—it never felt as though the Zawisnys were here to make friends. But they were, nonetheless, always here.”
In a lot of ways, that was what I loved about the place. That, and that it felt so familiar to me. It reminded me of late-night stops after hockey games on frozen Chicago nights when I was 12 or 13. I remember going to a Polish buffet at 11pm with my teammate and his hungry parent that was driving us, the starch and flesh just laid out there for me and my growing boy body to wolf down. I piled all sorts of foods onto my plate, eating away the game I can’t recall if we won or lost.
Eagle also reminded me of the little Logan Square tavern that my friends and I visited a few times when I was underage, the Polish conversations mixed with the smell of cigarette smoke and whatever beer was being poured from the single tap. A few weeks after my first visit, the place would be shuttered, bottles behind the bar being sold for five and 10 dollars apiece. There was a Polish market not too far from there that I frequented, and another when I moved to Brooklyn—same deal. I knew I was an outsider, but didn’t care.
Not long after, I heard that Lomzynianka, a Greenpoint restaurant where I’d dined more than a few times, had been stuck in that weird business purgatory before, finally, being put out of its misery. It starts with the dreaded sign that claims the place is closed for renovations that never end up actually taking place. Eventually, a new yoga studio or some fast food chain moves in. Some investment. Another place I felt some sort of connection to becomes just a memory, a few photographs. A Yelp page that hasn’t seen a review in some time stands as a tribute. A taste in my mouth that out of nowhere might return to haunt me.
“Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread,” the Polish writer Bruno Schulz opened his story “The Age of Genius.” Each life is filled with ordinary facts. I’ve often wondered what they all add up to. What mundane little instances from my past make me want to be close to these places I don’t have much connection to? Price and location have something to do with it. These little enclaves I’m drawn to: the Romanian part of Long Island City where I can get a brown paper bag filled with hot, greasy sorici (salted pork rinds), the East Village streets where a Ukrainian community exists and I can stop in at Veselka at any moment of the day, or Brighton Beach, where I can get the Russian black bread I acquired a taste for at some point along the way. What ordinary facts draw me to these places? Why did I feel the need to make sure I went to Nye's Polonaise Room in Minneapolis after I heard it was closing, even after I found the last meal I’d had there, a Polish sausage platter, to be subpar at best?
My DNA may have traveled through the lands where these foods and the people that made them came from, sure, but they aren’t mine. I tend to joke and tell people I’ll move anywhere as long as I don’t have to travel more than an hour to get a decent bagel (another food with Polish origins), that I could live outside of New York or Chicago, but I’d need to be able to find a place within close proximity to my home that makes several different kinds of sausages in-house, preferably from some old family recipe. Why do I like these places where people settled so much?
The rent, yeah, that factors in. There’s the food, of course. Nothing fussy, it’ll always warm you up. Those mundane moments sitting over a bowl of soup or some plate of food that is almost totally drowning in mushroom gravy and a sprig of dill giving it some color, those nothing moments? They make me happy. I hope I’ll always be able to have them.
But there’s more.
Not to dive too deep into my own brain and do the job of the shrink I pay for once a week, but living in a city means things are constantly moving, things are almost always slipping away. People leave, buildings get torn down, and new ones get put up that block the view you loved so much. I will probably always live in a city, possibly the one I’m in now. I might not ever leave New York, and there’s something comforting about that after a lifetime of feeling like a vagabond, but there’s also my need to have places and things and people that I feel will be there. The neighborhoods I find myself inhabiting or spending most of my free time in feel like they have an actual identity—they’re worn in. For lack of better words, when everything else feels homogenized and boring, they feel real and alive to me. I crave that almost as much as I do that plate of pierogies. That helps me feel connected, like I have a home to call my own.
While big-city progress moves on and what was shifts to no longer being, as communities get integrated more into America and their new country and its ways take over what they brought with them, I wonder how many more Eagle Provisions or random 24/7 spots that serve pierogies when I need them most—when I’m drunk and/or cold, to be honest—that I’ll find in this life.
Call it gentrification, Americanization, or whatever—as people move into cities not because of necessity, but by choice, certain communities scatter, and some neighborhoods lose the people and the cultures that made them interesting in the first place. The Chinese market becomes another soulless glass condo. The little corner store where you used to buy soda and bags of chips, the one that blasts reggaeton in the summertime? It gets shuttered and turned into an office for some tiny tech startup no one will remember in a few years. The place where you ate food and drank beer from Poland gets leveled to dust. A clothing boutique that’s always devoid of customers opens up where it once stood.
Sooner or later, it all looks the same. Sooner or later, you begin to miss those ordinary facts, those little moments, those places you may have not given much thought to before you knew they were gone. Sooner or later, you need to find a new place to go to get a real good bowl of hot borscht.
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