MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.
It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.
It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.
They read up and found things to do on the way to these Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.
The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.
When they came back from the vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.
My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.
The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on—chasing a very, very small carrot.
The relation that the name Wolfawitz has to Wolfpoint is about the same as Greenwich, England, has to Greenwich Village.
The “Greenwich” of Greenwich Village came from a Dutch village on Long Island called Greenwijck (aka Pine District).
A man named Yellis Mandeville lived on Long Island near Greenwijck. In 1670, Yellis moved to Manhattan, bought a plot of land, and gave it a familiar name.
Copying your old neighbor is an unimaginative way to name a place. I feel this, but I also come from a family that nicknamed their family store “The Store.”
The “Village” part came from the fact that in 1670, New York hadn’t spread past the lowest tip of Manhattan. Above what is now the seaport and stock exchange were farms, meadows, swamps, woods, and a stream full of trout.
The stream full of trout was called Minetta Brook. It was actually called a lot of things, but Minetta is what stuck. The stream wound across downtown Manhattan from what became Gramercy through the future Washington Square Park and dumped out in the Hudson.
Beginning in the 1640s, some freed slaves of the Dutch settled along the Minetta and set up farms and homes.
When yellow fever swept through the crowded tip of Manhattan, people escaped to the village of Greenwijck and the clean waters of the Minetta.
Most of this factual history comes from The Village, by John Strausbaugh.
My father says Indians settled Manhattan thanks to antibodies that were found in the Minetta, and that the river is the true source of life where we know it.
This was not mentioned by Strausbaugh. No one calls it the river of life besides my dad.
Well, I call it the river of life, but only in my head.
I am pretty sure my brothers and sisters believe it as well.
Eventually, as Greenwijck became Greenwich and New York grew, the Village became part of the city. A city that paved over Minetta Brook in 1820. Some streets were shaped and named by it.
The street called Minetta Lane became a subdistrict of the Village known as Little Africa and continued to be settled by freed slaves, now from American owners rather than Dutch. The district had a progressive school and churches, though it was full of poverty, murder, and diseases.
Little Africa was also home to bars known as black-and-tans. Black-and-tans were one of the only spots in the city where white and black people mixed. They were debauched places, with drugs and gambling. Interracial coupling was on the PG side of the place, but they were a heaven for a certain type of person.
As the Village grew, its early acceptance of all people and proclivities continued. Blacks could screw whites, whites could screw blacks, men could screw men, musicians could play whatever noise they liked. Things the rest of the country found odd or disgraceful were welcomed with open arms in the Village. It became a symphony of oddities, and acted as a magnet for the country’s fringe people.
But that wasn’t what drew my dad.
He answered an ad from a Jewish newspaper that he found in the bathroom of his father’s paper factory.
DOWNTOWN — Fully furnished, custom designed, apt for rent. Laverne Properties: WAtkins 4 - 0481
My dad went to see the apartment, which happened to be on Christopher Street.
He loved it.
And was about to sign on the dotted line when he realized how much money it cost.
There was a signing fee, furniture charge every month, rent, and a “rug tax.”
He backed out.
Mr. Laverne was not happy. As my dad was leaving, he saw a sign in the building next door.
“Room for rent.”
It was a shithole.
But the place was a straight rental with no signing fee or rug tax. And that is how my dad moved to the Village.
Copyright © 2017 by Tamara Shopsin