Breakfast at Brelreck's
By Jonathan Lethem
Under the shadow of the Williamsburg Savings Bank tower small, faintly visible men brave streams of traffic at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. Brooklyn's two great streets arrive in good spirits there and are demoralized, having unexpectedly tangled with the more prosaic Fourth Avenue, which points towards but never reaches the sea, being interrupted by a cemetery. Fourth Avenue, strewn with oil-stained automobile repair shops, destroys the human imagination, this is widely known. What's less known is that it is also too much for Flatbush and Atlantic.
These nearly microscopic men in hats and coats scurry amongst an archipelago of desolate streetcorners, flattened brick-littered lots, a traffic island with a newspaper stand, and the Long Island Railroad terminal, the only evidence for which above the ground is a pipe-and-plywood scaffold layered with decades of torn posterings.
A truck corners Fourth and humps over the curb beside a cigar store. A small boy runs from the traffic island, ducking behind the men crossing: from the newsstand he's stolen a comic book, Blue Beetle #1. The Blue Beetle is a Charlton Comic, drawn by Steve Ditko, Marvel's outcast. The men hasten, the Avenues moan. The men are assembling for a late breakfast at a counter inside the bowels of the terminal. Some recognize one another. Others merely sense a kinship of worn shoes and pen-inky fingertips, an ache in the left quadrant of the ribcage, a dislike for a certain barber, a sister's son in the army, circles drawn in newspapers around telephone extensions never dialed.
A sign painted in fifteen-foot high letters on pink brick asks ""Have you had any lately? Clams, Steamers."
A pawnshop features a variety of typewriters, trumpets, and wristwatches, plus one bassoon.
Two Chinese joints, No Pork Restaurant and Fu King Food Shop. Both serve from behind bulletproof glass.
Nobody can say what's sold at Samuel J. Underberg's, but with that signage he's made sure they won't forget his name.
Down inside the station against a backdrop of rusty squeals and staticky timetable announcements the men sit at the coffee shop counter and fold their newspapers, lick their fingers, frown. The counter's built into a corner of the station behind the ticket desk. The glass door which might shield it from the rumblings and oil smoke is tied open with a frayed white rope, hung from the rope's a sign at least twenty years old showing a steaming cup and the single word Open. The sign behind the counter formed of moveable red plastic letters with teeth which press into grooves in a green felt background says egg sandwich 39c, egg and cheese 49c, tuna 39c english 5c coffee tea 19c, juice 15c, juice tomato 19c. Nobody's ordered tea or juice tomato in a thousand years and counting.
The men all wear hats which featured originally a tiny peacock's feather, now missing. The exception is one small man in a brown suit with frayed cuffs and a stained collar. He wears a blue cap with a B on it, a baseball cap with the bill missing so it resembles a beanie or yarmulke. When the talk starts it is always this man in the blue cap who starts it. The others have arrayed themselves at the counter around him according to their tolerance.
"Mighty Brelreck's," says the man in the blue cap now, his tone heavily sarcastic.
No one replies.
"Like sunflowers we turn our heads toward the radiance of Brelreck's urn," says the man in the cap. "Like sunflowers it is a fershlunken miracle we are still on our feet."
"Writing poetry?" says another man without turning his head.
"Reading, not writing," says the man in the cap. "It still occurs in certain quarters."
This bait goes untaken. Coffee is slurped in quiet concentration, as though the world's turning depends on certain metabolic balances being achieved at this counter deep beneath the pavement.
A woman bursts in - if a woman entered Brelreck's on tiptoe she'd be bursting. This one's a thin negro lady with short hair barretted in certain places, wearing a windbreaker and a skirt and sandals. Her nails are painted a blue not unresembling that of the beanie-like cap. She speaks with urgency to anyone listening.
"How do you get to Kennedy airport?"
A man in an ordinary hat answers. "Car or train?"
"That's a long way."
"Just tell me."
They're all going to be involved, they can just feel it. "You don't understand, lady," says another man. "That's however many miles. You can't walk."
"I walked here."
"A trifle, here from Myrtle. You're talking that twenty times over."
"Tell me, please."
Shrugs all around.
The Brelreck's man leans in and says, "Want a coffee?"
"Sit, sister, have coffee."
"Yeah, we'll treat you. You gotta consider this in depth."
The woman sits between the primary advice-giver with the ordinary hat and the man with the cap. The man with the cap leans in now and says, "Idlewild." Anyone can sense his pleasure in the syllables.
The woman stares at him like he's naked.
"Formerly Idlewild, now named for our late president. The name's already a relic, I see it in your eyes."
Shrugs and eyerolling all around.
"You know where you're sitting?" says the man with the cap.
Woman shakes her head, takes a first sip.
"The last Brelreck's remaining. You might not care, but Brelreck's once had the city like this." He shakes a gripped hand. "One hundred and thirty outlets including the observation deck of the Empire State, of which you've surely heard. Brelreck's had a roasting plant on Avenue D you could smell in Sunnyside, and a plantation in Cuba. You from Cuba perchance?"
"Ah." He waits, but nothing's coming. "Well, so where was I? Brelreck's, of course - mighty Brelreck's." He shoots a look at the Brelreck's man, who turns in disgust.
"That's right," says the man in the blue cap. "It's nothing to be proud of. What happened to Brelreck's, you ask? My fine lady, they overreached." The grasping hand now shoots out, trembles in failure at some unseen goal, retreats. "Went head to head with Chock Full O'Nuts. You don't need me to tell you how that came out. Today we're noshing in the ghost of a thing, madam, not a thing itself."
"You really walking to Kennedy?" says the man in the ordinary hat. He and the others have had time now to get their minds around it. Why shouldn't she if she wants to is the general drift.
"You just go straight out Atlantic, all the way."
Another guy leans in. "But we're talking a long way. You never knew a street was so long as this."
"You'll think you're crazy," says another. "It just goes. Don't give up."
"A lot of the stores out that direction have yellow signs," adds a guy who usually doesn't say anything.
"Sue me," he says, holding out his hands like now they shouldn't wonder why he never talks. "I don't know the reason. Maybe somebody had a special on yellow once."
They all let this sink in, with annoyance.
"Anyway," says the man with the ordinary hat. "You get all the way out there the end of Atlantic, you gotta take a hard right at something called the Grand Concourse."
"Grand Concourse even have a walkway?" someone raises.
A bunch of guys wave it off. She's become like horse they've bet on. They all want to see it done. "She'll walk underneath," someone says.
"There's one more thing you should know," says the man in the blue cap.
The woman stares at him, puts down her cup.
"This place, it's more than just Brelreck's that drew you here."
"Not now," says another guy. But it's hopeless.
"Above ground around here, Flatbush and Atlantic, you notice how for blocks everything's flattened out? All those empty lots?"
Woman makes the error of nodding, not that there's any alternative.
"It's no accident this place looks like that. Few grasp or understand this was meant to be the new Ebbets Field. They got as far as picking out the site and knocking it all down. Could have been a Fenway, a Wrigley. Something beautiful. Then the Dodgers - whoosh - Los Angeles."
Somebody stage whispers, "Get going, lady, it's okay. You'll be here all day."
The woman looks at the Brelreck's man, her eyes asking if the coffee was really gratis. He nods.
"Forget Los Alamos," says the man in the cap, his voice rising. "Forget the Bikini Islands. This is ground zero right here."
The woman is nearly out the door. Some guys are more gentlemen than others, they tip their newspapers slightly in farewell.
"We're dwelling here inside the scar from Brooklyn's ripped-out heart or possibly lungs!" the man in the cap screams. "The vital organs!"
The place has no echo, the scream dies in the air. The woman is gone. The man in the ordinary hat jerks his head at the Brelreck's man for more coffee. Newspapers are being wrinkled in serious consideration. Someone, we're not saying who, has got a streak of egg on his lapel - wouldn't happen if the schmuck would cook the yolk all the way like he was asked. The man in the blue cap snorts, scratches his nose, tries to settle.
"The vital organs," he mutters.
They've heard it before.
Above, a truck has busted an axle and sags at the triangle's curb, halting traffic on Fourth for miles. The woman exploits the tie-up to cross against the lights, and hurries down Atlantic. She sees a kid on a bicycle, waves him to a stop. He spins his pedal backwards while she forms her question.
"How do you get to Kennedy Airport?"
—Thanks to Luke Jaeger
Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of the author. No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.