Over the weekend, my husband and I disconnected from the world in celebration of our wedding anniversary by venturing to one of our favorite upstate sanctums. Breathe Inn.
I love this place because of its history (this was once a refuge for people in the Black Panther Party and Abby Hoffman); the eclectic collection of art, much of which is graffiti and street inspired (one of our favorite Lee Quinones pieces hangs beautifully on a wall in the cozy living room area); the Moroccan themed bedrooms and movie room reminds me of the most beautiful country I’ve laid eyes on so far. There’s a teepee outside and a front porch reminiscent of a southern plantation. Depending on where your gaze falls, Breathe Inn offers a motley array of rich and sometimes ethereal experiences.
The only awkward moments happen in the morning, a few minutes before 10AM. This is when co-owner/private chef begins to set the communal dining table for breakfast. My husband and I scramble to get ready and are usually the last to arrive. There’s something a bit daunting about beginning the day with a group of total strangers. Most of the time they come in to the dining table showered and eager to get their day started while we haphazardly check one another like chimps for eye crust and struggle to make ourselves presentable for the imminent meet-and-greet.
Sure, these unpredictable gatherings can make anyone frazzled. And yet, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there’s something about the nervous energy of being thrown together with total strangers I find appealing. Because I’m a writer and filmmaker I can find inspiration in all sorts of characters, from the overbearing asshole types to the kind, easy-going locals. I’m only disappointed if I leave feeling underwhelmed or bored to death by the company.
The husband and I sauntered in half asleep to find two couples talking to each other at opposite ends of the kitchen counter. There was something about the couple on the left I found familiar. The young woman looked related to one of my close girlfriends and DP’s. Her boyfriend, a tall lanky red-head who may have had freckles reminded me of the Irish-American folks who called us “spics” and the more creative “nigga-spics” where I grew up in the 1980s—Inwood, located at the very tip of Manhattan. There was something cool and familiar about them.
We sat down at the table where Marlon, the chef, placed breakfast down in front of us. It was hard not to drool over my plate. I didn’t realize how well bananas and eggs went together until now.
And that’s when we broke the proverbial ice with a, “So, do you come here often?” I never start a conversation with “What do you do?” I find that tacky and uber-déclassé. After all, that usually comes up organically so why force the issue as if we were having a working breakfast or job interview?
The subject of gentrification and whitewashing of New York City bonded us, three couple who couldn’t possibly be more different from each other. Turns out the red-head and his girlfriend were familiar because they, like myself, are rare breeds: born and bred New Yorkers. Red’s family settled on the very block I grew up on.
“I wonder if any of your cousins called me a ‘spic’?” I joked.
“Probably,” he countered.
His father worked for the transit authority at the height of the graffiti movement and was one of those souls who (quietly) supported and viewed it as an art-form, one that should have been allowed to flourish.
Red’s girlfriend is from Yonkers, the district where I started high school. Though she was younger than me she had known many people who started attending Sacred Heart but “were asked to leave or flat-out thrown out.” I understood because I am one of those people. She is a ska-music fiend, a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s with a jones for the trumpet. She is Italian and Jewish like the woman she reminds me of, with family on Arthur Ave (like my friend) who hung out with D-Block and Jadakiss back when. That eclectic background is something unique to New Yorkers.
The couple to our left hailed from Belgium and live in New York. Anytime I meet someone from Belgium I bring up Belgian waffles, tartines, Duvel beer and Zap Mama, one of my favorite groups of all-time and their lead singer Marie, a dear acquaintance. And while King Leopold’s legacy—the atrocities included the introduction of amputating limbs as a terror tactic— and his reign in the Congo freak me the hell out, I digressed. After a few minutes, we realized that all of us at the table had something in common with the European couple: a disdain for what Williamsburg has become and how their example should be seen as a warning sign to the cultural vibrancy of New York City.
To the Belgian, who was born in a town of five thousand, New York City was a mecca. He was first attracted by his love of graffiti art and the city’s brewing counterculture. New York birthed movements like Fania’s classic salsa and hip-hop, two resonant cultural exports. There’s something different about the vibration here, something saccharine now, he said. Just a few monts ago he went to buy a pair of sneakers at a sneaker shop in Soho. The clerk’s demeanor was that of a guy forcing himself to be achingly hip, overbearingly so. “He looked like he jumped off the L train, so fake.” Somehow, the city seems to be losing its soul. It doesn’t take a New Yorker to see that anymore.
When people moved here back in the ’70s and ’80s, they did so with relatively no money. Many folks were outcasts who wanted to the freedom to create art and express themselves without the pressure of their conservative families and communities weighing them down. Now, the people (white, black, Latino, and other) who are moving into the city are generally wealthier—parents are equipping their kids with fat bank accounts and condos from jump—and those newcomers are pricing out the generations of local families that have given our city its character. Locals are made to feel, with every luxury condo erected and new tree planted on their block, like they don’t belong anymore.
When a couple from another reach of the globe can pick up on those nuances it speaks volumes. I don’t miss the extremely high crime rates, nor the violence and the crack-era I suffocated in during the ’80s. I do, however, miss the warmth, the feeling of community even during the moments of static and racial tension we endured. I longed, over breakfast and several cups of coffee, to have it both ways.