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The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Brooklyn Heights, New York With Elisabeth Eaves
"Back when a lot of people were just moving to this neighborhood, it was dominated by old Dutch families," she says. "The gentlemen of the neighborhood would affix their names to the streets. And there was a woman, a botanist and a horticulturalist, and she was annoyed that the men would just stick their names up on the street corners. She would take them down in the night and put up the names of plants. This went back and forth as kind of a cat and mouse battle for a while. And when the street names were finally grandfathered in by the city, she won, because she was the last person to stick up her names."
This anonymous horticulturalist would no doubt be pleased that, more than a century later, Ms. Eaves and I are meeting for lunch at Iris Café. As if in deference to that earlier era, you're not allowed to use computers or iPads at this restaurant that opened in 2009. Surrounded instead by folks engaged in the old-fashioned perusal of books and newspapers, we feast on delicious avocado sandwiches and talk about how Eaves, who was nomadic for years, finally settled in New York. She's been here for four years and owns a small studio apartment. I ask if she's found the geographic commitment difficult.
"It's not as hard as I would have expected," she says. "It's partly because I love this city. As a traveler, I think many of us have a need for hyper-stimulation. I love big cities. Big, serious cities." She doesn't always find New York thrilling, the way she did when she first arrived. "But I still have days, and moments, where I'm like: wow."
Eaves is, of course, one of many writers who've wound up in the area and she's well aware of the borough's literary legacy.
"As a writer, I am particularly conscious – not that I fetishize this stuff or think about it all the time – that there have been a lot of writers who lived in Brooklyn Heights," she says. "It's nice to know that things have been accomplished."
Some of those things were accomplished at 142 Columbia Heights, Norman Mailer's nautical-themed apartment. If we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of more than the exterior, a possibility when the place went on sale a few years ago, we'd see how the author installed crow's nests, galley rooms and ladders, supposedly to overcome his fear of heights.
We do, however, spend some time taking in a foggy view of lower Manhattan by walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a popular 1/3-mile stretch along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. On nicer days, Eaves joins a cavalcade of joggers here who exercise to a traffic-laden soundtrack while winding towards or away from the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the United States.
Not too far away we pass by another famous writer's former homestead. Truman Capote's brownstone, constructed at 70 Willow Place in the late 1800s, recently sold for $12 million. Maybe the buyer was a fan of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which was written inside.
Thanks to long-gone reasonable real estate prices, Capote and Mailer no doubt had some version of the home offices that New York freelancers would kill for. But when you're sharing a studio apartment, like Eaves and her husband do, it's wise to find a laptop friendly café or two in the neighborhood. And Eaves has found just that in Vineapple Cafe on Pineapple Street, a joint run by a cadre of friendly, wrinkled-clothed college students.
The place has the laid-back feel of your college dormitory's lounge, if that lounge served up Portland-based but New York favorite Stumptown coffee and Brooklyn's Colson Patisserie baked goods, not to mention local wines and beers. When we enter, the roomy space is packed but quiet, some patrons happily sunk into plush couches, while a row of focused folks on laptops sit side by side at the bar like an unplanned ad for Apple products.
While we're standing in line to order, a familiar face approaches. It's Eaves' husband, here to work for the afternoon. I ask Eaves if she likes having the flexibility of being a dual-freelancer couple or if she'd prefer a different arrangement.
"It would be easier financially if one of us had a steady gig but to me it's normal now," she says. "I'm kind of hooked on it. It would be really weird if either of us were suddenly like: no, I can't go anywhere. Tomorrow we're going to Vancouver for Christmas to see family. We can be very flexible. We can go as long as we want and bring work with us if we need to. And there have been a lot of work trips we've been able to put together and do together."
Does she think she's here for good?
"My fantasy is that I can keep the place we have now as a pied-à-terre," she tells me. "If left totally to my own devices, there's probably a good chance I'd just stay in New York." But her husband is eager to move closer to family. The pair struck a bit of a deal when they first met: Eaves' husband would move to Brooklyn for a stretch to be with her but he gets first dibs on the next city they relocate to.
Before we part ways, she takes me to one of the spots she might miss if she leaves New York. The sun has set by the time we enter Jack the Horse Tavern on Hicks and Cranberry Street. Eaves calls the big-windowed, brick-lined restaurant the best in Brooklyn Heights. If the happy hour cocktails are any indication, she's onto something. We could continue our literary themed afternoon by ordering Hemingway daiquiris, but instead we both settle on gin infusions.
As we sip them, I ask Eaves about her varied career.
"My career path makes no logical sense," she says. "You would never sit down at age 20 and say: I'm going to study international relations and then work as a stripper and then go backpacking and then have an office job."
Despite her varied early years, Eaves knew she wanted to write but she didn't know how to convert that desire into a career. It took a while to find her way into journalism, and along the way, she wrote about everything from moss sculptures to business. Now she's tackling her first novel, like so many Brooklyn writers who preceded her – and like those who will, no doubt, flock here for future generations to come.
About the Wandering Writer:
Elisabeth Eaves is a writer and editor, born in Vancouver and living in New York City. Her first book, "Bare," was about stripping, and her second book, "Wanderlust," came out of a lifelong love of travel and trying to figure out why she felt so compelled to keep moving on. Her travel writing has also appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2009," "Best Women's Travel Writing 2010," and Lonely Planet's "A Moveable Feast." To read her stories, visit www.elisabetheaves.com.
[Photo Credits: Rachel Friedman]