Natives & Neighborhoods Comfort Food
I moved to Brooklyn to eat at a restaurant.
I didn’t move to Brooklyn because I wanted to be someone. I moved here to eat at a restaurant, which I only found because, in 2006, I visited a guy I had been texting. We had been texting so much, in fact, that I had to switch to an unlimited plan. My ambition was minimal then, and I didn’t even own a computer. In Buffalo, New York, it was dark and cold most of the year, socially small, and I woke up every morning at 4:45 a.m. to open a coffee shop. And I was sad. I didn’t feel connections; instead I often felt anxiety. My sense of trust was ragged—I’d burned through jobs, friends, roommates, boys. I was fired from one job because a safety pin held together one of my skirts. I woke up one morning after my roommates had a party to splintered chairs and a thick crust of solid salt covering my kitchen floor. Every couple I knew cheated on each other horrifically, almost for fun. I saw greed, depravity, and manipulation all around me, and something in me had broken. I felt as though I couldn’t even trust myself.
Because this guy knew I was Polish, he brought me to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, where a good friend of his lived above a restaurant, Lomzynianka, that served cheap pierogies. Everyone in the restaurant looked up at us, spoons of dripping soup halfway to their mouths, as we entered. Silent men glowered at us as they ripped hunks of rye bread. I’d never dreamed such a tiny space could fit enough tables to be considered a restaurant, with its fake brick wallpaper and the plastic animal heads strung with paper garlands. Inside, it smelled like my mother’s kitchen, where she would pound pork cutlets with a special spiky hammer, and my sister and I would dip them into egg, flour, and breadcrumbs, our fingers coated with the breading goo.
In the middle of our meal I said, “I feel like I belong here,” and that Brooklyn guy and his Brooklyn friend both laughed at Buffalo me. Chastened, I tried to explain: “No, specifically Greenpoint. This is the first time in my life I can live somewhere I can hear people speaking Polish.” They couldn’t understand the conversations going on around us, but I could. I stage-whispered, “That couple is fighting.” Despite feeling like a cliche for my naivet é , there were flecks of Polish dill on my mashed potatoes, so I tried not to care how clearly I was not cool enough for Brooklyn.
I moved from Buffalo to Greenpoint with my boyfriend, the texting Brooklyn guy long gone, two months after I graduated from college. We felt like we were making a run for it. The manager of the coffeeshop where I’d worked for three years said I wasn’t welcome back once he realized I was serious, once he realized I was actually leaving.
Almost immediately, I started a campaign to endear myself with the proprietor of Lomzynianka, a grumpy Polish man whose wife cooked while he served. He was always there, moving at his own pace. His wife would occasionally walk through with a kerchief over her hair, carrying large containers of beets or sour cream or bread crumbs. I never saw them exchange affection or anything but terse service words. He’d deadpan, “Barszcz,” (borscht) and she’d nod, then a soup bowl would clank as it hit the counter. He didn’t visibly react when, with trepidation, I spoke to him in Polish. Eventually, he started bringing me rye bread with my soup. He smiled thinly at my boyfriend’s attempts to order in Polish. I knew I had finally won him over the first time he addressed me in Polish without starting in English.
Part of what I loved about living in Greenpoint in 2007 was that it was a neighborhood where I could be every part of myself. Residents were either Polish—people who had lived in Greenpoint their whole lives or had just emigrated from Poland—or young people moving there to be near Williamsburg. I could pronounce “Lomzynianka,” but I did not have an accent. People would speak Polish near me, thinking I didn’t understand. Once, this embarrassed a shopkeeper at a kitchen supply store where I was looking for a new teakettle to replace the cheap one I’d just melted. In between his pleasant banter in English with me about the importance of a good teakettle, he berated another worker in Polish. I handed over my credit card and when he saw my name he said, “Oh, are you Polish?” Then, “Can you understand what I’ve been saying?” I answered yes to both questions.
A friend of mine once accused me of gentrifying the neighborhood. I disagreed, since I spoke the language, shopped in Polish shops, and bought New Warsaw rye bread from Rzeszowska bakery for $1.50 with exact change. He shook his head and said, “But you went to college.” I felt upset whenever people complicated Greenpoint for me when they said kneejerk things like that. I didn’t want to take property values into account when I was happy to meet someone and speak Polish with them. I didn’t want to think of the drunkards sleeping on the church steps on Manhattan Avenue, or their permanent sunburn. I didn’t want to think about Brooklyn Label’s brunch lines and their perfect oatmeal, or Greenpoint Coffee House closing, only that I had loved it wholeheartedly—“RIP GPCH,” I said. Greenpoint was a large part of who I was becoming; delving into its complexities felt unappreciative and overly intellectual. I wanted to feel simple, streamlined.
At Lomzynianka, I had my simplicity; there was no need to scrutinize. The food was served on the exact same plates my grandparents used in Poland. Everyone thought their food was good. The menu was in both English and Polish. Everyone who tried to make me feel guilty for moving to Greenpoint couldn’t say shit to me about Lomzynianka. The owner knew me. Lomzynianka made me feel at home.
I began to learn more about the world around me during my Greenpoint years. I fell deep in love with the man who had moved across the state with me. We struggled with money together, playing price-guessing games at the grocery store so we could afford what was in our cart. I began moving towards the publishing industry by volunteering and interning as much as I could. Meanwhile, I ate at my favorite restaurant with friends and family. When planning a visit, my dad would ask, feigning nonchalance, “What time does Lomzynianka open?” I ate there after hard days, and I celebrated there too.
During the first year of my life in Brooklyn, I walked over the Pulaski Bridge every day, out of my cozy Greenpoint and into bare Long Island City, where I faced the harshness of literal stacks of twenty dollar bills. I counted them, marked them, banded them in my job as a head bank teller. I was trained by Narreman, a woman who worked at a bank branch that had combined three other banks into one, where all three former head tellers worked together. Narreman was the head teller of the head tellers. She gave me cookies and pies, gifts customers had brought her . She inspired loyalty with her playful knowledgeability. She also inspired trust, and I never saw anyone challenge her. She was diligent, polite, but most importantly, she knew everything about her job. I wanted to be the Narreman of whatever I ended up doing in my professional life.
Lomzynianka was still cheap then, so I could afford to eat there and complain to my boyfriend about the subordinate who hated me because I was younger than him, a girl, college-educated, and his boss. “Today he miscounted his drawer into the thousands,” I’d say one evening over pierogies. Another evening, with my mouth full of beet salad, I said, “He turned off the fraud detector in the money counter and accepted counterfeit bills today.” But Lomzyianka made me feel safe enough to admit what was really wrong, and what was really hard for me to admit—I couldn’t manage him.
A year later, I quit the bank. I started working at coffee shops, so I had the irregular service hours that allowed me to depend on the Greenpoint Public Library. There, I ordered books, wrote, read, and met people. The librarians were terrible. They seemed to hate their jobs, which baffled me. I never heard them recommend a book to anyone, even to the noisy kids who seemed to use the library as a hangout.
The library and Lomzynianka kind of worked together on me until I changed my life, motivating me to build a career in book publishing. The man who worked the front of Lomzynianka had something he owned, something that touched people. I wanted that too. That man’s glower meant a lot to me, more than any false polite niceness ever could. I realized how much I wanted to work with books when I told my boyfriend about the librarians. I asked him, “Did they realize how lucky they were?”
The last time I ate at Lomzynianka, I was pregnant and married to the man who moved across the state with me. On our first day in Brooklyn, he’d looked at me and said, “Let’s never leave,” and a visceral thrill ran through me. We had come a long way with the owner of my favorite restaurant, who expressed happiness at our loyalty after all these years. He was glad we still came in so often even though we’d left the neighborhood. After he left our table, I held my husband’s hands across the table and smiled at him. I talked about how happy I was, how much I loved him, how excited I was to someday bring our child to this place that had meant so much to us. I suggested having “Greenpoint days” with the baby, when we’d take long walks down Manhattan Avenue, shopping for smoked ham, Wedel candy, serek, bread. We’d have breakfast at Peter Pan Donuts. We’d come to Lomzynianka for lunch. We were stupid happy and had a wonderful time.
I’m glad this was the last meal I would have there. It was cloudless that day, and only in hindsight is it sad. If I’d been warned that Lomzynianka was closing and I went there one last time, I would have cried into my barszcz ukrainski.
Lomzynianka had changed with the neighborhood over the years—the Polski talerz went from $6.75 to $12, and the line of customers waiting for a table went out the door—but I wasn’t the kind of Brooklyn resident who generally complained about how things used to be different. After eight years, I’d learned that Brooklyn would keep changing, and the hard part of living there was accepting that, and adjusting to it. I wanted the restaurant to be more and more popular — I wanted the owner and his wife to be millionaires.
But now that I realize I never even knew his name, and that I’ll never see him again to ask it, and that it’s my fault I don’t know it, I will allow myself to complain and to be selfish. I don’t want Lomzynianka to be closed; I want it to stay open and serve me food eternally. I want to promise the uninitiated how amazing their dinners will be. I want the garlands to never stop changing color with the seasons. I want the framed reviews from now-defunct weeklies to stay on the walls. I want to walk through the doorway and remember sitting there all those years ago, feeling the first urges of belonging. I want to explain the name and pronunciation of the restaurant to people. I want to say, “It’s Wom-zhy-nyan-kah—it means ‘girl from Lomza,’ a city in Poland.” To me, the place meant “girl in a city that she will live in and be happy in and work and grow and live in.”