Brooklyn's Hottest Message Board is an Abandoned BMW
Plus! Eric Adams Watch! CAFÉ ANNE Progress Report #2!
Welcome to Issue #36 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Last issue’s Q&A with Cori Carl, who visited every wastewater treatment plant in NYC before fleeing to Canada, revealed a surprising level of interest among readers about wastewater treatment plants in general.
Some took it upon themselves to research plants in their own backyard. Reader Mark D. in the Twin Cities (and author of the always interesting and eclectic Why Living Today Rocks newsletter) sent me a link to his town’s website which—this is so adorable—offers downloadable PDFs for each of the area’s nine plants. Like baseball cards, they feature stats on each facility’s type, capacity, communities served, discharge location, awards won, etc. Nerd heaven! There’s also a downloadable wastewater treatment plant activity packet for kids. I am just going to die.
Others posed questions. “Do waste water treatment plants smell?” asked reader Micheal G. I forwarded his question to our expert.
“The odor of a WWTP,” Ms. Carl responded, “varies significantly from one place to another, as well as from day to day. There is a strong inverse relationship between the average income of a neighborhood and the intensity of the smell. Using available odor control measures is always more expensive than not caring about people without the resources to make a fuss about quality of life. Day to day variability is generally due to the wind.”
So there you go!
In other news, I hope no one is reading CAFÉ ANNE for my powers of conjecture, because just about everything I assume or predict turns out to be wrong.
Case in point: the back story I made up after spotting a trashed BMW parked in my neighborhood that’s serving as a sort of local message board. The real story turned out to be a lot more interesting than what I’d invented. Please enjoy this week’s feature, “Brookyn’s Hottest Message Board is an Abandoned BMW,” below.
ERIC ADAMS WATCH
On Dirt Bikes, Drumming and Sort-of Secret Offices
I’m still enjoying the exploits of New York City’s newish mayor, Eric Adams. As a profile in Politico put it, “In a city of weird people and weird mayors, Adams is maybe the most idiosyncratic figure to ever hold the office.”
Here, round-up #6 of the mayor’s doings:
June 21: After residents complain about dirt bikes careening around city streets (what is this, Pennsylvania?), the mayor has 92 bikes swept up by the NYPD and crushed by a bulldozer in a city auto pound. “Today, as we stand in the shadow of the Freedom Tower, we are freeing ourselves from these destructive pieces of machinery on our streets,” he says at a press conference.
July 4: To celebrate Independence Day, the mayor tweets a video clip of himself enjoying his first jet-ski lesson. His self-assessment: “Looking like a pro.”
July 13: The mayor’s adult education odyssey continues: he posts a TikTok video of his mini drum lesson with a street musician outside City Hall. His turn at the high hat and kick drum looks rather effortful, but he waxes triumphant: “I know the rhythm of this city!”
July 13: Later that day, Politico reports that the Mayor has been maintaining a “secret office” in the Verizon building, the weird tower looming over the Brooklyn Bridge a few blocks from City Hall. The mayor denies it is secret and frames his occasional visits to the clandestine workspace as a clever allocation of city resources: "It was a brilliant, smart idea and it just continues to show the brilliance of my administration!”
Brooklyn’s Hottest Message Board is an Abandoned BMW
I was walking home from Trader Joe’s recently when I saw something strange on the street, which happens ALL THE TIME here in Brooklyn, which is why I live here.
In this case, it was a dented BMW with Vermont plates parked near the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Henry Street. It was covered in graffiti. Very 1970s! Except this is 2022, and the tags were, in many cases, weirdly sunny. Among the messages scrawled on the car: “Love Always Wins!” and “Happy Fathers Day 2022!”
A closer inspection suggested that this was some sort of guerilla art installation. Affixed to the passenger door was a scannable QR code—linked to an Instagram account, of course—along with suggested hash tags for folks posting photos of the car. A magnetic bin labeled “Please Do Not Steal” was filled with chalk markers so passersby could add their own messages.
“Hmph!” I thought. “Artists!” Brooklyn is full of them. I imagined some prankster kid, fresh in town with a Yale MFA who thinks he invented the concept of quirky participatory art, gleefully posting Instagrams with one hand while penning his paper on “The Subjective Liminal: Post-Capitalist Adventures in Public Space Expressionism,” with the other. I hate that kid! But I’m also a sucker for this sort of thing. I hopped on Instagram the moment I got home and asked for an interview with whomever was behind the project.
Boy, am I glad I did! Because the story I invented was nothing like the actual story behind the car. The real story is a lot more weird.
The project’s instigator, it turns out, is one Laurie Duncan, a New York native born in the Bronx. She has never attended art school, or any other sort of college, for that matter. She’s not an artist, she told me when I met her this past Saturday at café on Court Street. She’s just a lady who lives a few doors down from where the car is parked. She and her husband bought their Atlantic Avenue apartment back in 1997, before the neighborhood got fancy. She runs her Mac repair and tech consulting business out of the storefront below.
“I’ve been in the same spot for 26 years, so I know everyone, and I'm a smoker who does not smoke in her own apartment, so I’m outside a lot,” said Ms. Duncan. “If I'm home, I'm outside having a cigarette. You know, there are a few people who call me the mayoress of the block. I am not. But I know people and I'm friendly!”
It was because she was outside smoking so often that she first noticed the car. No, not the BMW. This was a small, silver Kia with Connecticut plates. It showed up one day in November, 2020—the early days of the pandemic—and never left. Months went by. It got covered with parking tickets and was hogging a space Ms. Duncan wanted for herself.
She and her neighbors started taking bets on how long it would stay, and speculating on the backstory. There was an open bottle of orange juice in the car’s cup holder, and an iPhone charger. Perhaps the car belonged to a Covid victim who went to the nearby hospital and never came out.
Ms. Duncan started calling various city agencies in an effort to get it towed—she tried the 311 hotline, sanitation and the cops. Nothing happened. And the car’s unending presence really started to bother her.
“I got tired of looking at it, right? I mean, it was this dingy, gray, not particularly attractive Kia,” she said. “Just a boring thing to see every day. If nothing else, Atlantic Avenue is very rarely boring. There’s always something exciting. So seeing that same thing in the same spot every day was really was making me crazy. I'm like, the freaking car is still here! And it's like not even a nice car! I'm like, it's a Kia! It's this crappy little Kia sedan.”
After several more months of waiting for the city to take action, she ordered a set of washable chalk paint markers from Amazon and scrawled her most recent 311 request numbers on the car’s hood.
“The initial instinct to start drawing on it was just drawing attention to it,” she said. “I was just really annoyed. It was really pissing me off that the car was still there. And that was my way of expressing that frustration.”
But it was amusing and gave the neighbors—who were getting to know each other better thanks to the pandemic—something to talk about. Ms. Duncan found herself hanging out on the curb, suggesting to passersby that they add their own comments. It caught on. Kids drew flowers and hearts. Parents added political commentary. “Once I saw how much fun people were having drawing on it, I was like, this is actually like a cool community event,” said Ms. Duncan. “It became our own personal Twitter.”
Finally, nine months after it first appeared, the Kia was towed away to clear space for the Atlantic Antic, a big street fair held every October.
“I was kind of sad when it was gone,” said Ms. Duncan.
But she didn’t miss it for long. A few months later, a new abandoned car materialized on the block—in the exact same spot!
This car was the dented BMW with Vermont plates. Much like the Kia, it didn’t look like a stolen or abandoned car. There was a bottle of Snapple in the cup holder along with a packet of chips on the front seat, and a pack of baby wipes in the back. It took a few weeks for Ms. Duncan to realize that, like its predecessor, this car wasn’t going anywhere. She started to wonder if someone was playing a practical joke on the neighborhood.
“I seriously thought we were being punked,” she said. “I was like, ‘This cannot be happening again.’”
That was in February. She and the neighbors waited several months to see if someone would come back for the car, or if the city would respond to their complaints and tow it. Nope! It sat, and sat, and sat.
“And so we started to plan,” says Ms. Duncan. “When does it become our canvas? You know, what's the date when we're gonna pull the trigger, and do with this one what we did to the other one?”
Project No. 2 launched in June, around the time I spotted the car myself. This time around, Ms. Duncan and her neighbors went all out, pooling their money for a big batch of chalk paint pens and partnering up to launch an Instagram account.
It didn’t take long before the car was covered with tags.
After our coffee, Ms. Duncan and I walked over to Atlantic Ave. to check on the BMW. She visits every day and enjoys seeing who stops by to contribute.
“It really is everyone, every age,” she said. “I mean, a two-year-old scribbled on it, and a couple in their 70s wrote a little message. I've seen a doctor still in scrubs write on it. I've seen kids coming home from school and camp write on it. I've seen nannies pushing strollers. I’ve seen joggers pausing for a minute. I've seen people I see every day in the neighborhood who I know are lawyers and accountants, and bar patrons from across the street. Some are repeat offenders, for lack of a better word. Repeat participants. So it's everyone, there's no type. Everyone has taken part in some way.”
What’s the allure?
“It’s not something you see every day,” she says. “Certainly not in a neighborhood like this. You know, this isn't Time Square, where everything is a spectacle. It's Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I think that's what amuses people. That's what makes them smile. It's just this tiny little bit of joy in their day, and we don't get a lot of that now.”
Surprisingly for one of the busiest thoroughfares in the big city, the comments have been largely clean. One exception: a disgruntled tagger wrote “F— Mayor Adams” and “F— NYPD” on the back fender. Ms. Duncan erased the “u”s and drew little hearts in their place.
She’s thinking of wiping down the whole car and starting over, as the tags got a bit smeary after a recent rainstorm. But, arriving at the car, she pointed out some of her favorites.
“‘Goals over distractions,’” she read. “That’s a good one.”
“‘Give and you will receive much more’…I like that one!”
She’s not surprised that most of the comments are positive: “I really did expect that people would behave,” she said. “Because it's a public thing. And I think most people are inherently decent people.”
Things went a little sour at the start of July. Ms. Duncan was standing by when a homeless person smashed the car’s front windshield with a trash can. Another person busted the back rear window with a hammer.
“If it's going to attract bad things, I want it to go because it’s bad for the neighborhood,” she said.
I asked her how she’d feel if this second car got towed away like the first.
“As long as it's attracting good things, I want it to stay. I like it as my pet project. So if it disappears tomorrow, yes, I'll be sad,” she said. “But also I know it’s just a matter of time before another car appears!”
CAFÉ ANNE QUARTERLY UPDATE
The CAFÉ is Filling Up!
It’s been nine months since this newsletter launched, and I am happy report that, like an egg falling from the nest, it’s gaining momentum.
On April 1—the start of Q2—CAFÉ ANNE had 800 subscribers. It ended the quarter at 2700 subscribers. It’s growing faster than I expected!
Nothing went viral this quarter, but I did get a few lucky breaks.
First, Bari Weiss, creator of the popular Common Sense newsletter, recommended CAFÉ ANNE to her readers. Bari’s readers do what Bari says, and the week that post came out, I got hundreds of new subscribers.
In June, Substack, the platform that hosts this newsletter, highlighted CAFÉ ANNE on its front page, which was a big help. Thank you Substack!
Last but not least, Harper’s Magazine included an excerpt from my Q&A with NYC Chess Hustlers in its July issue. Which made me very happy. Harper’s eyeballs are the finest quality eyeballs!
Here’s the subscriber growth chart from the zine’s October, 2021 launch through the start of July:
The vast majority of the 2700 subscriptions, of course, are unpaid. CAFÉ ANNE is a totally free newsletter. Why would anyone pay? Because they are awesome.
Over the last three months, CAFÉ ANNE added 73 paying subscribers, bringing the total to 136. After Substack takes its 10% cut from the $5/month subscription price, I’m earning roughly $7,500 a year off this zine.
So what am I earning per hour? This is always fun to calculate.
Between story reporting, writing, taking photos, layout and editing, each issue takes roughly twelve hours to create. Which works out to $12.50/hour. I am now earning close to the New York City minimum wage!
An overly-caffeinated THANK YOU to everyone who subscribes and reads, and especially to those who share this newsletter, comment, reply and send your fantastic ideas and photos. I am having a lot of fun and hope you are too!
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Everywhere we look, there's galaxies everywhere.”
—NASA's Jane Rigby, operations project scientist for the James Webb telescope, on the new photos taken from space.
CAFÉ ANNE is a free newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!
I forwarded your Tolstoy facts to the War And Peace in 7 Years podcast, and they did a shout out for you too last month! Love that you’re getting more attention!
I love Eric Adams watch!