The Bay Ridge Canon: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (interview)

Ask Again, Yes is an epic novel, set across decades, generations and several parts of the greater New York metropolitan region: Sunnyside, Floral Park, Albany, Saratoga, Manhattan, New Jersey and the fictional Rockland County town of Gillam. The latter is inspired by Pearl River, the New York hamlet where Keane lives, eight miles by car southwest of Nyack on the border with northern New Jersey.

But the glorious book’s early pages are set in Bay Ridge, where one of the central characters, Francis Gleeson, lives. He’s freshly immigrated from Ireland and living with an uncle. “It was one of the first things he noticed about America, that everyone felt at ease asking each other any question that came into their minds,” she writes. “Where do you live, who do you live with, what’s your rent, what did you do last weekend? To Francis, who felt embarrassed lining up his groceries on the checkout belt of the Associated in Bay Ridge, it was all a little too much. ‘Big night,’ the checkout clerk had commented last time he was there. A six-pack of Budweiser. A pair of potatoes. Deodorant.”

Keane is often specific in her references, yet we shouldn’t always take her literally; this is fiction, not history. There was an Associated until a few years ago, at 7918 Third Avenue, although back in the ’70s, when this early chapter is set, I’m pretty sure it was a Met Food. (At least that’s what it was a decade later, when the city captured the property in its tax photos.) There may have been others elsewhere. But my mind was drawn to 79th and Third because Keane’s next Bay Ridge reference is around that same block.

On his first full day in America, [his father’s brother] Patsy put him to work behind the bar at the pub he owned on Third Avenue and Eightieth Street in Bay Ridge. There was a framed shamrock over the door. The first time a woman came in and asked him for a beer, he’d taken out a highball glass and set it down in front of her. “What’s this?” she asked. “A half beer?” She looked down the row at the other people sitting at the bar, all men, all with pints in front of them.

He’d shown her the pint glass. “This is what you want?” he’d asked. “The full of it?” And understanding, finally, that he was new to the bar, new to America, she’d leaned over to cup his face, to brush the hair off his forehead.

“That’s the one sweetie,” she’d said.

I couldn’t think of a bar on Third Avenue and 80th Street, except, more or less, J. J. Bubbles, though it too wasn’t there yet in the early 1970s—though within a decade it would be next door to the future Associated. (Locals on Facebook with a longer memory than mine said there was a bar called the Amber, which was where Treat and Release is now, No. 8012, and another nearby called Glenroe, though its specific location is forgotten.) But, again—fiction, not history. “I imagined it as a sort of generic Irish bar,” Keane tells me; she didn’t have a specific one in mind.

1980s Bay Ridge. A newish J.J. Bubbles, next door to the Met Food. Perhaps not the exact locations, but a decent approximation of the places Keane is trying to evoke. Via department of records

It’s while Francis is working in this bar that a couple of cops come in, looking for a suspect, and he gets the idea to become one himself—which he does, assigned to Brownsville and then the Bronx in 1973, with a partner who introduces him to Gillam, where he’ll soon move with his soon-to-be wife, Lena Teobaldo, a young woman also living in Bay Ridge. “She’d agreed to the trip [to Gillam one afternoon],” Keane writes, “because it was something to do and if she’d stayed in Bay Ridge that Saturday, her mother would have made her bring food to Mrs. Venard, who’d never been right since her boy went missing in Vietnam.”

But Lena is reluctant to move up there, telling her husband in front of her parents, as her mother prepares breakfast one weekend morning, that she won’t go.

“He’s your husband,” Angelo said to his daughter. A reprimand. Like she’d left her toys scattered on the carpet and forgotten to put them away.

“You keep quiet,” [her mother] Gosia said, motioning for him to zip his lip. “We’re having breakfast at Hinsch’s,” she announced, extinguishing the flame under the skillet.

Lena is eventually persuaded. One selling point—“the bus from Gillam to Midtown Manhattan would take less time than the subway from Bay Ridge.” After this, the book rarely mentions the neighborhood again, except once in passing when Gosia dies and Lena goes back for the funeral.

I reached out to Keane, to ask her about these references, and she was gracious enough to respond.

Of all the neighborhoods in New York with significant Irish populations, why put Francis Gleeson in Bay Ridge? 
I suppose I could have put him in any of the Irish neighborhoods, but Bay Ridge always seemed sort of mythical to me. My parents immigrated to New York from Ireland in the 1960s. They came to the Bronx, but so many of their friends came to different parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Bay Ridge was a place I’ve been hearing about since I was small, and I remember a few long car rides there from Rockland County (where my parents moved in 1979) to visit people there. I loved all the shops and that we could walk down to see the bridge. I remember thinking it was way prettier than the Bronx (sorry, Bronx).

Have you spent much time in Bay Ridge?
Not very much, truthfully. I don’t know it all that well, but as with other places I don’t know all that well I decided a long time ago that I like it there. (BTW,  I feel the same way about Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin—two cities I’ve never set foot in.) That probably doesn’t make sense.

You make a few specific references to places (Hinsch’s, the Associated) and intersections (Eightieth Street and Third Avenue). Are these from personal experience? 
No, I had to research different places that would have been sort of hubs of activity in the 1960s and 70s. I researched and talked to people and looked at maps.

Why did you feel it was necessary to create a fictional setting for everything that happens in Gillam, while the rest of the book is set in real places, such as Bay Ridge and Sunnyside?
Great question. Gillam is based on my hometown of Pearl River, New York, and for me—when I want my prose to be specific and detailed—I have to be able to see a place clearly, and in order to see it clearly I have to be objective about it. It’s more difficult to “see” things that are very familiar to me, or at least see them as a stranger would see them, so I had to find ways to make Gillam not Pearl River. I had to be its creator, in a sense.

As for the other places, I was able to leave them as is because I am a near-stranger to them. My sister lived in Sunnyside for a bunch of years and I’d visit her and go out there, but I don’t know it the way I know home. The same goes for Bay Ridge.

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