I was working in a falafel joint off Seventh Avenue in Park Slope when he walked in--a nice looking guy, nothing striking about him. He’d been in before, always alone, quiet but not shy. He'd eat, drink tea, and then, when I'd bring him the check, he would ask me for a date.
“I’m dating someone,” I would lie each time.
Though I couldn't pinpoint it, there was something about him with which I did not feel comfortable.
Then one night he came in with three people and when he asked me out this time I accepted. Maybe it was seeing him with others that made him seem more human. I couldn't say for sure then or now.
But, anyway, a few nights later he showed up at my apartment on Second Street and soon we were on our way to get a bite to eat in the Village. By the time we got there I was thinking of ways to ditch him. He had nothing to say. I might as well have been alone and, to top it all off, I was the only one with money.
The subway ride back to Brooklyn took what seemed an eternity. I couldn't wait to dump him. As we approached his apartment building he told me he had some great wine and invited me up for a drink.
Thinking that’s the least I could get out of the evening, I heard myself say, “Sure.”
It was dark when he opened the door and ushered me into his apartment, and yet I had the distinct sensation of standing in a large, empty space.
“I haven’t paid the electric bill,” he told me as he closed and locked the door.
Suddenly, a light shone through a window and I saw a bare mattress against a wall. I walked to the window. It overlooked an alley and had a fire escape.
“Let's have our wine on the terrace,” I joked as I opened the window and climbed onto the fire escape. He followed close behind.
"How about that wine?" I asked.
Suddenly, a saxophone began to play and out of the corner of my eye I saw the guy wailing on it in an apartment across the alley. I was hoping he could see me, too.
Then I felt a hand on my face. “You have such soft skin,” he told me.
My skin began to crawl. It was as I imagine a thousand centipedes would feel squirming in every crevice of my body.
He moved closer and I shuddered.
“What’s the matter?" he wanted to know. "Don’t you like me touching you? Don’t you like me at all?”
“I like you a lot,” I said, though my voice betrayed me.
“Women never like me,” he told me.
“What women?” I asked.
“All women!” he barked.
“You’re crazy,” I said and wished I hadn’t.
“You all laugh at me,” he chastised. “I know what you all think.”
"Nonsense," I said.
He sighed deeply and moved closer still.
“Your flesh,” he whispered, his breath in my ear and his hand running from my neck to the top of my cheek and back again, “I like it so much.”
I could not move or speak.
“You don’t like when I touch you,' he whined. "I feel you shrinking from my touch."
I found my voice. “I don’t know why you say that. I like you very much.”
I looked at the alley below, thankful that I hadn't worn a dress that night.
“Why do you think I went out with you?” I continued, trying desperately to feign interest.
He did not answer, but I felt I had to keep talking. “So, what is it you do again?”
Still no answer.
And then the saxophone stopped. I looked across the alley but the room was dark and now the hand on the back of my neck slid around my throat. When I coughed it slipped down to the opening in my blouse.
I pulled back, I giggled. “Can’t we save that for our next date?”
“There won’t be another date,” he told me. “You know that... So, tell me,” his hand now stroking my throat. “What is it you like about me?”
I started to speak but he cupped his hand over my mouth. “Don’t lie," he said. "I know you’re going to lie.”
Defiant, enraged, I pulled away. “How do you know? How do you know anything about me?”
His hand slipped to his lap and he stared straight ahead. For a moment I thought he was going to cry. He turned and looked at me but it was as if he stared right through me and then, without a word, he climbed through the window and vanished into his dark apartment.
In a flash I made my way down the fire escape into the alley below. Next thing I'm running down Eighth Avenue, blood dripping from my hand. I'd been cut but don’t know where or how. Standing in the hallway of my apartment building, I shook so badly I couldn’t get the key in the lock. Finally, I made it upstairs to my apartment. I locked the door and tried to catch my breath.
The phone rang. I jumped.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” It was my ex-husband.
I tell him.
“That’s what you get for leaving your husband,” he said. But that’s another story.
So, about thirty years later I’m visiting my sister, who still lives in Park Slope, and I tell her about that night.
She looks out the window. “Which building?” she asks.
I point it out.
“Didn’t you know,“ she tells me, “that a woman was murdered in that building around that time?”
Stopping by Brooklyn Industries on a Lonely Evening
While switching over my closet from summer to winter recently, I was pleased to bring back into wardrobe circulation a dress I’d bought exactly four years ago after a wine tasting at a bar called Brook Vin in Park Slope. Actually, it hadn’t been a tasting so much as a full-on drinking, okay, gulping, the pours getting more generous, the crowd getting rowdier and less interested in varietals and finishes as the afternoon went on. When I had finally stood up I’d been way, way drunker than I’d thought.
It was Sunday, and dusk. I was four months post-breakup with the guy for whom I’d moved to New York, and who had left me just weeks after movers unloaded my couch and deposited my boxes in an apartment that may have been in Windsor Terrace but more likely was in Kensington, across the street from the stables. I had signed up for this wine tasting as a way to show myself and anyone who cared (which seemed like an astonishingly small group) that I was moving on. But now I felt even worse.
I stood on the corner of Ninth Street and Seventh Avenue. Ten years ago I had lived in Park Slope but it had been a different place then—less frenetic, and far less expensive. Now, back in New York, I couldn’t even come close to affording the neighborhood. I stood on the corner, surrounded by brownstones in which I imagined, was quite certain actually, that happy, loving couples were cooking dinner in bright, cozy kitchens, pouring themselves glasses of wine (not that I needed any more of that) and putting their kids to bed. Just behind those doors was the life I desperately wanted and had believed up until just a few short weeks ago, that I would have.
Drunk. Lonely. Naturally, I decided to go shopping.
I made my way to the closest store, the Brooklyn Industries across the street. I stood for a few minutes, absentmindedly looking through piles of cardigans and sliding hangers across racks to glance at hoodies and skirts.
A woman came up to me. She was tiny, with a bright blonde pixie cut and red lipstick. The manager. I recognized her from a previous, more sober shopping trip.
“I have a dress that would look amazing on you,” she said, and handed me a brown corduroy shirt-dress with bronze buttons and a wide belt. Something amazing on me? The way I’d been feeling I couldn’t imagine anything less plausible. I took the hanger and examined the dress skeptically. “It’s much cuter on,” she insisted. And it was. I ventured out of the dressing room to examine myself in the big mirror in the middle of the store, and also to show off the dress a bit. “I really like it,” I said, surprised, and possibly, if I remember correctly, doing a little twirl in the mirror. How drunk was I?
Next, she took down a denim jacket, cinched at the waist but with a ruffle at the bottom. “It’s such a Melinda Gordon jacket,” she said.
“Melinda Gordon. You know, from Ghost Whisperer?” I didn’t know that show, which surprised me, because since the breakup I had delved with abandon into what I thought was every terrible TV show produced in the last decade. For hours, I had watched a posse of teenagers try to figure out if they were actually from outer space, on Roswell. I had watched every gruesome plastic surgery procedure on Nip/Tuck. How had I missed Ghost Whisperer?
She proceeded to sum up the show, which starred Jennifer Love Hewitt as an antiques-shop owner who could also communicate with ghosts. We segued into talking about other guilty-pleasure TV shows, then movies, then music.
Her colleague came over and joined us. I stood there in the brown corduroy dress, which I now thought of as mine, though I hadn't paid for it, chatting away. I could hear myself slurring slightly, but I didn't care. An hour slipped away, then more, and the loneliness ebbed. Like those lucky people in their brownstones, I had people to beat back the Sunday night blues with too.
Without hesitating, I bought the dress. Sure, alcohol tends to make me shop, and tell myself things like 'Hey, at least I'm not getting drunk then binge-eating or sleeping with random guys. But also—I’d been in there all evening, and the salespeople had been so nice to me. How could I leave without buying something? I went home, Brooklyn Industries shopping bag in hand, and promptly added Ghost Whisperer to my Netflix queue.
But a couple days later, now sober, something nagged at me. Maybe the people who worked in Brooklyn Industries had just been trying to make a weekend quota, and I, the drunken customer, was an easy mark. Maybe I had become one of those people who resorted to babbling to a captive retail audience. To the lonely, a $75 dress was a small price to pay for someone to talk to on a Sunday evening. For weeks, I avoided the dress, afraid I’d put it on and see I’d made a colossal mistake, my shame compounded by the fact that I could only return it for store credit.
I was relieved when I tried it on sober, and found it actually looked good. If that was true, then maybe it was also true that I hadn’t made a total idiot of myself at Brooklyn Industries. And if that were the case, maybe I would make it through this and make a life for myself--maybe different than the brownstone one, but a good life, nonetheless--in Brooklyn. I was further reassured by a longtime New Yorker I know who put it this way: “In New York, the relationships you make with the people you see all the time—like in restaurants and stores, are some of the most important you’ll have in the city.”
Over the next few months I learned this is indeed true. Out running errands in the neighborhood, I would stop into Brooklyn Industries and the manager would seem as happy to see me as I had been to see her that Sunday. She thanked me for recommending Friday Night Lights. I learned that her husband owned a coffee shop in the neighborhood and that she was from Alabama. I explained how I’d come to be marooned in New York. Mostly we talked TV, movies, music. On at least one weekend, shopping at Brooklyn Industries was the most social thing I did, and on Monday, when someone at work asked how my weekend was, I answered, “Oh, fine just hung out with a friend. You know.” I made a couple more visits, bought a few more outfits. Then slowly I got my act together enough, made new friends to do things with, reconnected with some old ones, and stopped going on drunken shopping trips.
One time I stopped in to Brooklyn Industries, and my friend told me she’d taken another job and would be managing a different store, this one in Manhattan. I congratulated her, of course, but was deeply disappointed. We traded emails but didn’t stay in touch, and I gradually found myself shopping more at other stores in the neighborhood. Since she left I’ve bought a couple things at Brooklyn Industries, but I’ve had a credit there for more than three years and every time I go in to spend it—I don’t know. I never really find anything. Nothing really speaks to me.
A Broken Promise In Brooklyn
“If you name her after me Eddie Lee, I promise she won’t ever have to worry for nothin’.” My Great Aunt Corrine circa 1931
Long before I came into this world, before I took my first lungful of air outside my mother’s womb at Kings County Hospital, before there was that familiar parental debate over who I favored, my Mother or Father, there was a promise made in Jersey City. For years that promise would remain unfulfilled and cause a ripple of sadness across the bridge in Brooklyn for my mother’s baby sister, whom because she had the voice of a songbird, we called Sing instead of her given name Corrine. As a child, I never associated Brooklyn with broken promises. Back then, the promises made to me were simple enough to be kept. The promise of a hand full of jiggling coins on a humid summer day to buy ice-cream from the musical truck that stopped on the corner of Blake Avenue in Brownsville. The promise of a new pair of shoes from a shoe store on Pitkin Avenue when my heels were run over. The promise that if I’d get swooped up into my father’s strong arms and my knee dabbed with a bit of spit on his handkerchief if I fell while playing outside and scraped my knee. As all children were at my age, I was naïve about adults and how complex they could be. I thought that when they professed their love, when they said that they would show up for a child they would. But too often their promises were like writings in the sky. They vanished like a billow of white smoke, as if they had never been etched into the heavens much less a precious child’s heart. “If you name her after me Eddie Lee, I promise she won’t ever have to worry for nothin’.”
Those words from my Great Aunt Corrine would haunt me even though I heard them secondhand. Maybe that was why I always kept my distance from her when we piled into my father’s blue station wagon and went to visit her. Maybe that was why as I sat on her plastic covered sofa, in her poorly lit room that smelled of moth balls and were full with expensive antiquated things, I bit my nails to the skin and refused her food and tapped my feet on her creaky wooden floors waiting to escape. Maybe even then I sensed that she had committed an act of betrayal on someone I so deeply loved.
Great Aunt Corrine was my maternal grandmother, whose name was Eddie Lee, sister. She had never married or had children of her own but lived a financially comfortable if not lonely life. When she realized it would be this way until she went to her grave, when my grandmother declared this was her last child, she asked if she could have the honor of having a namesake.
My grandmother was living in a tenement on Sumpter Street in Bedford Stuyvesant then. She was struggling while my grandfather was away in the Army. Other kin had promised to help her and hadn’t come through. That promise by my Great Aunt Corrine made my grandmother pungent with the expectation that some of the burden of being the mother of five would be eased off of her, so indebted she agreed.
Great Aunt Corrine’s promise though was as good as a piece of lint one plucked off of one’s clothes and let fall where it may. Sing would have a suitcase bursting at the seams with worries nearly all of her life. She was just seventeen months old when she lost her father, my grandfather, who died at the Fort Hamilton Veterans Hospital after a lengthy illness. I once thought about how my life would be without the imprint of my father and my heart skipped an abysmal beat. I imagined hers did too, when she ached for the father she had never gotten a chance to know.
After graduating from high school she went to work at a soda factory in Harlem. When she got off work, she would head back to Brooklyn but stop over at a local bar with her co-workers. The bars that lined the streets of Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue with their jukeboxes playing music that swept her mind away from her troubles was addictive.
Before long she met a handsome man there who was in the Army. After a short courtship she married him and left Brooklyn to go to Hawaii where he was stationed. Her marriage ended not long after she got there. You’d think that in such a place with such breadth and beauty, new love would bloom effortlessly as a rushing waterfall but it didn’t.
Sing came back to Brooklyn, to my grandmother’s apartment on Sumpter Street heartbroken and pregnant. A baby boy was born prematurely months later and only lived a few days. She was too distraught to attend the memorial service for him and a mix-up caused him to be buried in Potter’s Field. Pain settled deep in her sinews and the only way she could get rid of it was by drinking. It was as if she had written her own obituary, pulled out her funeral dress and was ready to be buried.
“So sad,” my aunt Louise would say as I sat in her kitchen on Pulaski Street many yearslater after Sing had passed away. Grief was etched all over her face. Even then.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. Vignettes of Sing’s life flashed in front of me like an old movie camera. Like it does now when I think of her. We were like two peas in the pod, the both of us. Sometimes she was as giggly as a schoolgirl. Although I shouldn’t have been, I became her confident. As we sat in my grandmother’s living room, she sitting in Mama’s old beat-up flowered armchair smoking a Camel cigarette, Tina Turner legs crossed at the ankle, I’d sit at her knee on the cold linoleum floor hanging onto her every word.
Sometimes on the weekend when I saw her getting dressed, I’d almost do backflips to keep her home knowing that she was headed to the local bar. One time I stood by the door and tried to block her but she left as soon as I moved away to pick up my cat, the stray one we found on the street that we acting like coconspirators, convinced my grandmother to keep. My cat loved her just as much as she loved me. And Sing took good care of her too.
My grandmother’s apartment had a fire escape. If I stood just so and stuck my head over its railing I could see all the way down the block. The fire escape was timeworn and corroded from the weather. It would dangerously teeter if you put too much weight on it and I was constantly being told to come back inside by my mother. In the summer I would sit on the safest part of it to wait until the wee hours of the morning for Sing’s return. Sometimes it would seem as if time stood still. Other times I’d get distracted by the young men shooting craps or singing Doo-Wop underneath me and the time would go by faster. In the winter I’d sit by the window, lifting it to just a crack so I could hear Sing’s high heels clicking down the empty dark street.
Once I heard her walk up the stairs I would unlock my grandmother’s double bolted door. Everyone else would be sleep, and I’d take her hand and lead her to her bed. She always s fell asleep right away. I’d take off her shoes and cover her with one of my grandmother’s quilts. I’d lay beside her and through the night inch closer to check to make sure she was breathing, not at all repelled by the putrid smell of alcohol on her breath. My grandmother was very religious and she taught me to pray about everything, so I prayed “Please God let her stop drinking.” There was a despondency that loomed over her even when she laughed or danced or sang one of her favorite Aretha Franklin songs. No one or nothing could suppress her blues except for alcohol.
Maybe I often thought, if Great Aunt Corrine had kept her promise, instead of trying to trick my Grandmother into having a namesake, things would have been different. Maybe if she had held little baby Corrine tenderly in her arms and cooed to her how beautiful she was and whispered the dreams she had for her future close to her ear, I’d have a different story to tell. Maybe if during her life when she knew she was at the end of it and she realized how wrong she’d been and made amends, happiness wouldn’t have been so evasive in Sing and she would have felt special, chosen, wrapped in love like a patchwork quilt from this female kin who could have changed her destiny. At times I think, Great Aunt Corrine spoke a curse over not just Sing but over our whole family; the curse of broken promises. For it resonated wherever we were, wherever we relocated, be it another borough or another state or even another country like where my niece lives with her family in Italy. It caused us, the women to be skeptical when someone said they would do something for us. Our hearts were only eighty percent open. The other twenty percent thought they might disappoint us. The other twenty percent expected them to.
By the time I became a teenager Sing had stopped drinking. She called me often and we talked about everything. She bragged about her niece being a writer and I’d read her my stories over the phone. When I got married and started a family of my own she called me at least once a week. Busy then with my own life, I was always in the midst of something and never talked long. Sing had moved to an apartment in Downtown Brooklyn. She appeared to be at peace but to keep from drinking she swallowed a palm full of prescribed pills each day. One day I answered the phone while visiting my mother. Sing was dead. She died in her sleep. It was in May, 1985. I heard glass cracking. Jagged edges and small shards. So many fragmented pieces. She was only fifty-four years old. There has always been a loose thread that kept unraveling in my life. Now I know it was because I hadn’t told Sing’s story. I’ve told my mother and my father’s stories several times over; in essays, in fiction, to perfect strangers in the doctor’s waiting room. My aunt’s story though, her struggle with alcohol, had been like a shameful verse in her life and I was fearful of tainting her image. But how could I talk about her without talking about the totality of who she was. For that was how I loved her. Even with her faults and fears and pain she was my backstitch; underpinning and fortifying the stitches my mother embroidered in my tapestry. There was a gentleness in her touch as she mapped my face with her hands to coax a smile if I was pouting. And a tenderness in her voice that helped me breathe free of worry even when I was worried about her.
Sing had countless perfect moments that I will remember. When I close my eyes I can see them, hear her voice sounding eagle strong during her sober moments. I can see her sitting in her robe tightly pulled around her drinking a cup of Sanka coffee at my grandmother’s dinette on a Sunday morning. I can see her doing a crossword puzzle with her glasses on the edge of her nose. And I can hear her voice urging me to live my best life.
Addicted souls are fragile souls, their DNA porous, their emotional skin more like parchment than corrugated cardboard and they need love, pure and nonjudgmental. I am thankful that I gave that kind of love to Sing. Maybe that was my promise to her even though I never verbalized it. Maybe that was a way to untie the cords of the broken one made by my Great Aunt Corrine. Maybe it’s called redemption…finally in Brooklyn.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
Come Again Another Day
His name was David, like the ancient Israelite king. Our undying love lasted three quarters of a lifetime --‘till we’d both turned five. Five was old enough for my father to entrust me with his special lead pencil, the one with four retractable colors. I drew many shaky hearts on scrap paper, writing Judy +David inside. Sometimes I pierced them with an arrow. A black and white snapshot of us taken in my living room in 1945 when we were three shows me planting a tender kiss on David’s broad, smooth forehead while I laced his chubby fingers in mine.
Since the turn of the 20th century, New York City had become home to the largest urban concentration of Jews in history. By 1940, the greatest number resided in the borough of Brooklyn. I was one of these 857,000 souls. By 1940, my grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom had arrived in New York by 1907, had put down firm roots. They’d brought other family members from Eastern Europe and they had produced offspring. Our extended family included immigrants and the American-born, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins, all living but a short subway ride apart, all devoted to our personal mass transit system. If, on any given morning, an adult made the briefest of telephone calls to another relative for the purpose of sharing the smallest scrap of news, by early afternoon the information, along with a growing commentary, had quickly permeated this network.
Yet, despite these intricate and intimate connections there remained a small but vacant space in my life: I was an only child. This hole was filled when the Schwartz family moved into the same five story apartment building on East 18th Street where my parents and I resided. Their son David was just my age, and like me, he was a singleton. Now I had someone to run and giggle with, someone with whom to play the games I endlessly invented. David was sweet and amiable, with a loveable half-smile. I would whisper my three year old secrets in his ear and I liked to run my fingers through his straight, sandy hair. When I hugged David, a tentative smile lit his pale, placid face.
It was necessary to exercise extreme caution playing inside our respective three and half room apartments—don’t bump into furniture, don’t make noise, and never, ever eat in the living room. David’s parents, like mine, were first generation American Jews, but they were orthodox. The ponderous mahogany furniture that filled their dark rooms breathed a thick air of gloom. David’s mother, Teresa, was terse and stern; his father, a morose man whose name I never learned, a person we all avoided.
Our home was sunny and had a bouncy feel. My quietly cheerful father always spoke gently to children. I liked to watch my mother every Friday afternoon when she placed a 78 record on our Victrola and a lively fox-trot, samba, or rumba filled our living room. She would drop a soft cloth on the ground and place both her bare feet, size five and half, on it, then purposefully shimmy her way across the room in rhythm, around and around every inch of the spotless, newly waxed parquet wood squares until the whole floor gleamed. At the end, always a smile of satisfaction: she was ready for the weekend.
Teresa’s floors were dull. But she lit candles every Friday at sunset to welcome the Sabbath bride. I was fascinated by these flickering lights. One evening, soon after she finished the candle lighting ceremony and disappeared into her kitchen, on impulse I blew them out. When Teresa emerged her thin lips tightened and she glared at me, not uttering a word. After that, we had to play in my house. It was just as well.
As soon as David and I reached four we were permitted to play outside in an area directly in front of the living room window our fifth floor apartment faced, a window from which my mother would periodically check, calling us in for lunch at noon and dinner at five. For snowy winter days, our mothers bundled us up and sent us forth. But long, rainy days forced us to remain indoors, and so my mother instructed us to recite: “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day, Judy and David want to play!” and to repeat this at least five times. Mommy often joined in, assuring us our chanting was sure to bring a brighter, adventure-filled tomorrow. Most of the time it worked.
Living in the moment as children do, I assumed these satisfying affairs and my companionship with David would never change. When I reached five years and two months, my baby brother was born. Although at first my mother would not let me touch him as he lay in his humungous crib, or when she took him outdoors each day in an equally large carriage that took up half the elevator, I knew once Eddie got a little bigger we, too, would become fast friends. David and I would share our vast store of knowledge with him, and we would all have so much fun together.
One June day next year the Cohen family moved into an apartment on the ground floor: Dr. Cohen, his wife, Mrs. Cohen, and their six year old daughter Frances. Because there was no need to use the creaky, unreliable elevator the ground level apartments were the most desirable. The building buzzed with this sudden honor. Having a doctor living among us added luster to our own ordinary lives. And not a dentist, a real doctor. In case anyone had missed out on either this information or the rank doctorhood bestowed upon her entire family, Mrs. Cohen decorated their apartment lavishly.
Frances, David and I quickly evolved into a triumvirate. There we were. David, in baggy trousers that somehow resembled the shapeless dresses his drab mother wore, remained slow moving and deliberate as always. I was still chatty and lively. My mother, who prided herself on style, dressed me impeccably. She washed and pressed my clothes nightly, and groomed my unruly curls each morning before carefully placing a matching, starched and ironed ribbon in my hair. The new ingredient was Frances, two inches taller than David and me, who were of equal height. She was poised, haughty, with a wardrobe that said “wealth.”
It did not take long for Frances to take over. She dictated what games we would play and when, as if she were Queen Frances, with David and I her loyal subjects. I don’t remember the exact moment it became clear to me this was the new dynamic, or when Frances first insisted we play in her apartment instead of mine, nor how soon after she began taunting me with remarks like “Judy! Don’t be such a baby!” To my surprise, David remained silent.
Wasn’t name-calling forbidden in his house? It was in mine. And didn’t best friends always stick up for each other, like family? Apparently not. I returned, to endure yet another day of ridicule. By the following week David was agreeing with Francis, nodding his head and saying, “That’s right!” when she told me to just sit down and watch the game. The beginnings of a smirk replaced David’s customary smile.
I could not understand how this could be. David seemed mesmerized by Frances. But then again he had seemed mesmerized with me. I was forced to consider the possibility that David had never really returned my devotion. I promised myself Francis would never make me cry and she didn’t. But I kept coming back; David was not only my best friend, he was the only one, and for this I loved him steadfastly.
Nothing stays the same. It was inevitable, and the middle of a hot August day in 1947, when the Cohens became the first family in the building to purchase a TV. The awestruck dwellers of 1342 East 18th Street (between Avenues M and N) quickly spread this news throughout the building. Within a week, Mrs. Cohen had issued invitations to all us children: come and watch TV next Sunday.
Stepping over that threshold, I saw the Cohen living room transformed into a private movie theater. Strategically placed fans hummed softly, expertly cooling the area. Matching folding chairs were lined up three rows deep facing the television. Clearly, some other, favored children from the adjoining apartment house had been invited, because I didn’t know most of those assembled. I counted 22. Mrs. Cohen asked me to join the others and take a seat.
The odor of buttered popcorn filled the room as Mrs. Cohen served each child our portion on individual paper plates, along with dainty Dixie cups filled with grape juice. I sampled the sweet liquid with the tip of my tongue. It brought to mind the Passover Seder, that long ceremony, much of it in Hebrew. Here was the same deep purple grape juice we children drank in lieu of the mandatory, symbolic four cups of Manischewitz extra-sweet-wine for adults.
In only a few moments, my musings were interrupted by Mrs. Cohen’s efficient movements as she collected empty paper products. She drew her elegant, rose-colored drapes to darken the room.
The TV was housed in a large imposing box like mahogany cabinet. In 1947, there were four existing TV channels. Each had limited programming, and “test patterns” filled TV screens for many hours. The group sat facing the 12 inch screen for a full 15 minutes, silent, poised, staring silently at the NBC logo.
We fortunate few were about to see one of the three children’s programs. Finally, it was time. Marching band music played the Star Spangled Banner while we viewed the American flag. It stood alone atop a tall pole in a vast green field of perfectly mown grass, undulating in the breeze of a spring day. “Stand up, children!” Mrs. Cohen ordered. “It’s time to salute the flag.”
I remained rooted to my chair. I’d come to understand that people who fiercely demanded such ritual allegiance, who worshipped the American nation above all others were the same people who disliked short, olive complected immigrants like my grandparents. The “foreigners” were instantly identifiable by their funny accents, outdated clothing and antiquated ways. If these foreigners voiced any disagreement with anything the patriots said or did there was always the same rejoinder: “If you don’t like America, go back where you came from!” Frances’ parents, like my own, were only first generation Americans.
“Stand up, Judy!” Mrs. Cohen repeated sharply. I looked around and saw I was the only
one still seated. “Anyone who doesn’t salute the flag can’t watch television here,” she continued. My fierce allegiance to family was at stake, and, pitted against my desire to fit in, it didn’t stand a chance. By nature an obedient child, I had never in my five years openly defied authority. But at this crossroads, loyalty and the urge to stand firm for what I knew was right triumphed over all my insecurities. I refused.
As Mrs. Cohen and 21 children solemnly placed hands over hearts in preparation for the pledge, I swiftly stood up from my back row seat, did a sharp about face and swooped out the door, walked swiftly through the sickly green hallway and ran up the four flights of stairs to the refuge of my own apartment.
From that point forward David and I became nodding acquaintances. It was as if our love affair had never happened and our lives had never been entwined. What became of him I don’t know. Five years later my parents joined the mass Jewish migration from the concrete streets of Brooklyn to the manicured lawns of affluent Long Island suburbia. It wasn’t easy for me to cross over a sea of Frances Cohens into adolescence and beyond. By then I had became more cautious in matters of the heart and was no longer certain that the promised land lay within my reach. Still, irresistibly, after 11 long years I opened my eyes wide and looking high into the Brooklyn skies once again embraced optimism.
The driver helped me load the bags into the trunk, then pulled the car away from the curb.
It’s like we’re pulling away from the curb of my life, I thought to myself.
“It’s like we’re pulling away from the curb of my life,” I said aloud to the driver.
“Huh?” he said.
“Um, nothing,” I replied.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Queens,” I said, “Sunnyside.”
We drove in silence for a few blocks. I watched Park Slope through the backseat window. People were out in the street: walking their dogs, carrying groceries. An irregular abundance of couples strolled through the neighborhood, all of them holding hands with each other, as if they had conspired the night before: Hey, tomorrow? Let’s make that guy in the backseat of the car driving by feel as terrible as possible!
After about five minutes, the driver spoke up: “Her fault or yours?”
“Neither,” I replied, “it just wasn’t working anymore.”
“So, yours,” the driver hypothesized.
It was all those bags that had tipped him off, I’m sure. Two suitcases, plus several additional garbage bags stuffed with clothes, books, a skillet, a cheese grater. Whatever I had thought to grab, in the moments after she’d said, “you have to leave – you are not welcome here anymore” and before the car had arrived.
Or maybe it was my eyes that explained the situation: wide and wounded. Panicked. Shell-shocked.
Or my scent. What did a break-up smell like, anyhow? Fear, I suppose.
“Love’s a bitch,” said the driver, merging onto the BQE without warning and sans turn-signal. How many members of broken homes had he helped shuttle from one borough to another, I wondered. In this city of eight million, was I even the first one today?
I sat in the backseat, picked at my lip, and studied the shape of his cranium. He seemed intelligent, or maybe I just needed a father figure.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“That’s easy,” he said, “you get laid. You go fuck a girl and pretty soon you’ll forget all about this one.”
“I just wasn’t going to marry her,” I explained.
“I don’t know. Her work was always going to come first. And I wasn’t happy a lot of the time. She was pretty, though – and very kind.”
“She sounds great,” said the driver, “has she got an older sister?”
We resumed our silence, the car speeding along the highway. The city’s magnificent skyline twinkled to the west.
“All women are crazy,” said the driver after a while. It was the kind of grossly misogynistic statement men are always making to each other in times of need; like watching your team make a single errant pass and declaring, “These Knicks suck!” I said nothing in reply. Maybe I chuckled a little.
Then I asked, “You ever been through something like this?”
“Please,” he said, “When my wife died, I crawled inside the bottom of a bottle.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “how did she –”
“Car crash,” he said, “1980. No, ’81. Afterwards, I showed up to work drunk. ‘Course my boss, he understood. His wife had died six months earlier. He gave me a week, said ‘if you’re like this next Monday you’re gone.’ So I cleaned up. A couple months later I met a girl – long and droopy like a string bean.”
“Nice image,” I said.
“Thanks. Anyways, I fucked her and that’s how I got better.
“Look at me,” he went on, “I’m a fat old man, and even I do alright. You’ll be fine.”
“Maybe,” I said, then added, “I’m sorry I’m so wounded and raw.”
“That’s okay,” he said, “you just don’t have any self-confidence. I knew a guy just like you once. Larry was his name. He’s dead now, but, still. Nice guy. No self-confidence, though.”
We pulled up to my friend’s apartment. I already missed her, or so I believed. In truth, maybe I just missed her apartment; or Brooklyn as my home borough, or Brooklyn as an idea.
He unloaded my bags, and set them down on the street alongside me.
“You’ll be fine,” he repeated again.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I don’t,” he said.
“Then why’d you say it?” I asked.
He squinted at me, cocked his head, scratched his side, hitched up his pants a bit, shrugged, and got back in the car. He switched the gear from park to drive, and was about to step on the gas when he rolled down the window and said, “You know that old folk song ‘Hard Times, Come Again No More?’”
“Yeah, sure” I said, “it’s very pretty.”
“Well, they always come again,” he said, “and singing that song doesn’t make a damn difference either way. But we still sing the song. Y’know what I mean?”
I nodded my head. Car driver as prophet.
He smiled. Then he said:
“Hey do you know where there’s a public bathroom I could use around here? I gotta pinch a loaf.”
“Naw, I don’t know” I said, “this isn’t my neighborhood. Sorry.”
“That’s alright,” said the driver, “I’ll hold it,” and he stepped on the pedal and drove away.
I rang the buzzer to apartment 5F, but my best friend Jason wasn’t home yet. I dragged my bags over to a stone bench in the courtyard, and sat down. It was Easter Sunday.
I don’t know where I’m going to live, I thought to myself.
“I don’t know where I’m going to live,” I said aloud, to no one.
I sat and stared at the fountain in the center of the courtyard. It was surrounded by flowers, pinks and blues and yellows, all of which were beautiful this time of year.
Oh, and the wind: the wind felt lovely against my exposed skin.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
What Does God Want?
As I walk north on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue, I note the businesses and advertisements. DS Fashion African Tailor offers prayer gowns and ministry robes. Across the street, a church. I think, you can’t beat the convenience of NYC. Dominican style salons, African hair braiding, and barber shops fit like pie slices in between 99-cent stores, pawn shops, discount liquor stores, tax firms, and churches—more churches than I’ve ever seen on a single street. Houses of worship, for God, beauty, and bargains, beg the question: what does God want?
Does God want us to get great deals, have good hair, drink cheap booze, and pay our taxes? I imagine men and women, arriving at church Sunday morning, saying their hellos before service (the way people stop on the street to greet a passing friend, I assume that this community is tight, that everyone knows everyone). Once the pews are filled, the preacher delivers a sermon warning those with unkempt hair, “God’s view from heaven is the top of your ugly head!”
Surrounding sounds are unrepentant: reggae music blasting from African fashion stores and open car windows (more power to anyone who can suffice with a single car window rolled down in 90 degree heat). A dreadlocked mailman pushes his cart toward his next stop, yells out to greet the recipients. He’s across the street, I can’t hear his words, but his cadence is distinctly Caribbean. No one who lives here could feel alone here, I think. The neighborly encounters I witness as I walk are as countless as the slow-moving cars of rush hour. I see a young boy on a bike, and behind him, standing on pegs attached to the back wheel, a younger boy, his tiny hands placed on the shoulders of the other. I wish I had a brother, I think. I ask myself why I don’t live here, and wish that I did.
Sterling Street, I take a right and search for shade. A white house has been converted into the Grace and Truth Gospel Temple. Three older women sit on the church’s stoop puffing cigarettes. Cigarettes and church always make me think of AA meetings. I wonder if the three women are alcoholics, or just God-loving smokers. I pass a Christian School, which is deteriorating and looks vacant. John Lennon’s lyrics, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” are painted on a mural that covers the school’s fence. I hum the song as I turn onto Franklin.
No line is drawn marking the cut-off point between Sterling and Franklin; it draws itself instead in the people and the storefronts. Lily & Fig Bakery, an Aveda hair salon, upscale thrift stores and women’s boutiques. Beards are long and bikes are plentiful. This street is tree-lined and quiet as the dead. Everyone walks alone. There are no discounts. There are no churches. God and good deals are nearby if they’re needed.
Hipster heaven is, like a trend, ephemeral, and by the time I turn onto Fulton Street, the fading scent of vegan scones and artisanal soap is gone. Churches return, along with an abundance of halal food. An awning above a restaurant commands, NO MORE JUNK, EAT HEALTHY, HALAL IS THE ANSWER. I think about ice cream, then wonder what God eats. Halal, I decide. Maybe ice cream on special occasions.
I pass Alhumdellellah Barber Shop, Abu’s Homestyle Bean Pie Bakery, and Auto Fashion—where one could have their SUV accessorized, its windows tinted, and exchange stock rims for status symbols. Another dreadlocked man pushes a walker with an attached speaker, blasting gospel music. Two men wearing kufis and dashikis talk with a very young, very white police officer. They laugh and shake hands. I wonder if being good with God keeps citizens safe from the police. Then, I think, it’s more complicated than that.
The very young, very white cop approaches me with a smile even whiter. He asks me if I’m okay, says he noticed me walking around, and stopping, thought I might be lost. I tell him I’m fine, that I’ve been assigned to walk through and write about the neighborhood, so I’m taking my time. He looks confused and asks, “You were given an assignment to walk around this very unsafe area?”
“Yes,” I say. “Everyone’s been super friendly to me.”
“Do you still have your wallet?”
“Yes,” I say, and hope it’s true. “So, why’s this area unsafe? Tell me so I can write it down.” I hold up my notebook and pen.
No cop has ever looked at me the way he’s looking at me now. He continues smiling, but his warm expression turns to one of concern. He covers his badge and says he’s not telling me anything.
Too late, I think, and record our exchange the moment he turns away.
My walk is almost complete. The sun has begun its slow, summer descent. The temperature hasn’t yet dropped, but the vibe on the street is shifting. It’s a familiar shift: less light, more trouble. This is the same anywhere in the world.
I notice the store before me: Discount Pet Store. I write down the name and beneath it I write, this scares me.
An old man carrying a cane and scent of alcohol stops and asks me if I’m writing about Fulton Street. When I say yes, he asks if he can read it. I let him.
He reads my words aloud, then asks, “Why does the pet store scare you?”
I explain that the idea of discounted pets doesn’t seem right to me. He agrees, and offers to help me get to the bottom of it. On our way into the pet store, he tells me he goes by Big Worm and I tell him I go by Phoenix. Big Worm and I ask around, and we’re told that everything in the store is discounted, even the pets.
“Why?” I ask. “Are they missing legs or something?”
No, no. The pets are healthy, they’re just discounted, we’re told.
Big Worm and I leave the store and decide we were given a bullshit answer. He tells me that I’ll make a good journalist, that I ask the right questions. Then, he asks me for money.
I pull a dollar from my wallet but he sees my ten and wants it. I’m a poor writer, I say.
“Phoenix, I haven’t slept or eaten for two days, I have a bad foot!”
“Dude, I’m telling you, I’m poor!”
“I’m homeless,” he says.
Touché. I reach back into my wallet for change.
This is still not enough, so he threatens to remove his shoe and show me his diseased foot. I stop him and give him another five. This, he says, is enough. Then, he says, this neighborhood gets bad at night, but he’ll be my bodyguard. He says, if anyone messes with me, just say, “Yo, you know my boy, Big Worm?” and they’ll leave me alone. Everyone knows him around here, he says. He tells me he’s been shot seven times and lifts his shirt to show me the bullet wounds. He says he’s not afraid of anything.
I thank him for the offer but tell him I’m done and going home. He offers to show me to the train. As we walk, he tells me to take his arm. I say my fiancé wouldn’t like that. He says if his girlfriend saw me with him, she’d kill me.
“Great,” I say, “bet you wouldn’t be my bodyguard then, would you?”
We reach the station. He thanks me and tells me he’ll look for me on Channel 7 Eye Witness News, that he’ll never forget me. I thank him as well, and say I won’t forget him, either.
As I walk down the stairs to catch the A uptown, I ask myself again, what does God want? I doubt it has much to do with hair salons or churches.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
My mind had become one with New York, always moving with a frenetic energy. Things weren’t connecting like they used to- a myriad of dislocated thoughts, grandiose ideas and re-imagined memories sprouted in my brain like weeds and I couldn’t tend to this garden. I lost sight of the flowers. I desperately hoped to remember stillness. But even stillness felt like a motion. I fantasized about silence but couldn’t hear it. Perhaps death is how we find stillness, silence. Maybe it’s sleep. Well, not for me. I’d been waking up in fear, not knowing where I was or how I got there. This sensation reminds me of what I would imagine it feels like to be born or what it might feel like to be in a grave. It was like every place and it was like no place.
It is Saturday Night and I am certain that I am going to die soon. Death is a thickness in the air; never had I experienced a feeling so ghostly. My brain moves with the city; Manhattan is a dictator, after all. So I enter the underground to travel back to Brooklyn, seeking quiet. My body moving away from this other borough, with the false hope it might change the speed of my thoughts, reduce the fear that lies heavy in my chest. What I am really trying to run from are certain memories, which attack my mind. It’s a violence I can no longer take. There had been enough violence. So I thrust the trauma into a deeper crevice of my mind, but I fear it may be creeping into my muscles, making me jittery. It’s creeping into my eyes creating a hyper awareness and constant need to look over my shoulder. On the subway everyone is looking at me. They can tell something isn’t quite right. When traveling between 1st Avenue and Bedford Avenue I lose my balance and tumble down on the crowded subway car. A man helps me up and asks if I am okay but I am not certain how to answer.
It hadn’t always been this way. It being existence. This way being perplexing. It had once been clearer or perhaps I lacked awareness. Perhaps I did not yet recognize that existence was nonsensical. Additionally, my particular traumas of being a body caused me a new type of bewilderment- a blurriness.
When I exit the subway I walk down Grand Street, where I live in Williamsburg, to meet my boyfriend at The Drink hoping to do just that, hoping that this act will dull the noise. I want to consciously check out, find a dark corner. He is at the end of the bar drinking a beer with a shot of whiskey beside him. Before greeting him I take the shot, then sit down beside him and order another round. The night continues in this direction. We travel from bar to bar in the streets of Williamsburg but the drinking does not bring the faintness of thoughts I had hoped that it would. We arrive at a bar called, Night of Joy but it is far from what I experience. The bar is loud and crowded. My boyfriend’s co-workers and boss are there and he tells me to “act normal,” not like the strange self I have become and can’t hide. I dance frantically hoping to tire my mind and body but when this doesn’t work I exit the bar and call my brother. I cry into the phone slurring my words and my brother tells me I should go home. I am a ball on the sidewalk outside the bar when my boyfriend walks drunkenly towards me. He asks where I’ve been and I tell him I was doing my best to be “normal.” He sits beside me on the sidewalk and says, “Let’s go home.”
The night air is still warm even though it is October. I move down the street slowly, feeling exhausted. He, looks at me with concerned blue eyes and asks me what is wrong. I begin to cry, everything feels overly stimulating on the streets of Brooklyn, the lights of the cars, the signs on stores, drunk people moving about the streets. I can’t focus my attention or think clearly. We arrive back to my apartment but I can’t get the key to go into the hole, my hands are shaking. He helps me open the door and once we are inside the apartment I move quickly to my room. I lie on my bed but I can’t find stillness, in my mind or body. I am trembling as he rubs my back, telling me to breathe. He eventually falls asleep, once I have stopped crying. But I cannot. The movements of my body become out of control as I seize in my bed. I am concerned that the motion may wake my boyfriend, but he snores softly beside me, grinding his teeth. I don’t feel safe in my own body as I continue to convulse. Eventually around 5am I fall asleep while listening to the sound of chirping of birds outside.
After laying awake for a long time I decided to buy some groceries to cook breakfast for my boyfriend to make up for my strange behavior the previous evening. He accompanies me on the excursion. We head down Graham Street towards the local market. While crossing the street a biker nearly hits me but I quickly dart back to the curb. My heart races as I turn to my boyfriend who holds my hand as we cross the street.
The grocery store provides another kind of anxiety. Cans of food ordered neatly on the shelves makes the lack of order in my own life feel more present. I quickly head to the refrigerated aisle and pick up eggs. I attempt to open the container to make certain that none are cracked and in doing so I drop them all. The eggs shatter on the floor yellow yolk running by my feet. My boyfriend laughs, “Something is seriously wrong with you.”
I bend down feeling guilty as an attendant of the mart approaches with a mop. I grab another dozen without checking for cracks, apologize profusely for the mess I’ve created and checkout.
On the way home I move quickly and as I cross the street where the near fatal almost bike incident occurred when something brushes my face. I scream and then turn to see that what has brushed my face was a monarch butterfly flying peacefully by. “You are a crazy little monster,” my boyfriend scoffs.
The day progresses as does my anxiety. Night time comes and drinks were had and people became tired and drifted towards their beds. My boyfriend and I moved towards mine as well and to I fall asleep. But something strange happens while I am asleep. I wake up somewhere that is not my bed.
I wake up on the roof, body trembling and exhausted, body so close to the edge. This is the first time my sleepwalking had been really bad, I’d done it in the past but it was usually more like waking up trying to run the bath, or doing the dishes, or eating a whole bag of apples. This was bad. This was an edge of a building several floors up from my comfortable bed. I call my boyfriend who is still in my bed, a million times. He doesn’t answer. I call my brother once, he answers. He helps me get down, close the roof door, find my way back to the ground floor where I live. I collapse on the couch.
My boyfriend finds me on the couch the next morning and asks if everything is alright. I feel okay, surprisingly. I feel rested. So I just nod. He heads off to work and I decide to leave the house as well.
Walking down Graham Street towards Greenpoint I am hyper aware of the things going on around me. I notice the different shops and places along the way. There’s a restaurant called Mother’s, a bar called Daddy’s, Uncle Louie’s ice cream shop and finally right under the BQE, Grandma’s Rose’s pizzeria. It’s all connected. We are all family. I am suddenly happy in a strange and new way. It seems as though my anxieties have vanished. As I grow closer to the McCarren Park I notice details of people’s faces, of things around me. I wander around for the rest of the day speaking with strangers. Eventually I head home to bed.
In my bed, another night without sleep, I feel my body shake uncontrollably. My eyes won’t s stay closed and I am unable to lie still. I want to remember stillness, even stillness feels like a motion lately. I fantasize about silence, I can’t hear it. Perhaps death is how we find stillness, silence. Maybe it’s sleep. Not for me. I’ve been waking up in fear, not knowing where I am and how I got there. It sort of feels like being born. It sort of feels like being a grave. It sort of feels like every place and no place.
Things haven’t been connecting lately. It’s like a lot of pieces, strands of things. Today was an exciting day but I can’t put it all together. Things are both absent and present. The fabric of the language behind my emotions is falling to pieces. I am trying my best to put it back together, to figure out what is going on. The stakes feel high.
I hear my boyfriend grinding his teeth in his sleep, a trait which I usually find endearing, not tonight. It has been too many sleepless nights and with this sound I will be unable to sleep.
“Wake up” I command him. He opens his eyes with a concerned look on his face.
“You need to leave.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea” He responds groggily, “You are acting strange again tonight, I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I can’t sleep. I need sleep. You need to leave.”
“I don’t think that is a good idea. I am concerned about you.”
“But I need sleep! You need to go!”
“You are acting crazy!” He yells, “I’ve never seen anyone act this way. I’m concerned.”
“I need sleep! I can’t sleep with you here!” I am growing agitated. I need to look out for my health. I need to figure things out.
“Fine!” He yells, “I don’t think this is a good idea” he says as he begins to move from my bed. He throws a ring I’ve given him to the ground in anger.
“You don’t have to act that way!”
“You are acting crazy!” He repeats.
I throw the ring he has given me in response. “Go!” I scream.
He does and I fall asleep almost instantly, exhausted. But the rest is not restful and I wake in an hour feeling anxious. I need to move.
I exit my apartment and go outside. The night air feels cool but refreshing. It is still dark and currently around 4:00 am. I feel bad for having kicked out my boyfriend and I decide that I should go out and look for him, even though he left about an hour or two before. I begin to run down the street. I pass the diner a local diner and notice the lights are on. I go in and ask if I can use the bathroom. The cook, beginning to prepare for the day, agrees although he seems surprised to see me. I thank him and leave.
It suddenly feels as though anything is possible. As if anything I want I can do or have and that people will help me, like the man in the diner. If I need to go to the bathroom I could stroll into whatever the nearest building was and ask to use it. People are accommodating. My experiences earlier today also made me aware of this fact. I’m on the verge of new ideas.
The world feels as though it is trembling with the need to communicate. Every sign in the window of a store means something. There is a cosmic relatedness about everything. Papers on the ground hold secret meaning. I stop to look signs in every storefront and to pick up pieces of paper or trash I see on the ground. I assume that everything has some important message because this is a moment of change. Everyone has been talking about it. Everyone has been talking in codes about it though, which I have to decode. It is a language of puns and riddles. I am finally beginning to understand. Everything around me holds secret meaning. I have to figure out what it is. I’ve been overwhelmed by these ideas and not sleeping but things are coming together. I have a role in all of this change. I need to contact everyone that I can to tell them of my revelations.
As I run down the street my thoughts move rapidly, I think of all that there is to do and all that I have to say. There aren’t many people on the street at this time but everyone I see I make eye contact with. A man follows me for a bit and I am certain that it is because he wants to protect me. He can sense my importance. This is a special time and things are going to be different now for me. I can’t live in constant fear, as I have been. This man must be following me because he knows who I am and is protecting me. People are beginning to recognize me. My phone is recording me and streaming everything I do on the internet.
I continue down the street picking up papers off the ground and knocking on storefront doors, none of which are currently open. I find a card on the ground for a cab company. I decide to use it later today to get to school. The ride will be free, I am certain. I see a cat and decide to follow it for a while. It leads me back towards my home and I realize I should return home and prepare for the day. The sun is beginning to come up.
At home I take a bath. I watch my naked body twitch in the tub but I don’t feel concerned about my body’s uncontrollable movements. I instead move out of the tub and dance around my room, putting on wild makeup and recording a video of myself doing so. I get dressed and wipe some of the makeup off my face but there is a line of pink lipstick up my arms that won’t come off. This makes me laugh. I put on a sweater. I text a bunch of people from my phone whom I feel I need to speak to today, my parents, my brother, some friends, some people I haven’t spoken to in a long while. I text my boyfriend feeling bad for kicking him out. I then call the cab company on the card I found in the street. I give them my address.
I head out the door and the cab is waiting for me.
“This is a free cab service, right?” I say as I get into the car. “I have an apple for you!”
The man says, “You can’t pay for the ride?”
“No, I can’t. But I have an apple that you can have.” He takes the apple and accepts the deal. I feel so successful, as though anything is possible. I call my mom and leave her a message about my recent good fortune. She doesn’t answer and I call my dad and do the same thing.
The cab driver asks if I am married and I tell him,
“Yes. You have to be in this day and age,” I explain, though I’m not sure why I do this. But it makes me feel safer talking to this man and him believing that I am married. I text Timothy and my brother. The cab driver asks if he can drop me off at first and 14th street instead of taking me to my school. I agree.
“Thank you so much!” I say as I leave the cab. He smiles.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention
“Grizzly: A Social Medium”
There is something about a dog that speaks a universal language in a multi-cultural, multi-language neighborhood like Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Grizzly, our social medium, first spoke that language to me.
Two years ago my husband Mike and I moved into a one bedroom apartment on the garden floor of an old limestone building in Sunset Park. It had recently been gutted and remodeled with brand new floors, fresh paint, shiny kitchen appliances, and a bathroom with an actual linen closet. Mike and I agreed it was the fanciest place we had ever lived. The best part was the backyard. True, it was a concrete pit –but it was our concrete pit. It was a private backyard space all our own, and we had the landlord’s promise that a small dog would be welcomed.
On Craigslist, an ad featured a scrawny rust-colored Pomeranian named “Prince Harry.” The pup was offered by a small, non-profit, animal rescue group in Connecticut. We applied to adopt this dog, who, we learned, had been abandoned and found wandering the streets. Two ladies from the rescue group drove all the way down to Sunset Park on their own dime to check us out. They interviewed us as prospective caregivers, and we all watched in wonder as the dog systematically sniffed out every inch and corner of the apartment.
We must have passed their test because when they left, they didn’t take Prince Harry back with them. He had a new home, with us, and a new given name: Grizzly. He was so hairy and fuzzy that he looked like a miniature grizzly bear.
All that hair turned out to be a camouflage for a very skinny body. However, it didn’t take long for the scrawny pup to fill out to a healthy, fit, seventeen pound dog, and it took even less time for Grizzly to completely take over our apartment and our lives.
On the down side, we no longer buy nice things. Also, we cannot allow guests to put their shoes or purses on the floor because Grizzly will chew on them and “bury” his treasures in between the couch cushions and under the pillows on our bed.
On the positive side, Grizzly can dance on his hind legs, has a lot of energy, loves people, and wants attention and a close cuddle at all times. He appears to fly from one end of the apartment, leaps to the couch, lands on my lap, places his little front paws on my shoulders, and licks my cheek repeatedly. He actually prefers to do this to Mike’s face because of his scratchy stubble.
When we first moved to Sunset Park, Mike and I met a number of people. For instance, we were soon on a first name basis with guys working at the bodega down the block which sells the best selection of craft beers.
But it is Grizzly who really gets the credit for opening up the neighborhood to us. Our area has a mixed population, but it is predominantly home to Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Chinese individuals. It is in this busy, bustling diversity that we have found a common denominator, a fluffy pup who just adores being adored.
The humanity and humility that a small dog can extract from the most random and complete strangers has been overwhelming and completely heartening to Mike and me. We often see children and adults alike looking at Grizzly with small smiles starting at the corner of their mouths when we pass them. Some of them have commented:
“¡Perrito, perrito!” said a little girl while pointing at Grizzly, which was followed by, “¡Ay, que linda!” from her mom.
“I like your dog. Huskies are my third favorite dog,” said a little boy. We aren’t sure if he thought Grizzly was a husky or if he was just sharing a general opinion with us.
“Hey man, that is one cool ass dog,” said a tough-looking Latino man with big muscles and tattoos to Mike.
“That’s a baby wolf,” explained a preschooler with scientific certainty to his classmate while on a walk through the park with his class.
Other times, people will stop to have more of a conversation so they can interact with Grizzly a bit more and maybe give him a pat or receive an appreciative lick in return.
“Does he bite?”
I say, “No, do you want to meet him?” while five Latino children crouch down in a circle around Grizzly and begin rapid fire questions and comments.
“Oh, he is so soft. What’s his name?”
“His name is Grizzly.”
“Is he a boy or a girl?”
“Is his tongue black?”
“I don’t think so, let’s see.”
“Can he do tricks? Paw…paw…paw…”
“Grizzly, shake. Shake hands.”
At another street corner I hear: “Your puppy looks just like Bailey!
I ask, “Is Bailey your dog?”
“Yes,” she replies, “but Bailey is 12 years old now and can’t come to the park. He can’t walk down stairs because, because Bailey is old now. He’s 12.”
“I’m sor-” “MOMMMMM! COME SEE THE PUPPY!” “-ry to hear about Bailey.”
“Mom, doesn’t this dog look just like Bailey? Bailey likes it when I do this.” She bends down next to Grizzly and scrunches up his ears and face. Grizzly pants, smiles, and gives her a lick as she giggles.
“Bailey sometimes eats my Mom’s underwear from the laundry basket.”
Her mom gives me a panicked look and I smile at her. We both shake our heads a bit and the moment of embarrassment passes as I respond, “Grizzly does crazy things like that sometimes too.”
On our way to Sunset Park, the park for which the neighborhood is named, we pass a car service establishment. A man who works there enjoys his cup of coffee on the sidewalk while waiting for his next customer; he would always shout after me and Grizzly. At first, I was refused to acknowledge his calls of, “Hey baby, hey baby!” I then realized he was directing these statements to Grizzly. These days, on our way to the park, I will spot him on the street at the car service and say to Grizzly, “Hey, who is that? Who is that over there?” Grizzly gets riled up, looks around and then ahead. He spots his friend and hears “hey baby!” and sprints forward to get his morning pat.
Sometimes, people just don’t want to have a conversation. They are simply interested in interacting with Grizzly himself. There was one young boy, maybe four or five years old, who had been following us for a while in the park. I could tell he wanted to meet the pup. We stopped and I asked him if he wanted to say hello to Grizzly. The boy immediately got down on his knees to quietly pet Grizzly lovingly and whispered to no one in particular, “Oh, he is so fluffy. You almost can’t see his ears because they are the same color as his fur. Ohhhh, he is so fluffy.”
Grizzly has made other, non-human friends during the early morning off-leash time in the park. Dog owners have introduced Grizzly to Cupie and Momo, Ralph, Ginger, Kiwi and Snowball, Marley, Kaya, Gizmo, Bruce the husky, and Porky, to name a few.
I know these dogs and their behaviors by sight and experience. I don’t know their owners as well. But we have been in Sunset Park long enough now to start recognizing individuals in the grocery store and entering or exiting the subway stop on 45th Street to realize we know these people from somewhere…..ah, yes, the dog park! These are Grizzly’s friends’ people.
There was an older woman using a walker to slowly make her way up the block. Her eyes lit up when she saw Grizzly and I watched her track his every movement as we got closer and closer to her. She stopped walking altogether to just stare at him. I was in a rush to get home, but I had to stop. I asked her if she wanted to pet him, she nodded at me. I picked Grizzly up and held him close to her. While she steadied herself with one hand on her walker, she stroked Grizzly’s head. She leaned in and Grizzly started licking her cheek and forehead. She just kept stroking Grizzly’s head and started murmuring, “God bless you. God bless you.”
We see an older man who seems to have hit a very rough patch usually sitting on the ground near the entrance of the park every morning. Sometimes he is alone. Other times he is hanging out with other men. We don’t know if he has a home to return to at night. Certain signs indicate that he is likely an alcoholic who has suffered from this disease for many years. We say good morning to him every time we see him.
Sometimes it takes him a moment to register our greeting, but he always returns it with his own warm “good morning, good morning.” He also almost always follows it up with “you have a beautiful dog.” We’ve shared this exchange dozens of times. One morning we watched him get picked up in an ambulance and we didn’t see him for a number of days. We thought about him every morning on our way into the park when he wasn’t there. I hope we will share our good morning exchange again tomorrow.
On our way home from the park, we steer our leashed dog away from the ready to be picked up garbage bags on the street curb.
“Pomeranians. You just never know their attitude,” a young, perhaps eight-year-old, girl remarks astutely as she gives Grizzly a gentle head pat, turns, and opens the gate to her brownstone walk-up.
I respond, “You are absolutely right! You just never know.” We walk on, a few steps later looking out the corners of our eyes at one another and giggling as our fluffy social medium trots on down the sidewalk.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention
I knew it as soon as I saw him. It might have been his swagger or the shimmer of gold around his neck. But I knew right away where he came from. Over the years I’ve honed my Brooklyn radar to be highly accurate. Eddie Singer was Brooklyn, a rare find in the little New England hamlet where I work. And then I heard it, as clearly identifiable as the unique call of a bird, I heard his Brooklyn talk, my mother tongue. His accent clearly identified him as originating from the ancestral lands of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I’m a professional naturalist, attuned to recognizing the slight differences between species. I can tell a coopers hawk from a sharped shinned just by silhouette alone or the mating call of the gray tree frog from that of the rubbery quack of the wood frog. This is how I knew Eddie Singer wasn’t from Keene, New Hampshire or anywhere New Hampshire. He was Brooklyn, just like me. “You can take the kid out of Brooklyn but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the kid” something my dad has said to me throughout my life. And he should know, as a former Coney Island bad-ass, a member of the Pythons street gang and a penny pitch hawker at Astroland. It’s hard to argue with bona fides like that.
My dad taught me many things as a kid growing up in Flatbush. Like never fall asleep on the D-train or you’d end up at the end of the line, walk like you got a purpose and never look anyone right in the eye. “We’re like dogs,” he would say, “Sniff all you want, but never look ‘em in the eye.” He might have been a small time tough boy in the 1940’s, cutting school and sneaking down to the beach to smoke and drink but by the time I came along into his life, he knew what was good about the world.
He raised us on a healthy diet of nature. People laugh when I tell them this. Brooklyn and nature seem like two very far and distant countries. In between the concrete and buildings, what possible slivers of anything remotely natural could exist? But it was exactly the momentary flashes of nature that seemed to have resonated with my dad and then me, the most. The fact that you could find the brilliant red streak of a northern cardinal in my East 22nd street backyard made it stand out all the more. Hearing the fluid ripple of “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” call of the white throated sparrow from the edge of the thicket in Marine Park, when all around you people just walked on by, made it seem like it was just meant for me alone.
Like small jewels, we collected sightings. Treasures like oyster catchers down at Jordan’s Lobster Dock in Sheepshead Bay and even once a kestrel on the edge of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. We’d search the scraggle of Brooklyn’s abandoned lots and the edges of forgotten wildness together. He had a pair of binoculars. I remember how I loved the smell and touch of the leather case and burgundy velvet interior. We’d take binocular walks around our neighborhood, scanning the thicket for birds. We’d find small flocks of dark eyed juncos and chickadees, and hear the occasional rippling song of the hermit thrush.
Sometimes nature would find us. One early evening in spring on the roof of our small garage, a white pigeon landed. Normally we didn’t pay much attention to pigeons, referred to by my dad as rats with wings, but a white pigeon, that was different. Next door neighbors gathered with us watching the bird as the daylight faded. Miltie, an interior decorator and neighbor said,”Awch, what’s the big deal? It’s just a white rat with wings.” In the morning, I woke up with the pigeon on my mind and rushed out to see it. No pigeon but on the ground a pile of white feathers and some bones and gristle. Sharp shinned hawk was my dad’s conclusion. “You win some, you lose some and maybe the pigeon lost but the hawk won” my dad said and my mom begged him to clean up the feathers. He left them wanting to see who would come next. Crows. “Nature’s garbage men” he said.
Across Avenue N, off of East 22nd street was a slim angled side street called Olean Street. I loved that it had a name and not a number. Olean sounded like a tree to me or someplace southern. It was as though the builders of Brooklyn had forgotten it was there or gave up on developing its scraggly edges. One side of this very small street had tight clapboard houses from long ago. But one whole side of the street was completely undeveloped. Just a spray of staghorn sumac and bramble tumbling down hill to a small wet streak before the houses on the next street claimed it as backyard. It was a slice of wild land unclassified in my Midwood neighborhood of orderly homes and tiny tight backyards.
I’d ride my banana seat bike with the streamers flying out from my handlebars down to this free man’s land and get lost in its tangle. Down through the fuzzy branches of the sumac into the wet hallow. I’d follow the reedy trails of small voles and mice, stalk the feral cats who came to hunt, and listen for the whoit whoit call of my treasured bird, the cardinal. Around me would be the rush of my neighborhood. The cars on Avenue N heading to Ocean Ave, sirens, car alarms, loud vibrating music pulsing from my block as the older boys worked on fixing their Camaros.
Olean Street led me to seek out other forgotten edges of the city. I wandered looking for the places in between, gray lands of Brooklyn, undefined and forgotten. The neither places. There was the crack between two garages, where I could just slide myself in and find a small world of moss covered bricks. A vacant lot at the end of my block that the adults called an eye soar and the big kids would go to make out and smoke dope. I would go there to find the purple flowers of the cow vetch and the tight yellow blossoms of goldenrod full of bumblebees. In spring I would find the slice between the gray sidewalk where the small pink-eyed grass gave up its blossom year after year. I roamed the sunken and derelict train tracks that lay forgotten by many off the edge of Avenue P. I saw a snake once sunning itself on the old iron rail warmed by late day sun in September and found tracks of a waddling opossum after a December snowstorm. I didn’t stop going to the tracks, when I saw a dead man, mouth open, flies crawling in and out of his mouth and the needle in his arm standing up halfway pressed down.
Tucked away in all these thin slips forgotten edge, I found something that continues to feed me now these many years and many miles distant from Brooklyn. It is the untamed, ungroomed, messy bits of landscape that make sense to me. It is where life unfolds and folds back again in a new way. From the searing flame of the cardinal, to yellow flowers trembling under the weight of hungry bumble bees, to even a dead man on an abandoned track, it is at the edges of neither here nor there that shake with possibility. Even now, though I live surrounded by acres of wild lands I am still drawn to the ecotone, the edge between. I wander the stonewall that boarders the forest to the field, the brim between the land and the swamp, even the crack in the granite where a slim hemlock tree has laid out its life and grown. It is here along the verge of places I am most at home. You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the kid.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention
In the Back of St. Bernadette’s
The first time I felt called to become a nun, I was eight and in the back of St. Bernadette’s in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, one neighborhood over from where Saturday Night Fever was filmed, where stores were named after legends like Joe Torre and Mona Lisa. It was after five o’clock Mass on a Saturday, close to the end of the year, probably November. The ushers were handing out bulletins, and parishioners were shaking Father’s hand and piling out the doors, the smell of candles and perfume in the air. I’d stopped at the literature table near the exit deciding what to take, when a burst of cold air rushed into the vestibule, and I saw The Tablet with Special Vocations Issue in big letters across the front. I knew nuns and priests marry God, and I felt a tug on my heart, which embarrassed me. I made sure no one was looking before I took it then headed for the door, when I felt tapped on the shoulder. When I turned around, the extinguished candles on the altar were sending up wispy circles of smoke toward Saint Bernadette and the Blessed Mother who was nestled into hewn rock high above the altar, the ends of her powder blue sash thrown upwards like there was a strong gush of wind. I thought about ignoring the feeling, but she looked so beautiful in her long white dress and hands pointed in prayer that I walked a few feet down the long aisle to whisper a quick Hail Mary. Kneeling down beside her and looking little like me, Bernadette was gazing up at Mary as if she was asking a favor and Mary was looking up at God as if she were asking Him to grant it. It felt like a giant, invisible circle of love surrounded them, but not one that made me feel left out like I had since my sister Annie was born. I slipped all the way into the pew between the royal blue columns where no one could see me.
I started flipping through The Tablet, which was filled with advertisements of nuns and priests smiling so fully their eyes shone. Some wore plain clothes with a big cross necklace but most wore habits and collars and were shown in classrooms and hospitals or with their heads bowed down in prayer. Next to the pictures were the names of orders with little crosses and emblems and words I couldn’t pronounce or understand like charism, apostolate, and discernment, and cards to fill out your name and cut out to get more information. I loved everything about Church: the songs, the smells, the running spring near Bernadette, the burn of Christ’s blood in my stomach. I went alone when Mommy was too busy to take me. Did this mean I was supposed to become a nun? Did I want to? I pulled The Tablet closer, tried to imagine myself in the black veil and knee length habit the Filippini nuns in my school wore. When I got big, I wanted to wear pretty clothes and lipstick like Mommy, but the nuns, especially the ones in The Tablet, looked so happy, like they knew some big, wonderful secret the rest of us didn’t know. I kept turning the page, intrigued, until I got to the centerfold that said in the middle in big bold letters, GIVE YOUR LIFE TO GOD.
I looked up, startled, as if I’d been spotted, but the ushers were busy emptying the collection baskets in the back of the church, and Father Di’Orio had already disappeared into the rectory behind the altar. Jesus’ Father, the Creator of the Universe, wanted me? At first I felt shimmery inside like the stained glass behind Mary, but the longer I looked at the words, the more I felt suspicious. My life was my breath and heart and soul, my everything. Why would God give me my life and then ask for it back? It sounded scary and hard like dying. I looked up again this time at St. Bernadette’s question and Mary’s response painted at right angles on the high art deco ceiling:
Lady, Would You Be So Kind As To Tell Me Who You Are?
I Am The Immaculate Conception.
We learned in school that Mary was sinless from the moment she was a baby in her mother’s womb. We learned that she gave her life to God by allowing Him to put his Divine Son in her womb and that St. Bernadette did too by obeying God through Mary. But she was a saint, and Mary was the Mother of God. Why would the Creator of the universe ask jealous eight-year-old me to give my life to Him? What did that even mean? Before I could look back down at The Tablet, I knew. Mary was telling me to give my life to God. Nuns give their lives to God. I had to become a nun. Why else all the picture of nuns and priests and no regular people? It didn’t say you can give; it said give your life to God. You had to mean me. It felt like Jesus’ Father was giving me an order like Papa always tried to give Mommy. When she served salad with dinner, he’d say, “Where I come from, that’s what we served the pigs.” Sometimes he’d pound his thick fist against the table, and I’d jump.
I flipped back to the pictures of the nuns, but now all I saw was how plain they were, like those in my school except not as old. They looked nothing like the women on Mommy’s soap opera or in her magazines who had long shining hair and eyelashes and glossy lips and beautiful clothes. The nuns wore their hair really short or pulled back tight under the veil, so all that showed was a band of greying hair. Did they have any choice? Was Jesus the only Man who wanted them? I suddenly felt mortified and transparent as if I had NUN on my forehead, as if the ushers could see me through the columns. I wanted a husband I could see and feel, who would talk to me with a real voice, someone to bat my eyes at like the cartoon egg did at the eager fluffy sperm on the afterschool TV special. I wanted to belong, to feel the way I did when James Gardini touched my hair in school, special and beautiful, not plain and invisible the way I felt during Princess Hour when Mommy and my teenaged sisters, Jianna and Julia, transformed the kitchen table into a pink baby spa and took turns bathing Annie’s chubby, glistening body. When I asked Mommy if I could help, she didn’t look at me the way she did at Annie, like she wanted to eat her up; she just looked tired and put out. It felt like there wasn’t enough love, even though Baby Jesus had promised there would be.
It had happened the previous year at Christmas Eve Mass, two weeks after Mommy had told us she was having a baby. She and I were back in our seats after Holy Communion, where she’d received the Host, and I a blessing. I had my hands folded and my head bowed, my thoughts ricocheting between the dollhouse I asked Santa for and the baby growing inside Mommy. When I raised my head, the person who had been sitting in front of me was gone, and I could see Baby Jesus in the crèche with His arms outstretched, except He was looking directly at me. Then, with my heart, I heard Him whisper, Maria, There’s enough love. Goose bumps erupted from my skin. Everyone at home was so happy about the baby that I’d been afraid to admit I was jealous. We didn’t talk about feelings in our house, except for Papa, but that was usually to complain. When Mommy looked sad or mad, and I asked what was wrong, she’d say “No,” tensely, her small, blue eyes shrinking in her face, like I’d asked something bad, and then I’d wonder for days if I’d done something wrong. I was afraid that if I said how I felt she’d get mad. I couldn’t lose her. She was my everything. Jianna and Julia had each other, and Papa was always working. Jesus was telling me He knew exactly what I was feeling and that He loved me, and everything would be okay. I felt so wonderful and free that after that night. I enjoyed looking at everything Mommy was picking out for the baby and feeling her belly. But then there was the July day when Mommy came home with Annie. In a picture from that day, Annie’s in her arms perfect in a blanket, and I’m in my father’s, because I’ve asked him. I look overgrown and ridiculous, my arm draped heavily around his shoulder, my head tilted toward him like I’m trying to get back at my mother. Princess Hour made everything worse.
Painted on the wall right above the Blessed Mother was a big powerful dove with sixteen rays of golden light around it, eight from the bottom and eight from the top. When the Holy Spirit asked Mary to put Jesus in her womb, she said Yes even though she didn’t understand; she trusted. So did Bernadette when Mary told her to dig for a spring of water, and all she found at first was mud. We learned that sometimes we’re not going to understand or even like God’s plan, but that we’re supposed to trust Him completely like Mary did, like Jesus did in the Garden, on the cross. I fixed my eyes on the long, thin crucifix beneath the Blessed Mother that made Jesus look like a sliver of Himself and then at the Station of the Cross nearest me, the Crucifixion, the mean, angry men driving nails into His wrists. I closed my eyes tightly, squirmed at the thought of His excruciating pain. How could I ever say no to Him? But how could His Father ask me to be alone forever? I looked down at Give Your Life to God and then back at Jesus on the crucifix and felt the way I did when Papa asked me to sit on his lap at night. Knowing that he’d fall fast asleep with his arms across me like a bar, I went anyway, afraid he’d think I didn’t love him.
I heard the ushers bolting the back door, my cue that I had thirty seconds to exit the side. I folded The Tablet in two so the cover didn’t show and tucked it under my arm; when I got home I’d run to my bedroom and stick it in my bottom drawer. How would I ever explain to Mommy that I was certain God was asking me to do something I was sure I didn’t want to? She always prayed with me before bed and said grace before meals, but we never talked about Jesus or God’s will. I didn’t want her to doubt me the way St. Bernadette’s mother had doubted her. I looked at Mary and Bernadette one last time and ducked out the side door where the brisk air startled my face. I stopped at Ciullo’s, holding my armpit in tight as I paid the cashier, and then I walked the two blocks home, Italian bread in one arm, my secret burden tucked in the other.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
FUNemployment: A Lesson on Getting Fired From My First Job in Brooklyn
Whitney Van Laningham
“Are you almost ready to go?”
“Well,” I replied, jamming my laptop into its case along with the little owl-shaped dish where I kept my keys. “I just got fired. So we can go now.”
“Are you serious? Why?” My (former) coworker looked stunned. Three months ago, I had taken a job at a little production company down in Gowanus on her recommendation. In world-record time, I had managed to screw it up.
I shrugged. “Let’s get out of here.”
We went to a restaurant, and then a bar, and then another bar, where I proceeded to spend the rest of my last week’s pay on Patrón shots and Fireball bombs.
“You’re gonna find something better, don’t worry about it.”
I called my parents in California. They didn’t believe me. My mom cried and my step-dad tried to console both of us with his British accent.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll all turn out right in the end.” For a second, I wanted to believe him.
I started to dial my ex-boyfriend’s number and changed my mind.
He would only be relieved that his timing was perfect. Who would want to date an unemployed loser like me?
I woke up early on Monday even though I had nowhere to go. I reached for the phone and dialed the number for the New York State Unemployment Department in my pajamas. I fiddled with my hair until the operator picked up.
“I got fired,” I blurted out.
She didn’t care.
“What’s your social? Where were your last five places of employment? Do you know the consequences of a fraudulent report?”
She probably had Hurricane Sandy victims to worry about. She probably had five mouths to feed at home. She probably hated her job as much as I hated not having a job.
She signed off on a check for $175 every two weeks. It was less than I made working retail when I was 16. My stomach flipped over at the thought of hanging my head and asking for my job back as a cashier at Urban Outfitters.
Over the next few weeks, I would text former co-workers and make them perform subtle acts of guerrilla terrorism at the old office.
Steal all the string cheese. Hide the mouse pads. Eat all the gluten-free crackers. Take home the padded manila mailing envelopes. Send.
I had spent the past year trying to figure things out. Trying to plan everything, trying to micromanage, trying to be better than what I thought I could be. I juggled school and an internship and my impending graduation. I got a job that paid nothing, so I got a second job on top of that. I paid my dues. I started at the bottom. I worked 13-hour days and I gave up eating food and sleeping and seeing my boyfriend. And then, my boyfriend left me. And my boss let me go. And for the first time in thirteen months, I had no idea what the next move was.
I was sick of living in Brooklyn. I was sick of feeling lesser than all of the success that surrounded me. I was sick of being told that I was “too laid back” when all I could feel was suffocating stress and constant pressure. I was sick of not being the best.
I watched Mulan one night during one of my Netflix binges.
“Be a man,” they told her, and she climbed to the top of that wooden post with weights around her wrists faster than any of the other guys. Hadn’t I tried that? Hadn’t I?
I applied for ten jobs a day, every day, but nobody bit.
I networked with everyone I wasn’t too embarrassed to talk to. I was terrified to see half of the people I was friends with, because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want to hear them say, “I told you that you weren’t cut out for this.” I didn’t want to not-hear the things they would say when I left the room.
I stopped calling my parents because I didn’t want to have to lie to them and tell them I was okay. I was only okay when I was distracting myself long enough to forget about my dwindling bank account. I felt like there were hundreds of people rooting for me to make something of myself back home, and I had failed all of them.
I wanted to call my university and tell them that with all of their tests and pop quizzes and attendance policies, they didn’t prepare me for this. I wanted to blame my parents for giving me everything and not teaching me how to live without a paycheck. I wanted to hate every single person who had ever believed in me, because maybe if they had believed in me less, it wouldn’t have been so devastating that I had failed. I wanted to get in their faces and say, “YOU WERE WRONG. I’M NOT TALENTED OR SMART OR FUNNY OR ANY OF THOSE THINGS.” But I didn’t.
Instead, I helped a friend move in to her new apartment. I re-joined the living, and began taking writing classes. I listened to my folks, and I tried to breathe a little deeper every time I inhaled. It wasn’t always perfect, but I tried.
Maybe I could be a janitor? I thought to myself half-heartedly in line at Crif Dogs for the fifth time that week. Or a stripper. Or a bartender. Or one of those sex-hotline operators.
You’re a terrible dancer, I reminded myself. Stop it.
I went to the Natural History Museum and climbed inside a giant replica of a whale’s heart. I folded my legs Indian style like I did when I was small, and listened to the rhythmic thud of the blue whale’s heartbeat until a guard asked me to leave. I went to bars and parties and art exhibitions in Bushwick where I drank too much and stayed out too late. I bought fresh cherries at the Farmer’s Market and sang the White Stripes at karaoke. I spent hours walking up and down the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, daydreaming and making fun of tourists to myself.
I still had tiny explosions of panic, usually when I was completely alone. I saw my bank account drop down to 58 cents and I cried in the Staples Print / Copy Center where I had ironically just spent my last pennies printing copies of my resume. I would forget to eat, and then I would eat five cupcakes in a row to counter-balance it. I tried to hide the crazy from people by telling really bad I-just-got-fired jokes. I dubbed this period in my life “FUN-employment” and pretended to be having the time of my life running around Brooklyn, but honestly, I was terrified. I loved every single minute of free time, but I was also completely frozen with panic.
One night, I ventured down to Williamsburg to watch Goldfinger in an industrial park. I stuck a temporary tattoo to my upper arm and drank Brooklyn Summer Lager beneath the bridge in the moonlight. Somewhere between the red “Save Domino” Christmas lights on the side of the old sugar factory building and the Bedford L train, I started to panic My heart rate increased to fifty times the BPM of the blue whale’s heart at the museum. I couldn’t breathe. My fingernails were digging into the palms of my hands and I wanted my black flats from Target to hold me to the sidewalk, but I didn’t know if they could.
“I’m a mess!” I screamed at no one in particular.
But then, something really rare and really beautiful happened. Something that hardly ever happens on the subway; a tiny miracle that only graces the broken New Yorker in their hour of need; the New Yorker who moved from another city to follow their dreams, the New Yorker who was born here and waited for decades to find out if this is where they’re meant to be, the New Yorker who visits and falls in love with the place and is searching for a sign that they should stay.
I descended into the nearly deserted subway, and suddenly I felt the roof open up and the floor fall away and a guy in a beat-up American Apparel sweatshirt began playing the first few chords of Blackbird by the Beatles, my absolute favorite song.
And that’s when I fell in love with Brooklyn for the very first time, amongst the giant subway rats on the tracks, and the exhausted, lonely people sleeping on the stairs, and the dirty air rushing past us in the wake of a southbound train, and a skinny little hipster singing the only words that my heart needed to hear:
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention
A Prism In My Pocket
"There is then a world in me which is utterly unlike any world I know of. I do not think it is my exclusive property--it is only the angle of my vision which is exclusive in that it is unique."
Henry Miller from Henry Miller on Writing
The Webster's Dictionary that I use now defines a prism as "a polyhedron with two polygonal faces lying in parallel planes and with the other faces parallelograms." It is a definition that holds no meaning for me and my guess is that, if I asked around, most people I know would agree. Webster, high school physics and high school geometry aside, most of us learned about prisms as children the first time we saw a ray of sunlight caught and reflected through a glass paper weight or ash tray and projected against a living room wall. We didn't see polyhedrons or polygons or parallelograms, we saw magic--a magic we would never forget. A prism was then and is now just another piece of glass--until light shines through it--simple white light in, reflected rainbow magic out--and what was just a piece of glass becomes a magic lantern. Some childhood things never change. Some childhood things never should. A prism is a gift.
Brooklyn is a prism through which many authors have shone their special light, each creating his or her own magic lantern show--from free verse poetry to a black spring to trees pushing through dry and hardened concrete to baseball’s boys of summer to smiles and shoeshines and the death of a salesman to gardens in the night to taverns and tenement rooftops and churches and synagogues. From Walt Whitman and Henry Miller to Betty Smith and Roger Kahn to Arthur Miller and to Harvey Swados and Pete Hamill, each has shone his or her unique light through the prism that is Brooklyn--each using the same prism turned to the different angle of their vision--each allowing us to see what they saw--the way they saw it.
I had the unique experience of growing up Catholic and Italian in Brooklyn during World War II and the years immediately following. For me World War II itself was a war at once remote and global when measured in terms of language and geography but made personal and intimate when measured in terms of German language lessons from a "Nazi" father and hastily written letters from young soldier cousins--charter but anonymous members of an otherwise and formerly amorphous group that newsman Tom Brokaw would later come to recognize and anoint The Greatest Generation. Much of the whole of my growing up was an experience shared by I don't know how many thousands of others growing up there in the same place and at the same time--but a unique experience to me nonetheless. Like all of the authors mentioned above, the uniqueness of my experience was the source of the light that shone through the prism in my case--a light source controlled by a small army of uncles and aunts and cousins and an only slightly larger army of friends and playmates in houses and on streets and playgrounds and movie theaters.
World War II Brooklyn was a time of war movies. Every platoon and every squad in every Hollywood war movie made was sure to feature a character named either "Brooklyn" or "Flatbush"--always a little funnier than everyone else, always a little angrier than everyone else. There was Brooklyn William Bendix dying first on Wake Island and then on Guadalcanal before returning to Flatbush as radio's Chester Aloysius Riley. There was Brooklyn John Garfield in "Pride of the Marines", blinded sightless by enemy fire, burning hands wrapped in smoking rags, mowing down wave after wave of "dirty Nip" infantry. Nobody named "Brooklyn" or "Flatbush" was ever an officer. There was Brooklyn Jimmy Cagney falling on a live hand grenade and saving Pat O'Brien and George Tobias and the rest of New York's Fighting 69th--boys from Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and, as Cagney so memorably put it in the movie "The Fighting 69th", duh Bronx. Nobody from Scarsdale or Pelham or even duh Bronx ever fell on a live hand grenade. At the time, movies were black and white. At the time so was my Brooklyn.
World War II Brooklyn was a time of radio. On any of the quiz shows of that time--quiz shows like "It Pays To Be Ignorant" and "The $64 Question" and "Can You Top This"--whenever a contestant announced that he or she was from Brooklyn, that announcement was sure to be followed by loud whistles and hoots and applause from a large portion of the studio audience--an audience either remembering or recognizing.
World War II Brooklyn was a time of baseball. Leo Durocher--the Lip, Eddie Stanky--the Brat, Peewee Reese--the Captain, Duke Snider--the Duke of Flatbush and the rest of The Brooklyn Dodgers laid claim to the title of "America's team" long before Roger Staubach or any of the other Dallas Cowboys ever dreamed of or touched a football or an America.
World War II Brooklyn was a place of quiet--a subway place--everybody rode the subway--nobody owned an automobile. I was born and raised in a house at the corner of Avenue P and East 14th Street. Passage of an automobile on Avenue P, as close to a major thoroughfare as you could find in my neighborhood at the time, was cause for questioning pause in childhood play and conversation...
"Hey look at that."
"It's a Buick."
"Nah. It's a Packard."
"It's a Buick I tell ya."
"It's a Packard. You can tell from the boobs on the dame on the hood ornament."...
There was no traffic to speak of on 14th Street. 14th Street was for stickball and, absent a stick of any sort, punchball. 14th Street belonged to its kids not to its cars.
World War II Brooklyn had its own language. When referring to someone like the Earl of Kent or Earl Wilson, it came out "Oil of Kent" and "Oil Wilson." Conversely olive oil came out "olive earl." Church came out "choich" but choice came out "cherce" as in first Dixie Walker and later Duke Snider, "the people's cherce." The rest of the world called it Brooklynese. Brooklyn didn't call it anything.
"What a lovely view from
Heaven looks at you from
...the Brooklyn Bridge."
World War II Brooklyn had its own music. In the movie "It Happened in Brooklyn" a young Frank Sinatra sang Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne's love song to the Brooklyn Bridge...
"Isn't she a beauty? Isn't she a queen?
Nicest bridge that I have ever seen.
Like the folks you meet on,
Like to plant my feet on the Brooklyn Bridge." and
"Folks in Manhattan are sad
Cause they look at her and wish they had
A good old Brooklyn Bridge."...
Young Italian Francis Albert Sinatra singing Samuel Cahn and Jules Styne's words and music--typical World War II Brooklyn neighborhood action. Hoboken, New Jersey born but Brooklyn adopted Francis Albert Sinatra was planting his feet on the Brooklyn Bridge long before Tony Bennett even dreamed of leaving his heart on another bridge in another city on another coast 3,500 miles removed from the nicest bridge that young Francis Albert had ever seen--still the nicest bridge that I have ever seen.
The one time that he sang opera in a movie, Frank Sinatra sang "Don Giovanni" in "It happened in Brooklyn." He may have lost the girl to British accented Peter Lawford, but he sang the music to Brooklyn. It happened in Brooklyn. It could only have happened in Brooklyn.
Even Larry Hart, whether celebrating his Brooklyn boyhood or simply searching for a rhyme, paid momentary tribute to her language and song in Rodgers and Hart's otherwise selective paean to Manhattan:
"The city's clamor could never spoil
The dreams of a boy and goil."
World War II Brooklyn was a place of immigrants--mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts. I may have been born into an Italian Catholic household but I was raised on the streets and in the playgrounds of an Italian, Irish and Jewish neighborhood. The only people missing from our neighborhood were Protestants. My Uncle Harold's parents were Protestants--English Protestants--Plymouth Rock Protestants. His brothers had names like Roy and Walter and Stuart. When he married my Aunt Emily and converted to Catholicism, he both angered his parents and diminished the number of Plymouth Rock Protestants by one. When he started eating his meals in my Aunt Jessie's Italian kitchen, he must have decided it was worth it.
Brooklyn today is still a place of immigrants. Going back for a day last year with my wife to visit "one more time" and to "find myself" made me realize that. Going back to Brooklyn made me realize that I am the immigrant in Brooklyn now. Going back made me realize that we are all immigrants as we wake each morning into a world that is so different from the one that we left as we passed into sleep the night before. Going back made me realize that experiences worth remembering are experiences worth recording and sharing. My wife helped teach me that. My wife is and comes from a family of anthropologists and archaeologists. Somehow that seems appropriate.
For me that day last year in Brooklyn was a day of seeing and discovering memories of a time and a Brooklyn first seen and discovered through the prism of a child's eye--an eye that sees the hidden humor in everything--child and adult--an eye that nourishes in its seeing. At the same time it was a day of remembering and reflecting, as an adult, through the prism of that same child's eye – a day of revisiting what for most of us is truly the final frontier--childhood.
I remember reading somewhere that Ernest Hemingway carried in his pocket, as both a good luck charm and a guard against writer's block, a chestnut that he had picked up from the ground at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Like Hemingway, I carry a charm in my pocket. I carry a prism. Unlike Hemingway, I have no choice. I seem to be its captive.
"If you've been a rover,
Your journey's end lies over
...the Brooklyn Bridge."
Reynold Junker, Sacramento, California, January 15, 1995 from Subway Music
2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
We were not children: we were kids. We were Brooklyn street kids, keys in our jackets, tight shoes with worn soles, stolen food in our pockets. Our landscape was gray, a defeated composition of concrete, asphalt and faded blacktop coated with the oil of a thousand leaking cars. The air was unbreathable, permanently soiled from the smokestacks spewing poison. We lived in tenements that leaned against each other for protection, their plastic-covered windows blind eyes in winter that popped open in spring to spy into each other's apartments. The hallways stunk from piss, pot, cheap perfume, cigarettes. The matrix of our lives was a confluence of lost jobs, vanished fathers, gang violence, junkies nodding off in hallways.
Just across the bridge was the exalted landscape of Manhattan, an elegant spread of penthouses and doormen, gourmet food shops, discreet jewelry stores, expensive restaurants and one of the world's best art museums. We didn't belong there. We thought vertigo, or falling off the earth, or being escorted home under martial guard would occur if we pretended otherwise. It didn't matter; we were defiantly proud of not belonging, claiming the status of outsider with a certain arrogance.
We were expected to accomplish nothing more than to replace our parents, to remain as stagnant as the air. Evolution was not for us. The schools reinforced that lesson: girls must be waitresses, saleswomen, file clerks, underage mothers, the boys construction workers, truckers, dock workers, or drunks rolling out of the bars at one in the morning. We were expected to occupy those same tenements, have those same low paying jobs, birth children we couldn't afford, die of lung cancer, liver ailments, childbirth, or from the ubiquitous disease of violence: stabbings, beatings, drug overdoses, shootings. It was the fifties, before John Lindsey and Robert Kennedy, and no city politician considered us important enough to find a cure. Although we glimpsed a middle-class world on television, in movies, in magazines, we'd been assigned our societal roles: to be manifestations of a bogeyman's threat to those who didn't listen to their parents, or the police, or anybody in power. We were examples of what failure looked like. Our poverty was un-American, a stain against the country's good name. Middle-class children lived in houses with yards on Long Island, or apartments with sunny windows, but it was intuited that the tenements were our home.
Except they weren't; the streets were. The streets taught us that we were in an unnamed war (until Johnson named it the war on poverty). They trained us in survival, in how to avoid being beaten or raped, in how to steal food, clothing, shoes, records, radios without being caught. We didn't understand until years later that this thievery played into the hands of the elite who proclaimed us beyond redemption, that they'd covertly partnered with us to prove their point: tax money was better spent elsewhere.
We rarely attended school. What was the use? Any academic knowledge was taught us by mistake; our futures had been planned three generations ago. Only our mothers disputed those futures. They left and came home in the dark stooped from low-waged jobs, long subway rides, too much time on their feet. They cooked eggs or spaghetti or fatty hamburgers garnished with not quite spoiled vegetables and bread with moldy edges sliced off. They asked us about school while they washed dishes and assessed with defeated eyes what was left in the refrigerator until payday. They were proud of us, imagining we still attended school, that we might get to college and escape, not knowing the school guidance counselors said that we would never get more than a high school education, if even that.
Our mothers imagined we would be successful, even the schizophrenic mother who heard secret messages from the radio, even the one on welfare, even the two leveled out by alcohol, and the two mothers, including mine, who tried stretch their salaries to cover a week's worth of meals. They didn't realize that we already felt successful, scornful of those who couldn't recognize an encroaching gang rumble, or steal food, or know the safe alleys. We were better than the children on the other side of the bridge if only because we knew we could survive the world. But for all our scorn we secretly imagined that if we were patient and paid attention and became really good mimics, we might one day pass for the other; we might one day possibly win. We imagined our mothers might be right.
There were six of us who didn't remember a time when we hadn't known each other's faces, each other's voices, each other's mothers and the two fathers who occasionally visited, and the sisters and brothers still alive. We had history. When we were little, the girls cuddled dolls with stringy hair and dirty faces while they sat on the tenement steps. We played house with cartons we found on the streets and yelled in our mother's voices to just behave for God's sake. The boys smashed each other with battered GI Joes uttering loud angry "fucks" when a leg or arm dropped off in ghostly premonition of Vietnam. They raced matchbox cars with missing wheels until they collided. They stood over each other threateningly and warned to shut the fuck up and do what you are told or else while they raised imaginary belts.
When we were older, we played skully in the gutters, relishing the snap of the bottle caps, their slide to the fading chalk boxes, raising our middle fingers to the drivers that hollered from car windows to get the fuck out of the street. We built scooters from old roller skate wheels and wood from construction sites, then careened past churches and grocery stores where men played dominos outside, past bars with the stink of booze floating out on a blue nicotine haze, narrowly avoided mothers pushing babies in second-hand strollers. We paused to listen to boys who harmonized on songs by The Platters or The Drifters and hoped to be somehow, miraculously, discovered. One winter we built zip guns from rubber bands, splintered wood, and cut-up bits of linoleum we found behind a factory. And later still, we played handball in the court across the street from the big bank where our parents deposited three dollars every week into Christmas clubs, the money ultimately used for gas, electricity, a doctor bill, food.
We crowded together on the fire escapes that overlooked the street, read Peyton Place to each other, listened to Alan Freed on a staticky radio and called hello to schoolmates that we never invited to join us. We watched gang members take over the street, a generational legacy never questioned and never relinquished. We learned to smoke there, coughing like backfire from cars, trying again and again until we were triumphant. We pressed tightly against each other, wishing we could become a living organism too big to be defeated by the streets we loved and knew and dreaded.
We entered high school, examining our options, finding them non-existent. Our parents seemed troublesome addendums to our lives, always warning us. The books we read offered possibilities with no method of claiming them. We felt dislocated, a subculture of a subculture; we needed a street not previously ours. Ours were constructs of white pustules of spit mingled with the rusty stains of blood like an offering to a malignant god. The only beauty we knew there were the splintered remnants of whisky bottles, prisms that captured the sun and refracted strangely luminous rainbows.
We claimed a street a quarter mile from us; it was our secret. The houses were a little nicer there, the sidewalk a little cleaner, the inhabitants better dressed; a street in a poor neighborhood that was one step up from our own.
"See you at The Street tonight," we whispered to each other when we passed in the high school halls, or at the handball court, or on the way to the grocery to buy milk or bread for our mothers. There was something precious, pristine about the street, as though in an unknown forest rather than one of the most crime-ridden neighbors of Brooklyn. We had created something through the power of desire. We relished the sense of freedom, of wildness, the illusion that we escaped, though nothing had changed at all. We were still always hungry, our bellies growling songs of empty until we stepped up what one of us called harvesting: surreptitiously pocketing bread, cheese, canned spaghetti, ravioli, tuna, salmon, soda, milk, candy we brought to each other. We were feral inhabitants of the street, eating with our hands, throwing food at each other, licking our fingers clean while adults passed with averted eyes. We were still always cold in our old jackets wrapped over a couple of tight sweaters, gloves with holes in the fingertips. We blew on our hands, stomped our feet, chased each other around the corner. We circled like a wagon train each night hoping for safety.
We played handball against the stoop or the walls, loud thumps that the residents complained about. The boys, grown taller, more muscular, made miraculous jumps onto the arms of street lamps then swung from them howling like Tarzan. The girls whispered with a new shy pride about buying bras, having periods and stomach cramps, but especially about bad girls who did it, got pregnant and were expelled, while the boys who'd impregnated them bragged and suffered no consequences. These stories were a warning mantra we repeated, in rare repetition of our mother's warnings. That winter we huddled in the alley, smoking, and later kissing, making the rounds incestuously from one to the other, experimenting, thrilled, and terrified. The lessons of those girls who had vanished like fathers evading child support, girls as tarnished as any criminal, kept us on edge and cautious.
By sixteen we snuck onto the subways daily, hovering by the turnstiles, listening for the deepening roar, feeling the vibrations in our feet, watching the light like the moon accelerating from a quarter to full. The doors of the graffitied cars would open, a giant mouth expelling people like dislodging seeds, our signal to duck under the turnstiles and race in before the door closed. New worlds opened to us: Coney Island with a blue, white-capped ocean devoid of garbage or the East River's smells. People swam, sunbathed, their bodies glistening with oil and salt water. They strolled the Boardwalk eating hotdogs, clouds of cotton candy, towering peaks of custard. We discovered the botanical gardens in Prospect Park with flowers planted in complex mazes and straight rows, blazing lush colors. We realized then the divergence of our puny green stalks whose flowers wilted even as they boomed in vacant lots and through cracks in the sidewalk, that our poisoned air encouraged mutating to ensure survival. We went to Fulton Street, dazzled by an architecture of department stores and clean-windowed restaurants where consumers glutted themselves. The abundance of items, of affluence denied us was staggering. We came home. We would always come home; it was our preordained destiny. We imagined we would always be together and today would echo into tomorrow and tomorrow and all the rest of the tomorrows with us trapped here, and we wondered how we could share a planet with them, and yet have so little. We understood fully, then, that it was a careful construction of them and us that we had no part in creating.
One day I passed a teenage mother pushing her stroller, her eyes dense with sleepiness, body going to fat, youth abandoning a prematurely defeated face. Something tightened in my body, a coil of fury and defiance. I would not be trapped by an accident of birth. My Russian-Jewish grandparents escaped the shtetls, fled the "old country" to avoid being slaughtered. They went into exile to save themselves, fled with thousands of others in a Diaspora of desperation. I would go into exile as my ancestors did, be the center of my own, private Diaspora. I would create a new geography, locate a map of unknown roads, assume a new identity that would allow me a passport anywhere. I was focused, I must leave the streets; what had sustained me was a prison and I finally understood that.
As in all Diasporas, the trailing threads of connection were severed. There are fragments of stories that can't be substantiated: Vietnam, drugs, teaching, dead in a traffic accident, and then me in an airy, sunlit, whitewashed house whose open windows capture air scented by rose hips and ocean. Pottery lines the walls, earthy browns adorned with symbols like a lost calligraphy, pale porcelain celadon with delicate engravings, hand-sculpted pitchers of brilliant color. I sleep beside a husband who has never vanished. I wear a woven shawl of turquoise and grey, blouses of organic cotton in ancient colors, wool coats in winter. My friends have never stolen a candy bar, worn hand-me-downs of unbecoming colors, in sizes that don't fit, circumvented certain streets to insure safety. This is my life now, yet everything remains refracted by the streets: dark corners always suspect, certain sounds a warning, doors you must never turn your back on. The streets would not let go. I went back, finally, for an exorcism because an escape thirty-five years earlier was not enough.
They weren't there. These streets were prosperous with little boutiques, sidewalk vendors selling jewelry and second-hand books, expensive restaurants with clever names, shops with coffee that cost more than one of my mother's meals. There were condos, penthouses, studios with fine carpeting and walls of windows that looked out to the other side of the bridge and there was no differentiation between them. This was not a place I belonged. I walked the streets displaced again, as though I was in another country. I wanted to be telepathic, to tell them wherever they were, we are the stuff of forgotten myth, an early indigenous people whose homes have been demolished and land stolen; our landscape has been altered, made chic. We are an irrelevant past in this extension of a city we once thought unattainable.
But those streets are not gone: they exist. I resurrect them in my dreams most nights, run wild on them, hide in the alleys while the filtered moonlight cast shadows of a past which can never really be left behind. There is an internal geography, a geography of the mind that under certain circumstances blurs the distinctions between then and now; I am still a Brooklyn street kid.
2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
Unidentified Male, Brooklyn 1983
“Pop! Pop! Pop!” The sound cut through the blaring disco music the party in the building next door was blithely inflicting on my Brooklyn neighborhood. Even above the high-decibel thud of the bass line and the crash of electronic drums, I could tell the pops were gunfire. There was a hollowness to each report, the sequence of the bangs even and deliberate, in a way no random toss of firecrackers could have been.
It was the early 1980s and I was a freelance photographer, making my home in the borough’s Fort Green section. Now a pricey, chic Brooklyn neighborhood, at that time life in The Fort had the benefit of being ridiculously cheap and the liability of being exceedingly dangerous.
Each block seemed to have its own crack house, and drug-fueled crime was an everyday occurrence. Proprietors at several of the local businesses – the hardware store, the dry cleaners, a small bodega around the corner from my apartment building – had taken to wearing large-caliber handguns strapped to their hip, in plain sight of customers and would-be stickup artists. And it was not uncommon to hear gunfire late at night, coming from the direction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the Fort Green projects. But the shots I’d just heard were right outside my window, much closer than anything I’d been treated to in the past.
It was a warm evening, around sunset on a Saturday night in June, and I’d been sitting in my living room on my makeshift couch – a mattress on a sheet of scavenged plywood, held up by cinderblocks – reading Conrad’s Lord Jim. I got up and looked out the window, surveying the small sliver of Washington Avenue visible through the airshaft from my fifth-floor apartment. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There was no one running away, no screams, no indication that any sort of urban horror had just taken place. There was only the monotonous beat of the music, the singer still exhorting everyone within earshot to get up and boogie.
Certain that I’d heard gunfire, I picked up the phone and dialed 911. The dispatcher politely took the information and said the police would be there as soon as a car was available, which said to me that the call was likely to be ignored. I hung up the phone and went back to my reading.
My attention was torn away from Conrad’s words a few moments later, though, when the music from next door abruptly stopped in mid-bass thump. I looked up to see a faint red and blue glow flashing rhythmically on the far wall, and went back over to the window. The street was now ablaze with cop-car bubblegum lights. Most sensible New Yorkers would probably have checked the locks on their front doors and drawn the window blinds. I went to the refrigerator, took out a few rolls of Tri-X 35mm film and loaded both my Nikons. Gently nestling them into my camera bag, I hustled down the stairs.
My career to that point had been a miserable, quixotic slog through the world of professional photography. Although my work had already appeared in the New York Times and I’d had several spreads in the Daily News Sunday Magazine, life was still largely a hand-to-mouth affair, each month a desperate race to garner enough work to cover the rent and bills. I’d just heard gunfire, and now the street was full of police cruisers. There had to be something down there worth photographing and the Daily News paid $150 for each spot news picture they ran. One photo in the News would put me three-quarters of the way to next month’s rent. Two photos? I tried not to think about it, afraid I’d jinx the whole thing.
Out on the street now, I looked down the block and saw a large knot of uniformed officers, perhaps a dozen or more. The twilight was just sinking into night, a few traces of red and gold still visible to the west. Several of the cops were holding flashlights, shining them down on the sidewalk at something I still couldn’t see.
I reached into my bag and took out the camera with the motor drive, my most professional-looking piece of equipment. Just then, two of the cops stepped away from the scene, revealing the body of a young man sprawled face-up and motionless on the sidewalk. He was wearing tan chinos, a dirty-looking windbreaker and a striped pullover. There was the shape of something dark underneath him on the sidewalk. In the failing light I could see it was a pool of blood.
One of the officers eyed me as I approached, but, surprisingly, no one tried to shoo me away. We all stood silently for a few moments, watching as the flashlight beams danced over the man’s dark hair and light olive skin.
“Any idea what happened?” I quietly asked the cop standing next to me. More of the officers stepped away and headed toward their cars, the crackle of police radio chatter occasionally puncturing the eerie quiet that had fallen over the street.
“Offhand, I’d say somebody didn’t like him,” the officer replied in a thick Queens accent.
Okay, here’s a guy on the fast-track to a detective’s badge, I thought. “Mind if I get a couple of shots? I’m a stringer for the Daily News.”
“Oh yeah?” The cop mulled it over for a moment. “Be my guest,” he finally said. “I don’t think this guy’s gonna complain about it.”
“Thanks.” I hooked a small, hand-held flash unit up to the camera, the “Pop! Pop! Pop!” of the strobe reminding me of the gunfire. As I lined the body up in the viewfinder, making sure all the pertinent details were visible – face, closed eyes, the thick puddle of blood – I idly wondered what circumstances had led this man to end up lifeless on a Brooklyn sidewalk on a warm June night. He had the skin-and-bones, hollow-cheeked look of a long-time crackhead. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Maybe a fight with another addict over recently purchased drugs? A minor challenge to some hot-headed macho asshole’s manhood? Some macho asshole who’d just happened to have been packing a gun?
A cop walked over to me, this one with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. “You wanna hold up a minute, pal?” he asked, stepping between me and the young man’s body. “Who are you, and why’re you taking pictures?” His voice was flat and authoritative.
I gave him my name and told him I was a stringer for the Daily News. The situation had to be played carefully, I knew, as a ranking officer in a homicide situation could do just about anything he wanted, including confiscate my film and camera. And I had no police-sanctioned press ID, either, which meant all I had to convince him of my legitimacy was a snappy line of patter and a winning smile. “I’m the guy who made the 911 call,” I offered, hoping to get some bonus points for good citizenship.
“If you’re with the News, where’s your press tags?”
“I’m not on staff, so I only get tags when they give me an assignment,” I said, making it a point to look him in the eye. “I live in that building over there and heard the shots. If the editor on the photo desk found out there was a shooting on my front doorstep and I didn’t bring him pictures, I’d never get another assignment out of him again.” That was a bald-faced lie, but I was hoping the sergeant could relate to the idea that I might be some poor schmoe stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“You got any ID at all?” My driver’s license had expired two years ago, but the sergeant gave it a quick look-over, then handed it back. “You can take a couple more shots, then get the hell out of here, alright?”
* * *
“So whatcha got for me?” The photo desk editor had maybe a dozen or so black-and-white prints spread out over his desktop and barely looked up at me as he spoke. I pulled the single roll of Tri-X that I’d shot from the front pocket of my jeans. “Murder in Brooklyn. Washington Avenue, one street over from Pratt.”
He looked up. “Was the victim a student?”
“No, I don’t think so. The cops hadn’t ID’d him, but he looked more like someone from the neighborhood.”
“Was this a robbery?”
“My guess would be a drug deal gone bad,” I offered. “The cops were still looking for witnesses when I left.” I introduced myself, and told him that I normally shot for Tom Ruis at the Sunday Magazine, but the homicide had happened right in front of my apartment building, and I thought the daily might want photos.
He shook my hand. “I’m Frank O’Brien, and thanks for thinking of us,” he said with a faint smile. “Was anybody else there getting shots of the scene?”
“No, just me. I heard the gunfire and got there about five minutes after it happened.”
O’Brien took the roll from me and turned to a young guy standing behind him who’d been looking through a sheaf of contact sheets. “Jimmy, have the lab run this really quick, okay?” It was well past ten now, over two hours since the murder, and the newsroom was dark and quiet. The overhead lights were off, the only illumination in the room coming from the light on O’Brien’s desk and a few other lamps on desk lamps scattered around the room.
I figured it would take a while to run the film and wandered off down the hall to get a cup of coffee from a vending machine. O’Brien had the processed roll on a lightbox and was going over it with a magnifier when I got back.
It was beginning to worry me that I hadn’t had the details of the situation when O’Brien asked, but the worry subsided when he picked up a pair of scissors and began cutting the film into strips, then marked the edges of several frames with a red grease pencil. He put the marked strips into a glassine envelope and handed them to Jimmy. “Tell them to give me 8x10s of those, okay?” he said, turning to me as the assistant disappeared. “Nice work, kid. Even though it’s gotta be pretty easy when they’re not moving like that.”
Though I’d been published in the magazine before, I’d never had a picture run in the daily, and certainly nothing like the Weegee-esque death-on-a-Brooklyn-sidewalk shot I’d brought in that night. It was still early enough in my nascent career that the thought of having one of my photographs splashed across a sheet of tabloid newsprint with my byline next to it was a major-league thrill.
“So you think the shot will run?” I tried to keep my voice cool, the tone matter-of-fact.
O’Brien shrugged. “Good chance. I’ll send the prints down to the city desk and they can have someone call the precinct to get the details. We probably wouldn’t run a story, just the shot and a caption. Check the paper on Monday morning, because that’s when we’d have it. And here,” he opened a desk drawer, took out a fresh roll of Tri-X and tossed it to me, “we like to try and help you guys keep on shooting.”
“And thank you. And tell Ruis I said Hi next time you see him, okay?”
* * *
Monday morning, 8a.m., and I was settling into a booth at Mike’s Coffee Shop, corner of DeKalb and Hall. I’d spent Sunday sleeping late and trying not to think about whether the shot would run. Besides professional pride and bragging rights, there was also a sorely-needed paycheck hanging in the balance. I’d bought a copy of the News at the bodega next door, but vowed I wouldn’t look at it until I was sitting down, a cup of hot coffee in front of me. Now the milk. The sugar. Stir. Open the paper.
The banner across the front page, reading “Weekend Slaughter!” was promising enough. According to the lead story, in addition to the shooting I’d photographed, there had been 25 other murders between Friday night and the wee hours of Monday morning, something of a record, even for early-1980s New York. The news was disturbing, yet I felt an odd, illicit thrill knowing that I’d been part of it all.
But the picture I’d shot was not on the second page. I turned to pages three and four, finding them graced only with the smiling face of then-mayor Ed Koch. No again to pages five, six, or seven, the most likely spots it would have run. I didn’t give up looking, though, until I reached the classifieds. With a small sigh, I turned back to page seven, where the News had run a full list of casualties. My guy came in at number 23 on the hit parade, an “as-yet unidentified male, shot in front of 483 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn.”
As-yet unidentified. I suddenly, unexpectedly, felt very bad. Not for myself, not for any lost recognition or a paycheck I wouldn’t see. But bad for a man so friendless he could die on a Brooklyn street and, 48 hours later, still be lying in a morgue somewhere, a “John Doe” tag on his big toe, his life reduced to the phrase “as yet unidentified male.”
I thought about other pictures that might have been taken of this man. Baby pictures. Grade school. High school yearbook. No matter how poor his family, how mean his background, there would have been at least a few photographs documenting his progress through life. And now here I was, a total stranger, having taken the very last of them, speculating about the others. Having only seen Unidentified Male in death, I wondered how he would have looked in life, young and healthy, with his arm around some girlfriend on a summer afternoon at Coney Island. Or hugging his mother and smiling, a young face full of hope and promise. Perhaps it was better, then, that no one would see him as he’d finally ended up.
If I’d still been a Catholic, I would have said a prayer. Instead, I closed the paper and fished a dollar bill out of my pocket to pay the check. Then I walked down the block to catch the G train, heading for the Daily News building to retrieve my negatives.
2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
“Greetings From Coney Island”
You have never seen a crowd until you’ve been to Coney Island. You may have had to squeeze into a piss-soaked subway car or wedge yourself into the corner of a once hip, now over-hyped bar, but those hardly count as crowds. You will find the real crowds at Coney Island, where sweaty New Yorkers go to take off their clothes and eat hot dogs. They bake in the sun and their vomit bakes in the sun. If this city is a body, the boardwalk is that strip of hairy skin right before the thigh becomes groin—smelling of sex, good for a tickle. Hot and revolting and infinitely mesmerizing.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Coney Island’s history has been one of so-called “mass spectacle,” when trams, trains, ferries, and finally the Brooklyn Bridge connected the mobs in Manhattan to the once remote island off the southern edge of Brooklyn. An early resort getaway and even proposed nature preserve for the weary bourgeoisie, Coney Island soon became overrun with what cultural critics like Lindsay Denison1 called, “human flotsam and jetsam.” According to members of the old guard like Denison, the Island had been invaded by “every defaulting cashier, every eloping couple, every man or woman harboring suicidal intent.” In spite of Denison’s protests, the human tide came unrelenting, unperturbed, softening the once rigid upper-middle-class foundations that had supported the great Victorian hotels like The Oriental and the Brighton. Owners of the Brighton actually moved the hotel five-hundred feet back from the waterfront in 1888. They jacked the six-thousand ton structure onto one hundred and twenty railway cars without breaking a single pane of glass. Though the Brighton managed to flee the physical erosion of the beach and reopen for the season by June 29th, its doors and windows were shuttered within a few short years, never to reopen.
The new “Sunday vacationers” weren’t staying in the fancy hotels. They wanted cheap thrills like “The Tickler” and fantasy worlds like Luna Park’s “Trip to the Moon”: replete with three astronomically-themed chambers, thirty dancing “Moon Maidens,” twenty giants, and sixty “Lilliputians.” By the time Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton filmed their rollocking 1917 “Coney Island,” the once serene strand had become unrecognizable to its former summer residents, who remembered when beach-goers required a private carriage and hotel reservations to reach the Island. With the expansion of public transit, visitors needed only a nickel. So the moneyed chose to summer elsewhere, picking up their beach blankets and spreading them in the Hamptons, Montauk, and Shelter Island while the hoi polloi trundled across the blistering brown sand: dogs, kids, and towels trailing behind.
Good -bye My Con -ey Is -land Ba -by, Fare -well my own true love.
I’m gon -na go a -way and leave you. Nev -er to see you an -y -more.
I’m goin’ to sail up -on a fer -ry boat, Nev -er to re -turn a -gain.
So good -bye, fare -well, so long for ev -er,
Good -bye My Con -ey Isle, Good -bye My Con -ey Isle,
Good -bye My Con -ey Is -land Babe.
My grandfather grew up in another Brooklyn—before the McKlarens and golden-doodles and artisanal mayonnaise shops—when Brooklynites had undesirable accents and pronounced “certainly,” Soy-tan-ly.2 A greaser hood in the making, my grandfather began sneaking cigarettes in the alley next to his house by the age of ten. At thirteen, he swaggered down the boardwalk, found a hole in the wall shop, rolled up his sleeve, and got his name, “Bill,” needled into his upper shoulder. He had the tattoo sit high on the arm so he could hide it from his mother, a strict woman who supposedly spent Mondays through Saturdays cleaning houses and Sundays in church. Freshly inked, he sauntered through the front door of his Bleecker street apartment in what is now Bushwick with a teenage grin that can mean only a few things, none of them good. A sudden bolt of pain galloped down his shoulder—his mother’s calloused fist connecting with his new tattoo, turning his arm to carpaccio. He howled and cursed, not quite the Cagney he’d imagined himself to be, but when the purples and yellows withdrew from his pale flesh, the graceful black letters remained intact, unsmudgable.
Among the galleries of bloody corpses and tenement infernos featured in “Murder is My Business” an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, I stumbled upon a room filled with gauzy photographs of a faded Coney Island. Arthur Felig, or Weegee, is best known for his pulpy, flash-bulb images of crime scenes, leering onlookers, and passed out drunks—not smiling sun-bathers. On display until the end of the summer, these comparatively placid images lead to a short color 16mm film documenting a dreamy, oft-imagined, long gone Coney Island. It begins with Weegee’s camera panning over the roiling crowd. Thousands of bodies shiny with sweat and baby oil, naked children shrieking as the water laps at their heels, teenage girls draped across their boyfriends, their skin glued together.
An old man stalks the wet sand with purposeful strides. Bare chicken legs sprout beneath his dark suit jacket, pants folded across his arm, shoes and socks clutched to his chest. A Jersey tomato splurts in the mouth of a bug-eyed boy. Sailors crowd around accordions and radios, feathers of smoke weaving between limbs, diffusing in the ocean breeze. Old, toothless women clap castanets and mug for the camera. A young couple awkwardly sways to the music, the frame drifting down to the woman’s wiggling behind.
A girl reclines on a wrinkled blanket surrounded by other beach-goers, her hands placed over spindly legs. She flashes a coy smile at the photographer, a handsome young man with a cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth. He puffs lightly as he searches for the right focus, a Seagram’s sign blurring in the background, her slender limbs sharpening. It is 1952. My grandmother is fifteen, my grandfather a wizened seventeen. I wonder if they were among the thousands of “lovers” Weegee captured on the beach, each pair pretending to be alone among a crowd of one million. It is hard to imagine them this young—my grandmother’s nervous flirting and popsicle-stick limbs, my grandfather’s tennis-ball biceps and shock of swept back hair so similar to my own. For a quarter each, they rode the cyclone as long as they could stand, whipping around turns in the last car, plummeting sixty-four feet in the front, laughing at the queasy kids puking up their neon jelly beans and fried dough. They stayed out watching the galaxies of fireworks flare into existence and shimmer back to earth, whispering those things teenagers whisper into each other’s ears, swaddled in the humid air and the glow of dancing lights.
“Warriors, come out to play!” intones Luther, the shaggy-haired villain and leader of rival gang, the “Rogues.” His hand bends into a strange claw, an empty glass bottle protruding from three fingers. He clinks them together in a steady, menacing rhythm. “Warriors, come out to plaaaaaaaaay!” Luther’s voice is now an animal screech, the bottles building to a crescendo. The bedraggled Warriors prepare for the inevitable rumble. They tear detritus from the underside of the boardwalk: pipes, a broken chair leg, a thin scrap of metal. They are tired, and Coney Island is a forgotten shithole, barnacles clinging to ancient pylons like hemorrhoids, but this weirdly multi-ethnic group of kids are prepared to die for it. It is their turf.
The Mermaid Parade celebrated its 30th anniversary this June, which makes the march down Surf Avenue ten years older than I am. I imagine the event as a kind of older sister, a young-ish woman who remembers a grittier, pre-Guliani New York. I had always meant to come as a teenager, but somehow, the parade eluded me; camp or family functions always standing in the way, blocking my view of what I’d often heard was a salacious event. I hadn’t spent a summer in the city in years, so I was determined to scratch the parade off my list of New York things I never did when I grew up here.
Emerging from Stillwell Avenue into the hot sun, my friends and I squirm into the throngs trying to sniff out a good spot from which to view the procession. We wait for the bawdy marchers and pass the time by watching the stretch of asphalt shimmer. Runny suntan lotion stings our eyes, but no one complains. This will be fun, maybe even a little debauched. First, the vintage cars roll by to mixed review: Thunderbirds, Cadillacs, and the odd Grand Am. A Delorian coughs along to great admiration and I remember that in a few days, Marty McFly is slated to blast into 2012. The meme has been plastered all over Facebook for weeks: a film-still of a digital clock indicating his imminent arrival, pithy comments on our current lack of hover-boards usually tacked below. What did Coney Island look like in 1985? A scene from Requiem for a Dream springs to mind—the one where a wild-eyed Marlon Wayans sprints from the cops, his face splattered with blood and bits of nameless organic matter.
A thin school of mermaids emerge from behind the curtain of heat, waving to the crowds, tossing cheap plastic beads. I expected glamorous blue eye-shadowed P-town drag queens, creatures with names like Musty Chiffon and Thirsty Burlington, but instead find mostly tweens and their scantily clad moms. A vaguely aquatic man hands out blow-up swords to the cheering crowd and two separate hands grab for the same hilt. One belongs to an elderly Asian man wearing a fishing hat, the other to a small child. The old man attempts to wrestle the sword from the little boy’s grasp, his teeth gritted, his eyes steely. The boy whimpers, clearly losing the battle until the mer-person intervenes, yanking the sword from the man and handing it to the little boy ceremoniously. The kid happily whacks his sword on the fence as more cars trickle through, the whole parade seeming to stop for every red light though the street has been closed for hours. The elderly man sulks. Every float sponsored by an alcoholic beverage elicits great whoops and hollers from the visibly pregnant woman standing to my right. A micro-brewery truck stops and she shouts for a man dressed as a pirate to throw her a can. I stare at the striations on her stomach, a combination of tan lines and stretch marks. It is an ideal coaster.
A venerable tradition of sideboob and overweight men with leopard print thongs dug deep into their ass-cracks, the parade offers a glimpse of an Old Coney Island I can only half-remember, the last refuge of freaks in their natural habitat, a kind preserve for the vulgar and seedy. When I squint into the sun the right way, the electro-blasting PBR float disappears, leaving only the unsanitized jiggling and rusted out egg scramblers of a vestigial past fast losing ground to the present. My grandfather may remember the bearded ladies, mule-faced boys, a Lynchian dwarf who blew up the skirts of unsuspecting girls, but I have only the nadir to misremember fondly. Chipped paint and crusty, crepuscular kids on the nod, hard slats of light cutting across their slumped bodies in the penumbra of the boardwalk. I tell myself there was a time when the Thunderbolt really rumbled past Woody Allen’s bedroom window, a portal looking out onto pyramids of tan backs and straining arms, carnival barkers waxing their mustaches, natty young men wearing panama hats without a hint of irony. Luna Park, Steeplechase, Dreamland: closed, sold off, or burnt to the ground. On Saturday, I arrived at the Hot 97-sponsored Technicolor mess having missed the golden age and the bad old days, left with only the familiar aqua and orange of Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the red skeletal parachute jump, and the clockwork rattlings of the Cyclone.
We decided to take the train the wrong way, not Manhattan-bound, but headed to the end of the line. We travelled in a pack—too young to drink forties on a Friday afternoon, but too old to come home for Oreos and Pokemon. We clanged through the subway cars, swinging on the greasy poles, screaming as loud as we wanted; few passengers bothered looking up from their books or their stupors. Three to four p.m. is a special kind of corridor—no sharp-toned rebukes, school bells, or gym whistles. More crimes occur in New York during this short hour than any other time of the day. Ours were relatively minor: jumping the turnstile though we could pay the fare with our school-provided Metrocards, hanging upside down from the steel tubes meant for tired grown-up hands, our shirts pulled towards our chins, baby fat and new breasts drooping in unaccustomed directions.
Tiring of one car, the herd lumbered forward, the bravest among us turning the heavy steel handle of the emergency exit door. “Riding or moving between cars is prohibited,” the signs read. I remember sliding the door open for the first time, how it seemed miraculous, like a spaceship or a bulkhead. I must have taken a tenuous first step, but I can’t picture it, only the crack between the cars yawning wide.
Little Odessa whistles past, flashes of Cyrillic and whiffs of perogies. It is a short ride from Sheepshead Bay to Stillwell Avenue, but between two subway cars, time stretches out elastic, its white gummy strands clenched between teeth and fingers, loose threads stuck to lips. My long hair flies in every direction and the train roars like some kind of twisted chimera. The screaming wheels chug along mindlessly. I remember once seeing a basketball chewed up under a passing train, rubbery shreds hardly recognizable in its wake. Imagine a body. And then we are on the other side in the next car playing it cool laughing loud feeling the dampness under our arms. The march continues until we reach the first car, our faces pressed against the foremost window. We watch the station devour us like a long rope of mozzarella cheese.
We took the stairs two at a time or slid down banisters on our butts, a mass of kids deposited onto Surf Avenue, unsure of what to do or where to go next. We ruled out the aquarium—that was for babies and would probably cost money. So we headed south, to the boardwalk, to empty lots and shuttered arcades, their bleeps and bloops in hibernation, waiting for the summer.
It is a cold, glary March afternoon. The rides sit motionless, save the empty Wonder Wheel cars. They lurch back and forth, the occasional gust of wind carrying their creaks down to the boardwalk and sand below. The world is somewhere between color and black and white, an amateurish attempt at faux-historicity, so flat, so drained of blood. We take off our shoes and head towards the shore in an effort to feel summery. A figure emerges from the white frothy surf, a ruddy sausage squeezed into a bathing suit casing, his black chest hair matted into a nest of curlycues. He is no merman.
With the wind, the air is thirty-five, maybe forty degrees and the colorless sand numbs our bare feet. I look out across the beach scanning for signs of life. We walk alone, save the masochist swimmer now in the distance, the circling gulls, and an army of unused trash cans. They are municipal, flimsy and naked, consisting of an open lattice of metal bars, their lack of contents readily apparent. They wait for the crashing waves of June garbage, but for now, remain empty. Each can a solitary guard, mouth open, ready to swallow a half-eaten box of sandy cheese fries, the jellyfish carcass of a used condom. Wrappers kaleidoscopic, juices bubbling in the sun, the steaming barrels of garbage dot a shore so tightly packed with bodies they condense under the pressure—a single undulating mass pressed between the boardwalk and the sea.
2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
“Brooklyn Kind of Love”
She's changed. But I knew she would. It was inevitable. I could never let her go though. She made me. We have history. She is the never-ending love story. To leave her for those other boroughs -- Nah. Harlem's cool, but not sweeter than the maples on Fulton Street in Bed Stuy. The Lower East Side has the long strips of cheap dive bars and eateries, but none that have the soulful seasonings of Utica Avenue in B.K. And you could easily argue that the clouds fly the highest from the ports of South Street Seaport, but DUMBO is closer and just better than that side of the East River.
Brooklyn. These days the world revolves around you. I always wanted to show you off. But never wanted to actually share you. It's too late now. The word is out. The secret is no longer a whisper, but a roar. Brooklyn this. Brooklyn that. Brooklyn. Brooklyn. Brooklyn. The New York Times discovered you not too long ago and most recently Vogue magazine. But it seems they are a bit lost in translation about what this place means. They have yet to tune into its 2.5 million stories.
I'm one of those stories. I was welcomed by the Kings in the final year of the 1980s. I was the miracle on DeKalb Avenue. My mother and father, two Brooklynites wanted more children after my two older sisters. And after eight long years, prayers were answered. I was followed by two more gifts from the heavens -- my brother, a year later and my sister who is seven years younger than I. From Brooklyn hospital I was taken to my castle in the ghetto, a 3-story limestone on Decatur Street in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant.
Sunshine, laughter, deep green leaves blowing breeze, Biggie 'Hypnotize' blasting from cars passing by, double dutch battles (if you were double handled, you had to go) boys purposely throwing their basketballs into the ropes to tangle it, dig-dig-dog-shit-you-are-not-it, tag, freeze tag, quack dilly osso, “numbers” hand games -- love. Childhood never felt like it would end.
Bodegas were my supplier. My brother and I were scrapping together enough change from around the house; to buy ices made with red 40 and high fructose corn syrup that we attacked before it liquefied and dripped down to hit the floor. “Oh look, Mr. Softee's coming!” we’d point out with our tiny fingers. And someone's mother always buying you ice cream so you're not empty-handed.
Community. Fellowship. Block parties. BBQ smoke. “Today's going to be a scorcher,” the weather man said from the box television. You could fry an egg on the concrete hot. The golden hues of haze from the sun. Fire hydrant opened up and wells of water spilled onto the Black tar. The baby's learning their first steps on this concrete to Disco, 70s soul, New Jack Swing, Maxwell 'Ascension,' more Biggie. The 90s were golden.
The warnings. The churches on every corner, an outlet to the pops and booms and the gone-to-soons happening outside around us. The staggering red eyed drunkards, needles on the ground, yelling, dysfunction, chaos, pain, just-tryna-get-by, murals to remember the faces now in heaven. God's black and brown children, forgotten, but refused to be silenced. The children were aware. Lives could never be replaced.
The good, the bad, the ugly.
Then sometimes, we’d leave the lovely cocoon of the Stuy and go bike riding around Prospect Park. The Slope and its gigantic dwellings. Whiteness. Different from me. A little Black girl. With kinks, waves, and wondering, why are things “so much better” around here?
Soon I grew up; at least I thought I was grown. Every 16-year-old thinks they are. There I was in Fort Greene for high school. Walks to Fulton mall after school. Trying on clothes in Macy’s with my friends just to see how it would look and then buying nothing. Dominican blowouts on the tresses every week. Walks with a good guy, a high school sweetheart to the edge of the waters to the Promenade, just shooting the breeze, sharing dreams of buying a mansion in Brooklyn Heights, when we made it big. Those were the days. I would capture it in a frame, if I could.
A decade or so later, I don't even know if the Kings still want me here. It seems the borough is forgetting who I am. But I'm the one she needs. I am part of her rich roots. I am a child of two parts of a vast diaspora; mixed with the island of Jamaica and the deep roots of The Carolinas. I feel Jamaican when reggae and dancehall bumps at a party and I go in a Caribbean take out, smell the curry and feel right at home. But I’m no expert on the island and barely understand patois. And I never been to the areas my grandparents were born in the South. In fact, both my parents were raised in Brooklyn and so was I. And sometimes I just want to be that girl who grew up in a big city that I’m still discovering. But I'm worried; I will soon be thrown out of it.
But who else will enjoy her summer rooftops overlooking the brownstones beauties, day parties that go on into night, and Sunday brunches in low-key restaurants following church, Afro Punks and Dance Africa festivals, West Indian Day Parades, and the likes on her sweltering hot days? And I’ve even embraced this ugly thing stadium called Barclays that she’s cool with now. Look, I compromised. She’s not perfect. Sometimes you have to do that in relationships. I’d do that for my best friend.
But what about me? Again I ask? So to all you newbies coming here, I know she’s dope. But sorry you could never love her like I do. You may be the new man or new woman in her life. But remember you're the new friends. The friends that come after the fame and weren't there during the struggle. And it's not your fault you found out late, but I'm just letting you know how to enter this space. Brooklyn is still here. I’m still here. But of course in love, we have to let those we love go and evolve; even if it hurts. I respect it. I just don't want the memories forgotten. I'd love to see you Brooklyn, for who you are now. Hopefully, my footprints aren’t erased by the new footsteps hitting your gritty pathways. And God forbid it does, I’ll protect the memory my dear BK. Or maybe I should finally just let it go.
2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
Butterflies in Flatbush
Intimations of my future came to me on a tricycle.
Sixty eight years ago I began pedaling inexorably forward on a brand new, gleaming red tricycle, up a block in Flatbush, Brooklyn, traveling on my own for the first time at what seemed to me the speed of light. I felt an energy in my arms, legs and small body, propelling me with confidence toward the unknown. Which at that time meant the end of my block. “Hello, everybody!” I’m three years old today, and my name in Jewish is Ziesel!”
“Unknown” may not be quite accurate. The parameters of my universe extended well beyond 1342 East 18th Street, between Avenues M and N. My parents had stressed to me the grave urgency of memorizing this information, as friendly policemen were everywhere, patiently waiting to bring lost little girls home. Provided, of course, they knew their address.
I had traveled to far-flung places, but always with my parents: There were daily outings with Mommy to the Kings Highway deli, where I would peek over the top of the wooden barrel to watch the pickles swimming in their pungent brine. Sometimes at the bakery my mother placed the number she drew from a fascinating machine into my hand as I waited patiently for the piece of fresh baked rye bread with caraway seeds she was sure to share with me. The delectable odor of smoked whitefish, sturgeon and lox permeating the appetizing store had already been deeply imprinted into my consciousness.
Daddy and I took subway rides to a small, dingy millinery shop on New York City’s busy Lower East Side. There, tucked between two larger stores on Delancey Street, my lively Aunt Lottie made amazing hats: jaunty felt concoctions with fluffy feathers, dyed straw hats with delicate veils. Each one was different. As soon as one was placed on her head, Lottie’s customers always smiled. “Judy, doesn’t Mrs. Cohen look gorgeous in that hat?”
I had begun to old explore Daddy’s musty, paper-filled office on Lafayette Street, where a layer of mummified dust covered the oversized windows, substantially reducing visibility, muting the light of even the sunniest of spring days. (Apparently the windows had last been cleaned shortly before World War II). Mommy said Daddy went there every day to make money, but I searched in vain for a printing press turning out crisp, green dollar bills.
His black and grey furniture was sturdy, metallic. From a small cubicle in what to me was almost an alternate universe, on a sturdy black Remmington typewriter weighing just over 33 pounds ( the original Heavy Metal) my father typed his invoices:
Herman M. Mahl,
Catalogs, Brochures, Business Cards
For two long summers, at Brighton Beach, (also a subway ride away) I’d played in hot wavy sand and immersed myself in cool ocean currents. The touch of my father lingers, as he patiently combs the tangles from my thick, damp curls, then miraculously removes the sand between my toes with sprinkled talcum.
Still, in those moments on that almost-summer day as I pedaled like crazy on my first ever, birthday bike, moving rapidly through time and space without being firmly anchored by one short arm to an adult, I first became aware of being my own, defined person, headed for who-knows where. I carry this through life, a moving symbol, and it propels me forward.
When I open the door to this memory, I revisit Ziesel. Sometimes I’m surprised I felt free enough, even at three, to succumb to an irresistible urge to shout my secret name in the street. It means “sweet little one”, and till then I’d kept it well-guarded. Precious things were kept locked up. Other people could damage them or take them away. They could be irretrievably lost.
Ziesel is my invisible inheritance. The name had belonged to my grandmother Sophie before me. Sophie to me has always been a woman in a small, sepia-toned photo, dressed in a dark, turn of the 20th century ankle-length dress, standing formally upright, dreamy eyes forward, one arm resting gracefully on the shoulder of her seated husband, Isidore, occupying a circumscribed space on an end table in my parents’ living-room, an area filled with formal mahogany furniture. There are no shared memories of Sophie’s life to animate this picture; I’ve always known my father could only remember this mother lying in a sickbed, dying slowly of cancer. He was five years old.
Following the Jewish custom of naming children after the departed, my mother had given me Sophie’s Yiddish name. Naming someone after the departed fixes a person in memory; it carries their personality, but also their best qualities, into another generation.
Around this time I learned the living can honor more than one departed soul. New neighbors had moved in across the hall on the fourth floor of our five story apartment building in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Soon I was calling them “Aunt Hilda” and “Uncle Abe,” because, my mother explained, they wanted a little girl or boy of their own but couldn't have one so I could be their special niece.
My mother had shown me a picture of Abraham Lincoln. I was struck by his resemblance to Uncle Abe but soon realized that much as these two heroes looked alike, they were not identical: President Lincoln was not longer living. And, yet more telling: he wasn’t Jewish.
Whenever I received Uncle Abe’s undivided attention I felt beams of light traveling towards me. He was so tall, so high up, that those eyes, set deep in his dark face, were like distant stars gleaming in the black night sky. On hot summer nights I watched the stars from our fire escape. Daddy, Mommy and I would take folding chairs and sit outside our small living room. Daddy wore a summer undershirt and I could see the hairs on his chest, then look up to see stars winking at me through the velvet sky.
Aunt Hilda’s eyes were often sad, and her thoughts not quite with me. She could be suddenly sharp, frowning and telling me, “Don’t chew your food so loud!” Meanwhile, I chattered on about God, or the Good Fairy, thoughts I had discussed with my mother, who seemed to know mainly about the Good Fairy. I wanted to know about God. Whenever I brought up this subject, Hilda would make a point of letting me know I could believe what I wanted, and a lot of people believed in such things, but not her. I tried to steer clear of this topic. But, somehow, my tongue just couldn’t keep things to itself.
When Hilda’s belly started getting big, my mother told me a baby was inside. I could see Hilda’s eyes were getting happy, and she hardly ever snapped at me. But after her belly flattened there was no baby. My mother explained it had died right after it was born. “What kind of baby was it, Mommy?” “It was a beautiful baby girl.” I knew I had to work extra hard as a substitute child. One day soon afterwards, we were walking up our block when a neighbor greeted us: “Hello, Hilda! How’s your new baby?” Aunt Hilda’s hand tightened, so I could feel how sad that made her. I tugged on it and said, “Let’s go Aunt Hilda, Mommy is waiting for us.” And we walked right by that woman, like it didn’t matter.
The next day Hilda bought me a book, an event that was to blossom into a life-long love affair with words. My father had already begun teaching me about the power of the spoken word. It was World War II, and he worked the early shift in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Every morning I dressed quickly in the chilly bathroom while he shaved. Then breakfast of orange juice and cold cereal in our tiny kitchen. After reminding me to speak softly, Mommy was still asleep, my father would carefully teach me a New Word. I still think of this in upper case letters. He would speak the word, explain its meaning, use it in a sentence, then leave for the day. I knew that in the evening he would ask what I remembered about this latest word, and in anticipation of his unvarying “That’s…very good, Judy”, as sustaining to me as consuming my supper, I would memorize and practice throughout the day.
I was prepared when Hilda gave me my first book, tall and thin like Uncle Abe and filled with words and pictures. Although I couldn’t yet read, with Hilda’s coaching I memorized every poem. I had a favorite: “ Little drops of water, little grains of sand,/ make the mighty ocean, and the fertile land.” My child’s mind reached for the end of the mysterious yet familiar ocean.
I could augment this feeling of being very little, yet part of something very big, by coaxing Daddy into singing me his one and only song:
“How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?/ How much do I love you? I’ll tell you no lie./ How many times a day do I think of you?/ How many roses are covered with dew?/ And If I ever lost you, how much would I cry? How deep is the ocean? How… high… is the…. sky…?”
It was another sunny day, but almost thirty years later, in 1974. I was married and living in Williamsburg with my husband and two small children. It was Uncle Abe’s birthday, and he was driving to a party in his very safe Volvo. Another car turned the corner of Nostrand Avenue and hit his head-on; Abe died instantly.
Hilda and Abe had finally produced a son, but with Abe suddenly gone even Larry couldn’t make Hilda happy anymore. She didn’t want to speak to people, not even her Judy, and she was definitely not ready to talk about God “If there was a God, he never would have taken Abe from me!” On my mother’s advice I left Hilda alone, and almost thirty more years passed before, in 1992, my mother called suggesting I visit Hilda because she had advanced cancer.
I ring the bell on East 20th Street and a shrunken, elderly woman, her flesh folding over her bones, answers the door. She is stooped over a cane, but her eyes are on fire. A big hug. “Judy! Judy! Would you know me if you saw me in the street? Do I look so different?” “I would recognize you anywhere, Aunt Hilda. Of course I would!” I know it’s not true, but it’s the good answer.
She leads me through her immaculate, monotone, gray living room, with its gray furniture, gray rug, gray drapes, ecru walls. It was always like that. Depressing, my mother called it. We enter her bedroom, where slowly, painfully, she seats herself on an armchair, and I perch on the edge of her bed. We catch up on 20 years. Hilda tells me she is very weak, and hardly gets up any more, that she’s been excited all day, thinking about me, waiting for me to come. Yes, Larry is a fine young man, a teacher. Then we move to the place we both want to go, the past. A sweet and salty tide rolls in. She asks me if I remember that day on East 18th Street just after she’d lost her baby, how I tugged on her hand so she wouldn’t have to face that neighbor. I do, and I tell her so. We reminisce over that poetry book, reciting “Little drops of water” together. She adds two lines which I’d forgotten, which I can’t remember now.
Hilda seems ready. “I mourned too long after Abe died, but eventually I got over it.” Hilda pauses. “Everyone is born innocent. How you turn out depends on how life treats you, and how you treat life. Judy, it’s a good feeling to know you remember so much.”
I want to offer Hilda so much more. I want to talk about “Olam Ha Zeh”, and “Olam Ha Ba.” “This world” and “The World to Come”. Aunt Hilda, it is time to speak of the mysteries of the soul. My tongue is silent. So I look into your eyes and hold your hand, careful not to bruise the parchment-paper skin. You smile just a little, say “I had a lot of energy today. Maybe I won’t feel good enough to see you again.” A month later, Hilda was gone.
I still ponder those little drops of water and little grains of sand, those stars in the heavens of an infinite, starry universe, and I hear clearly my father as he sings to me about roses and the sky and the bottomless sea; things he never, ever spoke of. He smiles at three year old Ziesel in her carefully ironed pinafore, and I marvel at the certainty of a child that everything visible is a sign, a token of the invisible.
I never made it to the end of the block on that vanished, ever-present day in 1945. Was it Destiny, in the form of Queenie, a small, black and white, panting dog with a squashed in face, that began to follow me? Talk about fate dogging your heels! Queenie was a barker, a familiar figure. Had I been with my mother, we would have crossed the street to avoid her. We always did; it was my parents’ way. On my bike, however, I felt I was invincible. I speeded up. Then Queenie speeded up. She started showing her teeth, started nipping at my back wheel. Someone (I don’t remember who; maybe it was Hilda) had to rescue me, to escort me and my red tricycle home. It was discouraging. Is this when I began to look for clouds at the end of rainbows? Or to wonder how, or maybe even, if, love is as deep as the ocean?
Today I think there must be many Hildas reading beautiful poems to little girls, and not just in Brooklyn either. Next springtime, find yourself the right tree on a very clear day and look straight up through the leaves. Open wide, then narrow your pupils. You’ll find interlocking, sticky threads of silk suspended on some high branch. Inside, a tiny heart is pupating; it waits unknowingly, all the while preparing to emerge from its translucent chrysalis, for the precise moment when it will fly away home.