Paradise A Memory
By Denise DiFulco
Everywhere you look there are bouquets of light. Bursts of red, yellow, green and blue 360 degrees around. You and your best friend are sitting in lawn chairs, Coke cans in hand, Mets on the radio, taking it all in. It’s the best show in the world, best seats in the house. Or on the house. Because that’s where you are, on the roof of his parents’ place in Canarsie, watching the night sky fade behind neon showers.
It’s July 4th, 1988. And as you sit there watching the horizon bloom into full color, you’re not thinking a year ahead, let alone five or ten or twenty. You’re not thinking that in less than a decade your friend’s parents will move out to Long Island, like most everyone else from the neighborhood, and that the neat little yard out front will become overgrown with weeds and trash. You’re not thinking that terrorists will have taken their first crack at toppling the Twin Towers, and that you’ll spend a frantic day wondering if your uncle, who was working at a construction site downtown, made it out alive. You’re certainly not thinking that the current U.S. attorney, that Giuliani guy who brought down the Five Families, will become mayor and ban fireworks for good so that no one will ever score a ticket to this spectacular show again.
No. At this moment you’ve got your eyes to the sky, thinking how beautiful your city looks lit up in a Technicolor dream. At this moment, it seems bigger and better than anything your dad could have imagined back when he was a kid living in Flatbush, playing stickball in dirt lots and following the Dodgers like religion. Hearing him tell it, Brooklyn never was better. But times change. Brooklyn isn’t what it was for your dad. Just like it won’t be what it was for you.
But you don’t know that yet.
Instead you roll your eyes every time he mourns the old days—his Golden Days—when a kid could walk the streets at night and a subway ride cost only a nickel. You cringe when he complains about the graffiti that now seems to have crept onto the city buses. It’s an ominous sign, he says. What was once confined to Manhattan and the Bronx is infiltrating your good neighborhood. You don’t tell him it is your friends, the kids from your good neighborhood who are tagging up the B78 with their Sharpie markers and etching the Plexiglas windows with X-ACTO knives.
It is you, the child, who is protecting the adult. Because from the time you are very little, you watch your parents’ world fade like an old photograph. When you are seven, you go shopping with your mother once a week on Avenue N in Old Mill Basin, stopping first at the vegetable store, then the fish market, then the pork store. You slide your feet along sawdust and hay scattered on the floors of the little shops, marvel at the old cash registers with their mother-of-pearl buttons, press your nose against the freshly rolled pepperoni stacked just at your height. Sometimes your mom takes you into the men’s barbershop across the street for a haircut even though you are a girl. You cry and protest loudly, yet Tony succeeds in making you laugh by playing peek-a-boo with a cape. He puts a booster across the chair arms, and you climb up like it’s the jungle gym at the park. A few snips straight across your bangs, and the ordeal is over. Eyes red and cheeks still wet with tears, you wait by the front counter eagerly while your mom pays. Tony pretends not to know why you’re standing there, and after a few moments of intentionally, though playfully making you suffer, he pulls out a box of lollipops.
You, as always, take one that is striped green, white and orange.
Ironically, when a supermarket opens on Ralph Avenue less than a mile away, the little shops close in the order your mother used to visit. First the vegetable store, then the fish store. The pork store, miraculously, hangs on. You think it’s because of the way the strapping butchers in their bloodstained aprons flirt heavily and openly with the housewives coming to market. Even your mother puts on lipstick and checks her hair before she walks through the door.
But so much else, so much of the Brooklyn your parents remember has long disappeared. When your dad takes you to Coney Island—the one and only time—it is dirty and desolate. You ride the creaky old Cyclone, and as the car is cranked up the lift chain you count how many trestle joints have separated. There are that many. The visit lasts only a half hour. And as you’re leaving, you notice some guys dancing on cardboard boxes they’ve sliced open and laid flat on the sidewalk into a makeshift dance floor. They’re waving their arms and spinning on their heads in time to a thumping bass that blares from a radio the size of a small car. “C’mon,” your dad says, nudging you. “We’re going to get mugged. You’ve got to keep moving.” And still you stand there, mesmerized.
No, this is no longer his Brooklyn.
This, you realize, is yours.
You soon learn those moves are called breaking and the music is hip hop. The radio is called a boom box, and before long those clunky, behemoths will appear on the shoulders of young men walking just about everywhere. It’s part of the whole graffiti culture. Kids come to school with notebooks filled not with their homework assignments, but with their graffiti tags and illustrations, master plans to bomb handball walls and subway cars in the dark of the night. It’s beautiful, you think. You sketch out your own alphabet. Play around with different tags. Only once, after school in a forgotten hallway, do you dare to put yours on a wall.
Instead you wear your hair big, peg your pants, embrace neon. You learn to pop and wave and shuffle. You watch as the other kids continue to carve up bus windows. At least one a day whips out a stack of “Hello, My Name Is” stickers and slaps their tag on every solid surface around the neighborhood. Even you cringe when you notice they’re now bombing garage doors of people’s homes.
But you will defend that neighborhood to anyone. You will defend Brooklyn to anyone. Even though every September when you return to school, more of your friends are missing. They don’t always tell you they are leaving, but you can guess where they’ve gone: Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, Florida.
Many of them miss the Mets winning the World Series in 1986. Your neighborhood is 12 miles by highway from Shea Stadium, but at the moment of the last out, when Jesse Orosco hurls his glove into the air and falls to his knees, it’s like you’re in the stands. The whole borough is delirious in a collective ovation. The streets around your house are filled with hundreds of people shouting, honking horns, shooting fireworks. Guys are driving by in their Camaros streaming toilet paper out the windows. It’s a scene that is being repeated all over the borough. All over the city. And all you can think is, Where else in the world?
You have the same thought sitting on your best friend’s roof watching all manner of pyrotechnics, hundreds at a time, explode in every direction.
Where else in the world?
And not too long after that, it’s time to find out. You go away to a private college in upstate New York, where the big hair, the pegged jeans and the hip-hop music just don’t play. You want to be back with your people. You want to come home. But you don’t. Instead you stay. You straighten your hair, wear plaid flannel shirts and listen to Seattle rock bands. You lose your accent. One morning, while waiting for class to begin, you spot a headline on page A1 of The New York Times: “Boy, 15, Is Fatally Stabbed at School in Brooklyn.” Upon reading the first sentence of the story, you scream so loud as to alarm your classmates.
It happened at your high school. In your good neighborhood.
Your Brooklyn, too, has begun to fade.
The 1993 World Trade Center bombers will see to that. Mayor Giuliani and his clean up of New York will see to that. Everyone who has moved away, all the family-owned shops that have closed—that will seal it.
After college, you’ll leave to see more of the world. Though you swear up and down you’ll return, you’ll never come home to stay. And deep inside, you’ll hate yourself for it. You’ll hate knowing this isn’t your Brooklyn anymore. It will belong to someone else. Not only because time did its dirty work, not only because the city succumbed to its inevitable life cycle, but mostly because you gave it away.
One day years later you’ll drive down Avenue N with your own kids in a car with New Jersey plates, pointing out where the vegetable store and the fish store used to be. You’ll laugh out loud realizing the pork store has expanded. But the barber shop? Where is it? Those guys were so old even when you were little.
And then you’ll spot it, a block down from where it used to be, the old twirling pole set outside a new storefront.
You’ll loop around three times before finding a parking space like your mother so often did, and you’ll walk inside. The new place will be different, but the faces the same: Tony, Frank, Rosario. The moment you walk in, Tony will recognize you and welcome you with a huge smile.
He’ll ask about your dad and talk about how he used to come in as a boy with his own father. “You remember my grandfather?” you’ll say. “Of course. He was sucha gooda man.” And that will lead into a conversation about the original neighborhood fifty years earlier, before they built all the houses and the stores. Back when the roads weren’t even paved. And you’ll try hard the whole time to hide how emotional you’ve become. Suddenly you’ll feel like you’re five, again. Ten. Thirteen.
And then it will really hit you: You’ll return to this moment on the rooftop, soda can sweating in hand, the smell of gunpowder and smoke heavy in the air. And you’ll know how your dad felt. You’ll taste it in your mouth.
You’ll excuse yourself to leave, promising to visit, again. It won’t be so long the next time. And as you turn to walk out the door, you’ll realize Tony has called your kids back. He is pulling out a box from under the cash register and offering it to them.
They’ll dig inside, remembering to say “thank you,” and run toward you waving their loot.
They are holding lollipops.
Green, white and orange as ever.