Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Winner - "A Moveable Stool" by Cherry Lou Sy

                                                                                                A Moveable Stool


A moveable stool. For those who know the story, this is the name of a stool in the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris’s Left Bank where Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound met, borrowed books and discussed literature. It is merely a wooden stool for reaching books placed in high shelves. I haven’t seen it myself but it is legendary. It is notorious even in its plainness because it is named so to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway when he talked about Paris and the bookstore in his memoir, A Moveable Feast. But when I think of a moveable stool, I am immediately beset by images of the putrid kind. Perhaps it is because my family has toiled in hospitals where such things abound from the Maternity Ward to the Intensive Care Unit. Perhaps it is simply because my mind is stuck in the gutter, just as it is willing to reach the sublime. This duality in me exists, and so, when I hear the words “a moveable stool,” I can only think of one thing: shit. The slippery slope of the English language makes it possible for me to have this kind of meaning.

When I think of Brooklyn, I am also in this state of split-ness. There are categories of Brooklyn that exist independent of each other. Even Flatbush, where my teen years were spent, has a memory that is almost forgotten. It was once white. But it was not the kind of whiteness that is Midwest, corn-fed, wheat-haired and blue-skied. It was the kind of gritty whiteness that was almost gray. Because Irish and Jews were not quite right, not the right kind of white anyway. They were also denied housing or positions back in the day, especially if they strayed far from their neighborhoods. But now, white or not, this particular bit of history is forgotten. Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush Avenue had a list of alumni that could not have foreseen that their alma mater would be one day completely colored. After all, Erasmus Hall High, founded when the Dutch were still in power in 1786, had all sorts of alumni names that later became stars like Mae West and Barbra Streisand.  

Brooklyn is now Jay-Z, yuppies in Billyburg, Caribbean immigrants in Flatbush, Chinese in Eight Avenue and Arabs in Fifth Avenue, Bay Ridge or the mixture of Latinos in Sunset Park. Only when we decide to read and remember that we discover it was once Whitman’s. Or that it was an alternative for artists to Manhattan’s exorbitantly high real estate prices. Of course, this is no longer true. Once it became known as the land of coffee and cheap rent and a promise of an artist’s haven complete with dive bars and yoga centers, hordes of would-be artists and their blue-collared financial-type counterparts flocked into Brooklyn’s buildings, brownstones and neighborhoods. A great crossing occurred. Like a magical incantation, with each bright-eyed, money-scented person, the Real Estate gods proclaimed: Gentrify! Gentrify! Cheap rents be gone! Park Slope and Williamsburg have been annexed by Manhattan. Other Brooklyn neighborhoods have followed suit since.

The certainty of brownstone-envy does not elude me. I believe everyone suffers from it even if they deny it. After all, who would complain about having one when the Real Estate gods have so kindly smiled upon them? Suddenly, they were rich if they owned one before the great crossing occurred. But that’s just the problem. It is too expensive, so I find myself outside of it for now so I can create.

As a writer, an exile in Kiev, I am always missing New York. And when I say New York, I really mean Brooklyn because Brooklyn is where I grew up – two decades’ worth of growing up. I miss the fried calamari and seafood salad at Leo’s Calamari in 86th Street and 3rd Avenue. I miss Soup # 9 at Phoa Hoai, a Vietnamese joint in Bay Ridge. I miss going to Costco by the BQE in Third Avenue where I buy green plantains, waiting for them to ripen so I can fry maduros. I miss my family in Brooklyn who are now left to fend for themselves because no one is cooking. As my brother put it, “without you, it’s like Africa here.”

I’ve been to other places – in Monte Carlo, in Cannes, in Venice, in Athens. These cities are beautiful even though I don’t experience the actual luxuries these cities offer considering the sparseness of my budget while I visited. But my default setting has been set in third-world/new-world anyway, something I developed overtime from being a Brooklynite with my particular set of characteristics – immigrant, naturalized citizen, female, Asian mongrel, existentially adrift. So I see with eyes that calculate how someone like me, whatever this me is, can exile myself into new worlds where the mother tongues I hear are other than what I know, which makes me feel like an alien once again. Now, in Kiev, these tongues I hear for the most part are Russian and Ukrainian. I know I am far away from the shores of Brighton Beach, the Russian I hear there a different kind of Russian with a geographical compass more similar to my own default setting of Brooklyn. As I write in an apartment in Kiev where three other people live, and I complain about my lack of personal space, I cannot help but reflect on the city that I’ve temporary left behind.

Brooklyn, to me, is about collision.

To define Brooklyn, to yell with fists beating their chests that they “represent,” is to simultaneously give something life while giving something else death. I do not identify with Whitman’s Brooklyn; I do identify with Biggie Smalls’ Brooklyn or Jay Z’s Brooklyn which includes Barclay’s Center; nor do I identify with my mother’s Brooklyn, which is tied to her work as a nurse in a hospital. I do not identify with countless other thoughts of Brooklyn. Like when I was fifteen, in a school trip to D.C., I met a few teens like me from San Francisco. The first question they asked was this: “Where is your Brooklyn accent?” They wanted to hear me say words with a certain pull to it, to say fuhgettahboutit, to say ax when I really meant ask. I knew people who said it. They exist. But I am not them. I remember how their eyes dulled and forgot about me because I did not speak Brooklynese. They expected me to sound like Marisa Tomei or Joe Pesci from the film My Cousin Vinny. But my mouth didn’t widen and my voice didn’t rise to fit the Brooklyn they wanted to hear, the Brooklyn they knew and the Brooklyn they imagined. Brooklyn, in people’s minds, is stuck in a notorious image. Jonathan Lethem is probably right when, in his novel Fortress of Solitude, he writes of Brooklyn that it’s a geographical form of insanity. It is. It is a microcosm of the macrocosmic world at large. Walk a few blocks and you arrive in a new country with its own set of rules.

Even now, thousands of miles away, in the city of Kiev, Ukraine in the market place Podol, I find I cannot escape this image of Brooklyn. There is a store named Brooklyn in a red graffiti script, of course, because capitalism is never far away even in a former Soviet country. Inside, they sell clothes that fit right into the hiphop culture – baseball caps, oversized tees emblazoned with street art, and trinkets. Sometimes, I even hear hard rap blasting from somebody’s phone and these young Ukrainian boys bop their heads as though they were carrying their swag with a boombox on their shoulders. Strangely, I am reminded immediately of Brooklyn as though I never left. The Brooklyn of people’s minds does remind me of Brooklyn even if I don’t identify with it. But when people see me or hear me, they do not think Brooklyn unless I own it and say, “represent” and beat my right fist on the flesh right above my breast. They are more concerned with my foreignness, in my inability to speak their words well, in the way how my looks do not match what they imagine where I’m from. Perhaps I am nothing more than a moveable stool myself.

Returning to Hemingway’s Moveable Stool in Paris, I can only assume that it is also a geographical leap of sorts. It helps one climb up to reach what is undoubtedly out of reach, some flight of fancy in the imagination. Hemingway himself described a girl he saw once in a café he found on the Place St-Michel. He was writing on his notebook with his café au lait when a beautiful girl sat next to the window, whose face was pretty and fresh like a newly-minted coin with hair in a sharp bob as black as a crow’s wing. Disturbed and excited by her beauty, he wished he could put her in his story. He did not approach her because he saw her face turned towards the street so she could watch the door. She was waiting for someone. So he worked on his notebook and stared at her when he would sharpen his pencil or whenever he looked up. Finally, she left but he didn’t know when because the next time he looked towards her, she was gone. Instead he wrote: I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, you belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

Like Hemingway, I have seen Brooklyn. I have been in her insides. I have seen her in her beauty, but also in the morning without make-up with drool caked in her face. Even when seized with age and besieged with destruction as when Hurricane Sandy knocked her out and washed away the shores of Coney Island, she is still Brooklyn. I am far away, but Brooklyn belongs to me. I am left to wonder with awe, of all things, one thing is certain: You can take a girl out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the girl.

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