2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
“Brooklyn: Fractions That Make A Hole”
Nancy V. Rodriguez-Kolff
We had seen them a couple of times when we lived in New York. They could become good friends. He, a Dutchman working at a prestigious law firm, she, originally from Iceland, finalizing a Doctoral Dissertation in war crime reparation. Smart but not pretentious, funny when appropriate, not mundane. They had two boys. Just like us.
We celebrated their recent move to the city of Haarlem in The Netherlands, where we also decided to settle a few years ago. We talked about moving families across continents, about differences between life in the States and in Holland. “I loved Brooklyn,” she said in Icelandic English that sounded robotic and soft at the same time. “I really felt we all had the same values there, you know? Eating organic and being aware, about the environment and about teaching the kids in a certain way… I really liked that,” she said, her tongue changing the sound of the r to make it sound almost like an Irish lilt but then more sophisticated. She expected me to understand, to be complicit in some sort of secret sisterhood in the loop, the inner circle. I nodded obligingly, smiled but swallowed uncomfortably.
I remembered an evening with friends in Brooklyn a few years before our move to Europe. We ate at a hip restaurant and drank locally brewed beer off Vanderbilt Avenue before going to Prospect Park to see a band play. I was overwhelmed by beards and rimmed glasses while hearing The National, an unheard of indie band. We were in the know, cool, and everyone around us basked in the warm fuzzy blanket of self-righteous sameness. I had a good time. Except I didn’t. I felt overwhelmed, claustrophobic. I felt angry.
The same emotions came rushing back to me sitting across my beautiful, tall, blond friend. I tempered my fake nod and said, “You know, sometimes I feel it is a bit too much, in Brooklyn, this touchy feely organic stuff.” But what I really wanted to say, what I really wanted to say was, “I know you mean well and you are great but right now I have an incredible surge, actually a wellspring, of hatred for today’s Brooklyn. So save me the bullshit and kumbaying about what a fab bunch of organic eating, recycling, environmentalist, soft Montessori child rearing freaks you all are and go stuff it in your organic asses. And don’t forget to compost it. Enough with Brooklyn. Enough with the blogs making fun of fellow Brooklyn hipsters. Enough about being white and crowding out poor ethnic minorities, but then not really because -let’s face it- the rent is cheaper here and your liberalism and feelings of guilt don’t go that far… you yuppies marauding as vegan bio bearded artists. You motherfuckers.”
“Whoa!” I thought, “Where did that internal rampage come from?” I took a big sip of wine and decided it wise to change the subject. At home, I tried to shake the anger and resentment. It didn’t make sense. Why did I care? I never lived in Brooklyn. I hated the boroughs. The Bronx was burning, Queens was middle class, Staten Island — where was that? And Brooklyn was, well, tough — tough and far away. I was a Manhattanite, wary of the Bridge, Tunnel and Ferry crowd and leaving my Upper East Side enclave. I was not a snob. An only child of poor immigrant Spaniards cannot easily be labeled as such. I was aware of the trials and tribulations of poverty and tough times. My parents spoke English with a heavy accent and had no hesitation free-cycling furniture, clothing or books from the garbage. We bought at thrift stores because we had to.
When I was a young girl we rarely ventured into the boroughs. I never went to Brooklyn. Sometimes we would go to Queens to visit other immigrant families from the same region of Spain. How I hated the vinyl clad houses. I did not envy the gardens or spacious homes. I was happy in Manhattan, the true melting pot, where you could be anyone you wanted to be, or didn’t want to be, and no one noticed.
As a teenager, I worked with my dad. After being fed up serving people at the Carlyle Hotel, he decided to become an entrepreneur. He didn’t have a primary business; he had lots of random small businesses. The one thread that joined them all together was that they were in the worst neighborhoods of New York City.
Daniel, the son of my father’s business partner, was my buddy and co-heir of the empire. Never mind that the empire consisted only of properties no one else wanted in dangerous neighborhoods where a young Caucasian woman was a rarity.
Daniel is half Dominican and half Puerto Rican with a swarthy tinge that could be mistaken for Arab. He drove a maroon Chevy Impala with tinted windows. He had a photocopied paper cut to credit card size saying he was an official friend of the police complete with an NYPD insignia on it. He always dreamt of becoming a cop, but he didn’t do it. He was with me, travelling from one bad neighborhood to another. At least he got the pleasure of people mistaking him for a cop.
One business was an Amoco gasoline station on the corner of Atlantic and Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn. Daniel would pick me up at 7 o’clock in the morning in Manhattan. We would get on the FDR and cross the majestic Brooklyn Bridge. I loved crossing the bridge. It reminded me of a vertical Eiffel tower. We would see the Jehovah’s Witness buildings and on Atlantic Avenue pass empty storefronts and junk shops full of jumbled dusty treasures.
When we arrived, we were in a desolate wasteland. It was a small gasoline station, a simple kiosk with some pumps and a canopy. What you don’t realize when you pump gas is that besides the attendant in his small space surrounded by cigarettes, condoms and candy surrounded on all sides by bullet proof glass, there is a bathroom, and that this bathroom often serves as “the office.” While my private school friends slept in after a late night at Nell’s, my glamorous job on the weekends was to give the manager of the station the day off.
The first order of business was to sweep the outside of the station, which was always full of litter in the morning, usually cigarette butts and condoms. I would also count the money and balance the shifts — all while sitting on the loo at the makeshift desk that pulled up in front of it. Multitasking at its finest. I would go out of the kiosk and yell at the drunk or drugged squeegee men bothering a customer. The beacon of cleanliness and modernity was McDonald’s across the street. It was the only place I felt safe enough to get a coffee.
You see, I don’t have a wistful yearning for how Brooklyn used to be. I do not long for the rawness and grittiness of my Brooklyn. I do not have nostalgia for the good old days even though they may not have been that great. Rising housing costs didn’t push me out and I don’t have an ethical problem with gentrification. Neighborhoods evolve and change. Brooklyn deserved its renaissance after so many years forgotten.
So why the hate? Why resist embracing the utopian enclave that Brooklyn has become for so many? Why feel defensive and self-protective? Because truth be told, I could easily live there now. I could pass for a Brooklynite. I went to a liberal arts college and I am particular about my coffee requirements. I definitely obsess about my children’s schools. The people that live in Brooklyn now are my tribe.
My ambivalence stems from a secret belief that I am not supposed to be there now because I was there back then. In some bizarre way I feel I am betraying myself, betraying my past and pretending to be someone else. A fake. I spent my life creating separate bubbles that I alone could navigate. I was always the same person but assumed different personas to deal with the differences in my many worlds. It felt safer to keep sections divided. It was easier than trying to explain.
In this new Brooklyn, my discrete bubbles collided and left me feeling discombobulated, naked and alone. The members of my supposed Brooklyn tribe may have ventured to the Bronx Zoo or Harlem to see a Gospel choir, even to the same McDonald’s on Atlantic Ave., but they don’t relate to my history in these places. They probably wouldn’t get it. And yet it is part of me. As long as these experiences were separate in space I could keep the balls in the air but when they were added together I froze. Became scared and even hostile. Because if they didn’t get it, they didn’t get me.
Brooklyn is named after the Dutch city of Breukelen. The word breuken in Dutch can mean two things — cracks, as in bone fractures, or a mathematical fraction. The old Brooklyn is a fraction of me and so is the new. The problem is I was never that good at math.
Would you puke if I quoted The National? I’ll do it anyway.
I have only two emotions.
Careful fear and dead devotion.
I can’t get the balance right.
All the things I had it in for.
I won’t cry until I hear.
Cause I was not supposed to be here.
I am having trouble in my skin.
But I’ll never be anything you want me to be.
I’m going through an awkward phase.
I am secretly in love with Everything I grew up with.
Don’t give me away.
I am the same. I am not alone. I‘ll never be.
We are all just living in our Fake Empire.
The ironies of Matt Berenger, unwilling poster-boy of the new Brooklyn, capturing my angst and incoherent malaise in his myriad lyrics are not lost on me. Are they lost on you? Please get it. Please let it be true that I am not alone, that the additions of my nominators equal my denominator and make me whole, not broken. I am more than my separate parts. Just like Brooklyn. Just like you.