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.