Honorable Mention 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize
"GIRL FROM SUNSET"
In the fall of 1987, I was ten, and Sunset Park was known as Gunset. Latin Kings used building stoops as their thrones. Police sirens and Tears May Fall by TKA punctured the air. Old men posted on every corner, catcalls spilled out of their mouths, interrupted by sips of Budweiser, hidden in brown paper bags. Displayed on the windows of most bodegas were signs that WIC and Food Stamps were accepted. It was the only Brooklyn I knew. A section in South Brooklyn, named after the park in its center. I wondered how something so beautiful, like a sunset, could also bare the name of my neighborhood.
“Camina rapido.” Mami pulled my hand.
Afraid that Mami would walk away with my arm, I raced to catch up. The sky had faded to navy blue, and turned black, unlike any I had ever seen. I craned my neck, and wondered how a sky that looked like a melted rainbow ice from Charles’ Pizzeria one minute, could bruise, and turn ugly and dark.
“It’s late,” Mami looked down at me. Two brown shopping bags, like the ones from Conway’s, flung over her shoulder.
I looked ahead. We were far from home. My library copy of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret left on my bed ready to be read, seemed miles away. The Forty-fourth and Fifth Avenue street signs were spray-painted; tagged by Las Nietas, the Latin Kings’ rivals. But, it didn’t matter, if left blindfolded in Sunset Park I’d find my way home. My feet knew every crack, bump, and dip of the streets. Constant trips to La Quinta, the heart beat of Sunset, made sure of that.
La Quinta, was lined with shops, a series of blocks, starting from Thirty-Sixth Street to Sixty-Third. Lerner’s, Mini Max, Jason’s, Flamingo Furniture, La Gran Via Bakery, and Georges Diner, as well as the shoe stores that sold the latest kicks. The ones Mami and Papi couldn’t afford, and Joann and I ended up with the bootleg LA Gears sold in discount store bins.
“Ugh,” I groaned. My feet ached. It felt like we walked Sunset Park twice.
“Keep walking,” Mami tugged at my arm, but this time softer.
Joann, two and a half years older than me, kept to Mami’s pace, motivated by her desire to watch Full House and I Married Dora.
Mami had a hustle, and every Friday was the same. Mami sold clothes throughout Sunset Park. She counted neighbors, friends, and friends of friends, among her clients. Mami’s business model included women’s accessories and clothes bought at wholesale prices on the Lower East Side and later marked up to make a modest profit. A layaway system made Mami’s on-the-go boutique marketable. Friday was payday. At the first of the month when the welfare checks were cashed, Mami could expect more money. Some clients even paid with food stamps.
Our route never deviated, and like the maze page of a coloring book, we zigzagged, each block its own world. On Forty-ninth Street, between sixth and seventh avenues, a mental health clinic that prospered according to Mami because Sunset was full of locos y las drogas. Not to far away, Forty-second and Third Avenue was the abortion clinic where Mami recited a few Ave Marias y Padre Nuestros, in name of those murdered little souls whenever we walked past. A collision, under the Gowanus, somewhere between Fifty-ninth and Sixty-third, where Sunset Park and Bay Ridge bordered, a division of race and class. Later, we made our way towards the park, only to find ourselves back to Eighth Avenue. Where we had begun.
Jobita was Mami’s longtime client, and lived in a building by the park. The hallways were narrow, the smell of fried platanos permeated the air, and merengue pulsed between the apartments. Because Jobita lived only a few blocks from home, Mami left her for last. But, this time we left Jobita’s late. She was to blame for the darkness now over us. Proud of her new faja, Jobita took her time trying on every pair of jeans, and the same for the sweaters. The smooth silhouette created by her latest girdle, tacked an extra thirty minutes to our stop at Jobita’s. Another half hour added as Jobita offered Mami a cup of Café Bustelo. Jobita doled out round tea biscuits that tasted of sugar and coconut called Marias, which Joann and I took small bites from, between sips of Hawaiian Punch. I watched her slide a ten-dollar bill in Mami’s direction, and knew Mami would complain the whole walk home. Jobita owed so much more than the lousy ten bucks she given. Yet, she never paid a penny more on any given Friday. I glared, and wondered if Judy Blume’s Margaret followed her mother around for hours on Fridays to collect money that people owed her, from a traveling clothing boutique.
Once outside Mami let out a string of profanity. Aimed at no one, but at the same time everyone. She cursed the nighttime. Mami hated the park during the daytime, flung words at it like, cochino parque, and peligroso parque. At night, Mami refused to be near the park. It was filled with what she called, gente mala clase. As a ten year old, I envisioned the park crawling with big-clawed monsters. Later, I realized those monsters were not monsters at all. They were the displaced, the dejected, the unnoticed, and the unwanted. The ugly. They like us were invisible, and called Sunset Park home.
Aware of the absence of light, but left with no choice we marched alongside the park. The rustle of the brown shopping bags against Mami’s jacket, and the crunch of fallen leaves were the only noise we heard. I worried about Mami’s hands. The bags were heavy. Filled to the brim with the neat squares of jeans, sweaters, blouses, and smaller squares of scarves. She was older than my friends’ moms and complained about the ache and stiffness that inflamed the joint of her fingers and wrists. Mami often held her hands up to Joann and me, like evidence in the court of law. Everyday exhibits for what not to do with our lives. Cleaning houses and carrying bags of clothes were how and why Mami paid for Catholic school. No vayan a vivir la vida que yo llevo, Mami warned us to live a life unlike the one she lived.
Joann and me were Mami’s bookkeepers, on account that Mami never went to school back in Colombia, and didn’t know how to read nor write. As children, it was easier to fill the black ledger with the red margins and blue squares, with our own handwriting, and not Mami’s broken twig letters. The names of each client written on top, and one side listed items purchased and at what cost, while the other side noted their payment and transaction.
“If we cut through the park, we would get there faster,” Joann said. Though darkness enveloped our faces, I imagined Joann’s eyes rolled all the way to the back of her skull. Both Joann and I knew that a short cut through the park cut our walk in half. Arriving home earlier meant a television show for Joann, and for me, a book.
“That place is filled with rapists and gang members,” Mami hissed.
My eyes drifted towards main steps that led to the park entrance on Fifth Avenue. A big square of land, perched high on elevated ground, it ran along Sixth Avenue, and up to Seventh Avenue, and across Forty-first Street thru Forty-Fourth Street. I never stepped foot in that park, close, but no. Not even during hot summer months when both Joann and I begged Mami to let us go to the public pool there. Our pleas only grew stronger when we caught sight of the kids and teenagers walking to the park with towels on their shoulders, or walking away from the park with the towels draped over their backs. Mami insisted that the pool was filled with diseases, and that perverts lurked in every corner. She shook her head at us, disgusted. And, after awhile we stopped asking. The only thing more off limits than the pool was the park playground. Gang members congregated under the monkey bars and next to the seesaw. Time on the swings in Sunset Park was no different than a prison yard walk. Dangerous, I quickened my step, and shuddered in my corduroy jacket.
“Have you ever been inside?” I asked Mami. I knew the answer to this question, but worried that Mami was annoyed at Joann for suggesting a short cut, I hoped to distract her.
“When I first got here, but that was a long time ago. It was before I had you girls, and I would sit on the bench near the swings to hear the kids. The noise.” Mami’s voice became small and quiet.
Mami told us countless times, how much she wanted kids, but as thirty-six year old bride she was scared, her dream of motherhood was a mere flicker of hope. Mami had Joann two years after she wed Papi, and I was born a few weeks after her forty-first birthday.
“That’s how I met your madrina in this park. I was looking for a friend, and she was too. Nancy was a baby.”
“That’s one good thing, about the park.” I looked up at Mami. Eyebrows furrowed, her thin lips set in a straight line, and eyes distant. When her face was twisted up like that I knew that she was thinking about her childhood in Colombia. Or Papi. Mami was born in poverty, in rural Colombia, where eggs were a luxury. And people rode on donkeys, not cars. A life filled with struggle since her first breath, Mami learned to survive from an early age, not live. But, desperate to have kids she married a drunk, despite that he proposed in a drunken stupor. Mami served these bits of her life to us, and no different than when she made us strawberry milk at night. Matter of fact.
Mami adjusted the bags across her back.
“I can help you,” I reached for a bag.
“No, it will slow you down, and we need to get home.” Mami orbited around us, let go of my arm, switched the bag to her other side, and walked around me. Joann moved too as if following some unrehearsed dance of the eldest child.
It was always the three of us. Mami took turns lying on our beds at night, one night Joann’s, next mine, and like a braid, we became intertwined. Mami would whisper in the dark that she was both our mother and father. Lying next to Mami, I listened to the sound of her breath, unaware that Mami listened for something too, the door to open, and Papi to call out. Papi always came home, late, when night blended to dawn. Never a precise time, just a shade of blue across the sky.
The walk up from La Quinta was slow for everyone on foot. Hills made it hard to walk fast, and not be out of breath. At school the year before, I wrote a report on Sunset Park, the Dutch purchased the land from the Canarsee Indians. I liked to imagine it the way it was back then. Wild. Not dangerous. No sneakers strung up on lampposts, or guys on bodega corners with their hands buried in their pockets and eyes darting back and forth. Grassy knolls, not buildings with lobbies that smelled like piss, and broken light bulbs shattered, leaving one staircase after the other in the dark.
Almost home, Public School 169 our landmark that told us we were close.
“Sometimes, I just want to keep walking.” Mami whispered. “And never stop.”
My heart closed like a fist.
“Do you know that it’s harder to stand in one place than it is to just walk a lot,” Mami slowed down.
I fought the urge not to yank her arm. While Joann and I wanted nothing more than to get home, Mami now dragged her feet.
While Joann and I were focused on our separates wants, I never considered Mami’s.
The park was now behind us. Now, close to home. I wanted nothing more than to lie on my bed and read, so that Sunset Park disappeared between the chapters. Escape to be sought in plots that transported me from Mami’s rages, and the insults she hurled at Papi, for being a useless drunk. Caught in the cross fire, the sting of her words threatened to tear me wide open. I clutched my book and sat by the ledge of my bedroom window, where Sunset Park, and I fell into a trance, and I stared at the world beneath me.
Once upon a time I thought Sunset Park the most beautiful place in the world. But, that changed, that Fall of 1987. On that walk home I saw what Mami saw. How living in a beat up and broken part of Brooklyn made you feel those things, despite how pretty the sunset can be.