Honorable Mention 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize
Any Brooklynite knows the harsh reality of crime in our borough, and thanks to the media so do those not from here, my neighborhood is no exception. Growing up in Brownsville projects, I never felt too safe. No one assaulted or threatened me, but it was clear from an early age that a line had been drawn in the sand between my family and our neighbors.
I didn’t truly understand where the tension came from at the time. We were no saints, but surely nothing was purposely done on our part to provoke them. A good deal of the building would congregate outside, whether in the park or on the benches out front. Whenever any of us came or left it felt like all eyes were on us. Whether it was coming from the grocery store, or going to church on a weeknight, the walk from the apartment door to the curb felt like the longest part of the trip. Looking back on it, I wonder if that’s part of the reason why I shy away from attention today. We weren’t popular in the positive sense, even now I don’t think a tenth of the neighborhood know our names, but they know which apartment we live in.
Back then, Brownsville was more chaotic than it is now (which for some, may be hard to imagine). There were multiple shootings every month, the rates of which went up during the Summer. I’ve seen brawls in the playground behind my building, heard gunshots too close for comfort, the flashes of which would hit my window. These days I see kids scampering around doing things they shouldn’t do, during my adolescence it was the adults who caused the scenes. It seemed like everyone wore red, and to wear said color without being affiliated with the group wasn’t something anyone did. If I wasn’t aware of the things that happened after dark, I’d think it was cool, the fraternity of it all. I’d never attribute every incident to them, but it created a sense of community nonetheless. One my family and I were not apart of.
Of course, this sense of isolation or negatively standing out spread into school. I had friends, still have them now, but I always knew there was something different. While I grew academically, some seemed to mature in other ways. Before I could get accustomed to the slang a new thesaurus was needed. After school some kids went to their friends’ houses or hung out in parks, I always went home. I wasn’t envious, though I did note the differences. I’d hear my neighbors call each other by name, leave their apartment doors unlocked for one another, have cookouts, none of which we have attended (of our own volition). There were little things done to make us feel unwelcome. Not holding doors open for my mother, hurrying into the elevator, and other things my parents could tell better than I.
After considering all the above, the constant sense of danger and being unwelcomed caused me to become somewhat paranoid. I didn’t have any reason to trust my neighbors and I dreaded running into any classmates outside of school. It wasn’t that I felt targeted, I guess I figured people wouldn’t trip over each other to give us a helping hand. The saddest part, was that I began viewing those around me like how they were stereotypically portrayed on television.
In school we learned about civil rights activists and how they fought racism, segregation, etc. However, there was no oppressive Caucasian in my story. In fact, the only white people I could recall were my teachers and I didn’t have any problems with them. My issues, my angst, the people whose necks I wanted to wring shared my complexion, lived in public housing with me, worked the same minimum wage jobs as my parents. It wasn’t until I got older that I truly realized whenever you put people together, regardless of gender, race or religion, there will be differences, and there will be problems, as it’s in our nature. But, there is good as well.
The people I never spoke to are the same who offered me warmth when I got locked out one winter. The people I said I couldn’t trust, trusted my mother to wait with their children for the school bus. The neighborhood kid underneath us was the one who ran and got my dad when I was hit by a car. One of the bodegas across the street sent us get well gifts when my siblings and I got sick from their candy. The same people I accused of shunning us are the same who never fail to hold some sort of vigil for any of our deceased neighbors. The young boys who’d run around in red are the same who open doors for all of us now. The petty thieves who’d waltz into my mom’s old store look out for her after dark. The guys I said I couldn’t get along with entertain me at barbershops with their stories. The same people who watched us as we went to church are the same we bring palms to every Palm Sunday.
Despite the enlightenment about my neighbors that came with age, there was still one thing I hadn’t gotten over. That being, wanting out of a neighborhood I felt caged in. Unto this day, I’ve truthfully been out of town once, and it was short lived. It wasn’t that all I knew was New York, or Brooklyn that bothered me, rather at times that all I had to go on was Brownsville. That my big picture perspective would be based on one sliver of land. Whenever I went to the city as a child and took a moment to observe the landscape I’d be in awe of the bright lights and grand architecture. Naturally, when I returned to Brownsville it’d have the opposite effect. I felt I should’ve been living in a condo next to Toys R’ Us, not the projects. I was never one for fashion, but my classmates had me convinced that if you bought clothes from the neighborhood you were lame or poor. Everything worthwhile seemed to be outside of Brownsville. I’m unsure to what extent I internalized all that, but it manifested when I got into high school.
I went to the same public school from pre-k to 8th grade, around the corner from our home. I hadn’t ridden the train much alone before, but I would be traveling to Hoyt St. and Borough Hall for the next four years, or so I thought. Going to school in a new area came with the opportunity to reinvent myself, riding the train meant I’d be going places and seeing new things. That also brought with it new personalities and obstacles. Of all the freshman classes mine was the most troublesome. I was an A student through and through, but the amount of fights my classmates were in boggled me. Gym was worse, it bought everyone with a bone pick to the same locker room. Still, I hadn’t been threatened or targeted, but that same looming sense of danger crept back over me.
Eventually I made friends who had the same basic interests as I, nothing taboo, just kid stuff. I went from being the boy that came home on time to the boy who would come home over two hours late without a phone call. I hung out at my friends’ houses after school, something I never really did. Somehow homework still got finished and my grades survived, remaining high. Around that time, I began hearing older students say: “Hey, we going to the hood today?” A good deal of the kids who got into large fights weren’t even from neighborhoods as notorious as mine, and yet that’s where they wanted to go to earn their stripes. Compared to where I lived and the jobs my parents worked, these kids were in the suburbs. It didn’t sink it yet, but that proved some of the crime in our neighborhoods are from outsiders.
In my sophomore year, I was fifty-fifty about school. Schedule changed, new classes, new teachers, new classmates. Generally, I disliked it more than freshman year and I was over all the rowdy nonsense. This was when I discovered the secret art of skipping. “What? You mean we can do all the fun stuff during school hours rather than after?” It got me. Cutting last period turned into leaving after lunch, getting to school late and leaving early turned into skipping the entire day. Of course, it got to the point where I had begun skipping a week of school at a time.
A truant in his prime, I managed to pass most of the exams I needed on the days I showed up. After years of lying, hiding mail, throwing away report cards and calls home, it caught up with me. I all but settled with the fact that I wouldn’t graduate, and in senior year a counselor suggested I transfer schools to avoid that fate. Then the most ironic of things happened, this new school, the one that would give me the greatest chance of graduating relatively on time, was located a few blocks from my home, in Brownsville.
It was convenient, but I disliked the idea of being so close to home. Though, the idea of a restart and a diploma was promising. I met the staff there and immediately they fell in love. Except for my attendance, there was no blemish on my record, I had a good amount of credits with no behavioral problems. Seemed like a good fit, until a counselor put this idea in my head. He basically said that there were some altercations between students in the neighborhood, then he says it’s possible that I could be approached by a gang. The man was doing his best to be honest and prepare me for whatever, but I went back to my narrow-minded views about Brownsville. I had no intention of making friends, I just wanted a diploma and to be left alone, assuming I wouldn’t get along with anyone.
Within the first week of school I picked out three students to avoid at all costs. Each of them were popular, confident, and one wore red every day for the reasons I stated earlier. They drew a lot of attention and I wanted to be invisible, contact with them was not an option, but it was inevitable. I already had this idea that the students were the type I avoided all my life, by then I thought I was dealing with the most extreme cases.
I was only there for six months, graduating that August rather than June, a miracle for me to get a diploma in the same year as my friends. I disliked going to my old school, but I honestly looked forward to my second one. In the beginning I kept that loner thing going, eventually gathering attention for my grades and perfect attendance. As a child that was something people would be jealous of and/or use as a reason to mock me. However, when classmates noticed my decent reputation and grades all I got was respect. I didn’t become the jock, but I never got negative attention. Some of the most respect I got was from the three guys I didn’t want anything to do with, eventually forming a friendship with each of them. I heard a of couple students stepped their game up when I arrived. In a sense, those three were Brownsville personified, changing my perspective on the neighborhood and all the other people they stood proxy for in my eyes.
Most of those students lived in the area. They each had struggles of their own, and while they weren’t perfect, their yearning to graduate was as genuine as mine. Getting to know them, hearing their problems and what kept them from passing classes made me feel ashamed. I went through things growing up and they only made me pour more into my school work. Their situations weren’t as relenting, but there I was, occupying a seat next to them, in a school for second chances that not everyone who needed one would get.
There are other things I could mention about my six months there, life changing things, some of which have allowed me to write this today. It’s funny, growing up I wanted to get out, then my own mistakes bought me back here, to a place more accepting than I gave it credit for. In that regard, not only my time in that school, but the past two decades in Brownsville have humbled and taught me a lot. My dreams were filled with ways to honor my family, now they include paying homage to where I’m from. I don’t know my neighbor’s names, still haven’t been to their cookouts, but I do say “hello,” or “good evening” when I get a chance. Through small gestures I try to convey my respect for Brownsville, in preparation for when I do something on a massive scale.
The longer I write this, the more I want to write. The more I realize what needs to be said, deserves to be said. How all that friction between my neighbors was partly out of my own judgmental nature. Or how we didn’t embrace them anymore than they did us. Who knows? So, seeing as there is no way right or wrong way to conclude this, I’ll end it as such:
To Brownsville, my home, sorry, and thank you.