Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Greetings From Coney Island" by Daniel Penny - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Greetings From Coney Island”
Daniel Penny

You have never seen a crowd until you’ve been to Coney Island. You may have had to squeeze into a piss-soaked subway car or wedge yourself into the corner of a once hip, now over-hyped bar, but those hardly count as crowds. You will find the real crowds at Coney Island, where sweaty New Yorkers go to take off their clothes and eat hot dogs. They bake in the sun and their vomit bakes in the sun. If this city is a body, the boardwalk is that strip of hairy skin right before the thigh becomes groin—smelling of sex, good for a tickle. Hot and revolting and infinitely mesmerizing.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Coney Island’s history has been one of so-called “mass spectacle,” when trams, trains, ferries, and finally the Brooklyn Bridge connected the mobs in Manhattan to the once remote island off the southern edge of Brooklyn. An early resort getaway and even proposed nature preserve for the weary bourgeoisie, Coney Island soon became overrun with what cultural critics like Lindsay Denison[1] called, “human flotsam and jetsam.” According to members of the old guard like Denison, the Island had been invaded by “every defaulting cashier, every eloping couple, every man or woman harboring suicidal intent.” In spite of Denison’s protests, the human tide came unrelenting, unperturbed, softening the once rigid upper-middle-class foundations that had supported the great Victorian hotels like The Oriental and the Brighton. Owners of the Brighton actually moved the hotel five-hundred feet back from the waterfront in 1888. They jacked the six-thousand ton structure onto one hundred and twenty railway cars without breaking a single pane of glass. Though the Brighton managed to flee the physical erosion of the beach and reopen for the season by June 29th, its doors and windows were shuttered within a few short years, never to reopen.

The new “Sunday vacationers” weren’t staying in the fancy hotels. They wanted cheap thrills like “The Tickler” and fantasy worlds like Luna Park’s “Trip to the Moon”: replete with three astronomically-themed chambers, thirty dancing “Moon Maidens,” twenty giants, and sixty “Lilliputians.” By the time Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton filmed their rollocking 1917 “Coney Island,” the once serene strand had become unrecognizable to its former summer residents, who remembered when beach-goers required a private carriage and hotel reservations to reach the Island. With the expansion of public transit, visitors needed only a nickel. So the moneyed chose to summer elsewhere, picking up their beach blankets and spreading them in the Hamptons, Montauk, and Shelter Island while the hoi polloi trundled across the blistering brown sand: dogs, kids, and towels trailing behind.

Good -bye My Con -ey Is -land Ba -by, Fare -well my own true love.
I’m gon -na go a -way and leave you. Nev -er to see you an -y -more.
I’m goin’ to sail up -on a fer -ry boat, Nev -er to re -turn a -gain.
So good -bye, fare -well, so long for ev -er,
Good -bye My Con -ey Isle, Good -bye My Con -ey Isle,
Good -bye My Con -ey Is -land Babe.

My grandfather grew up in another Brooklyn—before the McKlarens and golden-doodles and artisanal mayonnaise shops—when Brooklynites had undesirable accents and pronounced “certainly,” Soy-tan-ly.[2] A greaser hood in the making, my grandfather began sneaking cigarettes in the alley next to his house by the age of ten. At thirteen, he swaggered down the boardwalk, found a hole in the wall shop, rolled up his sleeve, and got his name, “Bill,” needled into his upper shoulder. He had the tattoo sit high on the arm so he could hide it from his mother, a strict woman who supposedly spent Mondays through Saturdays cleaning houses and Sundays in church. Freshly inked, he sauntered through the front door of his Bleecker street apartment in what is now Bushwick with a teenage grin that can mean only a few things, none of them good. A sudden bolt of pain galloped down his shoulder—his mother’s calloused fist connecting with his new tattoo, turning his arm to carpaccio. He howled and cursed, not quite the Cagney he’d imagined himself to be, but when the purples and yellows withdrew from his pale flesh, the graceful black letters remained intact, unsmudgable.

Among the galleries of bloody corpses and tenement infernos featured in “Murder is My Business” an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, I stumbled upon a room filled with gauzy photographs of a faded Coney Island. Arthur Felig, or Weegee, is best known for his pulpy, flash-bulb images of crime scenes, leering onlookers, and passed out drunks—not smiling sun-bathers. On display until the end of the summer, these comparatively placid images lead to a short color 16mm film documenting a dreamy, oft-imagined, long gone Coney Island. It begins with Weegee’s camera panning over the roiling crowd. Thousands of bodies shiny with sweat and baby oil, naked children shrieking as the water laps at their heels, teenage girls draped across their boyfriends, their skin glued together. An old man stalks the wet sand with purposeful strides. Bare chicken legs sprout beneath his dark suit jacket, pants folded across his arm, shoes and socks clutched to his chest. A Jersey tomato splurts in the mouth of a bug-eyed boy. Sailors crowd around accordions and radios, feathers of smoke weaving between limbs, diffusing in the ocean breeze. Old, toothless women clap castanets and mug for the camera. A young couple awkwardly sways to the music, the frame drifting down to the woman’s wiggling behind.

A girl reclines on a wrinkled blanket surrounded by other beach-goers, her hands placed over spindly legs. She flashes a coy smile at the photographer, a handsome young man with a cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth. He puffs lightly as he searches for the right focus, a Seagram’s sign blurring in the background, her slender limbs sharpening. It is 1952. My grandmother is fifteen, my grandfather a wizened seventeen. I wonder if they were among the thousands of “lovers” Weegee captured on the beach, each pair pretending to be alone among a crowd of one million. It is hard to imagine them this young—my grandmother’s nervous flirting and popsicle-stick limbs, my grandfather’s tennis-ball biceps and shock of swept back hair so similar to my own. For a quarter each, they rode the cyclone as long as they could stand, whipping around turns in the last car, plummeting sixty-four feet in the front, laughing at the queasy kids puking up their neon jelly beans and fried dough. They stayed out watching the galaxies of fireworks flare into existence and shimmer back to earth, whispering those things teenagers whisper into each other’s ears, swaddled in the humid air and the glow of dancing lights.

Warriors, come out to play!” intones Luther, the shaggy-haired villain and leader of rival gang, the “Rogues.” His hand bends into a strange claw, an empty glass bottle protruding from three fingers. He clinks them together in a steady, menacing rhythm. “Warriors, come out to plaaaaaaaaay!” Luther’s voice is now an animal screech, the bottles building to a crescendo. The bedraggled Warriors prepare for the inevitable rumble. They tear detritus from the underside of the boardwalk: pipes, a broken chair leg, a thin scrap of metal. They are tired, and Coney Island is a forgotten shithole, barnacles clinging to ancient pylons like hemorrhoids, but this weirdly multi-ethnic group of kids are prepared to die for it. It is their turf.

The Mermaid Parade celebrated its 30th anniversary this June, which makes the march down Surf Avenue ten years older than I am. I imagine the event as a kind of older sister, a young-ish woman who remembers a grittier, pre-Guliani New York. I had always meant to come as a teenager, but somehow, the parade eluded me; camp or family functions always standing in the way, blocking my view of what I’d often heard was a salacious event. I hadn’t spent a summer in the city in years, so I was determined to scratch the parade off my list of New York things I never did when I grew up here.

Emerging from Stillwell Avenue into the hot sun, my friends and I squirm into the throngs trying to sniff out a good spot from which to view the procession. We wait for the bawdy marchers and pass the time by watching the stretch of asphalt shimmer. Runny suntan lotion stings our eyes, but no one complains. This will be fun, maybe even a little debauched. First, the vintage cars roll by to mixed review: Thunderbirds, Cadillacs, and the odd Grand Am. A Delorian coughs along to great admiration and I remember that in a few days, Marty McFly is slated to blast into 2012. The meme has been plastered all over Facebook for weeks: a film-still of a digital clock indicating his imminent arrival, pithy comments on our current lack of hover-boards usually tacked below. What did Coney Island look like in 1985?  A scene from Requiem for a Dream springs to mind—the one where a wild-eyed Marlon Wayans sprints from the cops, his face splattered with blood and bits of nameless organic matter.

A thin school of mermaids emerge from behind the curtain of heat, waving to the crowds, tossing cheap plastic beads. I expected glamorous blue eye-shadowed P-town drag queens, creatures with names like Musty Chiffon and Thirsty Burlington, but instead find mostly tweens and their scantily clad moms. A vaguely aquatic man hands out blow-up swords to the cheering crowd and two separate hands grab for the same hilt. One belongs to an elderly Asian man wearing a fishing hat, the other to a small child. The old man attempts to wrestle the sword from the little boy’s grasp, his teeth gritted, his eyes steely. The boy whimpers, clearly losing the battle until the mer-person intervenes, yanking the sword from the man and handing it to the little boy ceremoniously. The kid happily whacks his sword on the fence as more cars trickle through, the whole parade seeming to stop for every red light though the street has been closed for hours. The elderly man sulks. Every float sponsored by an alcoholic beverage elicits great whoops and hollers from the visibly pregnant woman standing to my right. A micro-brewery truck stops and she shouts for a man dressed as a pirate to throw her a can. I stare at the striations on her stomach, a combination of tan lines and stretch marks. It is an ideal coaster.

A venerable tradition of sideboob and overweight men with leopard print thongs dug deep into their ass-cracks, the parade offers a glimpse of an Old Coney Island I can only half-remember, the last refuge of freaks in their natural habitat, a kind preserve for the vulgar and seedy. When I squint into the sun the right way, the electro-blasting PBR float disappears, leaving only the unsanitized jiggling and rusted out egg scramblers of a vestigial past fast losing ground to the present. My grandfather may remember the bearded ladies, mule-faced boys, a Lynchian dwarf who blew up the skirts of unsuspecting girls, but I have only the nadir to misremember fondly. Chipped paint and crusty, crepuscular kids on the nod, hard slats of light cutting across their slumped bodies in the penumbra of the boardwalk. I tell myself there was a time when the Thunderbolt really rumbled past Woody Allen’s bedroom window, a portal looking out onto pyramids of tan backs and straining arms, carnival barkers waxing their mustaches, natty young men wearing panama hats without a hint of irony. Luna Park, Steeplechase, Dreamland: closed, sold off, or burnt to the ground. On Saturday, I arrived at the Hot 97-sponsored Technicolor mess having missed the golden age and the bad old days, left with only the familiar aqua and orange of Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the red skeletal parachute jump, and the clockwork rattlings of the Cyclone.

We decided to take the train the wrong way, not Manhattan-bound, but headed to the end of the line. We travelled in a pack—too young to drink forties on a Friday afternoon, but too old to come home for Oreos and Pokemon. We clanged through the subway cars, swinging on the greasy poles, screaming as loud as we wanted; few passengers bothered looking up from their books or their stupors. Three to four p.m. is a special kind of corridor—no sharp-toned rebukes, school bells, or gym whistles. More crimes occur in New York during this short hour than any other time of the day. Ours were relatively minor: jumping the turnstile though we could pay the fare with our school-provided Metrocards, hanging upside down from the steel tubes meant for tired grown-up hands, our shirts pulled towards our chins, baby fat and new breasts drooping in unaccustomed directions.
Tiring of one car, the herd lumbered forward, the bravest among us turning the heavy steel handle of the emergency exit door. “Riding or moving between cars is prohibited,” the signs read. I remember sliding the door open for the first time, how it seemed miraculous, like a spaceship or a bulkhead. I must have taken a tenuous first step, but I can’t picture it, only the crack between the cars yawning wide.

Little Odessa whistles past, flashes of Cyrillic and whiffs of perogies. It is a short ride from Sheepshead Bay to Stillwell Avenue, but between two subway cars, time stretches out elastic, its white gummy strands clenched between teeth and fingers, loose threads stuck to lips. My long hair flies in every direction and the train roars like some kind of twisted chimera. The screaming wheels chug along mindlessly. I remember once seeing a basketball chewed up under a passing train, rubbery shreds hardly recognizable in its wake. Imagine a body. And then we are on the other side in the next car playing it cool laughing loud feeling the dampness under our arms. The march continues until we reach the first car, our faces pressed against the foremost window. We watch the station devour us like a long rope of mozzarella cheese.

We took the stairs two at a time or slid down banisters on our butts, a mass of kids deposited onto Surf Avenue, unsure of what to do or where to go next. We ruled out the aquarium—that was for babies and would probably cost money. So we headed south, to the boardwalk, to empty lots and shuttered arcades, their bleeps and bloops in hibernation, waiting for the summer.

It is a cold, glary March afternoon. The rides sit motionless, save the empty Wonder Wheel cars. They lurch back and forth, the occasional gust of wind carrying their creaks down to the boardwalk and sand below. The world is somewhere between color and black and white, an amateurish attempt at faux-historicity, so flat, so drained of blood. We take off our shoes and head towards the shore in an effort to feel summery. A figure emerges from the white frothy surf, a ruddy sausage squeezed into a bathing suit casing, his black chest hair matted into a nest of curlycues. He is no merman.

With the wind, the air is thirty-five, maybe forty degrees and the colorless sand numbs our bare feet. I look out across the beach scanning for signs of life. We walk alone, save the masochist swimmer now in the distance, the circling gulls, and an army of unused trash cans. They are municipal, flimsy and naked, consisting of an open lattice of metal bars, their lack of contents readily apparent. They wait for the crashing waves of June garbage, but for now, remain empty. Each can a solitary guard, mouth open, ready to swallow a half-eaten box of sandy cheese fries, the jellyfish carcass of a used condom. Wrappers kaleidoscopic, juices bubbling in the sun, the steaming barrels of garbage dot a shore so tightly packed with bodies they condense under the pressure—a single undulating mass pressed between the boardwalk and the sea.

[1] Rich white guys.
[2] Much of what I know about Grandpa Penny is second-hand, stories filtered through my father and uncle, but I had always taken their versions of his life in pre-Moses Brooklyn for granted. Definitive. When fact-checking this story, I found out that my grandfather had actually gotten his tattoo on the Bowery, not on the Boardwalk, a detail blurred over the years like the navy outlines of a mermaid’s breasts. My Grandfather told me “It made a better story,” that I should stick with what my dad had said and leave it at that. I now know that shortly after my grandfather had gotten his tattoo, the unscrupulous tattoo artist’s protege, Brooklyn Blackie, had moved to Coney Island. It turns out the cursive “Bill” is a famed Charlie Wagner original, a mark from the man who invented the modern tattoo gun. My ink-loving uncle still envies him because of it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Weeksville Black and White" by Dominic Ambrose - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Weeksville Black and White
Dominic Ambrose

Weeksville is an area of Central Brooklyn roughly defined by a few city blocks of Bergen Street and Dean Street from Troy to Buffalo Avenues. For me growing up there in the 1950s, it was just a collection of decrepit woodframe houses with no particular ethnic identity, a nameless neighborhood in the middle of Brooklyn. But it was, in fact, Weeksville, the first free black community in Brooklyn. Weeksville was established about 1838 soon after the abolition of slavery in New York when black investors built homes on the new Brooklyn street grid laid out over the old Lefferts and Gerritsen farms. It grew to a population of 500 people with a school, churches and associations before inevitably being consolidated by the booming metropolis just 20 years later and wiped from the map. Its nascent institutions blended into the city and its name was forgotten. Then in 1968 researchers from Pratt Institute flew over the area in an airplane and history was re-established when they discerned the last traces of the village in a particularly well preserved block between Buffalo and Rochester Avenues. This was the block where I lived.

My window view was the Kingsboro housing projects. We lived across the street from them, on that fortuitous block of Bergen Street where the earliest past still resided. A passerby on our block saw only a hodgepodge of deteriorating 19th Century housing, cheaply built and cheaply maintained. But unseen behind this was a second life to this street, where homes, shacks and a stable with one old horse nestled along dirt paths and alleyways. While few of these hinterhof structures dated back to the days of Weeksville, they seemed to be built on some ancestral map, not that of Brooklyn.

And this was exactly what the researchers saw, or at least part of it. They saw the last well preserved houses of Weeksville still standing further down the block along an ancient Lenape Indian trail, previously called Hunterfly Road and long erased from city maps. The discovery caused a local sensation, and the Weeksville Heritage Society came about to preserve the legacy of the forgotten town. Of course, it could also be argued that Weeksville did not need to be rediscovered because this had never stopped being Weeksville. Though the names of town and trails had disappeared and although the city overwhelmed it over the years, its unique characters survived despite the stigma of civic racism working against it. The area developed slowly and hard. With its large black population it was scrupulously avoided by the builders of brownstone and villa, and here wooden tenements and stickhouses went up in their stead, giving the area a forlorn and impoverished aura throughout the subsequent years. 

Buildings did go up, and Bergen Street and Dean Street, no matter how prone to tatter, became two more of the many vast threads of yarn in the urban fabric. But these fragile yarns were soon ready to break. By my time, there was a constant drizzle of rabble passing by: drunks, brawlers, gang members and aimless, unsupervised children. It had the kaleidoscopic human garishness of Istanbul or Naples or some other Old World city, but unlike those places, it had not achieved this spectacular degeneracy over a long millenial history of conquest, tumult, revolution and renewal, but rather in a mere century of linear development. It was built in America during an era of headstrong growth that swept cities up with the white heat of capitalist energy and then sold them off in a frenzy of fire sales, all in the name of unopposable market forces and Darwinian cycles of generation and decay. 

Pessimistic residents resigned themselves to this process. Brooklyn had risen and evolved so rapidly, that looking backwards or forwards one saw just a blur of other people, all spinning in and out of the revolving door that ever reinvented the borough’s population. The slivers of history that did exist did not belong to Brooklyn at all, but to the immigrants who had lived them and still held them close to their chests, hidden even from their own children: the shtetels of Eastern Europe, the parched hilltops of Italian peasantry, the overheated hardships of colonized Caribbean, and the indignity of slavery. No one learned from the past because it was not shared. In contrast, the future looked all too predictable. Brooklyn, stuck at the worn out end of a throw-away society moving ever westward, seemed destined to die. Generation and decay. Darwin.

My family was part of that blur. Like many of the people on Bergen Street, we were not part of Weeksville’s tradition, we were newcomers, part of that explosive growth that submerged it, those waves of people pouring in, first from this country then from that. Although the African American population was replenished by migration up the Atlantic coast, it was not enough to maintain the nature of Weeksville and the arrival of so many whites meant an economic and social power shift in their favor. Although the block looked unusually well integrated, it was an uneasy biracial community where invisible lines of apartness dictated everyone’s behavior. Census data from 1900 shows a split population of African Americans and Northern European immigrants of the most modest means. Eventually, with the massive influx from Southern and Eastern Europe, the white component changed to Italians and Jews.

Arriving from their peasant town in the hills of Southern Italy, my maternal grandparents began their American lives in a crowded tenement on North 6th Street in Williamsburg, where my mother was born. When my grandfather got a job near the Brooklyn Navy Yard he took his family to the Wallabout neighborhood and they remained in that area for two decades, on Taaffe Place, Skillman Street and Spencer Street. They lived in monoethnic neighborhoods almost unimaginable in today’s society: of the 100 people enumerated on the two pages of census that I looked at, Taaffe Place in 1910 and Skillman Street in 1920, 99 of them were either Italian born or the American born children of Italian parents. The one exception was a German daughter who had married into a family there. These were entire blocks of Italian immigrants and their little American children. My mother was one of those children and Brooklyn was her world. 

As for my father’s parents, they came about the same time from the same Basilicata region of Italy. Thus, all my grandparents were regional compatriots, compari in Italian (or goombahs in Italian American pidgin). However, my father’s parents settled in a yankee town in Connecticut. They anglicized their surname, and their children became successful in business. When twenty years after their arrival, their second son married a girl from the crawling cauldron of Brooklyn, they could not accept her. So the young couple made their home in Brooklyn, taking over the house that my mother’s sister had bought in the predominantly black part of town with no name. 

Thus, for me, Bergen Street was home. Our shingled house had been built around 1880. It was dilapidated, compromised by years of poverty and minimal upkeep. It was low to the ground, the front door at sidewalk level. A bare porch ran along the front - cold and dark, and lacking railings. Overgrown hedges supported by a twisted chicken wire fence shielded us from the street because like most of the houses on Bergen Street, real life was at the rear. Back there, a lane connected us to our closest neighbors, all white. There was a carpentry shed and behind that, yet another structure, a slanted, black shadow of a building as fragile and eternal as mud and rain and the decaying debris all around it, a shack from old Weeksville. It stood a few feet off the ground atop a couple of steps, raised and settled back against a stone wall, as though heaving witness silently from its protected corner. 

This was all in contrast to busy, mostly black Bergen Street, the sticky tar thoroughfare where electric buses slid past with their peculiar highpitched whirr. Out there, I was shy and never among the boys that rode the rear bumper of the bus for fun, gripping with the tips of their fingers in the shallow grooves of the bus’ ventilation panel. Occasionally the boys avoided falling off by grabbing onto the twin cables that rose from the back of the bus, thus cutting the electric circuit. On any summer day, one would see buses stopped in mid-traffic, their drivers out reattaching the lines. Cars were huge and sometimes carelessly driven and it was not uncommon for boys, girls and household pets to be hit, sometimes seriously. My sister was hit twice, but only lightly. Both times she got up and limped to the sidewalk and the car drove away. Our dog was not so lucky, ending life under a bus. 

With the unsanitary conditions there, another major population on Bergen Street were rats. Rats lived in the basements. It was useless trying to rid your life of rats, as they would just return from the neighbors, so the best one could do was keep them out of sight. My mother beat the floor with a broom handle, chasing rats out of the parlor and back down into the cellar. Whenever I ventured down to that dank cavern, which smelled of a careless coal bin, a leaky oil burner and mold, I was sure to announce myself to the rats by stepping heavily down the stairs, as heavily as a rat who might be coming back down step by step, fat and painfully, from an adventure on the first floor. Then I only stood in the most brightly lit areas, never touching anything that I could not fully see.

A municipal obsession with wiping out this substandard housing for good led to urban renewal with a vengence. A series of public projects over the years leveled most of Weeksville, and today, little of the original streetscape remains. At the Rochester Avenue end of our street, for example, there is only one original house left among the simple modern rowhouses that have gone up. It is derelict and uninhabited. It was once owned by Gilda, a superstitious woman from Italy. She and my mother were friends, chatting in Gilda’s backyard where she grew greens and herbs. Then in February, 1958, one of Gilda’s daughters was struck by a bank robber’s getaway car at the busstop on Utica Avenue, injuring her badly. By chance, my own oldest sister was not with her that evening. Gilda blamed my mother for that accident, accusing her of giving Gilda’s daughter the evil eye. She became a bitter enemy from then on.  

After Gilda’s house came several smaller ones, where quarrelsome, deadbeat tenants would sometimes end their stays in eviction, their belongings piled up at curbside by the city marshals. And then there were “The” Marshalls, a black family that lived next door to us at number 1678. Their house was older than ours and had no foundation, just concrete bulwarks at its corners. It was small and dark and of curious proportions both inside and out, as though it had been built in the most serendipidous of fashions. Theirs was a true Weeksville home, a rare lived-in link to the past. Perhaps it once had a garden, but now its lot was completely covered by a stone paved courtyard glistening with broken glass.

At the back of their courtyard was a garage, part of the operations of Mr. Starkman, who lived in a tenement clad in patchy diamond-shaped tiles that he owned further down the block toward Buffalo Avenue. He was one of the few regular users of our backyard lane, passing from his home through the yards to this garage. He was an elderly man from Poland, a short, pudgy Eastern European, while his two sons and daughter were all enormous and obese Americans. The sons were soda distributors. In the garage they stored crates of Hoffmann’s soda (flavors from Black Cherry to Cel-Ray) and squirt bottles of seltzer. The two sons had a large Cadillac with exuberant rear fins and all day, this ostentatious vehicle would remain parked incongruously next to the Marshalls’ Weeksville home while the Starkmans worked. Somehow it never occurred to me to take a photograph of that. Pity. 

The Starkman sons would drive off in their delivery truck and their father, back at his tenement, would pull his horse out of the stable and maneuver his cart full of vegetables through the alley between the houses and out onto the street. He was one of only two horsecart vendors we would see; the other was an African American man that came around in summer with his watermelons. His son would shout out “Watee-melon!” in a chant he hung on the rhythm of clopping hoofbeats. Mr. Starkman’s Yiddish accent did not lend itself to such theatrics, so he simply rang a tinny bell to announce his approach. 

There was one more tenement among the houses beyond Mr. Starkman’s building. This one had its original clapboard façade, now black with rot. My friend Butchie lived there on the top floor in the rear. Butchie and I often spent hours on the street. We had few toys to play with and we rarely crossed the busy roadway to the playground in the projects, so we mostly just spun tops and played skully, a sidewalk game that involved flicking bottle caps from one numbered box to another. Butchie’s mother came from North Carolina, and they were the first people I knew that had not come to Brooklyn from across the sea.

It never occurred to me to invite my friend into my house. Homes were rarely shared in our neighborhood and especially not between the races. But Butchie did invite me into his, once. When I went up the creaking wooden stairs of Butchie’s tenement that day, I could smell the dead rodents decaying in the walls. We sat at the kitchen table next to a wide open window. Butchie eventually killed a fly with a slap of his hands after numerous tries and I looked outside, transfixed. There I discovered a high view of all the back yards on Bergen Street, both black and white, all the weeds and leafy sumac trees and jumbled rooflines along the lanes. From Butchie’s Carolina kitchen on the third floor, I could plainly see the beating green heart of our street as never before. There was unity there and a sudden clarity in the midst of all of Brooklyn’s blurs. I had no idea that it was a place called Weeksville and I had nothing to compare it to, as I had never been anywhere else except this block of Bergen Street, but for me it had great beauty. Just a little heightened perspective can reveal so much. It was a basic life lesson, deceptively simple and almost universally applicable: just rise a few feet above, our shared world is waiting to be seen.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Our Brooklyn" by Shannon Reed - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Our Brooklyn
by Shannon Reed

            2:20 in the afternoon was the sweet spot between my weary triumph at successfully concluding another day of teaching high school playwriting, and the moment in which I realized I’d have to do it again the next day. By 2:20, the sun was at just the right position to stream through the dirty 2nd floor windows into my tiny classroom, tucked into a corner of the huge NYCDOE building on Ralph Avenue in Canarsie. Especially in the winter months, the diffused sunlight added to the mood of gentle dissolution that had often settled on 11A and me by then, twenty-three minutes from the end of the school day.

            At this particular 2:20, on a quiet, gray day in early March, the students of 11A were scattered in small groups around the room. We’d begun our final project the week before, when each student had set aside their previous playwriting work and began to create a new character, a Brooklynite of any age, gender, race, style, or creed, with the only stipulation that there be a means to connect this character to the entirely imaginary location in South Brooklyn that we would create as the setting for the play we were writing together. 

I wasn’t sure if 11A would be able to do it. Despite their easy going façade, the class was a fractured mess of personalities, hailing from all over Brooklyn, making the borough just about the only thing we all had in common. Trying to organize them into groups was a frustrating experience, revealing deep schisms and fractured relationships of the kind I could only sense, not predict. If this group could learn to work together, it would be a triumph, for them and for me. 

It had already been a difficult year for all of us, mostly because of the violent, gang-related death of one of their classmates, M., whose empty desk reminded us daily of the horror that could strike at any moment. One girl from 11A had been pulled from the school by her mother and sent to live in Atlanta. Her absence made things worse, enabling the feeling that Brooklyn was a place to get out of. Even kids who found school acceptable were reeling, and those who didn’t like to be there in the first place were quietly miserable, trudging along Canarsie’s slushy streets, snapping at each other out of fear, fatigue and restlessness. 

I sensed that a big project might be a way forward, out of the morass they were struggling in. We could use the mutual good will that would arise if we were able to pull it off, and it would be wonderful if the students could feel proud of something they created. Whether they would be successful or not, I couldn’t say. The odds weren’t in their favor, but when had they ever been? I decided to believe that they could do it.

A few weeks earlier, I had laid out the project. They’d agreed, tentatively, that writing a play was something they’d like to do. I told them that choosing a setting was the first task, that it had to be someplace where all of their characters might interact. I suggested that a public high school might work well. 

“There’s nothing more multi-cultural than a big public high school,” I said. “Think about it – here, Brooklyn Tech, Erasamus, Bushwick, Midwood…”
            “Not a school,” Peterson said quickly. Everyone immediately nodded in agreement, tired of school in reality, less than eager to create one. The writer’s adage, “write what you know” had no pull with this crowd. I leaned against my desk, waiting, my one idea dismissed.
            “How about, like, Japan?” suggested Desmond, who loved manga. No one said no. I opined that writing about Japan would require a great deal of research, which was ok by me, but we’d have to go to the library – and the idea was dropped before I finished the sentence.
            “In Brooklyn,” someone said.
            “Yeah, our Brooklyn,” Tyra agreed.
            “What’s ‘our Brooklyn’?” I asked.
            Tyra said, “Not your Brooklyn, Ms. Reed, but you know, our Brooklyn.”
11A was comprised almost entirely of African- or Carribbean-American teenagers, and the remaining few were Latino. My pale Irish-German skin glowed out of group photos we took on field trips, picking up the intense flash. “Caspar,” one student had observed, not unkindly. My Brooklyn was Park Slope; theirs wasn’t. We all knew it.
            “A projects,” suggested Ann for a setting.
            “I don’t live in the projects, girl,” said her best friend, Brittny.
            I don’t either,” Ann retorted, “But that’s a place where everyone is.”
            “Apartment building,” Peterson said. After a moment of thought, everyone agreed, heads nodding slowly around the room. Peterson leaned back in his chair with the satisfied expression of a man who’s spoken the truth. We would set the play in an apartment building.
Another day of discussion gave us the name 320 Jones Plaza for the complex, although I set aside my teacher-ly obligation towards fairness to advocate for El Diablo Townhouses (Yadiel’s suggestion) instead. I was outvoted, told by Keira that El Diablo was “too silly for a real play.” 
            At the end of that day, as the class filed out, I heard Moise say to Yadiel, “Yo, 320 Jones Plaza is my crib, boy,” and I smiled at the empty classroom. They were buying in. A world was being formed.

            Next, their task was to take the original characters they had created and place them in relationship with each other. A few days before, I had distributed both a series of questions about character – “What does your character fear?” “How does your character feel about his mother?” – as well as blank paper dolls and markers. The paper dolls were a hit, and 11A labored to make their characters resemble what they pictured. Gaby, a gifted artist, agreeably drew face after face, confiding, “I’m getting better at noses,” when I thanked her for her efforts. 

            Eventually, we sat in a circle of chairs in the center of the classroom, our desks pushed to the side. Each student presented his character, along with three salient facts about him or her.
            Shian: “I drew her stupid, but she ain’t stupid. Her name’s Mika, and she’s a nurse. She works over at Methodist Hospital, the one in the rich neighborhood.”
            “Park Slope,” I said, and Shian nodded. “Where you live, Ms. Reed,” Kiara noted.
Shian finished up: “She has a baby, Jada. Ok?”
            A couple nods, a couple shrugs. Yeah, ok.
            Moise was next: “So this is Clarence. His Pops is in jail. He plays ball over on the court on Flatlands. He wants to go to college, maybe Brooklyn College, so he doesn’t have to give up his job at McDonald’s.” We looked at the tough-looking paper doll, a scowl wrinkling its face.
            “My character plays ball, too,” Ray said territorially.
            I said it was ok, that the characters didn’t need to be entirely unique. Maybe Clarence and Ray’s character could hang out on the basketball court.
            Ray asked, “Does 320 Jones Plaza have a basketball court?”
            “Why not?” said Tyra. “It does now.”
            Everyone nodded. Sure, why not? Unless I put a stop to it – like when Deja wanted to put a nightclub and a bowling alley in the building – the class could make 320 Jones Plaza hold anything we liked. The power of creation, of ownership, was thrilling. They were learning what writers have realized since one first put pencil to paper: Having so little in real life could be somewhat assuaged by a fertile imagination.  

Our apartment complex grew – a basketball court, a gym, a nail salon on the first floor. A police station down the street, keeping an eye on everyone, “like they’re supposed to,”  Tyra observed. I waited for the mention of M, of gangs, of violence between members of the same community, but none came.

And, now, on that sunny day in March, we were building relationships. No one’s an island, I pointed out. All of these characters had to be connected to each other, in some way.
“Like, a dating show?” Anthony asked.
“No, no,” I said, “Not all, romantic, sexual relationships. What other kind of relationships are there? I mean, you guys live in Brooklyn. Who do you interact with each day?”
We made a list: parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, step siblings, half siblings. Who else? Parole officers, teachers, coaches. Pastors. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Your mom’s best friend. Who else? The guy at the bodega. The bus driver on the B6. The security officer downstairs. The woman at the subway turnstiles. Who else? The kid who lends you a pencil every day. The old lady who watches you leave for school out her window. Who else? Gang members? No one said it. I wondered if I was the only one thinking it.
“Your mom’s best friend’s boss’s dogsitter,” Desmond said. Sure, why not?
“Ok, it’s time to talk to your co-writers and figure out what’s going to happen in your scenes. Remember, you can’t bend the script to fit your character, the way you might be able to if you were writing on your own. In this case, genre and setting dictate our plot.”
“Ok,” said Peterson, “But in this Brooklyn, no one gets killed.”
There was silence in the classroom, a long moment. Out on Flatlands Avenue, a car alarm starting whooping. I looked around the class, and saw a lot of people suddenly very interested in their hands or the desk.
“Ok, Peterson,” I said. “So, let’s try to figure out how the characters in your scene are related. You need to talk to your co-writers.” 

Conversations between these students were never quiet, but these were unusually focused. Each playwright began making connections by turning to friends first. Popular Tyra had a flotilla of girls around her. “We’re all friends,” she said by way of greeting, when I went over to check on them, “and we all have problems. Because we listened to you, Ms. Reed, and –“ here her voice rose to emphasize, “We all have a big problem.” 

            They sure did. One character wanted to come out of the closet, another was being physically abused by her dad, and yet another was having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend who was also the father of her baby. It was a little overwhelming.  I turned to monitor another group, who had just decided that one of their characters worked at Junior’s. “But not the Times Square Junior’s,” Andrew said. “The real Junior’s. On Dekalb, you know.”
            “Of course,” I said. 
            Then, to my left, I noticed that Kendra had joined Tyra’s group. I hid my shock. Kendra, a decided “good girl,” never talked to Tyra, a young woman who wrote an entire report on the strip club industry for future careers class. They really disliked each other. I inched closer, fascinated but not wanting to interrupt them and break the spell. Danay sat nearby, listening to them, and looked over her shoulder to inform me, “They’re  sisters.”
            “Oh?” I asked.
            Danay turned back to begrudgingly fill me in a little bit more: “So, Tyra is Jasmine, and Jasmine is sisters with Kendra’s character who – Kendra! Who’s your character?”
            Kendra looked over at me, a shy, slightly baffled smile on her face, and said, “Her name is Jolene.”
            I nodded, and said, “Well, which one is the older sister?”
            Kendra and Tyra turned back to each other, unsure. Danay went back to writing, her work done.
            I stepped away quietly, like a mother who’s nearly awoken her sleeping child from a wonderful dream.
By 2:40 in the afternoon, I collected sheets of paper from each group, explaining their connections. The next day, we found more connections between each group – Tristan and Desmond’s video game addicts would live directly above Rakim’s car mechanic, for example. And then we mapped it all out on giant sheets of paper, which I carefully taped around the room, maps for what we were about to create. “Our Brooklyn” someone had scrawled across the top, in big, graffiti-style letters.

            And they did it, somehow, an entire script, full of flaws and little moments of beauty that somehow came to life onstage, a triumphant one-night only show at Vital Theatre Company on the Upper West Side. 11A loved being there, cheering on the professional actors from the audience. I particularly delighted in the look of shocked joy that came over each student’s face when someone on stage said words they wrote, the kind of high you can’t buy and won’t forget.

             In our discussions about the dramatic arc, the class had decided that something big, and, well, dramatic, needed to happen for the play to wrap up. They decided, against Peterson’s wishes, for the play to culminate in the shooting death of Andrew’s character, Troy, a drug dealer who sacrificed himself to save his ex-girlfriend and their baby. No one mentioned it, but I noticed that Troy’s death made more sense than M.’s had, and was more noble, too.

But what moved me to tears was the very ending of the play, which I had barely paid attention to as we threw it together the day before the director needed the script, my well-planned schedule falling apart in the face of the usual Brooklyn public high school woes: illnesses, unexplained absences, fire drills, school lockdowns, memorial services. I finally typed up the end of the play at 1 in the morning, running on will power, not even reading what I transcribed. 

So it was as the play spun out onstage that night that I realized what the ending was: a series of short monologues from nearly every character, each of whom stepped to the lip of the stage to tell the audience how Troy’s death affected them, and how they’d moved on. At the very end, Andrew, playing Troy, stepped forward, and told us he was happier in heaven, which looked just like Brooklyn – the same cement sidewalks, the same blinking stoplights, the horns honking at every hour of the day, a take-out Chinese place on the corner – except that it was safe there. “I don’t have to worry no more,” he said.

            When I think back on 320 Jones Plaza now, I remember those afternoons when we created it: my students’ heads bent over their work at the end of the day. Kendra’s shy smile. The last lines, a vision of a perfect Brooklyn. 

I know too well that Brooklyn is a place where kids got shot down on the streets, a few weeks before their 18th birthday. But I know, too, that Brooklyn is a place were a group of very different people could work together to in the streaky sun of a sleepy classroom on Ralph Avenue to create a housing complex where everyone knows each other, where all the lives are connected, where one person’s death diminishes them all. 

That was our Brooklyn.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Knife" by Jessica Harman - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

  by Jessica Harman

                  My two friends and I were sitting in a restaurant in Brooklyn, talking about a girl named, “Knife.”  Knife was not okay, when I asked. But some people’s lives never are, and never were.
                  The restaurant, like many in Williamsburg, had a theme. This one’s theme was a beach in Hawaii. Sand covered the floor where the tables were, and the sand was at least four inches thick. There was an inside part of the restaurant, and also a patio. Sand covered the floor both inside, where there were jukeboxes that glowed with cherry lemon lime colored neon in stripes; the sand covered the patio floor outdoors, too.
Waiters who were very skilled at moving their feet across the sand brought burgers with pineapple on them to seated people who had looks of surprise on their faces. This was a restaurant with the element of surprise, I could tell.
                  My friends and I were the type of people who like to do unusual things. I was the one who liked safety the best. No bungee jumping for me, though both of my other friends had done it.
                  Evelyn was studying curating. She kept trying to get me into it, because I am a good artist’s assistant. I worked for a year for Carlos Gallardo, gluing letters on translucent paper backwards and upside down on canvases that were going to be scribbled on and partially speckled with plaster. You have to understand the beauty of erasure, and what time takes away.
I think contemporary art is about absence as much as it is about presence. Evelyn knows this, and makes great art herself, mostly using oil paint and incredibly toxic solvents. She doesn’t want to be an artist herself, though. She just does it for fun. She wants to curate. She is more interested in putting other people’s work into a cohesive whole. I don’t understand it. I want to be a famous artist.
                  We were wondering what Knife would do. She was a former roommate of Evelyn’s, in the loft with exposed brick walls as well as exposed piping. There was a bathtub in the middle of the loft, and the former roommates hung up four shower curtains on a sort of makeshift tent around the bathtub. Evelyn told us this as if it were symbolic of the glamour she was living, being a curator in Brooklyn. Personally, I could not imagine a more interesting life.
                  There was the problem of Knife. She was one of the roommates, just a girl who didn’t know where she belonged, where she was going, or why.
                  Evelyn adjusted a maraschino cherry speared on a long toothpick in her Shirley Temple, “She would shake all the time, and she wasn’t on drugs.”
                  I asked, “Why did she shake? Did she have a disease?”
                  Mary said, “It was just from trauma. You know…”
                  I turned to Mary with a flick of my deer-like neck framed in chestnut hair, “Did you ever meet her?”
                  Mary was always trying to sound like she had met people she didn’t know. But then again, Mary was really smart and could find out what made people tick just by looking at them and having a three minute conversation with them. Mary knew, when we lived in Boston, that Alec wouldn’t make a good roommate for us because he was too social. She said if he ever felt upset or in need of recharging his energy level, he’d just invite like five friends over, and hang out all night. I said that no, he wasn’t like that—he was a nerdy writer/artist/musician like us, who enjoyed solitude and fine wine. However, when Alec moved in with us, there all his friends were, too, hanging out in the living room, playing Risk, drinking Coors, and ordering several extra -large pizzas at once.
                  Mary also knew who was consoled by philosophy, who  was consoled by bad romantic vampire movies. Evelyn was consoled by bad romantic vampire movies. Who would have pegged her as the type?
                  I looked at Evelyn and mentally laughed at all the movie stars I knew she found hot, who I did not find hot at all. She’s into Jude Law; I’m into Tom Cruise.
Evelyn makes me nervous because she’s a genius, and a genius curator, and a genius artist, and I am not any of those things, though I still beat her a fair number of times at chess during tea and griping ceremonies we used to have at 4 AM. I remember those times fondly. They study Evelyn’s brain in studies on really smart people at Harvard. They study my brain, too, but for different reasons.
                  I’m just not wired like other people, for better or worse. I’m autistic. This makes me seem like I’m permanently on e. The world’s colors, smells, tastes, sights, and sounds just come at me and look all fruity all the time, much like things in the restaurant were, at that moment. Cherry lemon lime blueberry jukeboxes; maraschino cherries that glittered as if they were covered in stardust, sand under my toes feeling like grains of the beginning or end of the galaxy (I took my black flats off, and my nude toes enjoyed that).
The waiter’s smile was intimidating it was so broad. All I saw of him was his mouth. I didn’t even hear him ask me if I wanted another mimosa. I deduced his question from the blank gaze of mine he was returning with his smiling mouth and staring teeth, which were pretty straight, I noticed.
I glanced at Mary and Evelyn, and their faces said, “Say something to the waiter.”
I said, “Yes, I’ll have another mimosa, thank-you.”
The waiter spun around in the sand, satisfied, apparently. He receded into the shadow of background chatter that was illuminated by little strands of colorful Christmas-tree lights strewn across a raw wood picket fence that made its way through partitions.
We were happy. I was happy, but I think all of us were happy. We were friends, and we were together, and we were living life, and we were here, where it was at. We were cool. We were not “there,” yet, but we were up and coming, and on our way there. What more, really, could you ask of the moment?
My mimosa came in a shower of hands like invisible wings fluttering.
No, I never met Knife. But…” Mary said.
She saw her from a distance, down the street.” Evelyn said.
Mary said, “I saw her blue and orange Mohawk.”
I asked, “She had a Mohawk?”
Evelyn said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and I had just said something incredibly offensive or naïve, “Yeah.”
I tried to save myself by getting deep, “So what was her deal? I mean, what was she about?”
A shadow appeared on my friends’ faces. Mary looked at Evelyn in a concerned way. For a moment, Evelyn was speechless.
An order of fries came for the table next to ours, where two guys and two blonde girls were wearing DIY T-shirts with spiders and skulls on them. I was momentarily distracted, and wondered why I didn’t know what to think of the younger people next to us. Who were they? Did it matter?
Evelyn’s black braids made her look like an ingénue, and her skin glowed. She always used amazing four-hundred-dollar face cream, then complained for two weeks afterwards about how much it cost at Saks. I could use a little face cream, myself. I made a mental note to invest in a thirty-dollar bottle of Oil of Olay. I hear it really works.
Evelyn said, “She ran away when she was sixteen. She was living somewhere upstate or something. She decided New York City was where it was at. I don’t know. She came here.”
I said, to get more out of her, “Yeah?”
She couldn’t get a job because of the Mohawk. So she just went around with these guys who she’d live with, and, I don’t know, they abused her. So that’s why she shakes all the time. And now she can’t get a job because she shakes all the time.”
We all looked at each other trying not to look at each other.
I asked, “Is she okay?”
Evelyn spat, “No, she’s not. She’s not okay.”
We all looked at everyone trying not to look at me. It was a terrible thought to think that someone was not okay. It’s one thing to not be okay in a small town, and another to not be okay in New York City. I felt helpless at that moment, realizing that if someone’s not okay, and you don’t know them, there’s really not much you can do.
Human nature is often ugly. The best thing you can do is to try to not be ugly, yourself. We all are, though, so you can’t really avoid it. We are all beautiful and ugly from the skin down to the bone.
I put my shoes back on, underneath the table, and bid farewell to the sand with my toes. I didn’t want to feel too comfortable, too happy, knowing that someone else was not okay. But a lot of people are not okay. Are most people okay, or not okay? In Brooklyn? In New York? In the world?
We ate our burgers with pineapple on them and our sides of fries when they came. We had all ordered the same thing, and that was just a coincidence.
On the way home, we went to a bakery and got cupcakes with chocolate frosting and blue, pink, and yellow sprinkles. We ate them on a bench overlooking a street with houses whose front yards had all been paved over with concrete.
After cupcakes, we walked towards the subway station. Under an overpass, I felt very glamorous in a Brooklyn kind of way as the wind blew. Knife was not okay, but I was okay. I felt a little guilty about this, but not too much. You have to be happy for yourself now and then.
At that moment, I wanted to fall in love, desperately and passionately, the way lovers do in romantic vampire movies. I wanted to be epic, but I was in Brooklyn among genius curators, and I felt small. I felt like I could get there, though. I knew I could. If I put my mind to it, I could get there.