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.

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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Unidentified Male, Brooklyn 1983" by Hal Stucker - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry by Hal Stucker

 Unidentified Male, Brooklyn 1983

“Pop! Pop! Pop!” The sound cut through the blaring disco music the party in the building next door was blithely inflicting on my Brooklyn neighborhood. Even above the high-decibel thud of the bass line and the crash of electronic drums, I could tell the pops were gunfire. There was a hollowness to each report, the sequence of the bangs even and deliberate, in a way no random toss of firecrackers could have been.

It was the early 1980s and I was a freelance photographer, making my home in the borough’s Fort Green section. Now a pricey, chic Brooklyn neighborhood, at that time life in The Fort had the benefit of being ridiculously cheap and the liability of being exceedingly dangerous.

Each block seemed to have its own crack house, and drug-fueled crime was an everyday occurrence. Proprietors at several of the local businesses – the hardware store, the dry cleaners, a small bodega around the corner from my apartment building – had taken to wearing large-caliber handguns strapped to their hip, in plain sight of customers and would-be stickup artists. And it was not uncommon to hear gunfire late at night, coming from the direction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the Fort Green projects. But the shots I’d just heard were right outside my window, much closer than anything I’d been treated to in the past.

It was a warm evening, around sunset on a Saturday night in June, and I’d been sitting in my living room on my makeshift couch – a mattress on a sheet of scavenged plywood, held up by cinderblocks – reading Conrad’s Lord Jim. I got up and looked out the window, surveying the small sliver of Washington Avenue visible through the airshaft from my fifth-floor apartment. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There was no one running away, no screams, no indication that any sort of urban horror had just taken place. There was only the monotonous beat of the music, the singer still exhorting everyone within earshot to get up and boogie.

Certain that I’d heard gunfire, I picked up the phone and dialed 911. The dispatcher politely took the information and said the police would be there as soon as a car was available, which said to me that the call was likely to be ignored. I hung up the phone and went back to my reading.

My attention was torn away from Conrad’s words a few moments later, though, when the music from next door abruptly stopped in mid-bass thump. I looked up to see a faint red and blue glow flashing rhythmically on the far wall, and went back over to the window. The street was now ablaze with cop-car bubblegum lights. Most sensible New Yorkers would probably have checked the locks on their front doors and drawn the window blinds. I went to the refrigerator, took out a few rolls of Tri-X 35mm film and loaded both my Nikons. Gently nestling them into my camera bag, I hustled down the stairs.

My career to that point had been a miserable, quixotic slog through the world of professional photography. Although my work had already appeared in the New York Times and I’d had several spreads in the Daily News Sunday Magazine, life was still largely a hand-to-mouth affair, each month a desperate race to garner enough work to cover the rent and bills. I’d just heard gunfire, and now the street was full of police cruisers. There had to be something down there worth photographing and the Daily News paid $150 for each spot news picture they ran. One photo in the News would put me three-quarters of the way to next month’s rent. Two photos? I tried not to think about it, afraid I’d jinx the whole thing.

Out on the street now, I looked down the block and saw a large knot of uniformed officers, perhaps a dozen or more. The twilight was just sinking into night, a few traces of red and gold still visible to the west. Several of the cops were holding flashlights, shining them down on the sidewalk at something I still couldn’t see.

I reached into my bag and took out the camera with the motor drive, my most professional-looking piece of equipment. Just then, two of the cops stepped away from the scene, revealing the body of a young man sprawled face-up and motionless on the sidewalk. He was wearing tan chinos, a dirty-looking windbreaker and a striped pullover. There was the shape of something dark underneath him on the sidewalk. In the failing light I could see it was a pool of blood.

One of the officers eyed me as I approached, but, surprisingly, no one tried to shoo me away. We all stood silently for a few moments, watching as the flashlight beams danced over the man’s dark hair and light olive skin.

“Any idea what happened?” I quietly asked the cop standing next to me. More of the officers stepped away and headed toward their cars, the crackle of police radio chatter occasionally puncturing the eerie quiet that had fallen over the street.
“Offhand, I’d say somebody didn’t like him,” the officer replied in a thick Queens accent.

Okay, here’s a guy on the fast-track to a detective’s badge, I thought. “Mind if I get a couple of shots? I’m a stringer for the Daily News.”
“Oh yeah?” The cop mulled it over for a moment. “Be my guest,” he finally said. “I don’t think this guy’s gonna complain about it.”
“Thanks.” I hooked a small, hand-held flash unit up to the camera, the “Pop! Pop! Pop!” of the strobe reminding me of the gunfire. As I lined the body up in the viewfinder, making sure all the pertinent details were visible – face, closed eyes, the thick puddle of blood – I idly wondered what circumstances had led this man to end up lifeless on a Brooklyn sidewalk on a warm June night. He had the skin-and-bones, hollow-cheeked look of a long-time crackhead. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Maybe a fight with another addict over recently purchased drugs? A minor challenge to some hot-headed macho asshole’s manhood? Some macho asshole who’d just happened to have been packing a gun?

A cop walked over to me, this one with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. “You wanna hold up a minute, pal?” he asked, stepping between me and the young man’s body. “Who are you, and why’re you taking pictures?” His voice was flat and authoritative.

I gave him my name and told him I was a stringer for the Daily News. The situation had to be played carefully, I knew, as a ranking officer in a homicide situation could do just about anything he wanted, including confiscate my film and camera. And I had no police-sanctioned press ID, either, which meant all I had to convince him of my legitimacy was a snappy line of patter and a winning smile. “I’m the guy who made the 911 call,” I offered, hoping to get some bonus points for good citizenship.
“If you’re with the News, where’s your press tags?”
“I’m not on staff, so I only get tags when they give me an assignment,” I said, making it a point to look him in the eye. “I live in that building over there and heard the shots. If the editor on the photo desk found out there was a shooting on my front doorstep and I didn’t bring him pictures, I’d never get another assignment out of him again.” That was a bald-faced lie, but I was hoping the sergeant could relate to the idea that I might be some poor schmoe stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“You got any ID at all?” My driver’s license had expired two years ago, but the sergeant gave it a quick look-over, then handed it back. “You can take a couple more shots, then get the hell out of here, alright?”
* * *
“So whatcha got for me?” The photo desk editor had maybe a dozen or so black-and-white prints spread out over his desktop and barely looked up at me as he spoke. I pulled the single roll of Tri-X that I’d shot from the front pocket of my jeans. “Murder in Brooklyn. Washington Avenue, one street over from Pratt.”
He looked up. “Was the victim a student?”
“No, I don’t think so. The cops hadn’t ID’d him, but he looked more like someone from the neighborhood.”
“Was this a robbery?”
“My guess would be a drug deal gone bad,” I offered. “The cops were still looking for witnesses when I left.” I introduced myself, and told him that I normally shot for Tom Ruis at the Sunday Magazine, but the homicide had happened right in front of my apartment building, and I thought the daily might want photos.
He shook my hand. “I’m Frank O’Brien, and thanks for thinking of us,” he said with a faint smile. “Was anybody else there getting shots of the scene?”
“No, just me. I heard the gunfire and got there about five minutes after it happened.”

O’Brien took the roll from me and turned to a young guy standing behind him who’d been looking through a sheaf of contact sheets. “Jimmy, have the lab run this really quick, okay?” It was well past ten now, over two hours since the murder, and the newsroom was dark and quiet. The overhead lights were off, the only illumination in the room coming from the light on O’Brien’s desk and a few other lamps on desk lamps scattered around the room.

I figured it would take a while to run the film and wandered off down the hall to get a cup of coffee from a vending machine. O’Brien had the processed roll on a lightbox and was going over it with a magnifier when I got back.

It was beginning to worry me that I hadn’t had the details of the situation when O’Brien asked, but the worry subsided when he picked up a pair of scissors and began cutting the film into strips, then marked the edges of several frames with a red grease pencil. He put the marked strips into a glassine envelope and handed them to Jimmy. “Tell them to give me 8x10s of those, okay?” he said, turning to me as the assistant disappeared. “Nice work, kid. Even though it’s gotta be pretty easy when they’re not moving like that.”

Though I’d been published in the magazine before, I’d never had a picture run in the daily, and certainly nothing like the Weegee-esque death-on-a-Brooklyn-sidewalk shot I’d brought in that night. It was still early enough in my nascent career that the thought of having one of my photographs splashed across a sheet of tabloid newsprint with my byline next to it was a major-league thrill.

“So you think the shot will run?” I tried to keep my voice cool, the tone matter-of-fact.
O’Brien shrugged. “Good chance. I’ll send the prints down to the city desk and they can have someone call the precinct to get the details. We probably wouldn’t run a story, just the shot and a caption. Check the paper on Monday morning, because that’s when we’d have it. And here,” he opened a desk drawer, took out a fresh roll of Tri-X and tossed it to me, “we like to try and help you guys keep on shooting.”
“And thank you. And tell Ruis I said Hi next time you see him, okay?”
* * *
Monday morning, 8a.m., and I was settling into a booth at Mike’s Coffee Shop, corner of DeKalb and Hall. I’d spent Sunday sleeping late and trying not to think about whether the shot would run. Besides professional pride and bragging rights, there was also a sorely-needed paycheck hanging in the balance. I’d bought a copy of the News at the bodega next door, but vowed I wouldn’t look at it until I was sitting down, a cup of hot coffee in front of me. Now the milk. The sugar. Stir. Open the paper.

The banner across the front page, reading “Weekend Slaughter!” was promising enough. According to the lead story, in addition to the shooting I’d photographed, there had been 25 other murders between Friday night and the wee hours of Monday morning, something of a record, even for early-1980s New York. The news was disturbing, yet I felt an odd, illicit thrill knowing that I’d been part of it all.

But the picture I’d shot was not on the second page. I turned to pages three and four, finding them graced only with the smiling face of then-mayor Ed Koch. No again to pages five, six, or seven, the most likely spots it would have run. I didn’t give up looking, though, until I reached the classifieds. With a small sigh, I turned back to page seven, where the News had run a full list of casualties. My guy came in at number 23 on the hit parade, an “as-yet unidentified male, shot in front of 483 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn.”

As-yet unidentified. I suddenly, unexpectedly, felt very bad. Not for myself, not for any lost recognition or a paycheck I wouldn’t see. But bad for a man so friendless he could die on a Brooklyn street and, 48 hours later, still be lying in a morgue somewhere, a “John Doe” tag on his big toe, his life reduced to the phrase “as yet unidentified male.”

I thought about other pictures that might have been taken of this man. Baby pictures. Grade school. High school yearbook. No matter how poor his family, how mean his background, there would have been at least a few photographs documenting his progress through life. And now here I was, a total stranger, having taken the very last of them, speculating about the others. Having only seen Unidentified Male in death, I wondered how he would have looked in life, young and healthy, with his arm around some girlfriend on a summer afternoon at Coney Island. Or hugging his mother and smiling, a young face full of hope and promise. Perhaps it was better, then, that no one would see him as he’d finally ended up.

If I’d still been a Catholic, I would have said a prayer. Instead, I closed the paper and fished a dollar bill out of my pocket to pay the check. Then I walked down the block to catch the G train, heading for the Daily News building to retrieve my negatives.