Friday, January 2, 2015

"Things Blur" by Laura Farrell - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Things Blur
Laura Farell

My mind had become one with New York, always moving with a frenetic energy. Things weren’t connecting like they used to- a myriad of dislocated thoughts, grandiose ideas and re-imagined memories sprouted in my brain like weeds and I couldn’t tend to this garden. I lost sight of the flowers.   I desperately hoped to remember stillness. But even stillness felt like a motion. I fantasized about silence but couldn’t hear it. Perhaps death is how we find stillness, silence. Maybe it’s sleep. Well, not for me.  I’d been waking up in fear, not knowing where I was or how I got there. This sensation reminds me of what I would imagine it feels like to be born or what it might feel like to be in a grave. It was like every place and it was like no place.

It is Saturday Night and I am certain that I am going to die soon. Death is a thickness in the air; never had I experienced a feeling so ghostly. My brain moves with the city; Manhattan is a dictator, after all. So I enter the underground to travel back to Brooklyn, seeking quiet. My body moving away from this other borough, with the false hope it might change the speed of my thoughts, reduce the fear that lies heavy in my chest. What I am really trying to run from are certain memories, which attack my mind. It’s a violence I can no longer take. There had been enough violence. So I thrust the trauma into a deeper crevice of my mind, but I fear it may be creeping into my muscles, making me jittery. It’s creeping into my eyes creating a hyper awareness and constant need to look over my shoulder. On the subway everyone is looking at me. They can tell something isn’t quite right. When traveling between 1st Avenue and Bedford Avenue I lose my balance and tumble down on the crowded subway car. A man helps me up and asks if I am okay but I am not certain how to answer.
It hadn’t always been this way. It being existence. This way being perplexing. It had once been clearer or perhaps I lacked awareness. Perhaps I did not yet recognize that existence was nonsensical. Additionally, my particular traumas of being a body caused me a new type of bewilderment- a blurriness.
 When I exit the subway I walk down Grand Street, where I live in Williamsburg, to meet my boyfriend at The Drink hoping to do just that, hoping that this act will dull the noise. I want to consciously check out, find a dark corner. He is at the end of the bar drinking a beer with a shot of whiskey beside him. Before greeting him I take the shot, then sit down beside him and order another round. The night continues in this direction. We travel from bar to bar in the streets of Williamsburg but the drinking does not bring the faintness of thoughts I had hoped that it would. We arrive at a bar called, Night of Joy but it is far from what I experience. The bar is loud and crowded. My boyfriend’s co-workers and boss are there and he tells me to “act normal,” not like the strange self I have become and can’t hide.  I dance frantically hoping to tire my mind and body but when this doesn’t work I exit the bar and call my brother. I cry into the phone slurring my words and my brother tells me I should go home. I am a ball on the sidewalk outside the bar when my boyfriend walks drunkenly towards me. He asks where I’ve been and I tell him I was doing my best to be “normal.” He sits beside me on the sidewalk and says, “Let’s go home.”
The night air is still warm even though it is October. I move down the street slowly, feeling exhausted. He, looks at me with concerned blue eyes and asks me what is wrong. I begin to cry, everything feels overly stimulating on the streets of Brooklyn, the lights of the cars, the signs on stores, drunk people moving about the streets.  I can’t focus my attention or think clearly. We arrive back to my apartment but I can’t get the key to go into the hole, my hands are shaking. He helps me open the door and once we are inside the apartment I move quickly to my room.  I lie on my bed but I can’t find stillness, in my mind or body. I am trembling as he rubs my back, telling me to breathe. He eventually falls asleep, once I have stopped crying. But I cannot. The movements of my body become out of control as I seize in my bed. I am concerned that the motion may wake my boyfriend, but he snores softly beside me, grinding his teeth. I don’t feel safe in my own body as I continue to convulse. Eventually around 5am I fall asleep while listening to the sound of chirping of birds outside.
After laying awake for a long time I decided to buy some groceries to cook breakfast for my boyfriend to make up for my strange behavior the previous evening. He accompanies me on the excursion. We head down Graham Street towards the local market. While crossing the street a biker nearly hits me but I quickly dart back to the curb. My heart races as I turn to my boyfriend who holds my hand as we cross the street.
The grocery store provides another kind of anxiety. Cans of food ordered neatly on the shelves makes the lack of order in my own life feel more present. I quickly head to the refrigerated aisle and pick up eggs. I attempt to open the container to make certain that none are cracked and in doing so I drop them all. The eggs shatter on the floor yellow yolk running by my feet. My boyfriend laughs, “Something is seriously wrong with you.”
I bend down feeling guilty as an attendant of the mart approaches with a mop. I grab another dozen without checking for cracks, apologize profusely for the mess I’ve created and checkout.
On the way home I move quickly and as I cross the street where the near fatal almost bike incident occurred when something brushes my face. I scream and then turn to see that what has brushed my face was a monarch butterfly flying peacefully by. “You are a crazy little monster,” my boyfriend scoffs.
The day progresses as does my anxiety. Night time comes and drinks were had and people became tired and drifted towards their beds. My boyfriend and I moved towards mine as well and to I fall asleep. But something strange happens while I am asleep. I wake up somewhere that is not my bed.
I wake up on the roof, body trembling and exhausted, body so close to the edge. This is the first time my sleepwalking had been really bad, I’d done it in the past but it was usually more like waking up trying to run the bath, or doing the dishes, or eating a whole bag of apples. This was bad. This was an edge of a building several floors up from my comfortable bed. I call my boyfriend who is still in my bed, a million times. He doesn’t answer. I call my brother once, he answers. He helps me get down, close the roof door, find my way back to the ground floor where I live. I collapse on the couch.
My boyfriend finds me on the couch the next morning and asks if everything is alright. I feel okay, surprisingly. I feel rested. So I just nod. He heads off to work and I decide to leave the house as well.
Walking down Graham Street towards Greenpoint I am hyper aware of the things going on around me. I notice the different shops and places along the way. There’s a restaurant called Mother’s, a bar called Daddy’s, Uncle Louie’s ice cream shop and finally right under the BQE, Grandma’s Rose’s pizzeria. It’s all connected. We are all family. I am suddenly happy in a strange and new way. It seems as though my anxieties have vanished. As I grow closer to the McCarren Park I notice details of people’s faces, of things around me. I wander around for the rest of the day speaking with strangers. Eventually I head home to bed.
In my bed, another night without sleep, I feel my body shake uncontrollably. My eyes won’t s stay closed and I am unable to lie still. I want to remember stillness, even stillness feels like a motion lately. I fantasize about silence, I can’t hear it. Perhaps death is how we find stillness, silence. Maybe it’s sleep. Not for me.  I’ve been waking up in fear, not knowing where I am and how I got there. It sort of feels like being born. It sort of feels like being a grave. It sort of feels like every place and no place.
Things haven’t been connecting lately. It’s like a lot of pieces, strands of things. Today was an exciting day but I can’t put it all together.  Things are both absent and present. The fabric of the language behind my emotions is falling to pieces. I am trying my best to put it back together, to figure out what is going on. The stakes feel high.
I  hear my boyfriend grinding his teeth in his sleep, a trait which I usually find endearing, not tonight. It has been too many sleepless nights and with this sound I will be unable to sleep.
“Wake up” I command him. He opens his eyes with a concerned look on his face.
“You need to leave.”
   “I don’t think that’s a good idea” He responds groggily, “You are acting strange again tonight, I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I can’t sleep. I need sleep. You need to leave.”
“I don’t think that is a good idea. I am concerned about you.”
“But I need sleep! You need to go!”
“You are acting crazy!” He yells, “I’ve never seen anyone act this way. I’m concerned.”
“I need sleep! I can’t sleep with you here!” I am growing agitated. I need to look out for my health. I need to figure things out.
“Fine!” He yells, “I don’t think this is a good idea” he says as he begins to move from my bed. He throws a ring I’ve given him to the ground in anger.
“You don’t have to act that way!”
“You are acting crazy!” He repeats.
I throw the ring he has given me in response. “Go!” I scream.
He does and I fall asleep almost instantly, exhausted. But the rest is not restful and I wake in an hour feeling anxious. I need to move.
I exit my apartment and go outside. The night air feels cool but refreshing.  It is still dark and currently around 4:00 am. I feel bad for having kicked out my boyfriend  and I decide that I should go out and look for him, even though he left about an hour or two before. I begin to run down the street. I pass the diner a local diner and notice the lights are on. I go in and ask if I can use the bathroom. The cook, beginning to prepare for the day, agrees although he seems surprised to see me. I thank him and leave.
It suddenly feels as though anything is possible. As if anything I want I can do or have and that people will help me, like the man in the diner. If I need to go to the bathroom I could stroll into whatever the nearest building was and ask to use it. People are accommodating. My experiences earlier today also made me aware of this fact. I’m on the verge of new ideas.
The world feels as though it is trembling with the need to communicate. Every sign in the window of a store means something. There is a cosmic relatedness about everything. Papers on the ground hold secret meaning. I stop to look signs in every storefront and to pick up pieces of paper or trash I see on the ground.  I assume that everything has some important message because this is a moment of change. Everyone has been talking about it. Everyone has been talking in codes about it though, which I have to decode.  It is a language of puns and riddles. I am finally beginning to understand. Everything around me holds secret meaning. I have to figure out what it is. I’ve been overwhelmed by these ideas and not sleeping but things are coming together.  I have a role in all of this change. I need to contact everyone that I can to tell them of my revelations.
As I run down the street my thoughts move rapidly, I think of all that there is to do and all that I have to say. There aren’t many people on the street at this time but everyone I see I make eye contact with. A man follows me for a bit and I am certain that it is because he wants to protect me. He can sense my importance. This is a special time and things are going to be different now for me. I can’t live in constant fear, as I have been. This man must be following me because he knows who I am and is protecting me. People are beginning to recognize me. My phone is recording me and streaming everything I do on the internet.
I continue down the street picking up papers off the ground and knocking on storefront doors, none of which are currently open. I find a card on the ground for a cab company. I decide to use it later today to get to school. The ride will be free, I am certain. I see a cat and decide to follow it for a while. It leads me back towards my home and I realize I should return home and prepare for the day. The sun is beginning to come up.
At home I take a bath. I watch my naked body twitch in the tub but I don’t feel concerned about my body’s uncontrollable movements. I instead move out of the tub and dance around my room, putting on wild makeup and recording a video of myself doing so. I get dressed and wipe some of the makeup off my face but there is a line of pink lipstick up my arms that won’t come off. This makes me laugh.  I put on a sweater. I text a bunch of people from my phone whom I feel I need to speak to today, my parents, my brother, some friends, some people I haven’t spoken to in a long while.  I text my boyfriend feeling bad for kicking him out. I then call the cab company on the card I found in the street. I give them my address.
I head out the door and the cab is waiting for me.
“This is a free cab service, right?” I say as I get into the car. “I have an apple for you!”
The man says, “You can’t pay for the ride?”
“No, I can’t. But I have an apple that you can have.” He takes the apple and accepts the deal. I feel so successful, as though anything is possible. I call my mom and leave her a message about my recent good fortune. She doesn’t answer and I call my dad and do the same thing.
The cab driver asks if I am married and I tell him,
“Yes. You have to be in this day and age,” I explain, though I’m not sure why I do this. But it makes me feel safer talking to this man and him believing that I am married.  I text Timothy and my brother. The cab driver asks if he can drop me off at first and 14th street instead of taking me to my school. I agree.
“Thank you so much!” I say as I leave the cab. He smiles.   

"What Does God Want?" by Phoenix Glass - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

What Does God Want?


Phoenix Glass

     As I walk north on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue, I note the businesses and advertisements. DS Fashion
African Tailor offers prayer gowns and ministry robes. Across the street, a church. I think, you can’t beat the convenience of NYC. Dominican style salons, African hair braiding, and barber shops fit like pie slices in between 99-cent stores, pawn shops, discount liquor stores, tax firms, and churches—more churches than I’ve ever seen on a single street. Houses of worship, for God, beauty, and bargains, beg the question: what does God want?

    Does God want us to get great deals, have good hair, drink cheap booze, and pay our taxes? I imagine men and women, arriving at church Sunday morning, saying their hellos before service (the way people stop on the street to greet a passing friend, I assume that this community is tight, that everyone knows everyone). Once the pews are filled, the preacher delivers a sermon warning those with unkempt hair, “God’s view from heaven is the top of your ugly head!”  

    Surrounding sounds are unrepentant: reggae music blasting from African fashion stores and open car windows (more power to anyone who can suffice with a single car window rolled down in 90 degree heat). A dreadlocked mailman pushes his cart toward his next stop, yells out to greet the recipients. He’s across the street, I can’t hear his words, but his cadence is distinctly Caribbean. No one who lives here could feel alone here, I think. The neighborly encounters I witness as I walk are as countless as the slow-moving cars of rush hour. I see a young boy on a bike, and behind him, standing on pegs attached to the back wheel, a younger boy, his tiny hands placed on the shoulders of the other. I wish I had a brother, I think. I ask myself why I don’t live here, and wish that I did.

    Sterling Street, I take a right and search for shade. A white house has been converted into the Grace and Truth Gospel Temple. Three older women sit on the church’s stoop puffing cigarettes. Cigarettes and church always make me think of AA meetings. I wonder if the three women are alcoholics, or just God-loving smokers. I pass a Christian School, which is deteriorating and looks vacant. John Lennon’s lyrics, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” are painted on a mural that covers the school’s fence. I hum the song as I turn onto Franklin.

    No line is drawn marking the cut-off point between Sterling and Franklin; it draws itself instead in the people and the storefronts. Lily & Fig Bakery, an Aveda hair salon, upscale thrift stores and women’s boutiques. Beards are long and bikes are plentiful. This street is tree-lined and quiet as the dead. Everyone walks alone. There are no discounts. There are no churches. God and good deals are nearby if they’re needed.

   Hipster heaven is, like a trend, ephemeral, and by the time I turn onto Fulton Street, the fading scent of vegan scones and artisanal soap is gone. Churches return, along with an abundance of halal food. An awning above a restaurant commands, NO MORE JUNK, EAT HEALTHY, HALAL IS THE ANSWER. I think about ice cream, then wonder what God eats. Halal, I decide. Maybe ice cream on special occasions.

    I pass Alhumdellellah Barber Shop, Abu’s Homestyle Bean Pie Bakery, and Auto Fashion—where one could have their SUV accessorized, its windows tinted, and exchange stock rims for status symbols. Another dreadlocked man pushes a walker with an attached speaker, blasting gospel music. Two men wearing kufis and dashikis talk with a very young, very white police officer. They laugh and shake hands. I wonder if being good with God keeps citizens safe from the police. Then, I think, it’s more complicated than that.

    The very young, very white cop approaches me with a smile even whiter. He asks me if I’m okay, says he noticed me walking around, and stopping, thought I might be lost. I tell him I’m fine, that I’ve been assigned to walk through and write about the neighborhood, so I’m taking my time. He looks confused and asks, “You were given an assignment to walk around this very unsafe area?”

“Yes,” I say. “Everyone’s been super friendly to me.”
“Do you still have your wallet?”
“Yes,” I say, and hope it’s true. “So, why’s this area unsafe? Tell me so I can write it down.” I hold up my notebook and pen.

   No cop has ever looked at me the way he’s looking at me now. He continues smiling, but his warm expression turns to one of concern. He covers his badge and says he’s not telling me anything.

   Too late, I think, and record our exchange the moment he turns away.

   My walk is almost complete. The sun has begun its slow, summer descent. The temperature hasn’t yet dropped, but the vibe on the street is shifting. It’s a familiar shift: less light, more trouble. This is the same anywhere in the world.

       I notice the store before me: Discount Pet Store. I write down the name and beneath it I write, this scares me.
            An old man carrying a cane and scent of alcohol stops and asks me if I’m writing about Fulton Street. When I say yes, he asks if he can read it. I let him.

   He reads my words aloud, then asks, “Why does the pet store scare you?”

   I explain that the idea of discounted pets doesn’t seem right to me. He agrees, and offers to help me get to the bottom of it. On our way into the pet store, he tells me he goes by Big Worm and I tell him I go by Phoenix. Big Worm and I ask around, and we’re told that everything in the store is discounted, even the pets.
            “Why?” I ask. “Are they missing legs or something?”
            No, no. The pets are healthy, they’re just discounted, we’re told.
            Big Worm and I leave the store and decide we were given a bullshit answer. He tells me that I’ll make a good journalist, that I ask the right questions. Then, he asks me for money.
I pull a dollar from my wallet but he sees my ten and wants it. I’m a poor writer, I say.
            “Phoenix, I haven’t slept or eaten for two days, I have a bad foot!”
            “Dude, I’m telling you, I’m poor!”
            “I’m homeless,” he says.
            TouchĂ©. I reach back into my wallet for change.
            This is still not enough, so he threatens to remove his shoe and show me his diseased foot. I stop him and give him another five. This, he says, is enough. Then, he says, this neighborhood gets bad at night, but he’ll be my bodyguard. He says, if anyone messes with me, just say, “Yo, you know my boy, Big Worm?” and they’ll leave me alone. Everyone knows him around here, he says. He tells me he’s been shot seven times and lifts his shirt to show me the bullet wounds. He says he’s not afraid of anything.

            I thank him for the offer but tell him I’m done and going home. He offers to show me to the train. As we walk, he tells me to take his arm. I say my fiancĂ© wouldn’t like that. He says if his girlfriend saw me with him, she’d kill me.
            “Great,” I say, “bet you wouldn’t be my bodyguard then, would you?”
            He laughs.
            We reach the station. He thanks me and tells me he’ll look for me on Channel 7 Eye Witness News, that he’ll never forget me. I thank him as well, and say I won’t forget him, either.

As I walk down the stairs to catch the A uptown, I ask myself again, what does God want? I doubt it has much to do with hair salons or churches.

"Leaving (Brooklyn)" by Josh Lefkowitz - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Leaving (Brooklyn)
by Josh Lefkowitz

            The driver helped me load the bags into the trunk, then pulled the car away from the curb.
            It’s like we’re pulling away from the curb of my life, I thought to myself.
            “It’s like we’re pulling away from the curb of my life,” I said aloud to the driver.
            “Huh?” he said.
            “Um, nothing,” I replied.
            “Where to?” he asked.
            “Queens,” I said, “Sunnyside.”
            We drove in silence for a few blocks.  I watched Park Slope through the backseat window.  People were out in the street: walking their dogs, carrying groceries.  An irregular abundance of couples strolled through the neighborhood, all of them holding hands with each other, as if they had conspired the night before: Hey, tomorrow?  Let’s make that guy in the backseat of the car driving by feel as terrible as possible!
            After about five minutes, the driver spoke up: “Her fault or yours?”           
            “Neither,” I replied, “it just wasn’t working anymore.”
            “So, yours,” the driver hypothesized.
            It was all those bags that had tipped him off, I’m sure.  Two suitcases, plus several additional garbage bags stuffed with clothes, books, a skillet, a cheese grater.  Whatever I had thought to grab, in the moments after she’d said, “you have to leave – you are not welcome here anymore” and before the car had arrived.
            Or maybe it was my eyes that explained the situation: wide and wounded.  Panicked.  Shell-shocked.
            Or my scent.  What did a break-up smell like, anyhow?  Fear, I suppose.
            “Love’s a bitch,” said the driver, merging onto the BQE without warning and sans turn-signal.  How many members of broken homes had he helped shuttle from one borough to another, I wondered.  In this city of eight million, was I even the first one today?
            I sat in the backseat, picked at my lip, and studied the shape of his cranium.  He seemed intelligent, or maybe I just needed a father figure.
            “What do I do now?” I asked.
            “That’s easy,” he said, “you get laid.  You go fuck a girl and pretty soon you’ll forget all about this one.”
            “I just wasn’t going to marry her,” I explained.
            “Why not?”
            “I don’t know.  Her work was always going to come first.  And I wasn’t happy a lot of
the time.  She was pretty, though – and very kind.”
            “She sounds great,” said the driver, “has she got an older sister?”
            We resumed our silence, the car speeding along the highway.  The city’s magnificent skyline twinkled to the west.
            “All women are crazy,” said the driver after a while.  It was the kind of grossly misogynistic statement men are always making to each other in times of need; like watching your team make a single errant pass and declaring, “These Knicks suck!”  I said nothing in reply.  Maybe I chuckled a little.
            Then I asked, “You ever been through something like this?”
            “Please,” he said, “When my wife died, I crawled inside the bottom of a bottle.”
            “I’m sorry,” I said, “how did she –”
            “Car crash,” he said, “1980.  No, ’81.  Afterwards, I showed up to work drunk.  ‘Course my boss, he understood.  His wife had died six months earlier.  He gave me a week, said ‘if you’re like this next Monday you’re gone.’  So I cleaned up.  A couple months later I met a girl – long and droopy like a string bean.”
            “Nice image,” I said.
            “Thanks.  Anyways, I fucked her and that’s how I got better.
            “Look at me,” he went on, “I’m a fat old man, and even I do alright.  You’ll be fine.”
            “Maybe,” I said, then added, “I’m sorry I’m so wounded and raw.”
            “That’s okay,” he said, “you just don’t have any self-confidence.  I knew a guy just like you once.  Larry was his name.  He’s dead now, but, still.  Nice guy.  No self-confidence, though.”
            We pulled up to my friend’s apartment.  I already missed her, or so I believed.  In truth, maybe I just missed her apartment; or Brooklyn as my home borough, or Brooklyn as an idea.
            He unloaded my bags, and set them down on the street alongside me.
            “You’ll be fine,” he repeated again.
            “How do you know?” I asked.
            “I don’t,” he said.
            “Then why’d you say it?” I asked.
            He squinted at me, cocked his head, scratched his side, hitched up his pants a bit, shrugged, and got back in the car.  He switched the gear from park to drive, and was about to step on the gas when he rolled down the window and said, “You know that old folk song ‘Hard Times, Come Again No More?’”
            “Yeah, sure” I said, “it’s very pretty.”
            “Well, they always come again,” he said, “and singing that song doesn’t make a damn difference either way.  But we still sing the song.  Y’know what I mean?”
            I nodded my head.  Car driver as prophet.
            He smiled.  Then he said:
            “Hey do you know where there’s a public bathroom I could use around here?  I gotta pinch a loaf.”
            “Naw, I don’t know” I said, “this isn’t my neighborhood.  Sorry.”
            “That’s alright,” said the driver, “I’ll hold it,” and he stepped on the pedal and drove away.
            I rang the buzzer to apartment 5F, but my best friend Jason wasn’t home yet.  I dragged my bags over to a stone bench in the courtyard, and sat down.  It was Easter Sunday.
            I don’t know where I’m going to live, I thought to myself.
            “I don’t know where I’m going to live,” I said aloud, to no one.
            I sat and stared at the fountain in the center of the courtyard.  It was surrounded by flowers, pinks and blues and yellows, all of which were beautiful this time of year.
            Oh, and the wind: the wind felt lovely against my exposed skin.

"The N Train" by William Boyle - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

The N Train


William Boyle

The first porno magazine I ever bought was called Black and Busty. One Wednesday after school, Andrew Amato and Michael Marciano sent me into the Optimo on Bay Parkway with ten dollars and told me to get Hustler or Barely Legal. I looked the oldest, I was the tallest, and I was the only one in our sixth grade class who shaved—that’s why the mission fell to me.

I entered the store with my head down. I figured there was no way the lady behind the counter would sell a porno to me, and I hoped I wouldn’t get arrested for trying. I imagined the storeowner calling my mother and telling her I was a little pervert. I looked outside and saw Michael and Andrew huddled around a fire hydrant. I browsed the racks, picking up a copy of Psychology Today and pretending to read. Finally, I inched over to the wall of dirty magazines and movies. They were out in the open for anyone to see, and this Optimo had the best selection in the neighborhood. I felt like I was going to puke. I closed my eyes, picked one, and put it under my arm. I waited in line behind an old man buying scratch-offs and Pall Malls. When it was my turn, I put the magazine on the counter, cover down, and tried to avoid eye contact with the lady.

I paid. She brown-bagged the magazine and handed it over. I walked outside and the guys surrounded me. “What’d you get?” Andrew said.

Michael put out a hand to stop him. “Let’s go back to my place,” he said.

Michael lived in a big house on Eighty-Third Street. Grapevines hung from a trellis over the driveway and tomato plants grew through wire cones in the garden. We went inside, and Michael’s mother was sitting on the couch in the living room. She had a bag of popcorn in her lap and candy wrappers were shoved into the cushions around her. She was watching Love Connection. “Hello, boys,” she said without looking at us. “We’ve got some cold cuts and semolina bread, if you want.”

We hustled past her.

Michael’s room was cavernous. Magic Johnson posters were tacked to the walls. He had his own TV and Sega Genesis and Nintendo systems. Comic books and VHS tapes were piled high in milk crates overflowing from his closet. We kneeled around the bed like we were about to pray, and I put the bag down between us. I figured Michael should be the one to lead the way. But Andrew beat him to it. He grabbed the bag and shook out the magazine. There it was. Black and Busty. Andrew picked it up and flipped through the pages, as if the cover was a joke and the magazine would be full of something else. Michael and Andrew put their heads down on the bed. 
“What?” I said.
“You owe us, Billy,” Andrew said. “We all put in for this. Black and Busty?” He held open the centerfold and looked at me like I’d just fingered his cat’s asshole.

“I picked with my eyes closed,” I said. “I was lucky I got anything.”

Andrew threw the magazine at me. I looked at it. I liked that the women were black. The only women I had ever seen naked were in movies, and they were all white. I stuffed the magazine into my backpack.

Michael went over to his stereo and put in a cassette of Licensed to Ill. “Nigger porn,” he said. “Christ.”
I doubt that was the first time I’d heard that word. I’m sure it had passed into my ears in songs and movies, but the way Michael had used it was different. Old Italian men in the neighborhood said things like tizzun and mulignan, but those words had distance in them. This seemed vicious, powerful.

A couple of months later, when school let out, my mother, stepfather, stepsister, and I drove to Florida. We were headed for Disney World and Universal Studios. In Virginia, a black state trooper pulled us over and gave us a ticket for going ten miles per hour over the speed limit. “Dumb nigger cop,” I said, after he’d gone back to his cruiser, and I felt tough. The word was thick in my mouth.

I taped everything back then. I had a little handheld recorder and stacks of blank cassettes. I wanted to be a writer, and I loved to tape my family and transcribe what they said and shape stories around it. I had the tape going when the cop pulled us over, when I said what I said. I found the tape buried in a filing cabinet when I was in college and listened to it. It was strange to hear myself as a ten-year-old, my voice full of Brooklyn, saying a word that I’d come to understand as hateful and wrong. I smashed the tape and scattered the pieces in garbage cans around the neighborhood.
When we got back from Orlando, I fell into my summer routine. It was 1989, and the summer meant stickball and stoopball. It meant daily trips to Jimmy’s Deli for Topps baseball cards, Spaldeens, and quarter drinks. It meant listening to ballgames on the radio in the front yard of our apartment building. It meant sitting on the high part of the jungle gym in my grandparents’ backyard at dusk and thinking about what it’d be like to have X-ray glasses, to be able to throw ninety, to be able to kiss Alyssa Milano.

I spent a lot of time with my stepfather. He taught at P.S. 48 on Eighteenth Avenue and ran a day camp there in late June and early July. I went with him almost every day and met kids that were way different than the kids I went to school with at St. Mary’s. Most kids at St. Mary’s were Italian. Or half-Italian like me. A few pure-bred Irish kids stuck out. And there was one poor Pakistani boy who had the misfortune to share a last name with the guy everyone wanted to bend over and buttfuck with a Scud missile by 1991. But the kids at my stepfather’s camp were mostly black and Chinese.

I played baseball, dodgeball, basketball, tag, and ran relays with the kids at the camp. We spent our days in the schoolyard and never cared if we left. We ate lunches out of coolers—peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese—and drank lemonade that one of the school secretaries made. We forgot about video games. I got to be good friends with this black kid that everyone called Hopper. One day, as I tried to drive past him for a layup, he blocked my shot and said, “Get the fuck out of here, nigger.” I cracked up.

On most weekends I went with my father to New Jersey. It only took a half-hour or forty minutes to get to the town where he lived with his new wife and his new kids, but we crossed three bridges and it felt like a totally different place. My father and I didn’t have much to say to each other. I barely felt like his son anymore. Stuck in traffic on the Verrazano the following Friday, I told him about Hopper. I repeated what Hopper had said to me after he’d blocked my shot. I laughed like it was the funniest thing since that long piss scene in The Naked Gun.

“Never say that word,” my father said. “It’s a bad word. Never say it.”

“Why?” I said.

“It’s hateful.”

I wanted to believe him. I’d been waiting to believe something he said my whole life.
Other things happened that summer. The Mets traded Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies, and I stopped caring about baseball. Paul’s Boutique came out. I went to see Batman, Weekend at Bernie’s, The Abyss, and Ghostbusters II. I won a contest for an essay about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who had died on the Space Shuttle Challenger, and my mother took me to an awards ceremony in downtown Brooklyn. We went out for brick oven pizza afterward.

But one thing happened that made life immediately different: At the end of August, a week before my birthday, a black kid named Yusuf Hawkins and three of his buddies got off the N train in Bensonhurst. The wrong neighborhood. A group of white kids surrounded them, waving bats. “What are you niggers doing here?” one of the white kids asked.

The next morning I woke up and went to Jimmy’s Deli to get the Daily News for my grandparents. I saw the headline: BLACK YOUTH KILLED BY WHITE MOB IN BENSONHURST. My first thoughts were about the girl I had a crush on that summer, who lived right across from where it had happened. I wondered what her bedroom looked like. Did she see anything? What kind of stuffed animals did she have? What kind of nightgowns hung in her closet? Did she have her own TV? Were there pictures on her wall?

But the Yusuf Hawkins story came to mean more and more to me as the days went on. I stopped reading box scores and started following the case. I kept a spiral notebook filled with things I’d learned from the newspapers. Hawkins wasn’t much older than me, just a few years. The guys who had ganged up on him were the brothers of kids I went to school with. Reporters asked questions and people I knew said that these guys weren’t killers or thugs, that they were the stand-up children of stand-up mothers and fathers, that they were protecting the neighborhood.

In the weeks after, things got messier and messier. Three hundred black demonstrators marched through the neighborhood to chants of “Niggers, go home.” White hecklers held up watermelons. They complained that the Feast Day of Saint Rosalia had been ruined. I saw Hawkins’s mother and father on TV, and they looked like they wanted to die.

At my birthday party, I asked an older neighborhood friend what he thought.

“What was that kid really doing in the neighborhood?” he said.

I told him what I’d read and seen on TV, that Hawkins and his friends were there to see about a car.

“A car,” the guy said. “Sure.” He paused. “Certain things you don’t do.”

“He wasn’t looking for trouble,” I said.

“That’s what they say on the news. You’ve got to think for yourself.” He leaned in close. “What was that kid really doing in the neighborhood?”
Here were the facts: Keith Mondello and Joey Fama and a bunch of their friends had heard that Mondello’s ex-girlfriend was dating a black or Hispanic guy. They were outside of her house waiting and ready to pounce on anyone with dark skin when Yusuf Hawkins and some of his buddies came into the neighborhood to meet a guy about a used car. The initial reports had ten to thirty white kids jumping these four black kids. Ten to thirty. Three of the black kids got away, grazed by fists and bullets, mostly unharmed. Hawkins got beaten with baseball bats and was shot twice in the chest.

Hawkins and his buddies had gotten off the N train at Twentieth Avenue and Sixty-Fourth Street. They had stopped for batteries, film, and candy at a grocery store before walking down the wrong block at the wrong time. I remember wondering what they needed batteries and film for. I guessed that one of them had a camera and that they wanted to snap some pictures of the car they were going to see. It wasn’t Hawkins who was going to buy the car—it was one of his friends. The guy they had talked to was selling it for nine hundred bucks. When they crossed over to the schoolyard, Hawkins and his friends were surrounded and confronted. Bats and handguns were flashed. Though there was some doubt during the trial about who fired, Fama was ultimately identified as the triggerman. Everyone scattered after Hawkins was shot. White kids stashed guns and knives in cars, flung bats off into the distance.

In an interview with The New York Times, a woman named Mrs. Galarza recounted how she heard the gun go off twice, went downstairs a few minutes later, and found Hawkins in the schoolyard, shot and dying, a candy bar in his hand. Mrs. Galarza held Yusuf Hawkins and said, “Come on, baby. You’ll be fine. Take small breaths. Just relax. God’s with you.” The cops and ambulances didn’t arrive on the scene for fifteen minutes. Hawkins was dead on arrival at Maimonides Hospital.
The story stayed in the news for a long time. It brought us into a new decade. There were trials. Mondello got five to sixteen years. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of rioting, menacing, discrimination, and criminal possession of a weapon. Later, it was reduced to four to twelve. He got out in 1998. Fama wound up getting convicted of second degree murder by “acting with depraved indifference,” and he was sentenced to thirty-two years to life. He was sent up to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York and won’t be eligible for parole until 2022. Other members of the gang were tried and received light sentences or were acquitted. Al Sharpton got stabbed in Bensonhurst at a march to protest the lenient sentencing; a drunk guy lunged out of the crowd and snapped a steak knife at him. Street artist Gabriel Specter painted a mural of Yusuf Hawkins on the side of a building on Verona Place in Bed-Stuy. Spike Lee dedicated Jungle Fever to him, though Do the Right Thing—a film that was released two months before Hawkins was killed—came a lot closer to getting at the larger problem that led to his death.
I continued to keep a notebook about the Hawkins case for a few years after the shooting. I started high school at Xaverian in Bay Ridge in the fall of 1992, and one day, a few weeks before midterms, I saw Joey Fama for President written in black marker above a urinal in the boy’s bathroom on the second floor.

I put a picture of Yusuf Hawkins up on my bedroom wall when I got home from school that day.

I was fourteen, and I knew what I didn’t want to be. It shook me up to realize that, though we were meant to have come a long way, we really hadn’t come very far at all. I saw the way that race troubles had burned through history, and I felt afraid. If nothing was any different now, what would happen in the future? How bad would it get?
I didn’t ever stop thinking about Yusuf Hawkins. I’m tied to his death through my neighborhood. The streets are haunted with his blood. What preceded his murder—those early exposures to racist language and attitudes, my own part in it—encompassed the whole experience. What followed, seeing how hate carried on, understanding that a high school kid could write Joey Fama for President on a bathroom wall, left me with a profound sense of grief. When I went to college and people asked me where I was from, I said, “Bensonhurst,” and they nodded, able to make only one association with the name. “Elliot Gould’s from there,” I’d say. “Out for Justice and Angie were filmed on Eighteenth Avenue. I grew up in the apartment where Gaspipe Casso used to live.” Soon after, I totally disowned Bensonhurst. I took census maps as bible: We lived a block into Gravesend. Gravesend: the name was poetry.

August marked twenty-five years since Hawkins was killed. He would’ve turned forty-one on March 19th. Like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, his life was stolen from him. And ignorant people praise and protect Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson just as they praised and protected the boys of Bensonhurst. At a memorial for Hawkins in 1999, his father, Moses Stewart, said: “He died for something I did. I’m the one who gave him his color. He was born black because of me.”

I live in Oxford, Mississippi now. The history of hate runs deep here, too. On February 16th of this year, a noose was fastened around the neck of the James Meredith statue located near the library on the University of Mississippi campus and an old Georgia state flag (which features a prominent Confederate battle emblem) was draped on the statue’s shoulders. Last summer, back in Coney Island, the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese outside MCU Park was defaced with racist slurs and swastikas. Davis and Martin and Brown are Hawkins all over again, and it’s heartbreaking. Hate thrives. All this evil just runs around, and you spend your whole life learning about it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Come Again Another Day" by Judith Washington - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Come Again Another Day
Judith Washington

His name was David, like the ancient Israelite king.  Our undying love lasted three quarters of a lifetime --‘till we’d both turned five.  Five was old enough for my father to entrust me with his special lead pencil, the one with four retractable colors.  I drew many shaky hearts on scrap paper, writing Judy +David inside.  Sometimes I pierced them with an arrow. A black and white snapshot of us taken in my living room in 1945 when we were three shows me planting a tender kiss on David’s broad, smooth forehead while I laced his chubby fingers in mine.
Since the turn of the 20th century, New York City had become home to the largest urban concentration of Jews in history.  By 1940, the greatest number resided in the borough of Brooklyn.   I was one of these 857,000 souls.  By 1940, my grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom had arrived in New York by 1907, had put down firm roots. They’d brought other family members from Eastern Europe and they had produced offspring.  Our extended family included immigrants and the American-born,  grandparents, great-grandparents,  aunts, uncles and older cousins, all living but a short subway ride apart, all devoted to our personal mass transit system.  If, on any given morning, an adult made the briefest of telephone calls to another relative for the purpose of  sharing the smallest scrap of news, by early afternoon the information, along with a growing commentary, had quickly permeated this network.

Yet, despite these intricate and intimate connections there remained a small but vacant space in my life:  I was an only child.  This hole was filled when the Schwartz family moved into the same five story apartment building on East 18th Street where my parents and I resided.  Their son David was just my age, and like me, he was a singleton.  Now I had someone to run and giggle with, someone with whom to play the games I endlessly invented. David was sweet and amiable, with a loveable half-smile.  I would whisper my three year old secrets in his ear and I liked to run my fingers through his straight, sandy hair.  When I hugged David, a tentative smile lit his pale, placid face.

It was necessary to exercise extreme caution playing inside our respective three and half room apartments—don’t bump into furniture, don’t make noise, and never, ever eat in the living room.  David’s parents, like mine, were first generation American Jews, but they were orthodox.  The ponderous mahogany furniture  that filled their dark rooms breathed a thick air of gloom.  David’s mother, Teresa, was terse and stern; his father, a morose man whose name I never learned, a person we all avoided.

Our home was sunny and had a bouncy feel. My quietly cheerful father always spoke gently to children.  I liked to watch my mother every Friday afternoon when she placed a 78 record on our Victrola and a lively fox-trot, samba, or rumba filled our living room.  She would drop a soft cloth on the ground and place both her bare feet, size five and half, on it, then purposefully shimmy her way across the room in rhythm, around and around every inch of the spotless, newly waxed parquet wood squares until the whole floor gleamed. At the end, always a smile of satisfaction: she was ready for the weekend.

Teresa’s floors were dull.  But she lit candles every Friday at sunset to welcome the Sabbath bride.  I was fascinated by these flickering lights.  One evening, soon after she finished the candle lighting ceremony and disappeared into her kitchen, on impulse I blew them out. When Teresa emerged her thin lips tightened and she glared at me, not uttering a word.  After that, we had to play in my house. It was just as well.

As soon as David and I reached four we were permitted to play outside in an area directly in front of the living room window our fifth floor apartment faced, a window from which my mother would periodically check, calling us in for lunch at noon and dinner at five.  For snowy winter days, our mothers bundled us up and sent us forth.  But long, rainy days forced us to remain indoors,  and so my mother instructed us to recite: “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day, Judy and David want to play!” and to repeat this at least five times.  Mommy often joined in, assuring us our chanting was sure to bring a brighter, adventure-filled tomorrow. Most of the time it worked. 

Living in the moment as children do, I assumed these satisfying affairs and my companionship with David would never change. When I reached five years and two months, my baby brother was born. Although at first my mother would not let me touch him as he lay in his humungous crib, or when she took him outdoors each day in an equally large carriage that took up half the elevator, I knew once Eddie got a little bigger we, too, would become fast friends.  David and I would share our vast store of knowledge with him, and we would all have so much fun together.

One June day next year the Cohen family moved into an apartment on the ground floor:  Dr. Cohen, his wife, Mrs. Cohen, and their six year old daughter Frances.  Because there was no need to use the creaky, unreliable elevator the ground level apartments were the most desirable.  The building buzzed with this sudden honor.  Having a doctor living among us added luster to our own ordinary lives.  And not a dentist, a real doctor.  In case anyone had missed out on either this information or the rank doctorhood bestowed upon her entire family, Mrs. Cohen decorated their apartment lavishly.

Frances, David and I quickly evolved into a triumvirate. There we were.  David, in baggy
trousers that somehow resembled the shapeless dresses his drab mother wore, remained
slow moving and deliberate as always.  I was still chatty and lively.  My mother, who
prided herself on style, dressed me impeccably.  She washed and pressed my
clothes nightly, and groomed my unruly curls each morning before carefully placing a
matching, starched and ironed ribbon in my hair.  The new ingredient was Frances, two
inches taller than David and me, who were of equal height. She was poised, haughty, with a wardrobe that said “wealth. 

It did not take long for Frances to take over.  She dictated what games we would play and when, as if she were Queen Frances, with David and I her loyal subjects.  I don’t remember the exact moment it became clear to me this was the new dynamic, or when Frances first insisted we play in her apartment instead of mine, nor how soon after she began  taunting me with  remarks like  Judy! Don’t be such a baby!” To my surprise, David remained silent.

Wasn’t name-calling forbidden in his house?  It was in mine.  And didn’t best friends always stick up for each other, like family?  Apparently not.  I returned, to endure yet another day of ridicule.  By the following week David was agreeing with Francis, nodding his head and saying, “That’s right!” when she told me to just sit down and watch the game. The beginnings of a smirk replaced David’s customary smile.

 I could not understand how this could be. David seemed mesmerized by Frances.  But then again he had seemed mesmerized with me. I was forced to consider the possibility that David had never really returned my devotion.  I promised myself Francis would never make me cry and she didn’t.  But I kept coming back; David was not only my best friend, he was the only one, and for this I loved him steadfastly.

Nothing stays the same. It was inevitable, and the middle of a hot August day in 1947,
when the Cohens became the first family in the building to purchase a TV.  The
awestruck dwellers of 1342 East 18th Street (between Avenues M and N) quickly spread
this news throughout the building.  Within a week, Mrs. Cohen had issued invitations to all us children: come and watch TV next Sunday.

Stepping over that threshold, I saw the Cohen living room transformed into a private movie theater.  Strategically placed fans hummed softly, expertly cooling the area. Matching folding chairs were lined up three rows deep facing the television. Clearly, some other, favored children from the adjoining apartment house had been invited, because I didn’t know most of those assembled.  I counted 22. Mrs. Cohen asked me to join the others and take a seat. 

The odor of buttered popcorn filled the room as Mrs. Cohen served each child our portion on individual paper plates, along with dainty Dixie cups filled with grape juice.  I sampled the sweet liquid with the tip of my tongue.  It brought to mind the Passover Seder, that long ceremony, much of it in Hebrew.  Here was the same deep purple grape juice we children drank in lieu of the mandatory, symbolic four cups of Manischewitz extra-sweet-wine for adults.

In only a few moments, my musings were interrupted by Mrs. Cohen’s efficient movements as she collected empty paper products.   She drew her elegant, rose-colored drapes to darken the room.

 The  TV was housed in a large imposing box like mahogany cabinet.  In 1947, there were four existing TV channels. Each had limited programming, and “test patterns”  filled TV screens for many hours. The group sat facing the 12 inch screen for a full 15 minutes, silent, poised, staring silently at the NBC logo. 

We fortunate few were about to see one of the three children’s programs. Finally, it was time.  Marching band music played the Star Spangled Banner while we viewed the American flag.  It stood alone atop a tall pole in a vast green field of perfectly mown grass, undulating in the breeze of a spring day. “Stand up, children!” Mrs. Cohen ordered.  “It’s time to salute the flag.” 

I remained rooted to my chair.  I’d come to understand that people who fiercely demanded such ritual allegiance, who worshipped the American nation above all others were the same people who disliked short, olive complected immigrants like my grandparents.  The “foreigners” were instantly identifiable by their funny accents, outdated clothing and antiquated ways.  If these foreigners voiced any disagreement with anything the patriots said or did there was always the same rejoinder:  “If you don’t like America, go back where you came from!”  Frances’ parents, like my own, were only first generation Americans.

“Stand up, Judy!” Mrs. Cohen repeated sharply.  I looked around and saw I was the only
one still seated.  “Anyone who doesn’t salute the flag can’t watch television here,” she continued.   My fierce allegiance to family was at stake, and, pitted against my desire to fit in, it didn’t stand a chance.  By nature an obedient child, I had never in my five years  openly defied authority.  But at this crossroads, loyalty and the urge to stand firm for what I knew was right triumphed over all my insecurities.  I refused.

As Mrs. Cohen and 21 children solemnly placed hands over hearts in preparation for the pledge, I swiftly stood up from my back row seat, did a sharp about face and swooped out the door, walked swiftly through the sickly green hallway and ran up the four flights of stairs to the refuge of my own apartment.

From that point forward David and I became nodding acquaintances.  It was as if our love affair had never happened and our lives had never been entwined.  What became of him I don’t know.  Five years later my parents joined the mass Jewish migration from the concrete streets of Brooklyn to the manicured lawns of affluent Long Island suburbia. It wasn’t easy for me to cross over a sea of Frances Cohens into adolescence and beyond.   By then I had became more cautious in matters of the heart and was no longer certain that the promised land lay within my reach.  Still, irresistibly, after 11 long years I opened my eyes wide and looking high into the Brooklyn skies once again embraced optimism.