Tuesday, February 17, 2015

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention - “Grizzly: A Social Medium” by Tamara Windau-Melmer

  2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize  -  Honorary Mention

“Grizzly: A Social Medium”


Tamara Windau-Melmer

There is something about a dog that speaks a universal language in a multi-cultural, multi-language neighborhood like Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Grizzly, our social medium, first spoke that language to me.
Two years ago my husband Mike and I moved into a one bedroom apartment on the garden floor of an old limestone building in Sunset Park. It had recently been gutted and remodeled with brand new floors, fresh paint, shiny kitchen appliances, and a bathroom with an actual linen closet. Mike and I agreed it was the fanciest place we had ever lived.  The best part was the backyard.  True, it was a concrete pit –but it was our concrete pit. It was a private backyard space all our own, and we had the landlord’s promise that a small dog would be welcomed.

On Craigslist, an ad featured a scrawny rust-colored Pomeranian named “Prince Harry.” The pup was offered by a small, non-profit, animal rescue group in Connecticut.  We applied to adopt this dog, who, we learned, had been abandoned and found wandering the streets. Two ladies from the rescue group drove all the way down to Sunset Park on their own dime to check us out. They interviewed us as prospective caregivers, and we all watched in wonder as the dog systematically sniffed out every inch and corner of the apartment. 

We must have passed their test because when they left, they didn’t take Prince Harry back with them. He had a new home, with us, and a new given name: Grizzly. He was so hairy and fuzzy that he looked like a miniature grizzly bear. 

All that hair turned out to be a camouflage for a very skinny body. However, it didn’t take long for the scrawny pup to fill out to a healthy, fit, seventeen pound dog, and it took even less time for Grizzly to completely take over our apartment and our lives.

On the down side, we no longer buy nice things. Also, we cannot allow guests to put their shoes or purses on the floor because Grizzly will chew on them and “bury” his treasures in between the couch cushions and under the pillows on our bed.

On the positive side, Grizzly can dance on his hind legs, has a lot of energy, loves people, and wants attention and a close cuddle at all times. He appears to fly from one end of the apartment, leaps to the couch, lands on my lap, places his little front paws on my shoulders, and licks my cheek repeatedly. He actually prefers to do this to Mike’s face because of his scratchy stubble.

When we first moved to Sunset Park, Mike and I met a number of people.  For instance, we were soon on a first name basis with guys working at the bodega down the block which sells the best selection of craft beers.
But it is Grizzly who really gets the credit for opening up the neighborhood to us. Our area has a mixed population, but it is predominantly home to Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Chinese individuals. It is in this busy, bustling diversity that we have found a common denominator, a fluffy pup who just adores being adored.

The humanity and humility that a small dog can extract from the most random and complete strangers has been overwhelming and completely heartening to Mike and me. We often see children and adults alike looking at Grizzly with small smiles starting at the corner of their mouths when we pass them. Some of them have commented:
¡Perrito, perrito!” said a little girl while pointing at Grizzly, which was followed by, “¡Ay, que linda!” from her mom.
“I like your dog. Huskies are my third favorite dog,” said a little boy. We aren’t sure if he thought Grizzly was a husky or if he was just sharing a general opinion with us.
“Hey man, that is one cool ass dog,” said a tough-looking Latino man with big muscles and tattoos to Mike.
“That’s a baby wolf,” explained a preschooler with scientific certainty to his classmate while on a walk through the park with his class.

Other times, people will stop to have more of a conversation so they can interact with Grizzly a bit more and maybe give him a pat or receive an appreciative lick in return.
                “Does he bite?”
I say, “No, do you want to meet him?” while five Latino children crouch down in a circle around Grizzly and begin rapid fire questions and comments.
“Oh, he is so soft. What’s his name?”
“His name is Grizzly.”
“Is he a boy or a girl?”
“A boy.”
“Is his tongue black?”
“I don’t think so, let’s see.”
“Can he do tricks? Paw…paw…paw…”
“Grizzly, shake.  Shake hands.”
At another street corner I hear: “Your puppy looks just like Bailey!
I ask, “Is Bailey your dog?”
“Yes,” she replies, “but Bailey is 12 years old now and can’t come to the park. He can’t walk down stairs because, because Bailey is old now. He’s 12.”
“I’m sor-” “MOMMMMM! COME SEE THE PUPPY!” “-ry to hear about Bailey.”
“Mom, doesn’t this dog look just like Bailey? Bailey likes it when I do this.” She bends down next to Grizzly and scrunches up his ears and face. Grizzly pants, smiles, and gives her a lick as she giggles.
“Bailey sometimes eats my Mom’s underwear from the laundry basket.”
Her mom gives me a panicked look and I smile at her. We both shake our heads a bit and the moment of embarrassment passes as I respond, “Grizzly does crazy things like that sometimes too.”
On our way to Sunset Park, the park for which the neighborhood is named, we pass a car service establishment. A man who works there enjoys his cup of coffee on the sidewalk while waiting for his next customer; he would always shout after me and Grizzly.  At first, I was refused to acknowledge his calls of, “Hey baby, hey baby!” I then realized he was directing these statements to Grizzly. These days, on our way to the park, I will spot him on the street at the car service and say to Grizzly, “Hey, who is that? Who is that over there?”  Grizzly gets riled up, looks around and then ahead. He spots his friend and hears “hey baby!” and sprints forward to get his morning pat.

Sometimes, people just don’t want to have a conversation. They are simply interested in interacting with Grizzly himself. There was one young boy, maybe four or five years old, who had been following us for a while in the park. I could tell he wanted to meet the pup. We stopped and I asked him if he wanted to say hello to Grizzly. The boy immediately got down on his knees to quietly pet Grizzly lovingly and whispered to no one in particular, “Oh, he is so fluffy. You almost can’t see his ears because they are the same color as his fur. Ohhhh, he is so fluffy.”

Grizzly has made other, non-human friends during the early morning off-leash time in the park. Dog owners have introduced Grizzly to Cupie and Momo, Ralph, Ginger, Kiwi and Snowball, Marley, Kaya, Gizmo, Bruce the husky, and Porky, to name a few.

I know these dogs and their behaviors by sight and experience.  I don’t know their owners as well.  But we have been in Sunset Park long enough now to start recognizing individuals in the grocery store and entering or exiting the subway stop on 45th Street to realize we know these people from somewhere…..ah, yes, the dog park! These are Grizzly’s friends’ people.

There was an older woman using a walker to slowly make her way up the block. Her eyes lit up when she saw Grizzly and I watched her track his every movement as we got closer and closer to her. She stopped walking altogether to just stare at him. I was in a rush to get home, but I had to stop. I asked her if she wanted to pet him, she nodded at me. I picked Grizzly up and held him close to her. While she steadied herself with one hand on her walker, she stroked Grizzly’s head. She leaned in and Grizzly started licking her cheek and forehead. She just kept stroking Grizzly’s head and started murmuring, “God bless you. God bless you.”

We see an older man who seems to have hit a very rough patch usually sitting on the ground near the entrance of the park every morning.  Sometimes he is alone. Other times he is hanging out with other men. We don’t know if he has a home to return to at night. Certain signs indicate that he is likely an alcoholic who has suffered from this disease for many years. We say good morning to him every time we see him. 

Sometimes it takes him a moment to register our greeting, but he always returns it with his own warm “good morning, good morning.”  He also almost always follows it up with “you have a beautiful dog.”  We’ve shared this exchange dozens of times. One morning we watched him get picked up in an ambulance and we didn’t see him for a number of days. We thought about him every morning on our way into the park when he wasn’t there. I hope we will share our good morning exchange again tomorrow.

On our way home from the park, we steer our leashed dog away from the ready to be picked up garbage bags on the street curb. 

“Pomeranians. You just never know their attitude,” a young, perhaps eight-year-old, girl remarks astutely as she gives Grizzly a gentle head pat, turns, and opens the gate to her brownstone walk-up.
I respond, “You are absolutely right! You just never know.”  We walk on, a few steps later looking out the corners of our eyes at one another and giggling as our fluffy social medium trots on down the sidewalk.

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention - "Brooklyn Edge" by Susan Faber

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize  -  Honorary Mention

 "Brooklyn Edge"


Susan Faber

I knew it as soon as I saw him. It might have been his swagger or the shimmer of gold around his neck. But I knew right away where he came from. Over the years I’ve honed my Brooklyn radar to be highly accurate. Eddie Singer was Brooklyn, a rare find in the little New England hamlet where I work. And then I heard it, as clearly identifiable as the unique call of a bird, I heard his Brooklyn talk, my mother tongue. His accent clearly identified him as originating from the ancestral lands of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I’m a professional naturalist, attuned to recognizing the slight differences between species.  I can tell a coopers hawk from a sharped shinned just by silhouette alone or the mating call of the gray tree frog from that of the rubbery quack of the wood frog.  This is how I knew Eddie Singer wasn’t from Keene, New Hampshire or anywhere New Hampshire. He was Brooklyn, just like me. “You can take the kid out of Brooklyn but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the kid” something my dad has said to me throughout my life. And he should know, as a former Coney Island bad-ass, a member of the Pythons street gang and a penny pitch hawker at Astroland. It’s hard to argue with bona fides like that.

My dad taught me many things as a kid growing up in Flatbush.  Like never fall asleep on the D-train or you’d end up at the end of the line, walk like you got a purpose and never look anyone right in the eye. “We’re like dogs,” he would say, “Sniff all you want, but never look ‘em in the eye.” He might have been a small time tough boy in the 1940’s, cutting school and sneaking down to the beach to smoke and drink but by the time I came along into his life, he knew what was good about the world.
He raised us on a healthy diet of nature.  People laugh when I tell them this. Brooklyn and nature seem like two very far and distant countries.  In between the concrete and buildings, what possible slivers of anything remotely natural could exist? But it was exactly the momentary flashes of nature that seemed to have resonated with my dad and then me, the most. The fact that you could find the brilliant red streak of a northern cardinal in my East 22nd street backyard  made it stand out all the more.  Hearing the fluid ripple of  “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” call of the white throated sparrow from the edge of the thicket in Marine Park, when all around  you people just walked on by, made it seem like it was just meant for me alone. 

Like small jewels, we collected sightings. Treasures like oyster catchers down at Jordan’s Lobster Dock in Sheepshead Bay and even once a kestrel on the edge of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.   We’d search the scraggle of Brooklyn’s abandoned lots and the edges of forgotten wildness together.  He had a pair of binoculars.  I remember how I loved the smell and touch of the leather case and burgundy velvet interior.  We’d take binocular walks around our neighborhood, scanning the thicket for birds. We’d find small flocks of dark eyed juncos and chickadees, and hear the occasional rippling song of the hermit thrush.

Sometimes nature would find us. One early evening in spring on the roof of our small garage, a white pigeon landed. Normally we didn’t pay much attention to pigeons, referred to by my dad as rats with wings, but a white pigeon, that was different.  Next door neighbors gathered with us watching the bird as the daylight faded. Miltie, an interior decorator and neighbor said,”Awch, what’s the big deal? It’s just a white rat with wings.”  In the morning, I woke up with the pigeon on my mind and rushed out to see it. No pigeon but on the ground a pile of white feathers and some bones and gristle. Sharp shinned hawk was my dad’s conclusion.    “You win some, you lose some and maybe the pigeon lost but the hawk won” my dad said and my mom begged him to clean up the feathers.  He left them wanting to see who would come next.  Crows.  “Nature’s garbage men” he said. 

Across Avenue N, off of East 22nd street was a slim angled side street called Olean Street. I loved that it had a name and not a number. Olean sounded like a tree to me or someplace southern.  It was as though the builders of Brooklyn had forgotten it was there or gave up on developing its scraggly edges. One side of this very small street had tight clapboard houses from long ago.  But one whole side of the street was completely undeveloped. Just a spray of staghorn sumac and bramble tumbling down hill to a small wet streak before the houses on the next street claimed it as backyard. It was a slice of wild land unclassified in my Midwood neighborhood of orderly homes and tiny tight backyards.  

I’d ride my banana seat bike with the streamers flying out from my handlebars down to this free man’s land and get lost in its tangle.  Down through the fuzzy branches of the sumac into the wet hallow. I’d follow the reedy trails of small voles and mice, stalk the feral cats who came to hunt, and listen for the whoit whoit call of my treasured bird, the cardinal.  Around me would be the rush of my neighborhood.  The cars on Avenue N heading to Ocean Ave, sirens, car alarms, loud vibrating music pulsing from my block as the older boys worked on fixing their Camaros.

Olean Street led me to seek out other forgotten edges of the city.  I wandered looking for the places in between, gray lands of Brooklyn, undefined and forgotten. The neither places.  There was the crack between two garages, where I could just slide myself in and find a small world of moss covered bricks.  A vacant lot at the end of my block that the adults called an eye soar and the big kids would go to make out and smoke dope. I would go there to find the purple flowers of the cow vetch and the tight yellow blossoms of goldenrod full of bumblebees.  In spring I would find the slice between the gray sidewalk where the small pink-eyed grass gave up its blossom year after year.  I roamed the sunken and derelict train tracks that lay forgotten by many off the edge of Avenue P.  I saw a snake once sunning itself on the old iron rail warmed by late day sun in September and found tracks of a waddling opossum after a December snowstorm.  I didn’t stop  going to the tracks, when I saw a dead man, mouth open, flies crawling in and out of his mouth and the needle in his arm standing  up halfway pressed down.   

Tucked away in all these thin slips forgotten edge, I found something that continues to feed me now these many years and many miles distant from Brooklyn. It is the untamed, ungroomed, messy bits of landscape that make sense to me.  It is where life unfolds and folds back again in a new way. From the searing flame of the cardinal, to yellow flowers trembling under the weight of hungry bumble bees, to even a dead man on an abandoned track, it is at the edges of neither here nor there that shake with possibility.  Even now, though I live surrounded by acres of wild lands I am still drawn to the ecotone, the edge between.  I wander the stonewall that boarders the forest to the field, the brim between the land and the swamp, even the crack in the granite where a slim hemlock tree has laid out its life and grown.  It is here along the verge of places I am most at home.  You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the kid.