Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"El Barrio (The Hood) By Elisa Estrella - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"El Barrio (The Hood)


Elisa Estrella

Everything had changed in our neighborhood. The Italian bread bakery was converted into a Medicaid clinic; the Jewish bakery became a Spanish food take-out restaurant. Instead of the familiar scents of fresh-baked bread and the sweetness of cookies, the streets smelled of roasting chickens seasoned with Goya Adobo seasoning mix. Bodegas appeared on every corner except for the one with the neighborhood bar. The church took a back seat. Church bells used to ring at 8:00 a.m., noon and 6:00 p.m. but even that had stopped. Without the reminder, people didn’t stop to bless themselves; they stopped muttering their Hail Mary’s; and stopped thinking about God. 

Summers were exceptionally hot on our block with apartments that had no air-conditioning and streets that were not lined with trees. During the day, someone’s father would open the fire hydrant so young children could cool off by splashing in the water and using soda cans to hose cars down. Sons would scream for their moms to throw money out the window so they could buy a piragua (flavored shaved icy) from the Piraguero man that made an honest living by charging .25 an ice. Jimmy, the hobo slept between doorways and walked up and down the neighborhood eating Jiffy peanut butter out of jar someone gifted him.

The bodegas played salsa music if they were owned by Puerto Ricans and merengue music if they were Dominicans. Either way, they were always full of men who were out of work, drinking Miller beers. On hot summer nights, these men sat on milk cartons and played Dominos or cards on the sidewalk out front. It was practically a community center. The men’s skin baked from sitting out all day and their eyes were bloodshot. Still they were mostly harmless as they sat around talking about which baseball team was the best, the Yankees or the Mets. 

Teenaged boys owned the streets. Boys on bikes would pop wheelies when they wanted to impress a girl.             Others played stickball, basketball; loiter on the stoops or in the hallways. They barely moved to let you by. It was as if they wanted you to trip over their white high-top Converse sneakers. 

At night women and girls would hang out their windows or head to the street with babies in strollers. They leaned on cars or sat on beach chairs all to catch a breeze of night air. Voices could be heard telling stories about how good the island was; how we used to celebrate Feast of San Juan or San Sebastian almost every week there was a Saint to celebrate; how if there was no reason to celebrate they would throw a barbeque while washing the car; how you could smell the rain before it fell and how the clouds hung over El Yunque (rainforest); how the sound of el Coqui (small frog) filled the night air with song. What about the ocean someone would inevitably ask. Someone would say la playas de Aguadilla are the best and then someone from the east side of the Island would say, no Luquillo beach’s turquoise water was like swimming in a pool. Someone remembered how out in the country you could sleep with your doors unlocked--yes someone interrupted but you also had to go to bed at 7:00 p.m. because there was no power. Laughter filled the streets again.  Oh but for a dip in the ocean or a palm breeze.  

Their voices interrupted by the exploding sounds of sirens and horns of los bomberos (firemen) speeding down Knickerbocker Avenue.
            I watched it all from our second-story window.

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