Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Remembering My Brooklyn" By Vanessa Martir - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"Remembering My Brooklyn"


Vanessa Martir  

I want to tell you about my Brooklyn. The Brooklyn of the Domino Sugar Factory and rubble and crack. It isn’t the Brooklyn of today with its community gardens and artisanal cheese shops, yoga studios and art galleries. My Brooklyn is the Brooklyn no one wanted to move to or visit. It’s the Brooklyn of the rainbow colored vials in the gutter and the gangs and la Boriqueña hanging from clothes lines across avenues. Brooklyn in the era of Adidas track suits and fat laces.

Nostalgia is a confusing thing. It isn’t always for the neat and pristine. It’s sometimes a longing for something you know wasn’t always pretty but was always home.

I want to tell you about what crack did to our neighborhoods. How it took so many of the people we loved. My childhood friend Ulysses lost his mother to it. Maritza became the neighborhood crackhead. (Back then, we all had a neighborhood crackhead.) She was different when she was high. Once, she balanced herself on the top of a fire hydrant, laughing and marveling at herself, she looked like something straight out of a circus act. But when she was sober, a dark cloud came over her. She would sometimes call to me and lower her bag on a rope from her second floor window where she put change so I could go get her the Weekly World News from the newsstand up the block. She paid me by giving me the old ones she’d already read. I’d run to the backyard and scurry up my plum tree to read them. Stories about aliens and a bat child found in a cave and how Elvis was alive and living in a monastery in India. It was in that tree that I became a writer. Maritza was part of the journey.

I once wrote about her when I was a student at Columbia University. It was my first college level creative writing class. It had only been just two years since I’d been introduced to Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents; two years since I’d first read a book by a writer who looked like me and came from where I came from; two years since the thought first crossed my mind: Maybe I can be a writer… The professor gave us an assignment: Write about someone you knew from childhood. I wrote about Maritza. I wrote about how she danced salsa when she was high, eyes closed, mouth in a wide smile--the only time she wasn’t ashamed of her rotting teeth. She sang: “Todo tiene su final. Nada dura para siempre…” As the song went on, her smile became a soft frown and tears came, soft and quiet. I would watch her and wonder at how beautiful and sad she was at once. And though I was just a kid, I knew that something happened to this woman who cried whenever she sang about loss and endings.

When my professor returned my piece a few days later, he said, “This isn’t writing.” And he didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it. This was one of the many ways that I learned to be ashamed of where I’m from.

It started in boarding school. The first time I told someone I was from Brooklyn, she was a rich white girl from Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, who lived in a house with Greek columns and a greenhouse and shit I’d only seen in movies; she said, “Oh my god, have you ever been in a shoot out?” It didn’t take long for the teasing to start: “Tawk, Rosie, Tawk,” they screamed as I passed. I was just a thirteen year old scholarship kid, there to get an education. This was the before Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek. The only context they had of a Latina was Rosie Perez as Tina in Do the Right Thing, and so I became Rosie. “Tawk, Rosie, Tawk.”

Brooklyn to them was a ghetto wasteland where all there was was drugs and gangs and prostitution and hunger. They didn’t see the love I saw. They didn’t see the people who lived in that and thrived in that and loved in that and hoped in that. They didn’t see how every summer a vacant lot was cleared of the trash and rubble, and a carnival was set up complete with Ferris Wheel and flying swings and cotton candy and gambling tables and kiosks where alcapurias and pastelitos were fried in huge vats of bubbling oil. They didn’t see the games of Kick the Can that we played into the night. The men who sipped on their latitas of Budweiser as they played game after game of dominoes on tables made of plywood balanced on their knees. They didn’t see how we hunted through the remains of the burnt out buildings for thick cables to pay double dutch. They didn’t see the block parties where the boys laid out their cardboard boxes to do their windmills and headstands while the girls planned their outfits ahead of time so they matched while they danced to Menudo.

We couldn’t do anything to keep the walls in our apartments from flaking and falling, giving us asthma and lead poisoning. We couldn’t get the slumlords to do the repairs our railroad style apartments desperately needed. We couldn’t keep the drug dealers out of the playgrounds or the fiends from doing their drugs in our hallways (the smell of burnt cotton candy will forever remind me of crack), but we could try to live in that and that’s exactly what we did. Hundreds of thousands of us black and brown folk.

It took me a long time to undo the shame that had been drilled into me when I was told, “Oh my God, you live in Bushwick!” The tone was exasperated and there was a hint of pity in it too; an unsaid: “How did you survive that? And how did you make it here?” Here being a prestigious boarding school and later an ivy league. Like I didn’t deserve it. Like no one smart or promising could come out of that.

I want to tell you about the Brooklyn I know because no one talks about her anymore without talking down to her; without mentioning urban decay and crack and poverty. That’s really all they mention. They talk about revitalization, how the lots were cleared, all the new buildings that have gone up, so many renovated, houses built, all in an effort to “save” the neighborhood. They don’t talk about how the people who lived there and spent generations there can no longer afford to call those neighborhoods home anymore.

It’s great that there are garbage cans on every corner. The neighborhoods are cleaner now, safer now, but for whom? 

I read on Twitter that writer Tayari Jones has a tiny jar of soil from Lorain, Ohio on her desk: “This is how much I love Toni Morrison.” I wish I had soil from the Bushwick of back then, the gritty Bushwick that raised this woman who they wondered about because how could she come from that?

These days I say I’m from Brooklyn like there’s a grenade exploding from my mouth. And when I say I’m from Bushwick, I say, “Not today’s Bushwick though.” Then I smile and I wait. I have no shame anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I have no false delusions, Bushwick was dangerous and no one should have to live in that, but nostalgia is a strange thing. I know that Bushwick is what made me and what saved me. Bushwick reminds me that you can make beauty out of nothing, and that’s something no one can take from me. Nunca.

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