Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"My Peculiar Neighbors" By Richard Jefferson - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"My Peculiar Neighbors"

Richard Jefferson
 The Prospect Heighter is one of the most unique and fascinating species indigenous to New York City (well, maybe not unique; I find there is very little difference between her and her big sister who resides next door, the Park Sloper from Park Slope). Perhaps the most telling aspect of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn is that it qualifies as both a dollhouse district and a Sophie sector. I’ll explain. It’s a dollhouse district because half of the houses in this neighborhood resemble dollhouses due to the absence of window dressing. And this goes for the ground floor windows at nighttime as well. This makes absolutely no sense to me; the occupants are on full display and, because of the sharp light contrast, they can’t even see out. Anyway, this mind-boggler is by far the most dependable indicator there is when it comes to determining the make up of a given neighborhood, as this is pretty much only done by well-to-do or hip or erudite metropolitan types. 

And, just as surely, on a walk through my neighborhood during the day, one is guaranteed to see the other principle indicator, at least three black women – nannies who look like they would have stereotypical nannie names like Sukie or Sophie – pushing white babies in strollers, or following behind them as they scoot along on one of those u-BK-uitous, crank-less, wooden bike things (I always say my peculiar new neighbors buy houses just so they, too, can have a mortgage to complain about, and have babies just so they can plop them down on one of these ever-so Prospect-Heights-lady-adored wooden bike things). And, incidentally, if it’s not one of these then they’re pulling them along in one of those red, iconic, sickening Radio Flyer wagons. They love these wagons more than chalkboard paint and chest-mounted baby-carriers – heck, maybe even more than tandem bikes strapped to the grill of an Airstream, speed bumps, and the sweet retribution of unfavorable Yelp reviews combined.

Besides this, I suppose all that is left to say about my peculiar new neighbors is that, like pretty much every other human being on the planet, they want it both ways. They want to be seen as the most down-to-earth, free-loving people on the planet, when, in truth, they are as discriminatory as any other educated, well-employed resident of the city, including those on the other side of the East River; they just wear more fleece. They want to take advantage of Brooklyn’s somewhat more enduring image, and be viewed as a salt of the earth, junkie-leaping, domino-playing type of New Yorker, while actually living in present day Brooklyn that’s as edgeless as an edgeless PB&J. They build benches around just about every tree but they’re not truly communal. Just like their bird feeders are more for blue jays than sparrows, who they really have in mind when they build these benches is Logan and his stylish, slim mommy, pausing momentarily on their way home from Montessori school to retrieve some baby carrots and edamame, not Joe the mechanic and his buddy Sal the plumber and their grade D salami. My peculiar new neighbors and Down-to-earth – ha – just like Downtown Manhattanites and cool, down-to-earth is just an arbitrary persona that they have immodestly appropriated, period.

            But just because I see my peculiar new neighbors for the pretentious, old-world-loving, storybook-sentiment-imitating jerks that they are doesn’t mean I don’t love my neighborhood and, even, my neighbors, because I certainly do. Living amongst latte-sipping, Subaru-driving, 100k-plus-earning, wanna-be-marathoners (contrary to popular opinion, doing does not equate being anymore than knowing equates believing or buying equates getting) definitely has its benefits. Unlike Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where I did an eight-year stretch in two different apartments, there is no one in my neighborhood screaming vulgarities up the street, or idly (if not menacingly) standing about watching people come and go, just mature men and women purposefully walking up and down beautiful, tree-lined streets, and zipping in and out of well-cared-for properties and boutique-style businesses with Synecdoche-style names like Bark (hotdogs) or Bump (maternity clothes), or ends in studio, pantry, or haberdashery (the only chain store my peculiar new neighbors support are Duane Reade and Starbucks). Here graffiti is largely replaced by stenciled socio-politic-a-hole messages on sidewalks, like ‘listen to the voiceless,’ ‘free tibet’ and ‘kale yourself,’ or blue, red, and yellow chalk writing directing kindly passersby to the nearest lemonade stand or stoop sale. Here belligerent bickering at cashiers is replaced by entitled entreats at shopkeeps. Here a vehicle driving slowly up the block isn’t a police car shining its spotlight, but a knife sharpening truck ringing its bell.

Here litter is replaced by the unequivocal junk that is set by, what seems to be, every third house’s gate and called a curbside-donation. Such items are mostly books, shoes, and baby items, but I’ve seen every variety of this premium trash lying against these heavy, ornate, iron gates, things like VHS copies of Turner and Hooch, old faded Niagara Falls or Boston Red Sox tee shirts with stretched out necks, and lone survivors of dish sets, perhaps a teacup and saucer. You see, another important aspect of being a down-to-earth Brooklynite is being charitable, but my peculiar new neighbors don’t know what the word means. They think it means giving to others, when in reality it means taking from oneself. They fancy themselves charitable just because they plop some crap down at their gates that no one for two continents gives two craps about. They don’t know that it’s impossible for one to touch someone without actually feeling it himself.

"Abuela, My Redeemer" By Yesenia Flores Diaz - Winner of the 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize


                                                                "Abuela, My Redeemer"


                                                                    Yesenia Flores Diaz

She emerged from the dimly lit platform precisely when the chime sounded. The woman shoved a shopping bag between the closing doors and wedged half of her body into the car. With a free hand, she struggled to pry one side open. In a tone as brisk as the winter air, the conductor ordered her to let go: “There’s another train right behind this one. Stand clear.”
The doors reopened and the woman quickly made her way onto the train. Bing-bong, chimed the doors. She shuffled towards the row diagonally across from mine and plopped into a seat. A passenger picked up the empty can that spilled from her bag and handed it to her. The woman turned and flashed a toothless smile his way that was both bright and warm. “Ay, gracias,[1]” she said and tucked the can back into the bag.
She wore a full-length, tweed winter coat with hues of black and gray. A fuzzy, dark green knit men’s cap was pulled down to her eyebrows. The woman’s eyes were magnified behind her thick, plastic glasses. The walls of my chest tightened at the sight of Abuela[2]. I turned away, shamefully, so our eyes would not meet. Why was she out by Flushing Avenue so late?
Dusk had already set in Brooklyn and the lights flickered briefly in the car. As I stared at my reflection, I silently wished I could erase my imperfections with the same intensity as the street artists who tagged their names on the window: the unruly hair tamed with Aqua Net hairspray; the oily skin, peppered with pimples, that shined beyond Neutrogena’s control; and, the blackheads that dotted the pudgy nose I inherited from my grandmother. When I could no longer bear the mirror image of big, brown eyes filled with sadness, my gaze shifted downward.
A wave of emotion rumbled inside of me. Get up. Yet, teenage arrogance kept my baggy, blue jeans stuck to the seat like Doublemint gum. I tried, in vain, to admire my freshly manicured acrylic nails but fretted over my savings from my summer job at St. Barbara’s instead. Would this be me for the rest of my life, worrying about how I’d pay for stuff? I couldn’t reach out to Mami[3] for help with senior dues and other activity fees, like the ski trip and prom, since she didn’t have the money. While my crisp black, high-top Reebok classics were laced tight and right, Abuela’s dingy sneakers, two sizes too big, were untied beneath her brown polyester pants. Not me. I will not be like Mami or Abuela. 
As the train pulled into the next station, the conductor announced the Lorimer Street stop. I was reminded of the Key Food Supermarket on Grand Street where Abuela and I redeemed glass bottles and aluminum cans late last summer. Nothing shamed me more than accompanying her to work. Despite a lifelong battle against Type 2 diabetes, Abuela and her swollen feet limped through Los Sures, the Northside, and Greenpoint with a carrito de compras[4] to scour the streets and trash cans.
Bing-bong, chimed the doors. I closed my eyes and recalled a sweltering morning Abuela and I grabbed gloves and lined her carrito with a clear, industrial-size bag. Early in our route, stale beer and sticky soda leaked from a hole at the bottom and left a trail of tears behind us.
            We collected roughly fifty cans and bottles for redemption. By the time we arrived to Key Food, vending machine lines moved fast. We beat the rush! Abuela and I separated glass from aluminum as we inched closer to the front. In halting English, Abuela chatted with others about the best places in Brooklyn for collection. We made $2.50.
At the Hewes Street station, the conductor announced a train up ahead at Marcy Avenue. C’mon, move. Close to home and each other, Abuela and I were still generations apart in the same subway car. I thought back again to the time she and I collected on this side of Los Sures, how I kept my head down and walked a few steps ahead of her, just far enough to hear the glass bottles clink and the empty plastic cans squeeze behind me. I didn’t want friends from I.S. 71 who lived in the neighborhood to see my Abuela and I in despair. It would crush my pride like the vending machines that fed off Abuela’s bottle redemption.
I rose from my seat and walked over to Abuela as the conductor told us to stand clear. Bing-bong, chimed the doors. I squeezed into the small space next to her. She did not smile at me. I smelled Irish Spring on the cheek of my Puerto Rican grandmother when I kissed her.
“Bendición, Güela,[5]” I greeted her.
“Dios te bendiga. Estaba pensando cuánto te ibas a tardar en reconocerme. Tú sentada allí con la cabeza hacia abajo, ¿eh sin vergüenza? No puedo ver pero tampoco soy ciega! ¿Para dónde vas?[6]
I avoided her eyes and watched the buildings on Broadway whiz by.
“I’m gonna meet up with Margie,” I answered.
“Recuerda que las señoritas no deben estar afuera muy tarde. Las calles son peligrosas,[7]” she warned.
“I know...I know…and where were you?” I asked.
“Fui a comer en George’s Restaurant cuando salí de mi appointment en Woodhull y di una vueltita por Graham, recogiendo mis tesoros.[8]” she replied and patted her shopping bag.
As the train pulled into the station, Abuela and I got up from our seats.
“This is Marcy Avenue, last stop in Brooklyn...Step up and stand clear. Next stop is Delancey,” announced the conductor.
“Gimme the bag, Güela. I’ll hold it and help you down,” I offered.
Bing-bong, chimed the doors after us. We stepped onto the platform, walked through the turnstiles, and exited left. Abuela descended the stairs sideways and took one step at a time. She used to be so fast. How can skinny legs be so heavy? Her small, mighty fingers clutched the handrail. They were sturdy and endured the legacy of our family. The lines on Abuela’s aging hands wove a story I had not yet uncovered. 
She should have enjoyed retirement during that stage of her life. Instead, she worked hard and tirelessly. Although she performed degrading labor, Abuela earned an honest living to supplement her Social Security benefits. She’d often say: “La renta no se paga sola. Hay que trabajar.[9]” Furthermore, her collection and redemption of bottles and cans provided relief when her $7 food stamp booklet was exhausted.
On a good day, Abuela’s carrito overflowed like her generosity. If she collected seventy cans, she and her grandchildren, myself included, enjoyed an order of pork fried rice and chicken wings from the Kam Sing Chinese take-out on Grand and Bedford. On other occasions, family, friends and neighbors who visited her tiny, one-bedroom apartment enjoyed café con leche y pan con mantequilla[10] during their stay and left with their hearts a little fuller. Through her living example, Abuela, my redeemer, modeled how to treat others with empathy, kindness, and respect because she believed no one should ever have to suffer from hunger or loneliness.

[1] Translation: “Oh, thanks.”

[2] Translation: Grandmother
[3] Translation: Mommy
[4] Translation: Shopping cart
[5] In traditional Puerto Rican families, one asks for blessings or bendiciones from their elders. It is a sign of respect. Güela is grandma.
[6] Translation: “God bless you. I was wondering how long it would take for you to acknowledge me. You sitting over there with your head down, shameless. I can’t see but I am not blind. Where are you going?”
[7] Translation: “Remember, young ladies should not be out very late. The streets are dangerous.”
[8] Translation: “I ate at George’s Restaurant after my appointment at Woodhull (hospital) and I strolled around Graham picking up my treasures.”
[9] Translation: “Rent does not pay itself. You have to work.”
[10] Translation: Coffee with milk and bread with butter

[1] Translation: “Rent does not pay itself. You have to work.”
[1] Translation: Coffee with milk and bread with butter