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.

"Anticipation" By Joshua Schwartz - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Joshua Schwartz

I was going to live in a 2-bedroom condo across the street from Coney Island. At least that’s what I said when I was 12 years old. I didn’t take into account that my fantasy pre-teen bachelor pad was actually a low income housing project. Probably not the ideal location for a 12-year-old from a good neighborhood in Queens to start his adventure called life. That’s the funny thing about being 12 though, anything goes. Reality does not necessarily need to add up to actuality. Besides, there is plenty of time for those two roads to meet.

The chatter of Howard Stern was blaring as I was half of asleep. It was usually a quiet ride when I headed into work with my father. I hated the mornings and our ambitious 5:45am escape onto the Belt Parkway kept me speechless for quite a while. I always secretly hoped for traffic just so I could have squeezed out a little more sleep. Thanks to the Belt Parkway, I often got my wish.

“You ready today?” my dad asked in a more chipper voice then I would have hoped to hear. Those 3 words were the only trio that could have awaken my nervous system this morning. Unfortunately, this was the one part of my body I would have wished to keep asleep. 

“Possibly,” I said, not wanting to commit fully. He of course was talking about the Cyclone. A rollercoaster that I truly developed mixed feelings for at a young age. You see, I loved Coney Island and the atmosphere it provided. However, I was petrified of roller coasters. How could one love a place and never experience that places staple. I was in a pickle. For a while I was able to milk my lack of height. I loved watching some guy with no teeth measure me, knowing I wasn’t going to make the cut.

“Oh man!” I had sighed, “Well there is always next year.” However, I recently hit a growth spurt and I knew that was not going to fly this year. My stomach started to growl from nerves. I was awake.

When we arrived at the warehouse I sprung out of the car, eager to have arrived, more eager to eat. Bagels were brought in from Bagel Boy every day and I had my mind set on an everything with lox. The fresh squeezed orange juice would generate enough serotonin to counter my nerves for the time being.

I sat down on a box of matches and felt at peace as I wiped some cream cheese from my lip. What was I so worked up about anyways. The whole ride lasts no more than a minute. How bad could it be? Easy to say on my own two feet, where gravity was still intact.

After breakfast I decided to wander around the warehouse. My father was the owner so everyone sort of had to entertain me as I went from station to station. However even at a young age I could tell the feelings were genuine.

“Little man!” Jeff screamed as he saw me walk by. Jeff was the head of security and always had a smile on when he spotted me.

“I heard you had a big day at bat last weekend,” he went on to say. He was right, I hit two home runs last weekend at Crocheron Park. Truth is I did not like Jeff only because he flattered my sports ego often, but the fact that he cared enough to know the facts. Nothing worse than a person trying to relate only for the sole purpose of relating. Of course, flattering the ego never hurts either.

“Eh I’ll be honest they weren’t that good, but hey, I’ll take it.” We went back and forth for a while before a large order came through the front door, cutting our little league baseball chat short.

At this point I had almost forgotten all about the ride that awaited. I walked into my dad’s office in a better mood then before. He was on the phone with someone so I sat down and started to play with a rubber band I had picked up on the floor. I always found a way to entertain myself at the warehouse. By the time he was done I was in Athens, Greece. In my mind at least. I had created an imaginary pole with a paper clip and a pen that the rubber bands were to be launched onto. Each color rubber band represented a different country. At this point it was a tie and the next rubber band to launch onto the pen would win.

“What are you up to?” my dad asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.

The day was flying by and I knew we were about to leave soon from the business that was taking place. The last activity was always to match up the receipts and checks. Often this is where I would step in and read the receipts out loud. However today I took the day off.

“…….105, 2046, 2200, 800, 44, 44, 200, 988,”

“44, 512, 100, 100, 3216, 100.”

Everyone had their own style of reading the receipts. Some people would pronounce the entire number where as some would pronounce each individual number. Today was an individual number day. 105 was pronounced “One-zero-five” instead of “One hundred and five”. I often went back and forth between both styles. Pace was my main concern. I was in it for speed.

“Done!” I heard someone say and with that I knew we were off.

The car ride to Coney Island was painful for me. I felt my body start to tingle. I hated being nervous. My dad was planning out the entire day and every single activity sounded amazing. What I would do to eat a Nathan’s hot dog in peace on the boardwalk. Today was business though, I knew it was time.

Parking at Coney Island was a puzzle for many. Luckily my father had solved that puzzle years ago. We drove up to Gargiulo’s like usual and pulled in the lot. I learned at a young age that a 10-dollar bill and a good hand shake could buy you anything in Brooklyn.

Instantly after getting out of the car we gravitated towards the Cyclone. My father knew well enough not to push the issue or mention it because I would be keen to protest. It is better not to talk much about those things we dread. Instead, actions produce the results anyways. As we passed the Freak Show I thought to myself, “Maybe it will be closed today due to some weird maintenance issue that often occurs.” This thought was erased immediately after hearing the loud rumble produced by what could only be an 85-year-old rollercoaster.

The line was short today. It was a Wednesday afternoon so there really was no surprise there. My father went up to buy two tickets. No need for measurements, I was tall enough that’s for sure. I was always intrigued by the individuals that were in charge of operating rides. Coney Island especially seemed to make it their mission to hire only the shadiest characters to press the buttons that send us to extreme heights. The shady character today had a friendly aura about him though.

“Step up into the zone fella’s,” Shady uttered.

I was shaking on the inside, but managed to stay presentable on the outside.

“Front or back?” asked Shady.

Only negative connotations came to mind when hearing both choices. The front, allows you to see your demise clearly whereas the back, generates more speed; ultimately making this experience more painful. Before I could chime in on this ultimatum my father interjected.

“Front!” he yelled excitingly. I was doomed.

We hopped into the cart and got strapped in. The anticipation can make you sick. Worrying, speculating, trying to understand an outcome that could never be understood without living it. I spent the entire day miserable waiting for this moment. Yet as the cart gained traction gradually, I started to feel at ease.

“Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick,”

We climbed up the track slowly, you can hear every movement and range of motion on that ride. I never felt more intimate with an inanimate object before. As you elevate up the track, if you listen closely you could hear the story of the coasters rich history. It opens up to you like an old friend the minute you hop on board.

Finally, we reached the top and for a second the Cyclone shows you a side of Brooklyn you cannot see anywhere else. The view at its peak covers the entire park, spanning out to the ocean. It’s the Cyclones way of smiling at you, right before it spits you into 60 seconds of turbulence. The ride itself was a blur, like most moments you waste time worrying about. I remember screaming, but not of fear, instead of relief. The ride came to an abrupt ending and I was now a slightly different person then I was 3 minutes ago.

“So, how was it?” my dad looked over and said to me as we awaited the seat belt to release.

I smiled, “Let’s do it again.”