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.

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