Friday, December 29, 2017

"A Banshee in Brooklyn" by Terry Chao - 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"A Banshee in Brooklyn"


Terry Chao

It’s sometime after 4:48 AM when I hear shrill, frantically pleading screams emanating from the other side of my bedroom window. I know she must be screaming at the top of her lungs, because the earplugs I’m using blocks sound up to a 33-decibel grade.

“PLEASE don’t go…” she half shouts, half cries into the arm of (I am assuming is) her man (or soon-to-be ex man?). “Don’t go, don’t go-oh-ohhhhhh…” I’m fully awake at this point, peeking out from my curtains to witness the action (my bedroom window, I kid you not, is a mere 7-8 feet away from the subway stop’s walk-up ramp).

“Let me go.” The deep male voice is delivered in a monotone, apathetic timbre. “Let me go. Let me go.” Apathetic (I’ll call him) repeats this over and over, perhaps with the hope that unrelenting repetition will convince the woman who has fixed herself to his arm like a barnacle to a jetty will give in and release him from this temporary inconvenience.

“No, you can’t go. YOU CAN’T GO!” Shout/cry/sob. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I won’t do it again. Please forgive me!” At this point, the cries get so loud that my boyfriend, Juan, normally a sound sleeper, is disturbed enough from his slumber to ask me, “What the f*ck is going on?”


“I can’t believe it’s actually happening.” Juan and I had been antsing to get an apartment together after late-night sleepovers in his three-dude bachelor pad wasn’t cutting it anymore. The search lasted a little over a year, culminating last October when an affordable one-bedroom in a decent-enough ‘hood, convenient location (can’t really beat being RIGHT next to a subway stop) and the right amount of square footage for a couple became available.

At first, we didn’t mind living right next to the subway, (technically which is a shuttle train, one of a mere three shuttle train lines that exist in the MTA service system). We were too busy settling in, enjoying the newfound freedom of undisturbed cohabitation and checking out our new neighborhood to acknowledge the brash arguments, catcalling and Caribbean music blaring at all odd hours of the night. Call it ignorance, call it a Brooklyn rite of passage, our welcome wagon came ten times an hour, 24 hours a day, an inescapable facet of budget Brooklyn living.

Brooklyn, in many ways, is an ecosystem unto itself. Where Manhattan is the high-rolling, workaholic and ultra-cool eldest sister, Queens is the grounded, quietly humble and multicultural middle child, Brooklyn is the rebellious, capriciously fickle youngest kid with an identity crisis.

Crown Heights, in particular, is a pulsating, vibrant example of that apt description. Before moving there, I was (and still am) a Queens girl through and through. The bulk of my childhood till 6th grade was spent in Middle Village, where many fond memories were created and etched forever into my memory. In 2000, we moved to Fresh Meadows, a slightly more metropolitan ‘burb that I hated, mostly because I loved Middle Village and didn’t want to live anywhere else.

Brooklyn was just another “outer borough” that held no real significance for me. Once a year, I’d make the long MTA commute there to experience the Sakura Matsuri festival at the BBG (which I incidentally now live a few minutes away from) or the Brooklyn Museum when I got sick of all the museums in the city, or smorgasburg in the ‘Burg if I felt like waiting on long-ass lines for some overpriced instagrammable transparent rice cake. Otherwise, as a rapidly gentrifying, untenably inconvenient locale, Brooklyn really didn’t hold appeal in my eyes.


I looked up at what was to be our home for the indefinite future: a nondescript, perfectly unremarkable edifice of a bland sandstone hue that seamlessly blended in with the identical adjacent four-story buildings on the block. My first thought: damn, it’s RIGHT next to the train station. As someone who was used to taking a bus to a train to another train, it seemed absurdly ironic that my new home would be the direct neighbor of a train stop, let alone a few feet from what was to be my bedroom window.

Subway noise, however, turned out to be the least of my worries. During one of our nightly strolls after dinner, a fellow I’ll describe as the Granny-cart Goomba would go around with a shopping cart that was filled nearly to its entirety with an amplifier. His playlist, which I am sure was a ripped CD of whatever he thought was hip, consisted of caribbean funk, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and a bunch of other soul selections, blasted at top volume while he pushed his complimentary dance-inducing and (depending how you viewed it) offensively noise-polluting jerry-rigged contraption around the hood at 0.07 miles per hour.

Sometimes, usually on a Saturday around 3:23 PM, a Monday from 6 - 9 PM or any pick of the weekday litter, I’d be privy to the goings-on happening on my doorstoop. My front facing window is right next to the entrance of my building, so I (unwillingly) hear everything that happens outside.

“Yo n*gga, did you see DeShaun last night? Boy was lit! He got mad drunk and then tried to pick up Kisha!”

“That foo’ needs to get his act together. Ever since he got laid off, he’s been trying to get laid.”

Loud guffaws of raucous laughter follow.

“No hustle, no game!”

At this point, there is already a thick, cloyingly sick cloud of chronic coming through my window. By the time I notice, it’s a bit counterintuitive to close the window… after all, that means the cloud ain’t going nowhere.

2 times out of 10, I’ll get to hear a fairly normal exchange between my neighbors, like so:

Island-accented lady #1 : So are you going to the potluck after church tomorrow?

Island-accented lady #2: Of course! I’m gonna bring my special chicken rice. Made it this morning!

Island-accented lady #1:  Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite, don’t you know? You can try my garlic okra, if everyone else doesn’t get to it first!

Needless to say, my door stoop is a living, potluck-contributing and 420-chimney smoking ecosystem.

Banshee (my endearing name for the wailing girl)’s tormented cries continued to ring out on this otherwise ordinary Tuesday night/morning. Her cries had dipped in intensity, but its cadence didn’t abate for a good three minutes or so (which, by NYC standards, is a tiny eternity).

“Should we do something?” Juan asked while peeking out from behind the curtains. “Maybe if I say something, she’ll shut up.”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” I cautioned. “She doesn’t seem like the most stable person right now. If we said something, she might just divert her anguish from that guy to us.” I said this from personal experience, having been both Banshee and Apathetic at different points in my life.

Suddenly, Banshee’s screams spiked in intensity. Apathetic had finagled his way out of her grasp and he made a mad dash for the turnstiles, successfully boarding a train car.

“Noooooooooo!” Banshee’s cries, now contained in the walls of the train station, had the resigned quality of a mother hen whose freshly hatched eggs, still warm, were plucked from her nest.

I watched this entire spectacle with the aloof, amused interest of a zoologist witnessing the interactions of a seldom-caught-in-the-act pair of animals. With the aural assault finally over, I squished my earplugs back in, drew the curtains and fell back into a peerless slumber.

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