Friday, December 29, 2017

Walkabouts--A Brooklyn Story By Daniel Daponte - 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"Walkabouts--A Brooklyn Story"


 Daniel Daponte

He is not sure how it started. It certainly was not some noble undertaking. It was not a quest.  It was a walk.  It was, as his father referred to it, “a walkabout.” But to him, it was a quest with no goal or maybe the most selfish of goals which was:
--to avoid household chores.
            “Do the dishes,” his Mom said.
“I will.  But first, I’m going out,” he replied; knowing that if he was out long enough, his parents would inevitably do the dishes.
He walked at a clipped pace.  Often when he was alone on an empty street, he could hear the distinctive “tap-tap” of his shoes against the sidewalk.  On this day, he walked with unfamiliar people in underdeveloped streets then on overstuffed sidewalks.  He journeyed to an emptier avenue so he could be relatively alone with his thoughts and music.  Borough borders of Brooklyn were no match for his phone, his Nike Air Monarchs and the rapid rate of his own feet. The music drove him to walk faster then pushed him to think and finally, pushed him to Imlay Street.
It was a long street bordered by a hulking abandoned “New York Dock Co.” warehouse and various smaller brick buildings past their prime.  Today, it was completely empty.  The only form of life he saw were birds gracefully gliding under the grey sky. He felt far removed from civilization even though the lively Van Brunt Street was just a block away.  He could picture himself a lone survivor in the city, walking down desolate streets.  In the absence of civilization, his imagination ran wild. The feeling was liberating yet eerie.
He walked alone wondering; “Why?” which was something his parents asked him often.
“Why are you walking?”  A second voice emerged and answered in his conscious, “What was in the streets that he couldn’t find by himself, with his friends, or on Google?  Hey, remember the stories dad tells about all the urban grit that was New York when Dad lived on the Lower East Side?  Yeah, those were the days.  A live action, self-amusement park featuring staggering junkies, purple Mohawk-haired punks and squatters fighting to keep their abandoned buildings.  New York sounded fun, every walk a dance with danger, every person pretending to be one with a real story to tell unlike the ones spewed by hipsters that populate every place now.”
“So why are you walking?”
He answered himself with: “Don’t you get it?  You’re walking to recapture the grit and the fun of New York that dad reminisced about.  You need this, man, something to change the sameness of your life.  When you find what you’re looking for, it will change your life, and believe me, your life needs changing.”
This voice was firm and strong.  All became silent, even the music, as the realization kicked in.  He wished for some urban coincidence to throw him into some kind of exciting situation.  Any situation, maybe meeting an old friend, even something dangerous, anything different to shake up the mundane rhythm his life had become.  He continued to walk, humming and hearing one of Dad’s songs in his head:
“Creature comfort goals,
They only numb my soul,
And make it hard for me to see,
My thoughts all seem to stray,
To places far away,
I need a change of scenery”

He looked up from his shoes and his music playlist to see the brick skyline of Brooklyn Heights, which consisted of (always) freshly scrubbed brownstones and new condos.  It all seemed too...clean.  He turned his head to the left to see the more magnificent and much older Manhattan skyline; a tall testament to generations past and golden ages of commerce. 
Up ahead, he saw the homeless resident he called “The Flamingo Man” because he walked around with a shopping cart full of plastic lawn flamingos.  His dad talked about the legions of squatters he knew back in his heyday, so it was a sign of progress that he now knew one homeless man who took refuge in this affluent neighborhood.  Today, “The Flamingo Man” had a heavy jacket and stared at the gray sky with a glazed look on his face.
“Most definitely the intended and unintended victim of lots of substance abuse,” his dad says.
His dad also says he knew “the Pope.”  In 1979, a pleasant Pope moved to First Avenue on the Lower East Side.  His name was Mickey and he was called the “Pope of Pot.”  The Pope headed a church of potheads who boasted to have the most extensive delivery service in the five boroughs. The Pope’s more benevolent activities included delivering marijuana to AIDS patients free of charge.  The Pope ran his mouth a bit too much to please law officials.  His dad says he walked by Mickey’s apartment the night the police paid him an unfriendly visit; using a bit more force than necessary.
Yeah, it was just another episode of history that time forgot about.  Speaking about time:
His parents would occasionally berate him for spending too much time walking and not enough time reading.  For wasting too much time with no point.  But his point was as sharp as the pencil he used to first write this story. He was looking for himself on the streets; something that could define him.
Man, what a mood he had gotten himself into. He peeked out in front of a parked silver Honda at the curb. As he waited to cross, the silver Honda roared off and almost ran over his feet. It jumped at him, hugged the curb and made a sharp and speedy right on to DeGraw Street. A jostle of adrenaline shot through him. It was just enough to not get hit, enough to make it across the street and, enough to keep walking, and softly sing:

“Woke up quick at about noon,
Just thought that I had to be in Compton soon.”

It was about noon and pale light persisted between the dark clouds.  He had been walking for about two hours now. The scenery had changed from parks and apartments to post industrial. Through all this, his music, with tastes ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Nas, played on. On these walks he was not only his own navigator, but his own DJ. This freedom he shared with no one else; which made it a selfish love but made him eagerly anticipate these walks.
Still hoping to capture some urban grit, he walked along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. There lay cracked sidewalks that had not been replaced in years, some jutting out of their place, looking like they wanted to break free and trek down the road with him.
Then, after sprinting across Hamilton Avenue, he walked alongside the “Gate to Hell.”   “Hell’s Gate” was a pedestrian bridge that went over Hamilton Avenue but ducked just under the B.Q.E. and, after crossing the sprawling highway, let the crosser out in Red Hook.  The bridge had been affectionately titled by his parents when they first moved in for all the ruffians that used it to cross into the gentrifying neighborhood.  Now that the “disease of gentrification” had spread to Red Hook, all that came from hell was the occasional hipster and the lazy cyclist.
Sometimes when the music wasn’t working for him, he would go on to the “Gate to Hell” and sit directly beneath the BQE to listen to the rhythm of the automobiles passing overhead.  The cars’ rhythm soothed him like the rhythm of being on a train as it passes over rail ties.  He would have sat there now just to feel part of something, to feel part of the journey of the drivers above, but cold and hunger were creeping up him. From the “Gate to Hell,” home was within reach.  With the crossing of one lazy street and three brownstones up the block, he would find warmth and maybe even a good sandwich. Yet even though his feet throbbed and the playlist had stopped, he wasn’t ready to go home. Not yet; today he was determined to find something.  So he restarted his I-Phone music and crossed the “Gate to Hell.”
His feet might hurt when he stopped but now that he was moving, hitting the stride he knew so well, he cruised deep into Red Hook with ease. He felt nothing but the music and his thoughts; but it was the thoughts that irked him. Keeping with the tempo of the heavy bass in his rap tunes, his thoughts quietly repeated, “Something’s gonna happen.  Something’s--”  It was an idea and a wish that only seemed to exist deep in his mind.
He was in the part of Red Hook where smooth paved streets gave way to old cobblestone.  It was very quiet now save for the occasional truck rattling down the street.
“Turn right for Steve’s Key Lime Pie.”
The worn sign reminded him of a sweet memory, the warm aroma of him and his parents together with some sugar-filled pies.
This was Van Dyke Street, one side lined with a semi-industrial park, mostly empty lots and storage containers and on the other side a blank white wall which will soon act as a canvas for graffiti artists.  He crossed hurriedly and kept walking while thinking:
“It’s just another very lazy day with a high chance of rain, nothing seemingly anywhere is happening.”
            The other part of him argued that, “There was a mission, a quest that outweigh your petty assumptions.”
“But you don’t wanna get stuck in the rain, do you?” the first side retorted.
“No but--”
“Wait look at that!” the second side interrupted.
He looked up from his feet as he neared the curb, for a second the music seemed to fade. The Red Toyota was back and zooming up the street, seemingly unfazed by the uneven cobblestones. The other car, a silver Honda, was speeding off Conover Street. It made a sharp right veering off the smooth tar of Conover and on to the cobblestone of Van Dyke. They both didn’t have enough time to stop.
He instinctively stepped back, but could not avert his eyes. It was pretty much a head on collision.
The sound of the crash was muffled by him hearing “The Sounds of Silence.”

“Hello darkness my old friend...I’ve come to talk with you again…”

He was still slowly backing away when the drivers got out.
The Red Toyota took most of the damage, the grill was completely trashed and the front was mushed in, a low hissssssss escaped both the engines.
The Red Toyota man got out first.  He crawled out hands first, clasping the ground with his feet still in the car. Blood trickled down his face from his balding head. He heaved and vomit spewed out and on to the street.
The lady in the Silver Honda was seemingly unscathed except for getting punched in the face by her airbags.  She got out feet first and leaned against the doorframe of her trashed car.
The Red Toyota man had stopped vomiting and was trying to recover from well...everything. He still had not gotten out fully, his legs half-tucked in the car; his arms extended to the street. The Red Toyota was stooped over looking at the street and taking deep, gasping breaths. Then, the Red Toyota man looked up and right into his eyes. The gaze held and it seemed as if he was staring into his soul. The man’s gaze to him said, “Well this is something different isn’t it? Isn’t this the excitement you craved?”
He kept stepping back slowly, still staring at the Red Toyota man, then he did the only thing that felt natural…he ran away.
He ran fast, not caring about “The Sounds of Silence” or the sounds of sirens. Even when the music stopped and his earbuds popped out, slapping against his jacket, he kept running. He ran until his legs burned, no, he ran past that, he ran through that.  He ran until his heart was in his throat, until every beat vibrated his whole body.
Then he stopped and the world came back into crisp focus. He leaned against a wall while he looked down and took the biggest gasping breath he had ever taken. Tears stung his eyes. What had he done?  Why did he run?  Was it because he realized that the man was not staring into his soul but was looking for help?
He leaned harder on the wall. He saw all of it again, two strangers in an urban coincidence be at the wrong place at the wrong time and smash into each other.
Why does that happen?  
Strewn car parts across the cobblestone flashed in his mind.
There was blood coming from that man's head and he--
Leaking oil, the hiss of the dead engines.
-- ran away. He was the only witness, the only possible hero to call 911 and he ran away. His arms seemed to buckle as he thought, “How could I?  How could I not do anything?”
He was a coward on a crusade to find danger in his city but when he found it he just, he just ran away. Now, he would walk away. A calm, collected walk to the warmth of home and leave the cold uncaring fate of the streets.
What would happen now?
The cops would come, the people will go to a hospital, insurance cards would be exchanged and the cars would be towed away. Then, the oil and bloodstains on the cobblestone would wash away and no one except him, the Red Toyota man and the silver Honda lady would in time ever know that the crash happened exactly there.
There was no more turmoil in his head, only a calm collected reflection as he coached himself to walk home and think:
“This city has my fate.  And it doesn’t give a damn about me…about anyone.”
Time, the city he knows now, and the past episodes of his life would keep marching into distant memory. But he couldn’t deny his fate’s thrills; the thrill of seeing everything that was in the city, which included the cobblestones and the crash.  Then he thought:
“That’s it!”
He had come to the conclusion that it was useless to wait or walk for his fate.  Wandering and walking is not going to change his life.  And he doesn’t need fate or the walkabouts; just like the city or fate doesn't need him.  This revelation stunned him like the crash; no music or the rhythm of trucks overhead needed.  
Yet maybe it was just his fate to have been walking along the grittier side. That was the value that this journey had taught him: his fate was everywhere in the city, in the poorly paved alleys, the rusty bridges and in the decrepit neighborhoods. A smile flashed across his face as he let his thoughts come to fruition.
“That just might be my fate, only now I can stop walking for it.”
He let the words hang in the cold air as he walked home. He hoped those words would stay a reminder for the rest of his life.
“If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere,
It's up to you, New York, New York, New York, New York,
I want to wake up, in a city that never sleeps,
And find I'm a number one, top of the list,
King of the hill,
A number one!”


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