Friday, April 26, 2019

“LO LIFES” by Nicole Shawan Junior - 2018 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Finalist - Honorable Mention



Nicole Shawan Junior

“Anyone see that bitch at school?” “Bitch” shotguns from Tilly’s mouth like a refined jab. Her bug-eyes bulge out of sockets as we descend the steps of Hudde Junior High.  In sixth and seventh grades, Tilly rocked a damp jerry curl.  Now, she is relaxed bob with bangs that swoop like left hooks.

“Naaaah, son,” Rochelle says.
“Word God, I ain’t seen her all day.” I agree.
“That girl ain’t coming back to school til she grows summa huh damn hair back!” Dayna responds. 

Andries Hudde Junior High is a predominately black public school in Midwood.  While Midwood, itself, is a predominately white middle and upper-middle class neighborhood, Hudde pulls children from neighboring Flatbush, which is mostly diasporic black and working class.  Black kids fill Hudde’s halls, cafeteria and classrooms.  But, Hudde hosts programs for gifted students.  These are programs where us black kids are tolerated because, somehow, we’ve managed to scrap our way in.  These are the programs where white students are welcomed because, of course, it’s where they belong. 
My crew though. 
We are the smart ghetto girls who pock like blemishes the eighth-grade classrooms where white kids are safe from black Brooklyn. 
We are, each of us, from and of the hood. 
We are all black and brilliant and broke. 
We are the colorful strings that rope through the eyelet of a JanSport’s front pocket zipper. 
We are Brooklyn as fuck.

There is Talaya, whose skin is maple syrup rich.  Talaya who lives in a massive apartment building not very different from the one I lived in during the five years I spent on East 18th Street.  In her home, I learn that she is not Talaya, but Tilly.  Tilly who is loud, confident, funny and who is also very serious about science projects.  Tilly whose grandmother asks about her day as she flips sweet plantanos that crackle in oil over a flame. Tilly who possesses an accent that she wears like alligator skin, pulling it onto her tongue when immersed in the soul of her Panama-adjacent home.  Shedding it for hard consonants and slick vowels when with crew in black Brooklyn streets.  “Where you from, Talaya?” I ask. “Panama, mahn!” she replies through thick lips, as if it’s obvious. 

There is Dayna.  Dayna who sports denim polo shirts and multi-fingered gold name rings.  Dayna who is biracial, “light-bright,” I tease, “Blackinese.” Dayna who lives in a huge Victorian house in Ditmas Park, where we bump our favorite jams and choreograph dance routines.  Hot 97 is a burgeoning radio station “where Hip Hop lives,” the station boasts.  The station is home not only to Hip Hop, but also to the Morning Show with Ed Lover, Dr. Dre and Lisa G.  If you are young and black in Brooklyn, you are Hip Hop.  If you are young and black in Brooklyn, you listen to the Morning Show as you get ready for school.  If you are young and black in Brooklyn, you sing along with them when they sound their Roll Call, “What’s up y’all?  Whatcha gotta say?  Who’s on the phone with Ed, Lisa and Dre?”  Dayna has been trying to get on the show for weeks.  But everyone calls into the Roll Call.  Her odds are slim to nil.  Until, while pulling on my wheat brown Timbs, I hear, “My name is Dayna, but don’t call me D.  If you wanna use letters, then use Q-T!”  Yo, that’s Dayna!!!!! And that is Dayna.  Always doing some crazy shit that makes the rest of us jealously exalt, “Yo, my girl D did that!” 

There is Rochelle.  Rochelle who is a ginger root beer bottle brown crazy Jamaican girl who sometimes packs a razor beneath her tongue.  Rochelle who, at other times, wears gold caps on two of her bottom teeth.  Rochelle who is stylish and rocks palm-wide gold butterfly earrings with the knuckle-big purple gem soldered in the center, between their extended wings.  The ones I’m saving my allowance to cop.  The ones that all the fly girls sport with our hair pulled up into high buns.  Sour apple lollipops dangling from the corners of our mouths.  At Rochelle’s house, her mother makes us miniature beef patties, curry chicken and rice and peas.  Barrington Levy bumps from the small stereo with the single cassette tape holder that sits on the round kitchen table.  In Rochelle’s bedroom, I learn to do my hair and makeup.  I also learn “Now tell me who say dem wan hackle mi body, dem affi have a permit and a license fi mi.” Sometimes, her father is home.  He does not smile.  Rochelle has confided in me that she hates him.  He is a womanizer with a mistress.  A batterer with a pounding fist.  I have seen the result of his handiwork.  Rochelle wears bruises like her butterfly earrings.

School’s just let out and we’re still talking about the beat down Tilly put on Juliet the day before.  A lot rode on it and we knew it.  

Were us smart girls as hard as we professed to be since sixth grade?  Or would Julianne expose us as weak?  I didn’t know how this one was gonna unfold.  But, I did know that we were crew.  We were ready to jump in.  If necessary.  

But, Julianne’s peoples stayed out of it.  So, all we had to do was cheer and walk Tilly to her bus while poppin all kinds of shit after she laid it down.  That same glee carried over to today.  Except this time, we head down Nostrand to the pizza spot on Flatbush Junction.  

Inside the pizza joint, we each cop “the special” – a slice of pizza and small fountain soda for $1.00. After we grab our slices, we stand on the Junction and eat, while cracking jokes on Julianne. 
The B44 approaches.
“Aight, y’all, I gotta get home.  Tilly, Imma call you lata.” I say.
“Lata Nik!” the crew calls after me.
I board the bus and pull out my bus pass from the small pocket on the front of my purple JanSport.  This month’s bus pass is pink.  I show it to the bus driver and he acknowledges it with a short nod.  I bypass the token slot machine that welcomes riders like the Apollo stump does talent.  Kids and bookbags crowd the aisle.  Every seat is taken.  In 1990s black Brooklyn, only the tough enter the rough terrain known as the back of the bus.  If you’re a herb, you best stay your ass in the front. I squeeze through the bus’s stomach and head to its back. I’m not tough.  But I’m no pussy either.  

The seat that is set above the bus’s radiator opens and I grab it.  I like the feel of this seat.  It’s warmed by the heat that blows from beneath.  And tucked in a corner, by a window.  It feels personal, private, as if I’m chillin on my own stoop in late July.  From it, I watch black Brooklyn fast-forward past.  The B44 takes me from Midwood through Flatbush and Lefferts Gardens and will bring me through Crown Heights to Bed Stuy.

The sun smacks my face.  Outside, an older man – in his mid-thirties probably – wears a denim pant suit with Kente pockets and a green netted tank top beneath the jacket.  He bends over, peering and pointing into the hood of a car.  A Dred who wears a white tank and yellow shorts stares under the same hood while fumbling around with something within it.  Girls rocking Janet Jackson braids, tube tops and denim pun-pun shorts prowl in a small gang, laughing as they walk along.  A slender elderly woman, who is dark as the Brooklyn earth in my backyard and seemingly as solid, pushes a grocery cart across the street.  Dudes rocking baggy jeans and white tees hang in front of a corner store.  One wolf breaks from the pack to help her cross the one-way traffic.

My red Walkman bumps a mix I created by tuning into Hot 97 and Kiss FM while recording my favorite jams onto a blank tape or over the contents of another.  I bop my head and watch the sidewalks when I feel someone tap my arm.  I look over to my left.  A redbone with mild acne, green eyes, and a sharp line-up dressed in Polo from head to toe is sitting next to me.

He’s a Lo Life.

1990s black Brooklyn is known for its crews. The two most infamous are the Decepticons and the Lo Lifes.  Both crews are deep in the crack game.  But, the Decepticons are the largest gang.  They have a female counterpart who mirrors their tactics – the Deceptinettes.  The Deceps are most known for robberies, slashings and other assaults.  The Lo Lifes are a crew whose members’ names usually ended with a hyphenated “Lo” like Shorty-Lo, Poppa-Lo, BamBam-Lo.  Lo Life’s, like Deceps, are criminals. They rob shearlings, snatch chains and dump pockets.  But they are most notorious for racking and boosting, yup, you guessed it – Ralph Lauren’s Polo pieces.

I unwrap my headphones from my head, pulling them behind my neck. 
“Yea?” I smash and screw my eyebrows together.
He chuckles. “Hel-lo,” he responds, genteel on display.
“Hel-lo,” I deadpan, overenunciating each syllable. 
He presses his chin to his chest and laughs quietly.  Reserved.  For his ears only. 
“You from over here?” He returns his gaze, still smiling.
I nervously glance out of the window.  We’re in Crown Heights.
“Nah. You?”
“Yea, not too far from here.  Over on Lefferts. What’s your name?”

I look out the window to Nostrand Ave. Homie is fine, but I don’t know him.  There is no room for trust.  Trust’ll get you snatched and tossed over a building.  Happened to my cousin back in the 80s in Starrett City.  Her mama still hangs onto the grief. I won’t have that for Mama.
“I’m Jimmy, Niki.  Nice to meet you.”
Jimmy?  Hmmm, no “-Lo?”  I find out that Jimmy no-Lo listens to rap and reggae.  Jimmy has a beautiful smile. It stretches past his cheeks to his eyes, causing them to shrink into almond slices.  It does not hide, waiting to be seen.  It’s free and frequent and sends caterpillars fluttering beneath my skin.  Jimmy is raised in Brooklyn and has a little sister.  I tell him I have five brothers.  This is a lie.  I don’t smile when I say it.  My eyes are focused on his.  I’m an only child.  But, I routinely tell people that Amin, Shawn, Hakeem, Dwight and Duval are my brothers.  Though they’re my cousins, it pours from my mouth, morning-breath-easy.  I’ve rehearsed it many times.  It makes me feel safe.  Less likely to become victim.

“So, can I get your number?” Jimmy asks.
For the next couple of weeks, Jimmy and I talk every day.  Sometimes, I catch him by calling a payphone he hustles by.  Other times, I call his house.  When Jimmy isn’t around, a woman with a thick accent always answers.  Later, I ask him, “Where y’all from?”  I wonder if he’ll say Jamaica or Guyana or Trinidad.  These are the islands where the sun baked my Coolie friends, like Kimesha and Yumi.  But my ear knows better.  Something about her accent is different from those.  It is not of wind and string, but of hardwood and goatskin hide.  It does not sing sweet notes and lulling melodies, but pounds palms and stomps feet.  Her accent is Tanbou, Bata and Saworo. 
“Haiti,” he says.
Jimmy and I make plans to meet up over the weekend at Empire.

Few things scream black Brooklyn weekends:  Downtown’s Fulton Street and Albee Square Malls, Coney Island and the Empire Roller Skating Rink.  

Empire, as we call it, is a squat yellow one-level brick building that takes up a massive chunk of Empire Boulevard between Bedford and Rogers Avenues.  In Crown Heights, it sits in the shadow of Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ former homefield.  

On Saturdays, either Mama drops me off or I ride the B44 to meet up with Rochelle there.  In our baggy jeans, we rent worn-down leather, red-wheeled roller skates.  Rochelle and I circle the rink for hours. Then, Mama picks us up or we hop back on the B44, heading in opposite directions.  It is our thing.  We never invite the rest of the crew.  But, Rochelle is on punishment.  I call Amin.

Inside the rink, Amin’s eyes grow wide.  This is his first time stepping foot into Empire and my new world.  My world after Bushwick and Fort Green and Park Slope.  My world after the first crackles of crack cocaine in glass pipes.  

Empire is like black New York City nightclubs.  The DJ spins a mix of diasporic bangers, interspersing Reggae, Hip Hop, R&B, and Soca.  Amin does not know Reggae because he has never done a stint in a Caribbean neighborhood.  But I have.  I lived in Flatbush for years.  And while I live in the Stuy now, most of my friends still live there.  Shit, most of my crew is Caribbean.

The DJ booth hovers, elevated above the crowd, in the back.  Disco lights bounce from wall to floor to opposite wall.  There are two rinks – an outer rink and an inner rink that, together, form a Cheerio. Above the inner rink, smoke plumes rise into the air and dissipate into the ten-foot high fake palm trees.  The ones with the pink and blue neon lights that form the shape of leaves at their peak. Some of the lights blink as if gasping for air.  Others have fully given up on life and don’t pretend otherwise, while others shine brightly amongst the shadows and billowing smoke.  

Several groups skate in lines with leaders whose bodies exclaim the pace, direction and flow.  The folks behind them bend slightly forward, attaching their hands onto the waists of the skaters before them.  They roll smooth as marbles across the polished maple floor.  While the groups do their thing, others skate in couples or alone. Forward, backward. Dipped low with a leg extended before them. Legs lacing and weaving like lanyard.

In the inner rink, I spot Jimmy.  He’s sits near a woman with blond fingerwaves and a front tooth spangled in gold who bogles to Shabba Rank’s Ting-A-Ling.  A short distance away, another woman’s box braids cushion her crown as she butterflies on her head.  

This is black Brooklyn. Black Brooklyn back when we danced and skated. Black Brooklyn back when we swayed and sang out loud to the music that played.  Black Brooklyn back when crack’s crippling fires still burned around us.

I turn towards Amin and flash him a wink.
“There goes my boy, Jimmy!”
“Jimmy, who, Nik Nik?” Amin asks.
But, I don’t respond.  I just nook my arm around his and head towards the palm trees.

“Anchor: A Brooklyn House” by Brahna Yassky - 2018 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Finalist - Honorable Mention

“Anchor: A Brooklyn House”


Brahna Yassky

 Greeted by the sea breeze and the ship’s anchor on the manicured lawn of my parent’s mid-century house, our family assembled every spring for Passover Seder.  We began in the living room seated on the green silk sofa around the large wood coffee table with inlaid stone.  “Armagnac?” my father offered while my mother served her stuffed mushrooms, chopped liver and eggplant salad.

We then moved into the dining room, covered with gold brocade wallpaper.  At one end of the room, a wood breakfront with big glass doors exposed crystal, blown glass goblets, Limoges and silver vessels.  At the opposite end of the room, on a built-in wood console a tray sat with little glass memorial yahrzeit candles for our many relatives who had passed.  My mother lit the candles that blazed a ghostly glow.  Twelve of us gathered around the large mahogany dining table. A grand carved bronze chandelier hung above, with candle shaped lights.  Wax unlit candles interspersed the electric ones and started to lean and bend as the Seder and meal wore on.

Customarily the conversation during the meal was competitive.  Whoever could voice their opinions the loudest received my father’s attention and the power to engage with him on politics.  However, one particular Seder in 1992, was more subdued because I had laryngitis and my brother, Jimmy had a very bad cold.  The next morning my father sobbed into the phone, “Jimmy’s dead….asthma attack…died in Georges’ arms.”  

Two days later, joined by a crowd of relatives and friends, we returned to my parents’ living room after the cemetery.  The house sagged with sadness.  Neighbors brought smoked fish platters, spreads and bagels but who could eat.  I walked to the beach and watched the waves roll.

In 1952, my family moved to Manhattan Beach from Hell’s Kitchen.  I was 3.  My Manhattanite parents could have joined the suburban flight, but they did not want to go further than Brooklyn to have a lawn, safe tight-knit community and local good school.  Our house, situated between the ocean and the bay, was their American dream.  With water always in sight, I grew up with wide horizons and a sea breeze.  My Russian grandmother taught me the joy of being in the ocean and to swim, putting me on her back while breast stroking through the waves.

 Manhattan Beach was the only shoreline community in Brooklyn that didn’t have a boardwalk or food concessions.  Residents simply walked down the block to the ocean. The only infiltration of food was the ice cream man and the knish man.  The latter, clad in white shirt, and pants trudged across the hot sand in heavy black shoes with bulging brown paper shopping bags in each hand.  The bags contained large patties of baked dough filled with coarsely mashed potatoes, each one individually wrapped in wax paper – a popular snack for the descendants of European Jews who lived in the neighborhood. Hot knishes,” he shouted.  My mother waved her hand and he appeared casting a shadow over her asking,
                 “How many? Do you want salt?”
    I loved the comforting taste and texture of the hot potato filling as it slid down my throat. Then in the haze of the heat, appearing like a super hero with a white plastic helmet, the ice cream man approached. He wore the same white clothes and dark shoes as the knish man, but had a hard black box, filled with ice cream pops attached to a diagonal strap across his chest. 

   In my early thirties, I returned to live with my parents while recovering from an accident. “Smell the ocean. It will help you heal,” my mother said. She was right. As always, the summer air was thick with a salty breeze stirring the humidity, mixed with the rich musty scent of the leafy mature trees that marked the neighborhood. That clear, pure smell filled and soothed me. 

    During the summers of my childhood, my mother, in halter-top and shorts sang “Summertime” on our back porch. Her beautiful, slow deep voice was the sound of her love. The still air smelled of honeysuckle and salt. Cool drops of water sprayed from the lawn sprinkler as she crooned.

She used to sing on the radio, but at seventeen chose my father’s marriage proposal over that of being in the spotlight of a big band, devoting her life to being a mother and wife.  The house was a showcase of her sophisticated4 taste and organization.  When she passed in 2009, my father insisted I take her seat at the Passover table.  The chair felt too big for me.  The extra yahrzeit candles seemed to tip the tray.                               
 In 2012, Hurricane Sandy swooped through Manhattan Beach creating havoc and destroying houses, blowing out the walls, floors and everything in the basement of the commodious refuge that was my parents’ dream house; the limestone and brick exterior was the only part that couldn’t be blown down.  My ninety-one-year-old father and his black Labrador retriever became homeless and escaped to my apartment in lower Manhattan, which we evacuated a few days later.  Georges, my brother’s past partner, took them into his Park Slope brownstone for three months.  A lifetime of my father’s memories, including my mother’s shoes, washed down the streets.  They scattered and melded with his neighbors’ belongings.  They formed piles of indistinguishable relics; collective remnants accumulated over decades – trophies, old bottles of vintage wine and champagne, hardwood floor boards, shards of walls with peeling silk wallpaper, shattered pieces of Royal Dalton china, the curlicue top of a broken gilded mirror frame and brocade and velvet sofas stuffed with water and growing mold.

            Unlike many of his neighbors who sold their battered homes, my father insisted he would live the rest of his life in his house, imprinted with the sixty-two years of his marriage to my mother.  He hired Ari, a contractor to replace floors, walls, pipes and ceilings. As the contractor worked to restore his home, new owners next door and down the block demolished or rebuilt their houses, gobbling up side yards in the expansion, adding stone facades with columns.

After Sandy repairs, my father, frail but happy to be home, moved back.  We sat on the upstairs terrace on dilapidated plastic chairs eating hummus and drinking seltzer, smelling the ocean, watching the gentle breeze through the trees and the cement mixer next door noisily pouring cement in the new neighbor’s front yard. Weeds grew around the edges wrapping around his wood railings like ivy.    Every Friday, my dad dressed in jeans and flannel shirt hardly making a dent in the cushion of his paisley covered love seat in the den waited for me.  I was his messenger from the outside world. We sat close to each other.  Photographs of generations of relatives spanning over a hundred years, adorned the wood paneled walls, and every surface of the room.  Humans haunt houses more than ghosts do.  My father, my son and I were the only ones left. 

I told him about my day, knowing he was the only one who cared.  In the summer, after chatting, I walked over to the beach for a long distance swim.  The other people at the beach were Orthodox women with long skirts and their sons with payos flying as they ran in and out of the ocean. Muslim women covered from head to toe, briefly submerged in the water, a woman swimming next to me in glittered sunglasses and baseball cap asked me in a thick Russian accent if I knew the time, couples in shower caps hugged and splashed each other, tattooed men and women in skimpy bathing suits sunbathed.   When I returned to the house my father always asked if I had a good swim, happy he could provide that opportunity for me.   I called for take- out shrimp Yakitori, from the Japanese restaurant in Sheepshead Bay run by Russians or pizza from Pizza Delmar in Sheepshead Bay, whose great pizza I had been eating since they opened in 1957.  We sat around the circular table in the breakfast room, with black and white faux marble wallpaper coming apart at the seams.

 I was now my mother taking charge of my father’s life.  I invited cousins and a few of his younger friends to celebrate his 95th birthday with chocolate ice cream.  They sat in the living room around the stone inlaid table.  Engineered wood floors replaced the carpet ruined by the hurricane.

That night, I slept in the very yellow room upstairs, on a foldout flowered yellow sofa bed, underneath a small painting I made of three razor clams on the beach.  I navigated around odd pieces of extra carpet, used to cover the hurricane damage in the den, a box of my old books, piles of dad’s crime fiction novels.  A picture of me dancing in a field in Mendocino in 1972, another picture of me with short hair, don’t- mess –with- me stare in New York 1979 stared at me in the overstuffed room.   I covered myself with the same quilt, which had belonged to my brother decades before.

The next night my father passed.   Incapable of talking to car service in the middle of the night, I called up Ari, the contractor who restored the house and remained friends with my dad bringing him sugar free rugalach for three years.  He arrived in his van with giant signage “Ari’s Cleaning,” on the side and took me to my apartment in Brooklyn Heights.


I couldn’t stay away from the house.  I was going home to the ghosts of my parents who were a part of me.   I opened a drawer, looking to see its contents and if I wanted anything, smelling and touching leather gloves hoping to find vital signs of my mother and father.   Crying, I turned around and took the subway home.  I received phone calls from people asking if the house was for sale a week after dad’s death.  I was shocked at their brashness.    How did they get my cell phone number?  I hung up on all of them but their numbers remained in my phone.

  For many, Manhattan Beach is a very desirable place to live, an urban neighborhood that feels suburban because of its isolation from the rest of Brooklyn and Manhattan.  That was what my parents loved.   Now populated by new unfamiliar people, this neighborhood did not feel like home to me.   Even if it did, I couldn’t afford to keep their house.

Two months after my father’s death, I decided to sell and knew how much money I wanted and should expect.  I called back the numbers in my phone.  A young woman and her father came over and offered me less.  When they left, she kissed the mezuzah on the front door and held her hand over it for a few moments.   The next day, they called and offered my price.  The father was buying it for his daughter, her husband and their small children. They did not want to knock the house down.  They wanted to keep it the way it was, and update the kitchen and fabulous pink tile bathrooms with a radio built into the wall.  I felt good about them keeping my family legacy intact. 

Once the word was out, I was selling the house, neighbors knocked on the door telling me they had a son, daughter, nephew, friend who might be interested.  When I said I had a signed contract, they asked about buying the anchor on the lawn.   It goes with the house I told them.

I had to empty this 3,000 square foot container of the collective pasts of four generations and I had a broken foot.   Urgency and my new role of being the one in charge filled every waking moment.  I saw my mother in every room, every piece of furniture – the thirty years she spent molding the house to her impeccable good taste.  Yet as orderly as she was, my father’s messiness created chaos over the last seven years since her death.  She used to say that she woke up at 4am worrying about who would take care of everything after she died.  I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about how to deal with everything she worried about.  Anything I found with my mother’s name or evidence of her aliveness I kept - a pad with her name and address on the night table, a little round pocket mirror for putting on lipstick, her wedding band pressed against the corner of a drawer.

I was on an excavation, a treasure hunt.  I threw out twelve bags of garbage every day. The neighbors across the street helped move them to the sidewalk.  I grew to know the community of people on the block.  

During my deep reveries and heavy lifting, the buyers came to see my progress, anxious to close on the house.   When they arrived amidst the chaos, the daughter made faces of disgust at the mess and scrunched up her nose remarking on the odor of the master bedroom rug. For me the room smelled like my dad.  I held onto the last visceral trace of him.  Yet, the house, my legacy, felt like a shambles looking at it through her eyes. 

I gave away most of the furniture, dozens of boxes of books and clothes and furs and pots and pans and dishes.  I discovered the network of plumbers and electricians that make the houses in Manhattan Beach function.  They fixed antiquated electrical wiring and plumbing and replaced an air conditioner and toilet.  I took things that reminded me of my youth and appealed to my aesthetics -a chandelier with a bronze Pan, the old wrought iron table and chairs upended on the patio on the side of the house and the inlaid coffee table from the living room.

 After three Salvation Army pickups and six Housing Works drop offs, after the movers took what was remaining to a storage locker the size of a garage, I hired a cleaning service to scour the house.  I was only required to present it broom clean but wanted the new family to move into a sparkling home.  The sparkle cost me $1000, a fair price to pay, I rationalized, to hand them a jewel.

A few weeks after closing I received a text from the neighbor across the street asking if I had sold the house.  I texted back that I had closed.  He replied that there was a “For Sale by Owner” sign in the window.  The new owners never moved in, they put a sign up instead, leaving the house empty and neglected.   He followed this texting me that the anchor was no longer on the lawn.  

Two years later, the new owners are still trying to flip the house.