Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Heartbreak Is Where I Lived in Brooklyn" by Brett Busang - 2018 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist-

Heartbreak Is Where I Lived in Brooklyn


 Brett Busang

When I moved away from Manhattan, I felt as if a kind outlanderish life had begun.  I would no longer take the subway Uptown, but through warrens of interconnected property-lines, landmarks I could only guess at, and people who were as polymorphous as the Manhattanites I came to know well enough to sort out the good and bad.  (How might I do that in Brooklyn?  Was the same antennae – and prejudice – available there?  Or would it have to be re-tuned and/or re-calibrated?)  I would not feel as connected with the media – an historical curiosity for people of The Digital Age – by which my daily experience was converted into the soundbites that seemed much too fast for it.  I would grieve over a lost identity that would crop up as I settled in.  “Where’d you come from?” someone would ask.  “Across the river,” I’d say.  “Yeah.  A lotta you people are coming over here now.  What’s a matter?  Got too hard?”  “Yes,” I would say.  “It did.”

I would never again cross the Harlem River at 155th Street for a game at Yankee Stadium.  I would fail to show up at the only place that had possibly served Duke Ellington – who had lived in an apartment building much like mine – three blocks away.  I would cease to grumble about my Dominican overlords, who not only set the pace of living, but were so cavalierly violent that, like Mafiosi, they liked to kill people when they were garishly overdressed.  And could get away in style.  I would miss lower Fifth Avenue, which reminded me of a Childe Hassam painting, which must have reminded Hassam – if he squinted vociferously enough – of Paris.  And the taverns that were etched in cut glass.   Would Brooklyn have any?  The ballfields all over Central Park, something Robert Moses did to consolidate a reputation that was never big enough for him.  How many would I find across the river?  I would not be greeted by a doorman who was on to the masquerade as much as I – and which prompted a tip, come Christmas, I could ill afford.  The Viennese splendor that had, whether by design or no, protected so many emigres from Hitler’s Germany would never, from 72nd Street, call to me again.  Manhattan was about the vaulting ambition whose Doppelganger had a second face, which strutted and smiled.  And which I had loved from the very moment I took in Upper Broadway.   Anchored by an Ansonia which had been much-abused and marched toward a glorious epiphany at 110th Street, which had tamped it down, it was one of the world’s great perspectives, to rival the Unter der Linden, The Champs Elysees, and the great Golden Mile.  In a tawdrier sort of way, of course. 

Brooklyn was the best minor league city in all the boroughs.  The Dodgers had been there and were not forgiven for having relinquished Brooklyn at a time when they were winning.  (Perhaps they wouldn’t have been forgiven for any reason at all.)  Rather than let their victories be absorbed by a population that had craved them for so very long, they flew away.  Sandy Koufax could have pitched in Brooklyn, but, because of a quirk of history, he would not.  And the park that had hosted one of the most eccentric musical outfits that had ever bloated cheeks or farted out of a trombone would be demolished almost straightaway.   Nobody in Los Angeles would remember that The Dodgers had been lopped off from a longer presentation: The Trolley Dodgers, which people did a lot of back in the day.  No, Brooklyn has never gotten over it, though, when all of its eyewitnesses will have died out, the notion of impending losses and fly-by-night success will have become psychologically ingrained.  People will hesitate before they buy something.  They will circle an area rather than go right in.  They won’t speak to strangers because any stranger might eventually break their hearts.

I would, as I grew into my new identity, see that heartbreak was Brooklyn’s alma mater, its self-regulating mythology, its God Almighty.  I had never seen a heroin addict until I roamed Crown Heights, which had produced so much when production was peaking, but had these human relics to offer should anybody care to take them.   (All sorts of “manufactories” had taken root here before and after the Civil War.  Knox the Hatter’s sprawling parallelogram was tricked out in the rubble that was more reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto than South Brooklyn, NY – or anyplace whose viability had been bowed, but not broken.   Knox the Hatter was one of those iconic businesses whose profile seems, in period photographs, so well-established that any sort of decay or degradation seems out of synch with our values.  If something is good, it lasts.  If it lasts, it doesn’t falter.  Yet here it was, a rule-book that had been tossed aside, a life lesson run aground, a doomed prophecy whose afterlife, here in Brooklyn, was its immortality.)  

The crack addiction that flourished so mightily in the Upper Manhattan I had known for some years seemed to stop at the river’s edge, where a confluence of some sort produced a slower sort of addiction.  Addicts became the display-units that signaled, as signage generally does, a place’s character.  I was guiltily fascinated to the point of examining one of these relics, whose joy-ride had stopped so abruptly that legs and arms were jumbled, clothing that had been mismatched for so long blended together, and whose face, which was remarkably pristine, drooled, with some semblance of propriety, a symmetrical stream.  The eyes were open, as if the death for which they possibly yearned had already occurred.  A forehead on which no addiction had been imprinted glistened with clammy beads.  And the hair was perfectly braided, possibly because that was the first thing passerby would see. I have not mentioned the sex of this person, which was not particularly relevant, even if it was impossible to ignore.   She looked like somebody who had done well in a hard class, if only for a halcyon moment.   I could imagine her hair flying this way and that as the body underneath it cheered some forgotten football squad along.  While the face was pristine, its contours were harder-edged than they should have been.  Whatever bloom had given it a jolt of electricity had dimmed with the streetlights that were throwing purple and lavender around.   There was daylight enough to assure me of a passage through a memento mori that functioned as something that that could be underfoot for a while.  Yet there wouldn’t be much of it and I wouldn’t tempt fate by sticking around too long.  Though concerned with her vulnerability, I did nothing about it.  Rather, I kept moving along, which, in the sort of place I was in, ensured that I would do more.   Which is what you settle for when you’re looking out for yourself.
I first lived in a neighborhood Spike Lee had conquered so completely that a store that sold memorabilia from his movies had cropped up there.  It was the sort of neighborhood that lends itself to the plunging perspectives New Yorkers demand from their outer boroughs.  You know you’re in Brooklyn when you can look beyond the East River toward a destination.  Brooklyn is where you start out, not where you’re supposed to land.  You came to Brooklyn to lick your wounds.  Or stayed there if they’d, at long last, defeated you.

I was assigned a room that was more of an alcove.  The kitchen was so close that, even when my roommates wanted to spare me, I heard every hesitation. 
“I am the rosy-fingered dawn and so I greet you,” was one of the things I said.
And the racket became believably robust.

They were Tom and Alicia, plain-sounding names that were accumulating in areas that had teemed with first-time Americans.  Fort Greene had, however, been prosperous, which made for a population that could choose to live where it wanted and chose to live here.  We were on the third floor of a brownstone that, like its neighbors, had been hastily and insensitively converted.   The carpet that squished underfoot as all the floors went by you changed colors at every landing.  Old locks dangled from doorways that looked even more vulnerable with them rather than without them.   Wallpaper curled and buckled picturesquely, though painted walls would, I suspected, win out over time – which, in a place like ours, was measured in decades rather than months or years.   The single-family brownstones stood on blocks that were like stage-sets for a Henry James novel.  Our block was where people started out.  Or came to live after a life that had been lived only too well.  (The poet Marianne Moore had settled, while commuting, at night, to Ebbets Field, across the street.  I didn’t know which apartment she had lived in, but, when I studied the façade, I could choose – as we can do when we have more latitude than we may want – the window, or windows, that were its public face.)   

As life got better, you moved to a place where you wanted to live rather than anywhere that would take you.  

Would I ever do that?  I would rather not say.

I’d fled an apartment situation in Queens and felt like the survivor who wakes up to sunlight on the sill, the faces of friends, and a possible future.  I had not liked Queens very much.  It had an insularity that was born of a paradoxical segregation: in this case, it was the Jewish middle class, which had stumbled on to a perfect formula: go somewhere, fill it up, and don’t let anybody else in.  I was tolerated because of a lower status that would never want to buy a house there – or never could.  In pursuit of exercise, I threw a baseball I had possibly found or stolen against shallow stairways that would flip it right back.  Yet no one was ever hit and no windows were broken.  In these practice sessions, my eccentricity was established beyond a shadow of a doubt, which worked to my advantage.  “What’s a grown man doing with a ball?” said the lady who owned the building and occupied the ground floor apartment.  “Let him be,” said a neighbor.  “It’s all he’s got.”

Which, in terms of recreational fodder, was absolutely correct.  Forest Hills wasn’t far away, but it was for elite players.  My tennis racket had fallen victim, while I lived in Upper Manhattan, to other practice sessions that would unravel its strings, which I never would replace.  Baseball, carrying with it what might have been had I been able to scramble after grounders that ordinarily shot right past me, would eventually make me Brooklyn-perfect.  Like that guy in The House of Blue Leaves – who also lived in Queens – I was too old to be a fresh talent.  As far as baseball was concerned, I was the village elder who, instead of spinning tall tales, chose to enact his decrepitude in hopeful catches and pointlessly energetic throws.  

I would continue to play baseball in Brooklyn, which seemed to welcome it even as it didn’t care much for a guy who was over the hill as only the vigorously superannuated can be.

I went to Manhattan to visit my girlfriend, who lived on Central Park West, near where the jogger was eventually assaulted (and about which crime a future president waxed eloquently stupid), and liked this arrangement far better than the one we’d had when we lived together.  It re-captured our original courtship, which had taken place down South, though it wasn’t the leisurely thing that was supposed to happen in such a place.  Indeed.  It was so recklessly hurried that, by the time we began to live together, we didn’t really know each other well enough.  Fortunately, that is the case with millions of other couples, who generally notice it when it’s much too late and, possibly, more agreeable because of it.  

We’d just been in Brooklyn, for a series of short plays I’d written and wanted others to perform.  When these others had not shown the superior insight that would have displaced me, I volunteered for the job.  They were eventually performed in one of the smallest spaces that had ever endured more than a solo artist who was way down on his or her luck.  The stage virtually fell into the audience’s lap, which held it there with a surprising tenacity.  When the lights went down, we were already in our places.  And, when they were cranked up, we began.  The high-water mark – which wasn’t consciously sought – came when, as a man who had beaten up his date and was becoming, as he recited all of the indignities he had suffered at the hands of bosses and friends, I raged at a god who had never understood me and flailed out, one last time, at this date, who had poured hot coffee into my lap.  Which prompted me to fall into somebody else’s.   (On that particular evening, I had, as prop-master, ordered coffee that was not yet lukewarm.  And hadn’t had much time, between a to-go establishment and the stage, to cool off.)   Rather than get upset, however, the audience member into whose lap I had spilled kissed me on the lips with an audible smack, as if to stage a retaliatory assault right there, and let me climb off of her.  The applause that followed was the loudest and most exquisitely partisan I would ever hear in that space.  And, according to a Brooklyn ethic I already understood, it was not for me, but for an audience member who had turned a potential fiasco into something rich and strange.

The theater happened to be in the same neighborhood where Ebbets Field had stood.  I knew it had been replaced by apartments blocks and had steeled myself to the horror I would feel as I contemplated those perfect stones being pulled away, seats being popped out and tossed aside, and Monongahela Valley steel crumpling between the jaws of an earth-mover.  Yet, to this unassuming spot, they’d all come: Zack Wheat, who got into the Hall of Fame; Pee Wee Reese whom I had known, when I was a child, as an announcer.  He had a Kentucky drawl that was lit up with the sense of a great world being partially filled up by him.   And he was one of those small and dapper fellows who seem to have gone the way of chain-smoking and baggy uniforms.  It was Reese who had put his arms around Jackie Robinson, quashing cries that can no longer be uttered, even if they are thought aloud.  

I went over to the site before, and sometimes, after, rehearsal.  Or, when the performances – which would peter out after a short second week – started, I’d mosey over there at night, when the neighborhood’s synergy would wind down, and look at a place that was more valuable to my imagination than the eyesight that couldn’t quite cue it up.  And there it was: a something that had sprung from the nothing Walter O’Malley had dictated from on high.  There the impermanence of all dynasties shone in a streetlight that was possibly too dim for all the space it had to cover.  And here was the heart-break that was inseparable from a minuscule triumph whereby a fallen actor would slam into somebody, hoped that a vengeful boyfriend wouldn’t hear about it, and was applauded for it instead. 

This was the Brooklyn I would get to know, over the next several years, which gave and took away; which made me feel, by turns, comfortable and alienated; and would, because a lousy day might as well succeed another lousy one, break my heart again and again.

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