Thursday, April 25, 2019

“Welcome to South Brooklyn” by Katie L. Valentine - 2018 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Finalist

 “Welcome to South Brooklyn”


  Katie L. Valentine

On March 11, 2014, I woke up in my apartment in Buffalo and started getting ready for work. As I went about my morning routine, it seemed like any other day. I threw my sandals on to avoid dirtying my feet in the mildew-covered shower that I’d tried cleaning multiple times and to no avail. Then, I fussed with the water until it reached its maximum temperature of lukewarm. Knowing the water would turn ice cold within minutes, I washed quickly. 

I kissed and said goodbye to my boyfriend, Cole, who was still in bed. Our relationship had been rocky for several weeks, but he seemed to be in a good mood that day. I took it as a sign that things between us were improving. As I descended the stairs, exited our shithole apartment building, and tiptoed around piles of dog crap to reach my car, I reminded myself that our stay there was temporary, and that it would soon be over.

            I worked at a warehouse and was embroiled in a long-standing dispute with a colleague. I hated my job because of it. As I entered the building, I reminded myself that my job was temporary, and that it would soon be over.

            Everything was temporary because Cole and I were saving our money to move to Brooklyn, and in a few months, we would have enough. I’d spent a semester living in Brooklyn while attending NYU the previous year and was eager to return. In fact, I considered leaving Brooklyn to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

Cole, on the other hand, was hesitant to leave Buffalo – actually, it was the reason our relationship had become strained. But I’d finally convinced him that we should move to Brooklyn, and although he remained noticeably apprehensive about it, he promised he was on board. 

During the second half of my shift, I received a text from Cole, requesting breaded pork chops for dinner. I picked up the ingredients on my drive home from work. 

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when I entered the apartment. I threw the chops into the fridge and headed upstairs. When I reached the top of the stairs, I immediately noticed that Cole’s television was missing. My heart sank into my stomach so hard and so fast, I nearly lost my balance and fell backwards. My weakened body began to shake, out of a fear that the obvious had happened. I knew what was going on. Cole had left me because he didn’t want to move to Brooklyn and didn’t have the balls to tell me to my face.

My mind went into autopilot and made a split-second decision that would forever change my life: I was moving to Brooklyn. That night. There was nothing left to stick around for. I was estranged from my family, hated my job, hated living in Buffalo, and my boyfriend had abandoned me. With less than $2,000 to my name, I would somehow afford to get there and pay down on a room.

Most of the rooms on Craigslist weren’t conducive to my budget, and the ones that were, were either obvious scams or had been rented out. One ad that caught my eye seemed too good to be true – the main guideline for avoiding Craigslist scams. The room was in Bath Beach – a neighborhood described as safe in the ad – and the other tenants were supposedly “young professionals.” But the rent was only $575 per month, and the ad contained no photos.

Against my better judgment and at a lack for other options, I dialed the ominous (917) 666- number listed in the ad. I was met by a deep, intimidating male voice on the other end. Just by the way he answered the phone, he seemed annoyed. Still, I proceeded with my list of questions about the place – if it was near a subway, if I could see photos, and if it was available that night.

The man was curt with his responses: “D train,” “I’ll show it to you when you get here,” and “what time do you plan on arriving?”

I saw the glaringly obvious red flags – everything about the alleged room for rent had “shady” written all over it. But I was committed to my plan. It was seven o’clock PM, and the drive was eight hours long. Figuring I could hit the road by eight, I gave the man an estimated arrival time of four in the morning.

He was strangely okay with my bizarre ETA, which furthered my suspicion that the ad wasn’t legit. Nevertheless, I hung up the phone and got to packing, throwing armfuls of belongings into my little Dodge Avenger. When I left the apartment, I threw my key in the mailbox. My mind was made up: returning and backing out weren’t options.

For the next eight hours, I had tunnel vision. Whenever my emotions started creeping into my mind – my heartbreak over Cole, my fear of the now-very-uncertain future, the loneliness of my solitary journey – they were quelled by overwhelming surges of adrenaline.

As predicted, I arrived in Brooklyn at four in the morning. I parked, grabbed what I could carry, and walked to the building, which was located on Bath Avenue and Bay 29th Street. So far, nothing about Bath Beach seemed unsafe – in fact, it was rather quaint, with suburban overtones. There were tiny yards, manicured hedges, and even some small flower gardens. The streets were lined with nice cars – Mercedes-Benzes, BMW’s, and the like.

My newfound comfort was shattered when the man I’d spoken with over the phone answered the door. His appearance was far more intimidating than his unwelcoming, harsh tone of voice. He was a big, built, broad-shouldered man – probably around six-and-a-half-feet tall – but that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about him. His bodily proportions came secondary to his face full of tattoos. 

To be clear, I don’t scare easily. But these weren’t just any tattoos, and he didn’t have just a few of them. Most of the man’s face and shaved head were covered in intricate designs; inked in black, with intermittent splashes of color. Teardrops streamed from the corners of both eyes. His cheeks, chin, and forehead were the only empty spaces on his face. I was afraid to make eye contact with him.

He greeted me in the same gruff voice I’d encountered over the phone. “Welcome to south Brooklyn.”

Without waiting for a response, he held the door open and ushered me in. Then, he led me upstairs. Not knowing exactly what I was about to walk in on, but also not knowing what else to do, I followed him up to the third floor.

I was given a tour of the place, which turned out to be a “railroad” apartment, requiring tenants to pass through one another’s bedrooms when coming or going. Three of the four bedrooms were occupied by men. The one for rent contained a mattress on the floor, a small dresser, and a clothing rack. Until then, I’d been halfway convinced that I was the victim of a housing scam – or worse. Feeling satisfied enough that the place existed and seemed relatively safe, I decided to take the room.

The tattooed man led me back into the hallway, sat down in a plastic lawn chair, and lit a cigarette, causing me to look at his hands. There was a portrait of Charles Manson tattooed on one hand. Across the other hand, in thick, huge letters, was the word “HATE.” He acted cordial, but his appearance – his artwork, more specifically – gave me chills. 

He motioned for me to sit in the plastic lawn chair across from him, held his hand out, and introduced himself as Paul. It wasn’t until then, after I’d taken note of his imposing stature and unique body art, that I locked gazes with a pair of piercing blue eyes – the kind that seem to look right through you. His eyes were paradoxically beautiful and terrifying.

Paul briefly explained the rules of the apartment, adamantly stressing his alcohol-free policy. I counted the necessary bills from my dwindling wad of cash and received two keys in exchange – one for the building, and one for the apartment. 

The apartment was practically the same temperature as it was outside. Leaving my jacket and shoes on, I laid down. I slept surprisingly well – probably because I was exhausted.

I woke up bright and early, intent on finding a job right away. After paying for gas, tolls, and the room, I had just enough money left over to keep myself fed for a week or two. Wanting to make a good impression on recruiters and managers, I wore the most professional outfit I owned and took extra time to perfect my hair and makeup. Paul, whom I later learned occupied the living room and was therefore male roommate number four, was lounging on the sofa when I left.

“Wow, you look like a model!” It was the first thing he said to me.
I was admittedly flattered by the unexpected compliment and thanked him.
“You’ve just made my day with how pretty you look!” He had a big, bright smile on his face. 

After that, nothing about Paul or his appearance ever scared me again. There was an unexplainable authenticity in his smile, in that brief exchange of words. An interaction that typically would have put me on guard when it came to most men had somehow reassured me that he was an alright guy.

By the end of that day, I’d learned that most of the jobs I qualified to do would not pay the amount of money I needed to survive. My rent wasn’t high, especially for Brooklyn, but it was more than double my portion of rent at the apartment I’d shared with Cole, and I had a lot of bills. At the very least, I had to devise a way to rake in some supplementary income. 

I’d heard of sugar daddy dating but had never seriously considered it – until then. The next morning, I made an account on a sugar daddy dating website and began searching. That evening, I traveled to Manhattan for my first date with a potential sugar daddy. I was nervous, but I was focused on doing what was necessary to gain some semblance of financial stability.

I immediately became addicted to the sugaring lifestyle. After all, why would I work 40 hours each week for what I could come up with after a few hours of being wined, dined, and otherwise spoiled? Yeah, it was superficial, and no, I wasn’t particularly attracted to any of the men I saw. But I was fucking surviving, and that’s all I cared about during those first days living in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, my friendship with Paul blossomed. A week after I moved in, I began teaching him how to drive. I’d return to the neighborhood after an evening spent expanding my repertoire of sugar daddies, which typically consisted of getting drunk at some swanky joint in some upscale neighborhood – on someone else’s tab, of course – and, hopefully, returning to Bath Beach with at least a few hundred bucks. 

We spent hours driving around the neighborhood, snacking on nachos and cheese, listening to music, and talking about life. Our nightly drives distracted me from reflecting on the night’s previous activities, which I actively avoided doing, and Bath Beach became my refuge, my safe little world from the rest of the city.

Paul could tell I wasn’t working a conventional job. While I sat in the passenger seat of my car, coaching him on parallel parking and three-point turns in the middle of the night, he occasionally stopped in the middle of what he was doing and looked me in the eyes, offering a gentle but stern caution.

“Look, whatever you’re doing, just be careful, alright? I’m serious.”

Each time, I reassured him that I had the situation under control, and we’d resume his driving practice. 

Regardless of what Paul meant, his advice was to be heeded. Adjusting to my new lifestyle seemed effortless at first, but I was already becoming burned out by it. Now that I was more relaxed and less worried about my basic needs, my heartbreak over Cole worked its way back into my head. When it came to controlling these reemerging emotions, my drinking didn’t help. 

And, to my surprise, sugaring took an unforeseen toll on my self-esteem. I began to feel like I was good for nothing but superficial enjoyment, and being compensated for it only mitigated this feeling at best. I became so jaded, and so fast. To deal with it, I drank even more. Because Paul didn’t allow drinking at the apartment, I stayed out later and later as my habit grew, and we spent less time driving around. 

While out at a bar in downtown Brooklyn one night, I was in particularly rough shape. No matter how much I drank, I couldn’t suppress Cole from the forefront of my mind. Moreover, my dependency on sugar daddies had become suffocating. There were so many men who had no qualms with using their money to pressure and control a young woman that they knew desperately needed it. I was bitter and felt more alone than ever. 

I wasn’t going to stop drinking until I stopped thinking, and it seemed like that would never happen. As I sat at the bar, god-knows-how-many drinks in and eager to get more sloshed, Paul text messaged me, asking if I would come home so he could practice his driving.

I wanted to keep drinking, so I told him that he didn’t need more practice. His driving was good enough. In hindsight, I think he knew this.

“Just come home. We never hang out anymore. Please?”

I left the bar and got on the train. It’s a wonder I made it back – I was obliviated. Paul was waiting for me outside. I was a crying, stumbling, slurring, confused mess. Without saying anything, he wrapped my arm around his shoulder and wrapped his arm around my waist. Ever-so-patiently, he guided me up the two staircases, into the apartment, and to my unheated room. He gently eased me onto the mattress, leaving my coat and shoes on, and covered me with the blanket.

As Paul turned to exit the room, I blurted out, “Wait! Can you just stay in here until I fall asleep, please?”

“Okay,” he replied, leaving the room and returning moments later with one of the plastic lawn chairs from the hallway.

Before taking a seat, he knelt on the floor next to my mattress and tucked my hair behind my ear. He gently stroked my face with his giant, warm hand, before leaning forward and kissing my forehead.

Then, he sat in the lawn chair until I fell asleep.


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