Sunday, May 31, 2020

“I’m Not A Kid Anymore” by Melissa A. Matthews - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

I’m Not A Kid Anymore


Melissa A. Matthews

“Back in the day when I was young, I’m not a kid anymore
But some days, I sit and wish I was a kid again”--- Ahmad

Utica Avenue was concrete and Caribbean accents. As long as I’d known myself, it was a long stretch littered with roti shops and dollar vans, always abuzz. The ‘U’ never did make an “uh” sound. Always, and I do mean, always an “OO” sound ...”OOTICA, OOTICA,” the Jamaican, or sometimes, Haitian heavy-tongued dollar-van drivers would bellow. I often suspected that some of them—-those heavy-tongued men—- were neither Jamaican or Haitian or Caribbean at all. They were just Brooklyn boys who grew up knowing it, hearing it —-it just was—-”OOTICA.” It was never up for debate, it just was.

On this particular night—-early morning—- though, I saw none of them. At least not in their dollar vans. Utica avenue was desolate.  The night was still but clear. It was one of those interesting nights before fall folds itself neatly into winter where it was warm. Warm for November. I believe I was there for Thanksgiving break from college.

Spun out into the road in knee high boots, a low-cut top, and a miniskirt. If there was a chill in the air, the speed I was walking away from the site of the accident—-a climax point in an already horrible night—-dissipated it. I just needed to get away. It was probably about 2 a.m., all of the roti shops and car garages were long closed. It was a scene from an old western; walking uphill without a sign of life, a tumbleweed could’ve passed me by and I would not have been shocked.

I’d managed to unlock the passenger side door and untangle his old decrepit fingers from my thigh as he crashed head on into the car in the intersection.  I ran away. I ran in those five inch heels as if my life depended it on it. Though, I could still hear him quarreling with the other driver about whose fault it was. I couldn’t stop to assure the other driver that it was indeed this dirty old man’s fault because I didn’t want to risk getting stuck there. I ran until their accents faded into the wind.

How I’d ended up shoved into the front seat of an old iron cab with a decrepit and creepy old man that insisted that I sit in the front seat, whose roaming hand trembled its way to my thigh and lost control of the wheel into the luckiest accident of my life, was a blur.

My gut told me to stay home. My mother told me to stay home. My ancestors whispered into my ear several times to stay home—-each time I turned back for a forgotten item. First keys, then I.D., then cash to travel. The night was doomed from the beginning.

The quasi-friend/ acquaintance/ my sister’s friend  who was desperate to hang out with anyone who was in town, called me so many times in a row that I lost the will and resolve to say no. I should’ve lost the will to answer my phone, but that’s a conversation for another day. I felt compelled.

I was compelled to leave my comfort zone of Brooklyn and take the 2 train to another train all the way up to BBQ’s in Chelsea. I’ve always hated that place—-the restaurant. Just to find that this friend had forgotten her ID. We’d then be seen gathering ourselves in Taco Bell. of all places, where she’d accidentally squirt hot sauce in my eye.

A friend of hers, who was supposed to be meeting us at BBQ’s decided to stay inside despite her not having her I.D. We waited for him in the Taco Bell because that made all of the sense in the world to her.

An hour or so of washing my eye out with cold water, we were back on the 2 train to BK in silence. No good time was had. No laughs, no entertainment, no vibe.

 She insisted I get off at her stop with her and take a taxi from there. I thought we’d get to her house and she’d let me in to call and wait for a cab.

She had other ideas. 

She stopped a random gypsy cab with a shaky looking old man driving. It was one of those old iron cars. The ones anyone driving a new car stays clear of for fear that in an accident, it would be unharmed but their car would be totaled.

It was a gold-ish color, but rust had begun to settle into the paint. It was old and rusty-looking, like it’s driver.

Neither of them looked safe or inspired confidence.

I said “Umm,no!”

She ignored my protests and guided my shoulders toward the car. We walked to the back door.  The driver stuck his head out to insist I get in the front. I was still reaching for the back door’s handle when she ushered me to the passenger side and virtually shoved me in the car. My entire body tensed. I just wanted to call a cab from a service that  I knew. I just wanted to climb into my bed. I had no idea why she just wouldn’t let me wait in her apartment for a reliable taxi.

That was the last time I hung out with her.

I had my eyes trained on the steps of the brownstone building that housed her apartment. I’d always admired those old brownstones. They were regal and stately, they seemed to stand the test of time.

I studied the steps. I watched as she maneuvered her long, lean frame between the heavy-looking doors. My eyes darted to the large windows on the top floor.

There were striped bed sheets hanging in the window. The striped rainbow pattern danced across each of the big windows facing the street.

My eyes, still burning from the hot sauce, began to drift. A hand landing on my thigh, woke me all the way up. I moved the hand and yet, it kept finding its way through tremors onto my supple skin.

It was cracked and dry. The smell of Bengay and Vapor rub wafted through the car.

We were locked in a battle with me moving the hand and it returning for at least two minutes before the car shook violently. I looked up and we’d hit another vehicle.

He attempted to lock me in the car as he went to talk to the other driver. As soon as his back turned I unlocked the door and took off running. I didn’t know quite where I was but I knew this was Utica Avenue.

I remember thinking it could get no worse than this. There I was, walking along an abandoned Utica Avenue in my skimpiest outfit without a human being in sight and only empty storefronts. I tried to calm myself by the thought that a bus stop with at least one other person or a  taxi would be just up ahead. There were a lot of up aheads and no lit bus stops or taxis.

I lost myself in thought. I longed to be a kid again. I imagined a magical dollar van appearing out of nowhere.  A van full of people on their way to wherever people went at that hour. A heavy-tongued man yelling “OOTICA, OOTICA!” saving me from myself and the poor decision to leave my mother’s house against my gut feeling and commonsense.

When I became present to the moment, a car that had been barreling up the road past me, suddenly turned around.  It double backed and slowed to approach me. I didn’t break my stride.

This was no taxi and alas my mind and body became present to the fact that it could indeed be worse than the old man. This was a car full of young men. They were shouting at me to get in through a heavily tinted and slightly rolled down window.

I started a light jog. A door flung open. I sprinted up the next half block. There was a streetlight shining brightly there and a bus stop. As the light got closer, whoever was behind me slowed. The sight of a crowd of bus riders must’ve been a deterrent. Well at least the man and woman—-a couple—- yelling, “Leave her alone!”

I ran into their arms and it seemed all of the people waiting at that bus stop formed  a cocoon around me until the bus came. We all got on and not another word was spoken. The couple got off at the same stop as me and seemed to walk in my direction long enough to see me make it up the stairs to my mom’s house.

It’s been a long time since I’ve strolled down Utica Avenue or ridden in a dollar van or stopped to listen to the chorus of “OOTICA, OOTICA!”

Some days, I sit and wish I was a kid again.

“Dead Horse Bay” by Laura Martin - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

Dead Horse Bay


Laura Martin

The day before hurricane Sandy hits New York I go to the beach. The subways are shut down. The mayor has recommended evacuation of coastal areas.  The news warns of widespread blackouts and flooding. I’m already feeling claustrophobic at the idea of days stuck inside, in the dark, the dog howling to go out, the man I live with steadily drinking through bottles of whiskey and gin. The beach I go to is an hour away, on the opposite end of Brooklyn from our Bushwick apartment. Most of the drive is down Utica Avenue through the deteriorating finery of Bedstuy: neon and iron grates effacing ornate brick facades. Then I enter East New York: cheap vinyl siding and tall brown public housing units. 

With relief I turn onto Flatbush Avenue and enter the green expanse of overgrown runways and ivy covered airplane hangers that was once Floyd Bennett Field. The land I’m driving over was dredged up from the basin of nearby Jamaica Bay and used to fill in the channels separating Barren Island from the surrounding archipelago. Eighty years ago it was naked sand, smoothed into a runway for municipal aircraft. Most of it is still government property. Just past the lot where I park a black lettered sign warns against trespassing. Buses, limos with tinted windows, and jeeps speed past, on their way to rescue stranded families and prepare for the coming assault. 

I wait for a gap in the traffic and cross the slick street, glossy with oil and rain, to the dirt path, unmarked but well worn. The traffic sounds fade, replaced by dry rustling and then a thrumming motor. A helicopter curves toward me in a wide arc, hovering directly above the path. I picture the pilot shining a big light in my eyes, his voice, projected over the engine through a megaphone, asking what I’m doing there, telling me to leave. Instead, after hovering a few moments, he moves on. 

I step out of the trees and onto the rocky edge of the bay. The wide, flat line of the horizon curves against the smoke and silver hues of the sky: a spectrum of colorless ash. The beach is to my left.  There is garbage everywhere.The waves crash over it scraping glass on bone, plastic against china. I step carefully over the rocks toward the sand. Underfoot, shards snap and crunch. 

On the sand the debris is denser. I look for something undamaged. I find things that are close: a plate split cleanly in two, a perfume bottle that is unbroken but clogged with sand, shells, and rotting seaweed. 

The refuse is mostly from the thirties and forties, erupted from a broken landfill and carried, layer by layer, back to the shore. Before the landfill, the area contained dozens of rendering plants where old horses were sent after they could no longer function as a means of transportation. Unable to carry passengers or pull carts full of goods, they were stripped and boiled, their remains processed into glue and fertilizer, their used up skeletons thrown into the bay. Piles of dismembered bones settled into the muck. Pieces still wash ashore along with the garbage, ribs and thick femurs. 

The wind smells of mildew and old leather and dead fish.

There are hundreds of broken bottles. Perfume bottles, soda bottles, brown jugs that held moonshine and whiskey. In the dull light everything looks brown and gray. I squat down to make out the blues and greens. I look for bottles with something left inside of them, a trace of soured whiskey, a drop of spoiled perfume, or messages—maybe not even an old message, maybe a note left by another beach goer. But I don’t find anything. 

Between the bottles a doll’s head, smashed in on one side, and the sole of a shoe are trapped, tangled in seaweed and shreds of unraveling heavy fabric that may once have been a tablecloth. It smells rotten and salty. 

The most interesting objects are deeply corroded: half an old license plate, orange and flaking, bearing the numbers 903 and the words “NY The Empire,” a turquoise ceramic dog bowl missing one side that reads “Man’s Best,” a hunk of china with a delicate handle stamped “made in occupied Japan.”

I salvage a few small glass bottles, brown and green, a clear one with ridges that remind me of the Empire State Building, once the tallest structure in the world. They are weather worn with damaged mouths. 

There is only one other person on the beach, a man at the far end, his face indistinguishable in the distance. Even so, I wish he wasn’t there. I want the space to myself. His presence inhibits me. I keep my movements small. I do not scream into the wind. I have never done this, but I imagine it would help somehow, being able to scream. Instead I take small, crunching steps. 

            The breakage here is impersonal, an act of nature, not anger. On the beach, with space all around, I allow myself to remember the man I live with cleaning glass out of the sink: “I didn’t throw it at you. If I’d wanted to hit you I would have.” 

I collect bits of china with interesting patterns, the preserved cover of an out of print novel, Enchantment by Jane Parker, whose story I search for but never find. I don’t know why I take the things I do. It’s illegal to remove anything from the beach even though everything there has already been thrown away. 

I find dozens of unbroken bottles and lose my desire to have them. Someone has set up a line of them on a piece of driftwood, a variety of shapes, artfully arranged and evenly spaced.  

The trash comes in all sizes. I encounter a large rotted-out safe, the metal corroded and fragile looking, holes worn away, but the lock still intact, protected by an unguessable combination of numbers. It’s taller, turned on its side, than I am. Pondering the sealed contents, I recall a restaurant in Georgia that had once been a bank. The vault was cut open.  Inside were dozens of safety deposit boxes. There was nothing salable. The boxes contained love letters, cards, keys, and photographs, objects that were once treasured and then forgotten. 

As a child I kept my treasures in a secret space under a floorboard behind an armchair in the living room. Now I have no secrets. The man I live with knows all my passwords, has access to every journal and notebook. Not that he reads any of it, he’s not interested, but just knowing that he could changes the words I chose. 

I am so tired of being careful. 

A motorboat rumbles toward the coast where I stand, dark like the sky and the water, hitched with one small light, steered by a man concealed in a gray parka. It pulls in close and follows the line of the coast. I expect the man to shine the light at me, to ask me why I am there, but again nothing happens. 

Ahead a narrow sandbar creates a bridge to a small island covered in gulls. Near it, a dull white speedboat is sunken into the silt, only the cabin and a bit of the nose exposed. I want to walk out onto the island, but I’m afraid of getting trapped by the tide. I can’t be reckless, even here on the beach at the edge of a storm.

I leave the sandbar and drift toward the broken husks of two horseshoe crabs, their prehistoric bodies punched in by something trying to get at their meat. I pick one up, touch its long pointed tail and helmet shaped body. Turning it over carefully, I look at its primitive dead eyes and I set it back on the sand. 

Toward the smudgy skyline of Brighton Beach the trash thins and I turn back. The helicopter returns, hovering over me, out in the open, exposed against the flat plain of the beach. Again it moves off. As the sound of the motor dissipates I notice the clinking of a hundred tiny collisions as the waves move in and out. The sound is surprisingly soft. 

I scan the shore, trying to focus, looking for anything unusual, a different texture or hue. I see a bit of baby blue and reach down, pulling up a plastic spoon with a cameo on the handle.

I collect spoons, a habit I inherited from my great grandmother. Their ornate silver bodies hang by their heads from a wooden rack in my kitchen. The face on a cameo is supposed to represent a Greek or Roman deity, but who knows what the face of a god looks like. Not, I imagine, like the delicate profile attached to the spoon. 

The cameo reminds me of my favorite childhood doll, who had a brooch with a woman’s profile at the ruffled neckline of her dress. I carried her everywhere until my brother took her and smashed her head open on the sidewalk.

Part of the spoon’s scoop is roughed up on one side and the plastic cameo is eroded with something that looks like rust. I run my finger over the rough edge. It probably came from a box, one in a dozen identical spoons, but it is the only one here, now. I tuck it into the pocket in my sweatshirt. I hold it there, inside my pocket, feeling it’s plastic smoothness, and small imperfections, and walk back to the trail, moving slowly, despite the rain and the chill, not wanting to go home.

“Relic of the Future” by Israela Margalit - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Relic of the Future


Israela Margalit

On Saturday mornings I take our three-year old to Barnes and Noble on 7th Avenue. We have a ritual and she makes sure not to skip a step, so we press the button that pushes open the door to the ramp, make our way to the elevator, park the stroller in the reserved spot, take the elevator back up to the coffee shop, and find a table by the window. I use her absorption with the culinary delight of a plain bagel to pack her vibrant little brain with titles of eternal novels and names of master writers.

Normally I’m observing her to the exclusion of everything else, but today there’s a man sitting at the far-left corner table under the steps, exuding patrician calm despite a bohemian choice of washed out jeans and a crumpled T shirt. He draws my attention with his tanned face under a full head of white hair, and his lanky, tall physique. There’s extreme intensity about him, the way he’s hunched over a magazine spread on his table that he reads without blinking an eye, oblivious to his surroundings. My granddaughter asks for more water. I walk to the stand and refill her cup, watching her with one eye lest she lose her balance and falls, while my other eye veers to the man, who hasn’t moved one bit since we came in. He’s not my type, but nevertheless he fascinates me with his Jeremy Iron’s-like figure and capacity for concentration. I return to the table with the water. My granddaughter says “thank you,” and to highlight her appreciation of the outing she repeats the last name I’ve been pushing on her. “Poost,” she says, meaning Proust. I laugh. The man gives us a sudden glance. I smile at him. He smiles back. Then he returns to his magazine. I guess I’m not his type either. But then he looks at me again. He must be sixty years old. Should know how to do it by now. He can walk to the counter to allegedly order something and stop by our table to say how adorable my granddaughter is. That kind of an opening gambit is sure fire. Or he can ask, “May I get you another latte?” But he does nothing. Glued to his magazine. Maybe he’s researching for a book. Or his archrival has written a well-received article that he’s trying to find fault in. Or he’s reading his own story for the umpteen times, basking in the unending pleasure of seeing one’s work in print. Whichever it may be I become impatient and unreasonably resentful of his attention furnished to something other than me, and since my granddaughter has just given the “all done” sign, we embark on cleaning up the table, an activity she savors with a sense of privilege and accomplishment. As we prepare to leave, I don’t look at the man and I feel a pang of guilt. Granted, he’s too slim and aloof for my taste, but any man who spends his Saturday Morning at Barnes and Noble is already a catch. Maybe he’s a widower like me and he’s rusty. I should give him a chance. I could even make the first move, go ask what he’s reading with such interest. The thought comes to me too late, as my granddaughter is eager to move on, and is dragging me by the hand. “Let’s go, let’s go.” We climb up the few stairs leading back to the main floor, and we walk just behind the back of the white-haired man. I can see what he’s reading. Two large pages of advertisement in black and red. I gasp. The little one looks at me and says, “Look, Grandma. The Red and the Black.”