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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"Brooklyn Baby or, On the Meaning of Cool" by Natasha Soto - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist


Brooklyn Baby

or, On the Meaning of Cool


By Natasha Soto



Well, my boyfriend’s pretty cool

But he’s not as cool as me


Lana flirtatiously croons over the radio as I sit in the passenger’s seat of my boyfriend’s car. I sing along with my feet propped up against the dashboard and my hand squeezing the flesh between his neck and shoulder.


Cus I’m a Brooklyn Baby

I’m a Brooklyn Baby



I choose this song every time we make the drive between my apartment and his, along the Prospect Expressway. I try to time it so that this line, which makes me laugh, aligns with the moment we drive past the round turret of the building where I spent my first few years alive as a human. Where I was, literally, a Brooklyn baby.


The building sits at the intersection of two highways—Ocean Parkway and Fort Hamilton Parkway. It is nondescript except for one breathtaking feature: a massive and perfectly round turret that catches the afternoon sunlight like liquid gold on its surface. Since the Prospect Expressway handles approximately 85,000 vehicles a day, which is a lot of people, I like to imagine that odds are someone reading this right now may have noticed this building as they were stuck in traffic. Maybe they, too, were delighted by the pale blue spire that sits at the very top of the round turret overlooking the highway. Maybe they eventhought to themselves, that looks like a fairy tale castle in the middle of Brooklyn.


My family wouldn’t remain in Brooklyn for much longer. They got priced out of Park Slope and found a better deal in Astoria. We bounced to one more apartmentin my childhood. The final one was in downtown Manhattan where my father worked as the superintendent of the building on his off hours as a public-school teacher. Eventually, this building was sold to luxury developers, and all the tenants were pushed out.


We made it back to Brooklyn though. As an adult, in my parent’s living room in south Brooklyn, I am transported to the first Brooklyn living room that I ever sat in, by way of a home video transcribed from VHS to DVD. We are inside of that golden turret that overlooks the Prospect Expressway! I can tell by the glossy and rounded white walls:


The only furniture in the living room is a fold out couch which doesn’t line up against the wall. My father and uncle are sitting on the floor in front of the sofa-bed, watching soccer.Ecuador is playing so my mom’s side of the family is over. The men are half a lifetime younger—their hair is still dark. My father is wearing a thin gold chain around his neck and a white t-shirt, which pops against the dark black of his beard.He looks so old school Caribbean cool. He is Dominican, and my mother is Ecuadorian, so my sisters and I are both, plus this new thing, which is Brooklyn.


Behind the two men my cousins and sisters (two of each) bounce around excitedly. They are jumping on the fold out couch, listening to its creaking, and falling into fits of laughter in the uncontained way children do. At one point, my sister’s head nearly smacks against the metal edge of the fold-out couch, and my father absentmindedly catches her forehead in his palm before disaster. Even though there is barely any furniture in the apartment, there is so much movement and life. The girls are running laps in the living room like puppies who have been crated all day. They are laughing open-mouthed andtoo-carried-away. You can just tellthe downstairs neighbors must have hated it.


In the next scene, my mother and aunt bring us to a playground nearby. The two women, in their late twenties, sit on the park bench and watch their children climb the steps up to the slide. I am the only one who still can’t walk, so I lay bundled up in a stroller next to my mother.


I look on through the screen and I am awestruck, just utterly dumbfounded, by the women’s beauty. They are both wearing fall boots, high waisted jeans, boxy leather jackets, big fluffy hair, andchunky earrings that would be considered vintage now. They look socool.


What are the things I think are so cool about them? Is it their youth, their beauty, their style, their poise? Or is it that I know all that I know about them—that they forged a life for themselves as immigrants in a new land, working as housekeepers and tending to their own apartments and raising kids and, in the case of my mother, putting herself through school.


None of this would be legible to the formal arbiters of cool. In fact, anywhere families like mine existed, cool was supposedly not, and anywhere cool is, my family sure wasn’t. For example, I watch these home movies from my parent’s living room in Midwood, Brooklyn, which the New York Times once declared was “resistant to cool”.


I use the word “cool” so much that I forgot what it means, so I looked it up. Here are a few definitions:

(1)  Showing no friendliness toward a person or enthusiasm for an idea or project; Free from excitement or anxiety

(2)  Fashionably attractive or impressive

(3)  Calmness, composure


As much as I want to be cool, and as much as I appreciate style, maybe Brooklyn doesn’t make me feel cool at all. I think it makes me feel the opposite. Everywhere I look there is a portal, and in each portal there is a memory, and in each memory there is an electrical charge, and in the charge there is heat.


There is the pier near Coney Island, which I call fish guts pier because of the fishermen who throw their chum into the water to attract striped bass, where, at age fourteen, I lay on a blanket and observed allthe golden flecks in the irises of someone I love. There is the pod of dolphins who live along the ferry route off the coast of Brighton beach who move together like one long, grey, muscular organism. There are the haggard faces on the Q train after 5pm, people making a life for themselves with alltheir own portals. How not to see my own face, my parent’s faces, in those faces?


In the looking, there is love. And in the love, there is warmth. Cool can wait. Brooklyn will be cool when it’s dead. 


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