"Voting for Myself In Brooklyn by Being Seen and Heard"
by Pia Wood
I had never entertained or had an interest in being chosen for any position. Perhaps it is because I was not on top of my school popularity roster. And, by nature, I was shy as a child. The old adage that, “Children should be seen and not heard,” was perfectly acceptable to me. Not to mention, the idea of campaigning during a popularity contest seemed better suited for either the good looking charismatic students or the extremely intelligent yet compelling students. I fell somewhere in the middle of that student universe.
So, when I woke up one morning with an idea that was not present the night before I was shocked. Rather than ending a dream once I opened my eyes, I faced a new vision for myself with eyes wide open: a run for Civil Court Judge in Brooklyn. My reality had me fully immersed in a legal career where being just seen is not an option. I was paid to give clients professional advice and opinions. And as an attorney, I had developed a deeper desire to serve my community in a more impactful way beyond conference rooms and offices.
I had already lived in Brooklyn for over 10 years. My children were being raised in brownstone Brooklyn. I had grown to love the tree lined streets of Fort Greene /Clinton Hill. Prior to moving to Brooklyn, my familiarity with the borough was limited to it being a destination for amusement or a destination to shop. Coney Island was my initial Brooklyn touchstone. Every summer included a D train trip with relatives to Coney Island. The train would push through the Bronx, into Manhattan and finally into Brooklyn. As a teenager while playing ‘hooky' from summer school I could go there with friends. At the Brighton Beach elevated station our fear about a cut notice being sent to our homes was diminished as we observed the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone that promised us a fun filled day. Coney Island was the precursor to teens meeting at a mall. It gave this Harlem girl her first opportunity to flirt with a boy from Queens. The openness of that seascape would hit me as soon as the doors of the subway cars opened up and I walked onto the elevated open air platform to join my fellow city dwellers who were escaping their muggy hot crowded streets.
Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn was another touchstone for me as a kid. The defunct Abraham & Strauss Department Store also known as A&S advertised sales in the Daily News that enticed my mother to take the IRT Number 3 train line from 135th Street in Manhattan to Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. The bustling energized crowd was spread out on Fulton Street as we emerged from the Hoyt Street station. The stores offered value to shoppers on a budget or extravagance to shoppers willing to splurge on merchandise that compared to the value of merchandise on 34th Street in Manhattan, Fordham Road in the Bronx, or Jamaica Avenue in Queens. Inside A & S we would use the escalator to move from floor to floor to catch the merchandise displayed at each landing. My mother and I would then leave A&S and cross Fulton Street to go inside Martin’s Department Store. She liked shopping there because it was less crowded. After entering the store , she would stop and sample the perfume scents contained in distinct shaped bottles that lined the glass counter. Then we would go inside an elevator operated by a man or woman always dressed pristine in a proper blue suit. After trying on an outfit or two my mother would select a new dress for church, or work that could also do double duty for Sunday mass. She bought my First Holy Communion dress there. Then we would leave the store and cross Fulton Street again to head into Woolworth next to A&S. Our mission was to meet up with Cousin Emily who lived in Bedford Stuyvesant. We would wait for her near the entrance of the store. Upon her arrival we would all hug and kiss. Cousin Emily would remark, “Look how tall you are getting ,“ as she cupped my chin with the palm of her hand that always reminded me of the softness of a marshmallow against my skin. I would grab the hand of my mother and then grab the hand of Cousin Emily just to enjoy the soft comfort of her hand. The three of us would then stroll over to three vacant stools for lunch at the Woolworth luncheonette counter. Cousin Emily would always look at me as we sat and say , “Eating here at Woolworth’s beats down the street at Junior’s.” She would then wink at me and chuckled as she concluded “The banana splits are a whole lot better here too.'' I would then look above the counter where we sat at the various colored balloons. Each balloon held a small piece of paper that revealed the price the customer would pay for that banana split once the balloon was busted open with a pin by the waitress.
So, after I threw my hat in the race to run for an elected office in Brooklyn some 40 years later, I knew I had to campaign in downtown Brooklyn and at Coney Island. My campaign manager advised me, as he accepted a campaign check out of the hands of my treasurer, that I had a whole lot of Brooklyn to get to know that summer for a countywide seat election victory. The campaign strategies involved going out to Brooklyn neighborhoods which are as diverse as the globe. I was scheduled to attend almost every public event that summer. Events ranged from Family Day at NYCHA housing developments to Pride Day along Prospect Park. I had to be prepared to shake hands, dance to the summer beats that surround the streets and hug those senior citizens who willingly held out their arms to me. And, when I did speak it was to be seen and not just heard. “Never refuse to shake a hand,” my campaign manager shouts as I leave his office. I resign myself to the fact that shyness is not an option.
As a candidate , I didn’t view Coney Island as a place of amusement. It is a place to gain trust from voters during the Mermaid Parade. It becomes a place of inspiration as I observe African Anericans dressed in white garb at the sea’s edge giving honor to the ancestors who came from the shores of Africa to this shore. I would identify with an old Jewish man who greeted me as he sat on a park bench in Asser Levy Park waiting for a concert to begin with his wife close by in a wheelchair as her Trinidadian caregiver sits between them. He spoke emphatically that I should vote because as a young man he could not vote. I resisted the urge to inform him gracefully that I am a candidate. Instead I connected with him by speaking about my relatives who were denied those choices right here in America. I found myself walking, driving, standing all over Kings County. I don't act like a stranger at the Panamanian Day Parade and its picnic that follows in the park. I endear myself to the women at block parties as I taste the food they cook at the Curry- Cues. I stand at the entrance of subway stations from 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM handing out my campaign literature because I can no longer be shy if I believe in myself and want to make a difference on the bench. I speak broken highschool French to Hatian ministers at a Hatian pastors’ breakfast. Every Sunday I attended at least one church service in the community. I gained support from a Hasidic newspaper. I met with local politicians and informed them and their camp why I wanted to become a judge. I spoke with passion because as a judicial candidate I could not make promises. I smiled because I had overcome my shyness. I shook hands in a world where hand sanitizer is not an option as you stand in front of a community center after a community meeting. I shook so many hands: strong hands, withered hands, firm hands, soft hands, hopeful hands, moist hands, calloused hands and reluctant hands. Connections on some level were made. I was willing to take your hand so you could feel the strength of my vision. I wanted folks to know that the Brooklyn political machine does not hold a dream in its hand. The Brooklyn political machine has no hand to offer. And then one hot and humid day I stopped at block party on Herkimer Street where Cousin Emily lived. I went inside her home. Age required that she occupy the garden floor apartment. I hug and kiss her. I then gently shake her frail hand and it still reminds me of the softness of marshmallows. She doesn’t remember me but it doesn't matter. This handshake encourages me.
My summer in Brooklyn on the campaign trail emboldened me. That summer did not allow for second guessing myself or regrets. Campaigning in summer did not allow me to ever utilize the distinct New York City survival mechanisms of being blind to those around you and or acting as though people are invisible. I see the neighborhoods, I see the youth, I see families, I see mom and pop businesses. I feel the energy emerge from commuters that rush down to a train station at 8:15 AM and I see the drained bodies that rise up from the tunneled stations at 6:45 PM not caring about whether I will make a difference because the forecast for the next few days is hot , hazy and humid. I am convinced that this Borough, this Kings County, this Brookyn has fueled me and I will win.
Summer turns into fall. The Labor Day West Indian Parade on Eastern Parkway is over. During October I see a picture of my face flutter in the autumn breeze when people discard my printed campaign literature. A few campaign cards land in the ugly dirty street gutter water. Some endorsements have come through for me. Some pastors bless me and my campaign in front of their congregations while not outright endorsing me to protect the 501 C 3 tax exempt status of the church. As November arrives with a chill, I still feel in my gut that I will win.
And then —I lost.
I surmise that I lost because I underestimated the power of the County’s political machine and what the absence of its blessing on my campaign meant.
My campaign manager reminds me that I was a rogue candidate. He promises that next year will be different because my name is out there and there is a county seat that will be open. He points to me and huffs, “You can run again and win!” He then leans back into his armchair as if he has pounded those streets and shook the hands that pulsated my heart’s dream that I could make a difference.
Martin‘s Department Store went out of business in 1979.
A&S became part of Federated Department stores in 1995.
Woolworth on Fulton Street closed in 1997.
Cousin Emily died from a heart attack a couple of years ago .
Disney had explored taking over parcels of Coney Island.
The D train needs upgrading and more security.
But I WIN!
I won because all of those Brooklynites that I connected with by the smallest gesture of shaking hands made me a better person.
And after all, isn't becoming a better person the ultimate success ?