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Monday, July 10, 2023

"Voting for Myself In Brooklyn by Being Seen and Heard"by Pia Wood - 2022 Brookyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist



"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 ?

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