A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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New York Love Song

September 12.

Yesterday left me drained, though I didn’t quite realize it until I sat down to write this.  ‘Where were you’ posts, tributes, news stories.  Photos of those gorgeous beams of light that shine upward and onward, like the city itself.  In Copenhagen yesterday, it was a gray and rainy day, nothing of the blue and cloudless sky that so many New Yorkers remember about that day.

But it puts me, a day later, in an Empire State of Mind.  And it is time to confront the blasphemous thoughts that have been roiling around in my head since this summer.

I love New York.  Truly, madly, deeply.  Since the moment I moved there 20 some-odd years ago.  Most people leave New York when their relationship has run it’s course.  Their time together has ended, like a junior high school romance.  And they part on good terms.  Probably still keep in touch, maybe friend each other on Facebook down the line.  That was not me.  I wasn’t through with New York.  I didn’t move because I was tired of living in a tiny space, or lugging 2 kids and 3 bags of groceries up 3 flights of stairs, or even the cost of living.  New York and I well, we parted for different reasons, for visions of the future.   I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was dragged out kicking and screaming, but when my better half found me sobbing in front of the television on New Year’s Eve, while they played the ubiquitous Frank Sinatra ode to New York, I think we both realized that I had left a chunk of my heart behind.

I am not a born and bred New Yorker.  I am, what I consider, even more of a New Yorker.  I consciously chose to live there for 20 years.  I lived there longer than anywhere else. In fact, by the time we left Brooklyn for our first overseas posting, I had been living in our 650 square foot apartment for 12 years…longer than the house I grew up in.  New York is the answer I give when people ask me where ‘home’ is.  Where the heart is.

You know those iconic images of New York City that are immortalized on film and in photographs?   New York is really like that.  I love the fact that no one bats an eye as a cross-dressing unicyclist sings his way down the street.  I love the stew of languages and accents that you can drown in on the subway.  Hell, I even love the subway (though the L needed a bit of an overhaul when I left).  I love the energy, the diversity, the angst and the twitchiness.  I love the fact that New Yorkers moan about how slow other people walk, the corner bodega that’s open 24 hours a day.  My breath still catches at the sight of the Manhattan skyline every time we drive into the city.  It really is the best city in the world.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Copenhagen.  It’s a fantastic city and I really, really enjoy being here.  But a part of me, a part of my heart, will always belong to New York.  And that’s why what I am about to write pierces my soul, just a little bit.

I am not sure I can live there again.

When we visited NYC this summer, our old hood was almost unrecognizable.  Some of our favorite restaurants had closed, there was a developed waterfront, and there were parking lots!  You can’t have parking lots in Brooklyn–part of  living in the city and being able to attest to how cool and urbane you are is to brag about the parking spaces you can squeeze into and complaining about alternate side of the street parking rules.  It was prettified and gentrified and really, really crowded.  And I am going soft, I am getting spoiled, I am plumping up like an overripe peach that is starting to mold and split the skin.  I have lived too long in more than 700 square feet, with a patch of green in eyesight.  I am getting old.  I am starting to long for a vegetable garden.

At the risk of sounding completely crass, what the f*ck??  I am not this person.  I am a New Yorker.  I am hard-core and dark and I can get from the Bronx to Coney Island on one swipe of a Metrocard.   I wear a lot of black.  I own motorcycle boots.  I once had my bag snatched and chased the guy down the street.  I got married in New York City, on the 17th floor with a 360 degree panoramic view of the city, including those twin sisters of the skyline, which were still intact, though not for much longer.  My children were born in New York.   I lived in a walk-up.  I lived in a shoe-box.  I lived up-town, down-town, and in Brooklyn waaaaay before Brooklyn was cool.  Hell, I used to hang out in Alphabet City when it was still referred to as Alphabet City.  I never once imagined NOT living there.  I never once imagined NOT going back when we had had enough of the ex-pat life.  Until this summer.

I feel like an adulterer.  I am sad and confused and not quite sure what to do.  New York is one of the great loves of my life, and I feel like we are growing apart.  It has always been a part of me, always there in my heart, in my soul.  And I am not sure if we are right for each other any more.

And it hurts.